Building the flickering torch light effect
By Darryl Audette
Back in 1989, I was going to attend an upcoming miniatures exhibition with a medieval theme. After seeing Sheperd Paine’s “Remnants of An Army”shadow box, I wanted to try a moonlight scene such as the aftermath of a battle between opposing medieval knight forces during the crusades.
The scene became a 1/12th scale scene for two reasons: It was the major scale used in the exhibition, and I never used it before and was curious about trying such a large scale, rather than traditional 54mm/132nd scale model soldiers.
The scene depicts a winter battlefield in Northern Europe littered with fallen soldiers, all bathed in a distant, eerie, bluish wash of moonlight, mainly lit with one central warn glow of firelight, which is reflected in the cold armor of the soldiers. The central vignette depicts a soldier lifting the dead body of a fallen comrade out of the blood-soaked snow, his armor frozen, falling off his body.
As per Shep’s brilliant scene, there were snow-topped trees, snow drifts, and a visible pack of wolves in the background waiting for the dinner bell, but the major difference between Shep’s scene and my scene was that Shep had the warm light coming from a campfire, whereas my forces weren’t stopping for the night. The primary light here came from a flickering torch held by an aide to an officer, both providing the light and being a witness to the act of compassion amid the brutality of the aftermath in blood.
The title of my piece was “When a Bond Among Men Was Forged in The Blood of Faith,” taken from the elements of the Crusade battle.
For some reason, I wanted a realistic flickering torch—maybe just to be different, or to see if I could pull it off. After several experiments with then-current commercial flickering lights, I decided to make my own. After discussing the idea with a friend who is a practicing electrician, we came up with a mechanism that hooked up to a radio to convert AM/FM radio frequencies to pulses of current to alter the voltage of a bulb, with a few more variables added for fun.
I used Grain of Wheat bulbs because LEDs weren’t practical back then, and I liked the look of the oldies but goodies grain of wheat bulbs. The variables to the light output were its brightness and its pattern (or lack of pattern) of flicker.
The brightness was controlled by a small potentiometer in the control unit, and the pattern of flicker was controlled by the selected radio station output.
Once the candle was built (brass tube with the bulb wires passed through it, with fiberglass insulation around the bulb for glow, and darkened cotton teased out from the fiberglass to simulate smoke), it was glued to the torch- bearer’s glove, while the wires passed down the upstage side of the body out of sight into the ground base.
The next job was to install the whole control unit inside the outer case of the shadow box, this consisted of the signal capture unit plugged into the Sony Walkman AM/FM radio with its 9 volt AC wall adapter plugged into it, which was connected into the 120 Volt AC main cord. The grain of wheat bulb as connected to the other end of the signal capture unit.
The entire unit combined is rather cumbersome but is well worth the effort to fit it all into the base of the outer case, all with detachable terminals for easy maintenance and playing with different bulbs and different levels of brightness.
As the main variables were the intensity of the light and the flicker pattern, after starring at a fireplace and historic movies for several hours, I found that the local talk radio shows were the best with the highs and lows of the voices giving the right frequencies for a great looking flicker. The worst stations were country music (even thought I like country music).
There are new D.I.Y. kits on the market from such places as All Electronics, or any of the great electronics websites kits, so a realistic light flicker now is available to everyone, and it doesn’t have to be built from scratch anymore. It would be interesting to see if such a device can work today with LED,s , and to build the system on a much smaller scale.
One of my fondest moments is when Shep Paine saw this shadow box with the two central figures bathed in the warm flickering light from the torch, highlighted in their cold wet armor, surrounded by the cold eerie moonlight, and commented on how much he liked it. What better words of encouragement can a young modeler dream of? Thank you to Shep for the original concept and the years of encouragement!