THEATRICAL LAYOUT DESIGN

WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT AND WHY IT WORKS WELL FOR SMALL LAYOUTS

 

ALL THE LAYOUT'S A STAGE


 
Even if you have never read any of Shakespeare's works you will most likely have encountered his famous line stating that "all the world's a stage" (taken from As You Like It).
 
  When Network SouthEast, the British Rail passenger sector mainly operating commuter trains within Greater London from 1986 to 1994, launched an advertising campaign in 1988 showing a Class 455 electric multiple unit on a theatrical stage, they probably weren't thinking of Shakespeare's famous line. The resulting image does, however, provide a nice illustration for what Frank Ellison had stated for model railways in 1954:

"A layout is a stage
on which
the buildings and scenery are the setting,
the trains are the actors,
and the operating schedule is the plot."

Ellison (1887-1964) was an early figurehead of US model railroading and a prolific writer of articles in the American modelling press from the 1930s to the 1950s. He had spent several years in the theatrical business and this experience greatly influenced his ideas on model railway design, calling it "theatrical layout design".

The comparisons and references make sense, not only because a theatrical production and a model railway layout both attempt to "carry out the illusion of reality", as Ellison put it.

Some of the best layout design tricks used today are borrowed from the theatre (such as view blocks and low relief props) and even reflect theatrical terminology ("staging tracks"). Ellison called them "stage tricks for small layouts", and while they can all be used as isolated design elements, viewing and understanding them in the original context of Frank Ellison's theatrical layout design opens up a whole new perspective on how to think of, design, view and operate a small shunting layout or shunting puzzle.

 
A theatrical stage provides a defined space in which the scene is set and the actors move, making it the focal point for the audience.

The stage design model shown here (created for an 1895 Paris production of Verdi's Otello) defines and limits its "viewing and acting space" inside of what can basically be seen as a box. Small layouts often work much the same way: their "box" is usually more oblong than square, providing more of a "cinemascope" view (to borrow an image from the movies), but provides a defined space for trains to move in just as a stage does for actors in a play.

This cube-shaped stage, introduced during the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century, is still the most commonstage used in the West, with the "viewing window" generally separated from the audience by a more or less elaborate architectural frame called the proscenium (literally meaning what is "in front of the scene").

 
 
This frame, together with stage curtains, also conceals the sides of the stage (called wings), resulting in the familiar setup which commonly defines what a theatrical stage looks like.
 
  The example of a modern stage production shown here also illustrates other aspects, such as a typically more or less flat background at the rear of the stage with additional stage elements placed in the mid- and foreground. The resulting forced perspective makes the stage look much larger than it actually is, adds depth and interest to the scene, and allows the actors to enter and exit the scene more convincingly.

More elaborate settings will feature foreground viewblockers, half-relief props and other means to influence the way the scene is seen (or not seen) by the audience.

Finally, the lighting enhances the focal point character of the stage, with the audience and most of the proscenium arch in the dark.

 
It isn't difficult to see how Frank Ellison came to transpose the defining characteristics of the theatrical stage and a theatrical production onto model railway layouts - and even though shelf-layouts were practically unheard of in Ellison's days, their similarity to a stage is so obvious it almost goes without saying.

Some smaller layouts - especially those appearing regularly at model railway exhibitions - even feature an elaborate, all-around proscenium arch (which often also hides an integrated lighting system), although these are more commonly described as "shadow box" layouts, with reference to a type of display case rather than a theatrical stage. However, theatrical layout design doesn't require replicating an actual stage to that extent - "open top" layouts work just as well.

 

 

SETTING THE STAGE FOR A MODEL RAILWAY LAYOUT


 
The insight and inspiration to be gained from comparing a model railway layout to the theatre becomes apparent once you think about "setting the stage" - which is not about replicating (providing an exact rendition) but rather about representing scenes of the real world ("re-presenting" certain features while leaving out others).
 
  This is an especially helpful approach for small layouts, where applying a degree of modeller's license (taking certain liberties in modelling something) is sometimes the only feasible way to "re-present" real trains (or even just one's own perception of what a railway setting looks like and where and how trains do what they do) on a model layout.

The similarities between a theatrical stage and a (small) model railway layout become even more apparent when looking at the key functions a stage is generally designed to fulfill - almost all of which immediately ring several bells when related to layout design:

 
  • establish the limits of and define the "playing space"
  • separate "onstage" from "offstage"
  • help define the "place and time"
  • create a "theme" and "mood"
  • direct the observer's focus and attention by using
    - selective compression &
    forced perspective
    - low relief & backscenes
    - viewblocks
 
While looking at actual examples of theatrical stage designs in order to see how these functions are met can be helpful, examples can actually also be found by looking at either real world railway settings.
 
 

LIMITING AND DEFINING A LAYOUT'S SPACE


 
In theory, the world around us is, from our perspective, endless since we can turn and move around in it and never reach "the end". However, there are instances where our movements and therefore also our perception are blocked and therefore limited. Take, for example, this view of Stewarts Lane, a traction maintenance depot situated in the midst of a maze of railway lines, viaducts and arches in Battersea, London
 
  The view of the scene - the "playing space" - is limited both to the right and to the left hand side by architectural features. They block the view of the photographer and prevent him from having a clear and sweeping 180 degrees view of the scene.

This is exactly what stage designers do - they make use of "flats", drapes, "platforms" and other means to delineate the areas that will be used by the actors, and may also employ a great deal of "masking" so that actors or objects outside a clearly marked area cannot be seen by the audience.

There is also a distinct segmentation of the depth of what the onlooker is seeing: there is foreground, a "centre stage", a background, and a somewhat indistinct backdrop. Differences in colour enhance this perception.

 
This is exactly how most stage designs function in the theatrical world, and most model railway layouts employ the same techniques of structuring spatial depth, width and height one way or another - simply because we all model in three dimensions. However, if applied systematically, the theatrical stage concept can provide additional effects for a layout.
 
 

SEPARATING ONSTAGE FROM OFFSTAGE


 
Also no stranger to railway modellers is the concept of "onstage" (usually the scenicked visible part of a layout) and "offstage" (an imagined connection of the layout to "the rest of the rail system").
 
The latter may or may not exist as an actual part of the layout (such as a fiddle yard), but the transition from "onstage" to "offstage" is commonly hidden by a "viewblocker". Favourite choices are tunnels and bridges, and an actual (and from a modeller's perspective very convenient) such example found on the prototype is shown here.

Upper Sydenham station was as the penultimate station on the London Chatham & Dover Railway's route to Crystal Palace. Due to the topography of the area, it was situated - somewhat unusual for a suburban station - between two tunnels set very closely together: Crescent Wood Tunnel (seen here) and Paxton Tunnel, only a quarter of a mile down the line (the latter taking the branchline south into Crystal Palace High Level station).

 
 
The line closed in 1954 due to more convenient rail connections in the immediate vicinity, but the fact that there was not only a tunnel portal opening up right onto the station platforms but also a footbridge crossing the tracks right in front of it makes it a prime prototype example of a "hidden transition": from the viewpoint of a passenger waiting on the platform, trains would either appear "onstage" from the tunnel or disappear "offstage" through it.

Again, this is exactly how most stage designs function, although the tunnel/bridge feature is a typical model railway layout solution to hiding the transition from onstage to offstage. In a theatre, many different means are used to accomplish this, depending on the play and stage setting, but they can all be described as "viewblockers": the audience is supposed to see a logical and smooth transition, not the actual exit off the stage, as this would destroy some of the effect the stage layout is trying to create.

From a theatrical layout design perspective this means that you want to plan ahead to incorporate appropriate view blockers into the design before actually building the layout. "Appropriate" is defined by the next major function a theatrical stage has.

 
 

DEFINING PLACE AND TIME


 
Defining the where and when for the audience is such an important element for theatrical plays that they have included this information in their scripts (and later programme booklets) for centuries.
 
  Take, for example, one of the longest running plays on record, Agatha Christie's famous Mousetrap. The "synopsis of scenes" not only spells out where and when the events take place, but also details their chronological order.

Other plays will be not quite as specific, but still attempt to clearly define the place and time of events depicted on stage. Few plays, books or movies fail to do so (and if they do, it is often a deliberate move) because it creates coherence and therefore a "believable illusion of reality" - something which would be immediately upset if a group of cavemen were to enter the stage during the Mousetrap.

 
It doesn't mean that all details need to be perfectly spot on (not everybody watching a movie set in the late 1960s will notice a certain car being an early 1970s model) but glaring anachronisms (such as a 1970s inspector whipping out a smartphone) will be noticed. And when an audience is struck by something as being "off", the illusion of reality is at least momentarily destroyed. Unless intentional, it is definietly something theatrical productions put a lot of effort into avoiding (e.g. by paying attention to correct props and clothing).
 
This is why few railway modellers will want to replicate the scene depicted on the cover of the 2020 Hornby catalogue.

The amount of coherence deemed necessary or desirable for a specific model railway layout will always be a matter of choice and ultimately commitment. From a theatrical layout design perspective, the point to take away here simply is that defining place and time and ensuring that the stage settings reflect these is essential to creating something that feels "right".

It is important to note that coherence doesn't equal a static and inflexible approach - even the very detailed settings for the Mousetrap contain a shift in time (one day only, but some plays cover several years or even decades) and a very general temporal setting of "the present" (which could also be "the 1980s" or "steam to diesel transition period"). A more cohesive approach to designing, detailing and running a layout in no way precludes the liberty of doing things according to personal preferences, and "modeller's licence" can easily explain steam and diesel locomotives running side by side if assuming a "heritage railway" setting. If this is done coherently, it will also be convincing.

Creating cohesiveness the way a theatrical production does can actually also be a helpful tool if yout think about what can be done with the right props.

 
 
Imagine a layout featuring a passenger station set within the sprawling network of railway lines criss-crossing England's South East. How can one single layout be set up to coherently represent the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and even early 1990s?
 
  In setting the stage, some elements can remain unchanged such as the station building, as many of them weren't modernized in real life during those periods. As for props, changing certain items out depending on which period is to be represented will go a long way in creating cohesiveness. In our case, station signs (which changed significantly between the 1960s and the 1990s) will have a major impact for audiences in the know. The actors in this example can remain the same (third rail Electric Multiple Units) and will simply require to sport the correct costumes (i.e. livery) for the period displayed.

Planning ahead for this and making some prominent props (such as vehicules and platform details) exchangeable will actually provide the layout in question with a simple way of providing a very believable swap of period markers.

 
This is just one example of how theatrical layout design can provide additional interest in a layout by using props and settings accordingly.
 
 

CREATING THEME AND MOOD


 
A cohesive overall "feel" for any stage production can further be enhanced by creating a clear sense of theme and mood.
 
Taking the railway scene shown here it will be evident to anyone that the setting is an urban one (as opposed to e.g. a rural backwater). The location is indeed a London terminus (Cannon Street), and the trains in view clearly suggest a theme of "London commuter trains".

Some details visible (such as the electrified third rail) enhance this perception even more, even though they may be lost on a majority of people looking at this snapshot - the important thing is that, again, it is all coherent and "right" to support a theme of urban passenger trains.

 
 
As far as mood is concerned, this view from the end of the platforms at Cannon Street indicates a somewhat slower moment (as opposed to the rush hour) during the day (as opposed to nighttime), and the overall impression is of a certain degree of order and cleanliness (the year is 1976, and although there was plenty of littering (not as prominently visible here) graffiti was still rare). It's a fairly proper looking station.
 
  Themes and moods don't necessarily need to be very clear cut and can leave quite a bit of room for interpretation without becoming ineffective. In the scene shown here, the only "messages" conveyed are that the location is a rural spot somewhere in the US (inspite of the Union Pacific locomotive it's Markham, Va), the season must be autumn or winter, and we're looking at a freight train.

In comparison to the Cannon Street scene there a fewer clues as to theme and mood, but they still project a coherent overall impression. In exactly the same way, not all model railway layouts will need "high definition" themes and moods, but it is a useful concept to bear in mind, especially if the purpose of a layout is to capture a certain era, area and/or type of operation.

 
 

USING STAGE TRICKS FOR A MODEL RAILWAY LAYOUT


 
A major topic for Frank Ellison was the use of "stage tricks" for small layouts. They are all essential tools for theatrical productions, and it is a credit to Ellison's influential writing in the model railroad press in the 1950s that most if not all of these "tricks" have become common modeller's knowledge, even though the name Frank Ellison will most likely be unknown to most.
 
 

SELECTIVE COMPRESSION

 
In essence, there is no reduced scale modelling without selective compression. Even O scale models - which are considered "big" in most railway modelling quarters - simply can't replicate every element of the real thing when shrunk by a 1:43 ratio, and that physical necessity for compromise grows as the models shrink even further. In having to thus compress a model, manufacturers will do so selectively, trying to retain the salient features and characteristics.

The same necessity applies to layouts. Even the smallest branchline locations are far too spacious to be modelled without any compression at all, a point illustrated by one of the very few layouts which actually did not: Angela Halliday and Tony Caine's Hayling Island, a dimensionally accurate 4mm finescale model of a small branchline terminus in South-East England in the 1950, required a length of 20 ft (6 m) and a depth of 7 ft (2,10 m) in order to model a fairly small affair as railway locations go.

There's simply no way around selective compression, but the theatrical layout design perspective offers a few additional takes on the subject. On a stage, selective compression is very often achieved by spot lighting, and while not really practical for modellers, the point to take away from this is that clever accentuation on a layout, e.g. through foreground or background placement of certain props (think buildings and scenery) can direct (and potentially "fool") the viewer's perception of what he is seeing. Selective compression also applies to the actors, i.e. the trains. If platforms and sidings need length shaved off, then shortening trains will render the scene visibly more realistic. This can either be achieved by selecting a period of time when shorter rolling stock was the norm, or by shortening train formations. It's always a compromise, but it can be made to look coherent; in fact in some cases, manufacturers already make that choice for the modeller. One of many examples is Bachmann's OO model of an EPB electric multiple unit, which is only offered as a two car model (2EPB) but not as a four car unit (4EPB). Both are prototypical, but the shorter unit obviously affords the modeller with more flexibility and can be considered a form of "ready to run" selective compression.

Selective compression is also applied to time, often without giving this much thought, since few modellers will want to sit around for two hours in order to run the next train in an "uncompressed timeframe". The solution is to either run a sequence of train moves (possibly even based on a timetable) to a "fast clock" (where one actual minute may represent e.g. 15 minutes) or simply start the next move once the previous one has been completed.

 
 

FORCED PERSPECTIVE

 
Forced perspective is a technique which essentially employs an optical illusion in order to make an object appear farther away, closer, larger or smaller than it actually is. It works by manipulating our visual perception and tricking our brain into making false assumptions on how objects correlate in terms of size and distance.
 
The technique has its origins in architecture, with one of the most famous examples being a gallery at the Palazzo Spada in Rome. Designed in 1632 by Francesco Borromini, it gives the illusion of being around four times its actual length by cutting down the size of the pillars at the back and moving them inwards at the same time. The effect works because this is how we know perspective to usually work, but it also requires the viewer to be fairly static (in this case cleverly assured by the foreground pillars) as movement often destroys the effect - if someone were to walk into the Palazzo Spada gallery the trick would be revealed almost immediately. This is also why the forced perspectives used in the Lord of the Rings movies required carefully calculated and synchronized camera and set movements.

Forced perspective can work on a layout, but only if it can be "controlled" by a restricted viewpoint - which is why attempts at, for example, adding depth to an actually shallow background by using forced perspective, often don't really work that well. Even the use of N scale items (including a running train) in the background of an HO scale layout often doesn't hold up for more than a few seconds as full control of the technique would require it to be viewed at eye-level only.

 
 
Frank Ellison was aware of the fact that while forced perspective could be made to work on a theatrical stage, it was not an easily transferable technique to layout design, quite unlike low relief and viewblockers.
 
 

LOW RELIEF

 
The concept of low "relief" (from Latin relevare, "to raise up") originates with the sculptural technique of leaving items attached to a solid background rather than having them fully modelled and free-standing.
 
  Stage designers for both the theatre and then movie productions took up the idea as it allowed them to only have to show a part of e.g. a building, which saved both space and money. The premises of movie studios everywhere quickly accumlated an abundance of such "fake buildings", as they were highly effective in early productions which featured only very reduced camera movements.

The technique can at times even allow for ultra shallow "fronts", as long as the camera doesn't allow the viewer to "peek behind the scenes" - which is why "flats" are also a very common technique in stage productions.

 
The benefit of the space saving nature of "low relief" buildings has made them a ubiquitous feature on model railway layouts - and possibly the most common theatrical layout design feature not even recognised as such.
 
   
 
  The top left picture shows the "silent movie effect"- viewed from the front at a right angle, there is no way of telling that the warehouse building (a Scalescenes OO card kit) is actually only a very flat front.

However, moving the viewpoint sideways just a bit immediately reveals the flatness of the building (top centre image), so in order for this to work the warehouse needs a bit more substance (the kit is designed as a very low relief, so the roof and side walls were kitbashed).

"Flats" can work on their own, but they need to be right up to the backscene (as the wall in the image to the left); combining "low relief" and "ultra low relief" buildings not only adds more visual interest, it also reducdes the possibility of the effect not working.

 
For additional effect, scenic items restricting sideways viewing even more can be added, such as trees or industrial chimneys.

Low relief "stage items" are so versatile because they work both in the fore- and background as well as in defining points "where the stage ends" - modelling just the throat of a railway station or a tunnel portal as the lateral end of a layout or module follows the same approach of only showing a part of what onlookers expect to be there "beyond what is visible".

 

Low relief techniques are not restricted to architectural features - in the example shown here, the perceived depth of what is actually a very shallow low relief building could be enhanced if the truck were to be cut up.

With maybe just the front third protruding through the opening, this would significantly enhance the illusion of depth (the same could be achieved by cutting up a piece of rolling stock if this building were rail served).

 

 
The space saving qualities of low relief buildings are such that almost any range of kits includes examples, and unless space is of no concern at all, they fulfill an important and very effective function of making the layout appear larger and connected to the "rest of the world".
 
 

BACKSCENES

 
As theatrical stages developed into the type of setting we know today, concepts of how to convey a certain location started to form, and this attention was also directed towards the rear of the stage. A solution which proved to be both straightforward and versatile was to simply hang one or several painted curtains at the back of the stage to indicate scenery.
 
  Often used in combination with the side wings, the function of a backdrop (as it came to be called in US theatrical jargon since the 1880s) is illustrated by this elevated view of the stage of Marie Antoinette's very own theatre at Versailles Palace in Paris.

Backdrops quickly became an important element of stage design, but were generally fashioned to be rather generic representations of "a forest", "a city street", or "inside a house" - which made it possible to use the same backdrop in any number of different plays. At the same time, no attempt was made at providing a highly realistic rendition of whatever was depicted; after all, the name itself implied that it was at the very back and should therefore not deflect the audience's attention from what was going on elsewhere on the stage .

 
In the context of model railroading, the backdrop became the background scene, which was then contracted to backscene. A selection of such backscenes for layouts became widely available as of the 1960s - and most are still offered today.
 
They all work very much like the classic theatrical backdrop (as can be seen from this classic Walthers "Instant Horizons" city backscene) in that they are clearly paintings and not (photo)realistic renditions.

Commonly printed on a roll of paper (the example shown here measuring 24"x36" / 60cm x 90cm), both Walthers and Peco still offer a wide variety of different backscenes which are designed with some transition space to the sides so they can even be joined up in multiples.

 
These backscenes were (and still are) advertised as an easy way to add depth and distance between the actual scenery of a layout and its backboard, but quaint as they may be they have also become dated and maybe even a bit corny - besides, people get bored of seeing the same thing over and over on different layouts. The question of how to design their very own individual backscene has thus become a central one for many modellers and is directly linked to the rise in popularity of small and shelf-style layouts. Accordingly, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of videos, websites and blogs dealing with the subject and offering advice.
 
  One school of thought aims at creating highly realistic backdrops, and many layouts have started using actual photographs, either as a collage or a large landscape image (some of the newer commercial backscenes offered make use of this technique as well, such as those offered by Gaugemaster in the UK, which feature generic landscapes with background hills).

The ultimate step in logic with this approach is to just have a backdrop working as a "blue screen" and then use an imaging software to add an actual picture - as Walthers did for their catalogue in advertising their HO low relief warehouse kit - to create a virtual backscene (just as theatres now use projections to enhance their stage design).

 
A very different approach is the "less is more" school of thought. In essence, this works on the assumption that a backscene should be as neutral as positive - almost as though someone was telling the onlooker that there's nothing to see in the back and to focus on modelled features of a layout or module.

This can easily be achieved by simply painting the backscene in a neutral and toned-down colour, and then very lightly adding some variation to "the sky" but without attempting to actually render any clouds - a technique applied to the scene shown here on a Z Scale (1:220) module. The mood can be changed by simply going for a different colour; a light or dark grey would create an atmosphere of a dreary and rainy day or even of an impending thunderstorm.

 
 
The important thing with all types of backscenes is to ensure that there is a smooth transition between them and the actual layout. In order to achieve this a mixture of techniques can be used - which may include another theatrical stage trick: viewblocks.
 
 

VIEWBLOCKS

 
This is a layout design trick which Frank Ellison actually arrived at by turning the staging technique of "blocking" on its head. In a theatrical performance it is vitally important that the audience can see what they need to see in order to follow the events. The positions (and movements) of actors and props therefore have to be arranged ("blocked") with the audience's fixed viewpoint in mind - which, for example, is why actors rarely turn their back to the audience while reciting their lines (not even when addressing someone situated behind them).

Ellis realized that the opposite effect of "blocking" actually hides things from an audience, simply by putting a "view block" in their line of sight. It is of course a phenomenon which can be encountered in real life time and time again: a road curving out of sight, trees obstructing a view, even people walking into your "shot" as you try to take a picture of something or someone.

 
In terms of layout design it offers the possibility to create the illusion that there is "more" than can actually be seen. It also creates the illusion of more depth to a scene if a viewblock is positioned in the foreground. Or it can simply hide the exit to "staging tracks".

"JD" signal cabin at the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Museum in Clifton Forge, Virginia, evidently doesn't hide any non existing scenery, but it illustrates the effect a foreground prop can have on a layout.

The possibilities are endless, both in urban and coutryside settings (in the Z Scale example below a few trees placed in the foreground provide a slightly restricted view of the tracks, which immediately adds depth to the scene).

 
 
 
 
 
 
Theatrical Layout Design doesn't, of course, have to be applied rigidly -it works just as well if only bits and pieces, a stage trick here and a stage setting concept there, are applied. But taking a step back and looking at a small (shelf) layout or a shunting puzzle layout as something akin to a stage in a theatre can provide some really interesting thoughts and ideas.

Frank Ellison's 1954 book Frank Ellison on Model Railroading has been out of print for decades now and will prove difficult to come by, but others took up his ideas on Theatrical Layout Design, such as John Armstrong in his classic Creative Layout Design (1978) or Carl Arendt, the late but undisputed master of the micro layout, on the pages of his website.

 
 

page created 8 September 2020
page updated
28 February 2021