Zeta Base- how to build a diorama base

Zeta Base has been my most ambitious modeling project to date. Although it is quite small (measures about 11" x 12" x 7"), it took quite a while to build. I had no previous experience building mountains, creating water, etc., so it took a lot of research and I had to load up on materials that I didn't have on hand. In the end it wasn't that difficult and really was a lot of fun, so I'm posting the steps I went through to build it for those interested in taking on a similar project.

First, to keep the overall size small I populated it strictly with Command Zoids. Even the smallest windups would look huge in this diorama. A nod goes out to  Major Kong for some inspiration here, his jewel-like base set with intricately painted figures and mechanical bits was what kicked off the original idea. Kong was customizing Zoids before most people knew they existed! I had acquired a bunch of Command Zoids, and the base parts looked like a good scale fit to them so I started piecing things together to see how it would look. I started dreaming of this base being nestled into a mountain-side, and thus the idea started shaping into reality.

Above photo: Even though it doesn't look like much at this stage, I had the whole thing pictured in my mind already. You can see that despite it looking quite primitive, I've already got the hole blocked out for the hangar and the water edge roughed in. I pretty much knew where every Zoid would be going too. Now it was just a matter of building it! This first stage is basically to block in the carboard sub-structure and get the components located.

Above photo: Next up we take your basic crumpled newspaper and tape it into place. The new plaster technology does away with the old method of installing a layer of metal screening over everything. You don't have to be delicate here, everything gets covered up in the next step. I kept dry-fitting the base parts every step of the way to make sure they would still fit properly.

Above photo: So what is this new technology? It is amazingly simple, Woodland Scenics Plaster Cloth. The stuff is a miracle. You just dip it in water, lay it over your crumpled newspaper base and smooth everything out with your fingertips. Let it dry overnight and it is rock-solid the next day. Easy! I completely covered the cardboard front and back to give it rigidity.

Above photo: Now for the trick that really makes these cliffs look real, go buy a couple of rubber rock molds. Pour some plaster into them and let it cure. Then use more wet plaster as glue to glue the chunks of rock face on wherever you want. You don't need to cover every square inch with the rock details, as in real life you really only see rock outcroppings peeking through in places. Also in this picture you can see I've tested the painting technique to try it out. The paint is a kit made by Woodland Scenics called "Earth Color Kit". It consists of 7 earthy tones and black that is used as a wash. You use a sponge to dab on the colors one at a time (this is called the "leopard spot" technique in the instructions). It looks really strange when you start out, but by the time you add the black wash the results are amazing. The black is watered down, so it is absorbed into the crevices and really gives the outcroppings depth.

Above photo: OK, now it's starting to shape up! Rock weathering is complete. Now you add some glue and sprinkle a couple of colors of very fine sand and gravel in to make it look more realistic. Pile it at the bottom of crevices especially. Those of you that like to go hiking will know, rock faces like this have lots of loose gravel around!

Above photo: Here some more Woodland Scenics products have been applied- clumps of "grass" fibers are glued into holes drilled in the base and a couple of colors of lichen are used to simulate brush growing on the cliff side. An apple tree has been added at the top for my apple-picking Zoid pilot!

Above photo: To make the water we start by painting the surface. Clear resin will go uniformly over the whole surface, so we need to use shading to simulate water depth. Dark blue-green for the deepest water going to progressively lighter shades in the shallows. White is used at the very edges to give it a foamy appearance. Notice that all piers have been permanently set at this point because the "water" gets poured around them. I had to get all my wiring for the lights worked out at this stage so I could make sure I had all the required holes drilled. Note that the pier light is already installed.

Above photo: Here the water is poured. Note the temporary forms to hold the water in at the edge of the diorama. The wave technique is actually something I discovered by accident. I poured a test piece of resin and as it was curing I poked it with a popsicle stick to see if it was dry yet. It wasn't and the surface "pulled up" in that spot, then over the next 10 seconds settled into a really cool looking wave crest. I thought "Hmmmmmm...." I tried it over a larger area and really liked how it looked. So when I poured the final surface, I spent the next 30 minutes going over every inch of it poking it with a popsicle stick to create all those waves. It looks good in the photos, but it looks even better in person. The resin coat is about 1/2" thick. It was intentionally poured up the "coastline" a bit to make it look wet, like waves have been splashing against it.

Above photo: The hangar was built as a separate piece and slipped into the diorama. There's a toolbox that is built of sheet styrene with color photocopies of a real toolbox applied to the sides. The tool panel on the wall and obligatory babe posters were copied from the 'net, reduced down, printed on a color printer, glued to styrene, framed with styrene sticks and then mounted to the walls. The bulletin board has actual boring memos from my "real" life plastered on it. And of course I had to add the Zoids banner! The figures would later get their bases removed so they look more realistic. This is tiny stuff, the whole hangar is 1-1/2" high and about 2-1/2" across.

Above photo: Here is the finished hangar for comparison. The little things are what eat up time on these projects, in this case it took a crazy amount of effort to make sure the base platform was perfectly level with the hangar, and to get the hangar trimmed out around the edges of the cliff. A couple of panels at the top simulate a roll-down door. Note that the hangar is lighted internally, there are grain-of-wheat bulbs shining down on it.

I figured if I was going to all this trouble, why not light the diorama? A couple of red landing lights were added to the round launch platform, white lampposts were placed on the upper deck, a red light was added at the pier and as mentioned above the hangar is lighted. As you can see in the above picture, the wiring was a bit of a challenge to get in there while keeping it invisible! The main leads were run down inside a plastform leg to the underside of the dio.

Here's a pic showing it lit up at night. Cool stuff! There's a separate battery pack with an on/off switch that plugs into a port on the back of the diorama.

The figures were all hand-painted with water-based acrylics, many of them were altered such as sawing off arms and repositioning them. Very delicate work considering the figures are only 5/8" tall. The platforms were painted with buffable metalizer. The Zoids were all also hand-painted. Bits of plastic coated wire were used to simulate hoses.

I'll be posting a separate page with detailed photos of the completed diorama. There I'll describe the various activities taking place on this active little base.