Building A Theatrical “Mood Box”

Lessons for box dioramas to be learned from theatrical design

By Darryl Audette

Many years ago, I was going to enroll in Production Design as a career, but was sidetracked by the lure of a more lucrative profession and an enticing woman, both of which didn’t turn out nearly as well as imagined at the time.

It’s ironic how life wanders and works: Several months ago, I stumbled across a Community Course given by the Head of Theatrical Design at the local university. I enrolled, got in, and loved it. I was hooked again.

I was then encouraged to enroll in the University Production Design Program. The very thought of it scared the life out of me—turning 50 and going back to school—but I did, and I started with a course in Lighting Design and Production. Again, I loved it.

Over the course, I realized how much of it can be applied to miniature scale shadowbox dioramas, which are really small-scale theatres.

For our Final Lighting Project at term’s end, we were given a set of ground and elevation plans, and the choice of either doing a two-dimensional Lighting Plot or a 3D “Moodbox,” conveying a mood with lighting.

Thus the fun started: Which to do, and what to convey?

As I was going through some life/death issues at the time, I decided on a darker mood, resulting in a piece called “Remorse.”

Even though we were given free reign on the design of the piece, my love of architecture lead me to using the provided plans in a realistic style.

After measuring the plans, I determined they were in 1/2 scale.  I then constructed the “set” using FoamCore and paper throughout, painting it with gouache, acrylics, and oil paints. It was then detailed with actual metal items and items made of various materials for texture, then varnishes of various strengths for different effects.

The lone figure was made of layers of paper painted in oils, holding a candle made with a subminiature model railroad bulb inside.

There was no attempt to make an historically accurate scale model, but to give the illusion of one even though it is a scale model set into a shadowbox with a frame on the front. It was mainly done in the technique of the Master, Sheperd Paine. Though as Shep pointed out, “It’s not a diorama in the strictest sense.” It’s a theatrical exercise in lighting—which is to say, the scene was made to provide a setting for the lighting work, which was mostly 12volt miniature bulbs.

The moon shinning through the French windows is a NASA image made into a clear acetate rendering, then glued to a piece of acrylic, covered with a cold blue theatrical gel. The lighting behind it is a small LED flashlight bought at a local surplus store, then cut in half.  The battery section was discarded and wires were connected to the LEDs as the power source is in the base of the outer case. This was also done with the candle bulb in the figure’s hand, which was wired to a power source in the base of the outerbox.

There are three power switches on the side of the outer box, one for all the 12volt bulbs connected to a 12volt transformer, one for the 4.5volt “moon” LEDs connected to batteries, and one for the 1.5volt “candle” bulb, also connected to batteries.

I didn’t know how to connect all three voltages to one power switch without blowing everything up!

All the miniature lamps are placed as would be real-life ones, some used for floods/washes and some use as spot lights; some with colored gels in front of them, others left as is. I initially had dimmers (pots) ready to use for each lamp, but found they weren’t necessary, as the bulbs’ full intensity was fine as is.

The fireplace on the left has a 12volt orange bulb inside, with crumpled orange gel around it, and it is connected to an AM radio receiver, which converts the AM signal into pulses that make the bulb flicker randomly. This gave the scene a nice touch when viewed.


Once the scene was built and lighting it began, it quickly became a study in color and light.

The whole project took about 2 1/2 weeks to complete, including several full pots of coffee. It taught me how much I didn’t know and gave me an increased respect for light and lighting designers, as well as for any modeler attempting to use light.

A final note: Studying the work and books of master modelers such as as Shep Paine can teach much about both modeling and lighting of dioramas, regardless what kind they are.

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