Step by Step: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

By Jim DeRogatis

Midway through completing my first Jules Verne tribute box, “From the Earth to the Moon,” I just knew I’d have to do a “sequel” based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is every fan’s favorite. When I found the following woodcut from the first edition of the pioneering author’s best-known book, showing the crew of a (very primitively rendered) Nautilus on the surface of the sea battling the giant squid, I knew I had my scene. The confined space and the tentacles of the squid extending into the wheelhouse offered a lot of opportunity for dramatic action, if I could only pull it off!

 Thanks to the legions of devoted fans of Verne’s book and the Disney film, the Web holds a bounty of information about the Nautilus—as the author described it, as the movie portrayed it, and as others have imagined it. I took many cues from this material, but I decided early on that this would be my Nautilus, and I wouldn’t try to slavishly duplicate any particular rendering of the submarine. After all, part of the fun of doing a fantasy box is letting your imagination run wild!


 Construction of the wheelhouse started with a cardboard mock-up before progressing to sheet plastic. I wanted to capture the idea of two levels in the structure, as well as to show a figure emerging from the spiral staircase, so I built up the floor with hard-density balsa foam. I chose sheet plastic instead of wood or foam for the walls and ceiling because it would be easier to glue on all of those tiny rivets.

 I needed to pretty much complete the wheelhouse before starting on the figures, because it was such a tight space and positioning of the “characters” on my stage set would be a challenge. (I had a rough idea of where they would go, but it often came down to a matter of millimeters.) I had a blast with all of the Evergreen and Plastruct piping, white-metal dials and wheels scored from a vendor at the MFCA show, and scratchbuilt “gizmology,” all with a steampunk vibe. Unfortunately, I was having so much fun putting all of this together that I didn’t document much of the construction along the way! Here, the wheelhouse is almost completed.

Here are the figures in wire-mannequin form, and a look at the start of positioning.

For the sailor in the grip of the squid’s tentacle, I had to sculpt both together, with a length of sculptor’s armature wire serving as the tentacle.

 Encouraged by my always helpful mentors, Joe Berton and Shep Paine, I tried hard to exaggerate the movement of the figures for maximum drama and a sort of “comic-book” look that seemed appropriate for a fantasy-adventure scene. (That’s Joe striking a “guy wielding an ax” pose at breakfast to illustrate what he and Shep were talking about.) This took a lot of work at the early mannequin-positioning phase, and a lot of trial and error once sculpting started, but it’s always important to push yourself in this direction. Three of the six figures are characters from the book (and movie): The professor, who I sculpted to resemble Verne as I did in “From the Earth to the Moon”; Ned the harpoonist (who bears a passing resemblance to Kirk Douglas), and Captain Nemo, who I succeeded in making vaguely James Mason-like, or at least Shep paid me that compliment.

As I wrote the words above, it struck me that this box will be the last Shep ever saw in development—a very sad thought. Members of the Military Miniature Society of Illinois meet regularly for breakfast, an idea that Shep started, and I’d often pick him up at his place before we headed to the diner. He’d actually be disappointed when I didn’t have something for what he called “show and tell,” and even though it often meant I had to take whatever he’d just critiqued back to the workbench, tear half of it apart, and try again, I never minded and always welcomed the tutelage. Granted, his eyes were slipping in recent years: Joe laughs whenever we recall the time Shep said the figure in the back of my “Harsh Awakening” box looked too thin, when it was in fact a coat rack. Damn if he wasn’t right on four out of five times, however. Whether you had that kind of first-hand experience with Shep or knew him only through his books, we all will miss the master modeler and primary inspiration for this site. As noted on the flash page, the tribute I wrote can be found on the MMSI Web site here.


 Now it was time to start on the squid. Again, there are many fanciful renditions of the beast on the Web and in books, but I actually modeled mine on photos that have emerged in recent years of an actual giant squid captured off the coast of Japan. The diagram is a scientist’s illustration of scale for the real giant squid.

My squid was sculpted over a thick wooden dowel, with a teddy-bear eye found on eBay—and boy, was that a lot of fun! Vallejo Game Colors actually has a color called “squid pink,” and it was exactly what I was looking for the base, shaded for contrast as needed, and with various washes of appropriately slimy greens and umbers added to make the beast “pop.” In the end, he also got several coats of high-gloss varnish and some added strings of dripping Woodlands Scenics water to enhance the look of having just emerged from the depths.

 The scene is really starting to come together now. The dome window was fashioned with an old Mattel Vacuform (again, thank you, eBay!). Oh, if you’re wondering where the walls and ceiling of the wheelhouse went in some of these photos, everything attached with small wood screws so I could get in and out as needed as the scene came together. As noted earlier, there was a lot of tweaking for perfect positioning! I really like the clear tube with the eerie green LED light; that was one thing borrowed from the Disney Nautilus, part of that version of the sub’s nuclear power plant. (Don’t ask about the science here; again, this is a fantasy scene!)

With a scene like this, there are endless opportunities for tiny details. I was particularly proud of the ship’s log on the floor, the map case, and of course all of those knobs and dials! Barely visible to the right of the staircase is a tiny oil can, this diorama’s tribute to Shep, who used to describe his role as Chief Judge at the MMSI show as “the guy who runs around with the oil can to fix anything as needed.” Shep called detailed little in-jokes like this “Easter eggs.” An Easter egg of one of his beloved cows can be seen in my Louvre diorama; some of the hieroglyphics in the Cleopatra diorama spell out “Shep loves cows,” and two troopers in my “Last Supper” box are tributes to Shep’s vignette “The Sergeant’s Mare.”

 Almost done: The wheelhouse as it sits (on an angle) in the finished box, and the scene as viewed through the reveal.

 Finally, a few more shots by Bob Sarnowski of the finished box and its steampunk frame, and the book-cover placard I made with PhotoShop based on the cover of my favorite edition of the Verne classic. Joe Berton gave me this idea for “From the Earth to the Moon,” and repeating it here made the Nautilus box a perfect book-end to the earlier Verne diorama. I am proud to say that both are now in the collection of my friend, MMSI member Dan Bird. Thanks again for your support, Dan!