The Eagle of the Ninth (updated) Roman Signal Station diorama

(This is the second of my scratch building and modelling projects based on the books I loved as a kid)

A ruined Roman signal station in the fog of the coast of Northumbria or Scotland. (Robin Rowland)

Rosemary Sutcliff was my premier favourite author as a kid–and I still reread her novels from time to time more than 40 years later.

Her first, and by far her most famous novel was The Eagle of the Ninth, first published in 1954. I must have first read it when I took out of the library six years later,  when I was ten,around 1960.  The Eagle of the Ninth is still one of my favourite novels, the story of the young Marcus Flavius Aquila and his freedman Esca searching the wilds of Caledonia (now Scotland) for the eagle of the lost Ninth Legion. It’s also still a favourite for fans around the world to this day (including those who had to take in school in Grade 9 in the 60s and 70s in both British Columbia and Ontario and probably elsewhere).

The Eagle of the Ninth also finally became a Hollywood movie, The Eagle, in 2011, decades after publication.

Back  when I was ten or eleven  (and also interested in model railroading)  I attempted to build the abandoned Roman signal tower takes place, based on the C.  Walter Hodges drawing in the original novel.

As you can see from other entries on this site, for the past year or so, in semi-retirement, I have been scratch building various models, mostly from science fiction. So a few months ago, I decided that while I might continue to model Star Wars and Star Trek,  those wealthy franchises are getting somewhat stale. Almost everyone else is modelling Star Wars and Star Trek.

S0 it was time to branch out to more interesting work, involving novels I loved when I was growing up, most of which did not make it the big screen.  In The Eagle movie, the chase through the moors and the confrontation at the signal tower was dropped for a more “Hollywood” style battle over the eagle of the Ninth Legion (not a satisfying substitution at all in my view). The 1977 BBC television series did use a “tower” set based on the C. Walter Hodges drawing.

Since I had already tried to make the signal tower decades ago as a kid, the obvious choice for an Eagle of the Ninth project was the signal tower.

So why did I update?

The abandoned Roman signal tower as envisioned by artist C. Walter Hodges in the original Eagle fo the Ninth.

My plan at first was a  model based on the original drawing from the 1954 novel and used in many of the updates and republished versions.

It would have been a fairly simple project, a small courtyard, what Rosemary Sutcliff called a “guardroom” and the signal tower itself.

(The one perspective problem with the tower drawing is that the entrance gate is too small for people on horseback)

Before starting I did some basic research, checking Roman “signal tower” both in my personal library of Roman military history (which started when I began reading Rosemary Sutcliff) and online. It was soon quite clear that Roman signal tower in Hodge’s drawing bore no resemblance to the vast majority of Roman signal towers through the history of the empire.

A wide view of the Roman signal tower as seen in one brief shot in the 1977 BBC television series Eagle of the Ninth. Likely an “optical” as it was called in the days before CGI, either a matte painting or a model added to a stock shot of a moor.

The one thing that stood out from the current archaeological evidence is that what are still called “signal towers” were not just signal towers or watch towers–which is why the archaeologists prefer the term “signal stations.”  Aerial surveillance and on the ground research has shown that in Scotland, northern England and later along the coast known as the Saxon Shore (which Sutcliff describes in The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers) the stations were relatively close together, some as close to one to two kilometres apart. So while the stations did have signalling capability, it was unlikely they were the hilltop beacon relays used in later centuries such as the Elizabethan and Napoleonic eras.

The stations followed the same basic concept design across the Roman Empire, but the installations varied in size depending on location and the military requirements ranging from a tower in a walled courtyard to mid-sized stations  and what archaeologists today are calling a “fortlet” that is a small fort. (Fortlets could apparently be either large signal stations or smaller versions of the standard legionary or auxiliary fortress with just a couple of  barracks blocks as well as other buildings).  Fortlet signal stations were built along the Saxon Shore when the Roman Empire and Britain was threatened by sea-roving Saxon invaders. Those fortlets were a vital link joining the much larger Saxon Shore fortresses (which are described in The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers)

That means the towers themselves were not, as the reader might assume from Eagle of the Ninth,  the base for a small lonely team of perhaps four legionaries  responsible for the signal system.  They varied in size. The stations were likely a base for what today we would call a platoon of perhaps fifteen to fifty men, again depending on the location and military requirements.   The basic Roman squad was eight men,  in the infantry commanded by decanus or in the case of cavalry troop of  decurion.  Some archaeological evidence shows that the towers had stables. Riders could have relayed  messages if the weather prevented standard signalling.  Stations with perhaps with fifty men could have been commanded by a junior centurion,  likely under the eye of an experienced optio or just commanded by an optio,  the equivalent of a staff sergeant or senior warrant officer.  (Just as today second lieutenants command platoons and are watched by experienced senior non-commissioned officers.)  Larger  stations including those that could be called fortlets probably could have been the base for one or two centuries of about eighty to  one hundred men each.

The fog just begins to clear around the long abandoned Roman signal station. (Robin Rowland)

Hostile territory

As I was reading the admittedly limited online academic literature, (there is more but the public has to pay extortionate prices to read it online from commercial scholarly publishers) the suggestions by the archaeologists on the role of the signal stations somehow began to sound familiar — and not just because I’ve been reading Rosemary Sutcliff and both fiction and nonfiction about the Roman army in the decades since.

I quickly realized that there was similar situation in the wilds of Caledonia as well as  Roman garrisoned and for a period Roman occupied province of Valentia and that was what was happening two thousand years later in  Afghanistan  mainly in Kandahar, Helmand, Urozgan  and other  provinces from late 2001 until the staggered coalition withdrawal in the early 2010s.

Most of the archaeological papers were written prior to the 21st century war in Afghanistan, some as long ago as a century ago.  Academics also usually don’t speculate  without corroborating written or other evidence.

What prompted me to build the model in this way was that in my view the Afghanistan model is the best analogy for the Roman signal stations in ancient Britain.

I “covered” the war in Afghanistan from a desk in Toronto as photo editor for CBC News.  That meant I was in almost daily contact with our staff and freelance journalists mainly at “Kaf” (Kandahar Air Field) or in Kabul. I knew when our crews were going “outside the wire”as embeds to the forward operating bases (FOB) and forward observations post (FOP or OP depending on which military was on that post).  Some independent freelancers I worked with spent most of their time embedded “outside the wire.”  Once, by coincidence,  one day at a surplus store,  looking to buy some outdoor clothes for a nature photography trip to New Mexico I ran into a freelancer colleague I knew who, on a limited budget, was gearing up for an embed in Afghanistan.

My conclusion is that Afghanistan is the best analogy for what Roman soldiers faced in Valentia and Caledonia. The nineteenth century colonial period and the American “old West” are not a good analogy due the EuroAmericans’ overwhelming superiority in the technology of the time.  In Afghanistan, the coalition did have a superior military and a technological advantage but, like the Romans facing the northern tribes of ancient Britain, as we have learned over the past decade and more, it wasn’t enough. One archaeologist has suggested the analogy of the United Nations observation posts along the Green Line in Cyprus, but there the role is just observation and with one notable exception–the Turkish invasion–those observation posts were not in hostile territory.

So to continue with the analogy and compare ancient Britain with Afghanistan, the great legionary fortresses at Eburacum (York) and Deva (Chester) could be the equivalent of Kandahar Air Field or Bagram Air Field.

The midsized  signal stations were  probably the equivalent of the company sized forward operating bases (with the company and supporting troops the equivalent of a Roman century).  The legionary and auxiliary forts and fortlets  or large signal stations were likely the equivalent of what were called “camps” and “patrol bases” in Afghanistan.   You can compare this Wikipedia list of ISAF bases  with this list of Roman forts and fortlets in Scotland  as well as the extensive list of temporary marching camps again just in Scotland.

One of the best know is FOB Martello operated by the Canadian Forces in El Bak, 200 kilometres north of Kandahar.  Company sized units and support troops from Canada and the Netherlands were based at Martello.  Martello was named for the early nineteenth century defense and observation towers built by the British in England, Canada and elsewhere as a defence during the Napoleonic Wars. Another well known FOB was Ripley built the US Marines in Tarinkot,  Urozgan Province and later called FOB Davis by the Australians.

The smaller signal stations the equivalent of observation posts that were the base for one or two platoons of infantry and supporting troops.

One of those  US Marine Corps OPs at Kunjack in Helmand Province is described in the book Shooting Ghosts A US Marine, a combat photographer and their journey back from war   by Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly. Brennan says OP Kujack  looked large from the bottom of a hill but was actually the size of a high school gym for himself and fifteen Marines. That could also describe one of the smaller Roman signal stations, while larger than a high school gym would have been the base for 15 to 2o men. A study of one site in Scotland  speculates there would have been twelve infantry, four officers and eight cavalry or mounted infantry at the station.

A 2007 article in the Canadian Legion Magazine, Ghosts in the Hills, author Adam Day opens with these lines “In the mountains around Forward Operating Base Martello, the enemy are like ghosts; they hide among the villagers and emerge for battle only when and where they choose. Mostly they stay out of sight, firing their mortars and rockets from a distance. Sometimes though, they attack in force.” That could just as easily describe the tribes of Valentia and Caledonia coming out of the mist to attack one of the signal stations.

In both cases, there were smaller observation posts associated with the forward operating bases. At forward operating bases in Afghanistan, there were often observation posts “a couple of hundred metres” outside the main base.  Archaeologists have found signal stations just 350 metres from a Roman fortlet.

The ruined tower/ signal station model in “daylight” on the coast. (Robin Rowland)

Artistic licence and planning the model

In planning the model, I wanted to stay as true as possible to the descriptions by Rosemary Sutcliff while working from a base of what we know today from archaeology and history about the signal stations.

So

  • the “tower” had to be a long abandoned ruin
  • the model should reflect how Marcus and Esca hid from the wild hunt and took refuge in the “tower.”
  • there had to be a high “tower” where Marcus threatened to throw the eagle into the waters below
  • given those considerations, that signal station should reflect, as much as possible, current historic and archaeological knowledge.

So what did the signal station tower actually look like?  What we know comes from Trajan’s column which depict signal towers along the Danube River during the Emperor Trajan’s campaign against the Dacians.

Signal towers as depicted on Trajan’s column. (Wikimedia Commons)
A wider view of the towers on Trajan’s column. (Wikimedia Commons)
A stone building surrounded by a wooden palisade from Trajan’s column. (Wikimedia Commons)

So the basic tower as depicted is a stone building with a peaked roof and a balcony where some sort of fire/smoke signal system is used.  That’s very different from the scene that C. Walter Hodges imagined in his drawing.

This book cover gives an artist’s concept of how a wooden tower might have looked.

The archaeological evidence indicates that the towers were first made of wood and thatch.  If they became a permanent base, the tower would be made of stone with a tiled roof.  Eventually the wooden palisade would be replaced by a stone wall with a bastion or tower at each corner and surrounded by a defensive ditch.

One example is Castle Hill in Scarborough, England, as described by the archaeologist  R.G. Collingwood  in 1930. (The signal station at Scarborough is from the fourth century CE Saxon Shore era).

You can see some aerial photographs from Scotland’s Gask Ridge Project which shows various Roman forts, fortlets, towers and posts at this link.

So with the research in mind, I created the signal station following those plans. However, I made two additions based on my reading. A stable for the horses and a well (at some sites archeologists have found indications of a well).

Top view of the model showing the signal station tower. the stable, stone walls, fallen wall platform and the outer ditch. (Robin Rowland)
Front view of the diorama. (Robin Rowland)
The left view of the diorama. (Robin Rowland)
The right view of the diorama. (Robin Rowland)
Cover of the 1977 Puffin edition of The Eagle of the Ninth, with cover art by David Smee.

I made two decisions that depart from Sutcliff’s text.  Marcus and Esca’s return journey is generally in a southeasterly direction from the territory of the Dumnonii toward Borcovicus on Hadrian’s Wall (modern Pevensey) in the centre of the island. In the novel the tower is described as on a scarp overlooking a tarn. A tarn is a lake  in a hollow that was carved out by the glaciers during the last ice age.  The signal tower in  David Smee’s cover for the 1977 Puffin edition depicts a much larger body of water, probably the North Sea. So I decided somewhat arbitrarily to place my model on a cliffside overlooking the ocean similar to the signal tower at Scarborough because it offered more interesting modelling opportunities.  I also had a photograph that resembled the background of the Smee painting (as you can see from the images above) that I could Photoshop in as a background.

The second decision was that the wild hunt for the two happens in the autumn, with the furze, bracken and heather are brown and colourless.  A summer scene would work better for the diorama.

The rear view of the diorama. (Robin Rowland)

The other artistic change is that the tower on the right of this image is taller than the other three–just so Marcus and Esca can get up there, pursued by Liathan and his two young friends.

Time and place

The Romans under Governor Julius Agricola invaded Scotland in 80 CE and conquered much of the lowlands, ending with the Battle of Mons Graupius in the Highlands in 84.  Agricola left the following year and the Romans tried to consolidate their conquest by building a series of forts, fortlets and signal stations across the occupied territory. Just as the war in Iraq diverted American and coalition attention from Afghanistan, the Emperor Domitian withdrew troops from Caledonian territory for his war in Dacia. It was during this period that a series of close signal stations were built, many along the Gask Ridge, and called by some archaeologists “glen blockers.”

Over the next decades the Romans were bogged down in Caledonia, withdrawing from the more hostile areas. The Emperor Trajan  also withdrew more troops for his campaigns elsewhere,  leaving the same kind of military vacuum seen today in Afghanistan.   The Caledonian revolt where the Ninth Legion may have disappeared occurred in 117 CE just as Hadrian was coming to the throne and there was unrest across the Empire.  (What actually happened to the Ninth Legion is still disputed by scholars, the Wikipedia link summarizes that debate).  Construction of Hadrian’s Wall began in 122 and was completed six years later.  So while the date isn’t exactly clear, it appears that Marcus arrived in Britannia as a junior auxiliary cohort centurion around 130 CE.

Closer view of the courtyard of the signal station. (Robin Rowland)

On their adventure beyond the wall Marcus and Esca reach  the fortress of  Trimontium,  (today Newstead, near Melrose, Scottish Borders) named for what today are known as the  three Eildon Hills ( the name trium montium three hills or three mountains). Sutcliff says the double cohort fort had been abandoned for thirty years.  That matches current knowledge and evidence.  Trimontium first began as a signal station in the campaign in 80 BCE and was later expanded to a full fortress–built by the Ninth Legion.   That plan then was a line of forts, fortlets and signal stations  that would ensure Roman rule over the region and  allow for quick reinforcement it any element in the chain was attacked. (Again the Afghanistan analogy is apt. ) Trimontiumn was abandoned about  20 years later between  100 and 105 BCE, which fits Sutcliff’s timeline.

So she wrote:

Now the wild had flowed in again, grass covered the cobbles of the streets, timber roofs had fallen in and the red sandstone walls stood gaunt and empty to the sky. The wells were choked with the debris of thirty autumns and an elder-tree had taken root in one corner of the roofless shrine where once had stood the cohort’s standard and the altars of its gods…..

 

If a signal station was abandoned at the same time, that description  would be the basis for the model.

The Wild Hunt

“Swathes of mist, drawn up from the deep glen, were still drifting across it before the rising wind, but as a starting point, upward of a bowshot away, something that might be a broch loomed through the greyness.”

“They swung in their tracks toward the nearest tongue of birch woods…”

Model railway birch trees.

“a mass of furze seemed to offer a certain amount of cover  and they dived into it liked hunted animals going to ground and began to work their way towards its heart.”

“A dark and evidently much-used tunnel in the furze opened up to them and they slid into it, Esca leading.  The reek of fox grew stronger than ever.”

N scale foxes from Langley Models.

Here you see the station’s vallum ditch, the yellow furze and the purple heather (as well as the foxes). The long abandoned Roman road leading to the station is covered in grass and undergrowth and has collapsed where it has been undermined by the ditch which is now a dirty stream.

“The building they had glimpsed through the mist was quite clear now; not a broch at all but an old Roman signal tower.”

“”The narrow archway, doorless now, gaped blankly in the wall…they stumbled through into a small courtyard…”


” Another empty door faced them…”

“a small courtyard where grass had long since covered the cobbles”

The balcony on four sides of the signal station tower that would have been used for the smoke or fire signals, has mostly long since collapsed.

Here is where I changed the scenario….assuming that much of the signal station tower’s ceilings/floors have collapsed….and to let Marcus and Esca get up the bastion tower  so  the model does pay tribute to the novel.

which means they head through the undergrowth past what’s left of the stables to that tower.

“Marcus was almost blinded by the thrashing to great black wings past his face and a startled raven burst upward uttering its harsh, grating alarm cry, and flew off northward with slow, indignant wing beats, caaking as it went.”

The ravens are Preiser HO scale crows. (since ravens are larger than crows and so fit in N Scale 1/144 to 1/160.)

I decided not to have any human figures in the model, imagining what the signal station would be like on any day in 130 CE when humans weren’t present.

The “well choked with the debris of thirty autumns”  in the courtyard of the signal station. The wood, logs and tiles are  from the station building and the collapse of the wall platform.

What’s left of the stables.

 

Gulls (and other seabirds) on the old peaked roof. The gulls and seabirds are a mixture of N Scale gulls from Langley Models and Prieser HO gulls and other birds (when the tiny figures were put side by side there wasn’t much difference.)

A Preiser bird on one of the towers.

A Preiser bird on one of the towers.

A couple of Langley seagulls on the wall of the signal station.

Gulls and other seabirds on the ocean side. (In this photo, the supports for the birds have been removed in Photoshop to make them appear to be flying)

A closer view of the gulls and seabirds on the ocean side.

TECHNICAL NOTES

MODEL

N scale (1/44 to 1/60)

Station walls…..thick corrugated cardboard covered with printed stone sheets.  Station cobbles, printed stone sheets

Bastions

Prescription bottles covered with printed stone sheets with bastion tower tops the reversed lid of the prescription bottle

Well

Top from a liquid egg container

Various brands of model railway ground coverage and foliage that I have picked up over the years

Roman Road

A printed stone sheet

CAMERAS and PHOTOS

Sony Alpha 6000  18 to 55 lens

Sony Alpha 77  with 100mm Macro lens

Android phone camera

The fog image

An old shot of the west coast of Ireland on a cloudy day taken back in 1978

First Photoshopped in the front of the signal station.

Second image I added a very low opacity light grey fill layer, followed by a darker grey fill gradient fill layer with the darker fill toward the top.

Third image I added a third mid-opacity light grey fill layer to make it look really foggy,

 

Modelling Andre Norton’s “baldie” starship

The “baldie” starship trapped in Arctic ice from Andre Norton’s The Time Traders. (Robin Rowland)
The “baldie starship” at an alien base from Andre Norton’s Galactic Derelict. (Robin Rowland)

Almost all the model starships on the market today come from either Star Wars or Star Trek, with a few from the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Some speciality hobby stores both brick and mortar and online do offer some “vintage” kits. Even on Shapeways, the online marketplace for 3-D printed models,  the offerings are almost all Star Trek or Star Wars.

Yes as you can see from this site, I do model Star Wars and I have some Star Trek models on my to-do list.   A few months ago I decided it was time that my favourite science fiction author as a kid, Andre Norton, received some modelling tributes.

I decided that my first Andre Norton project should be from the first Norton science fiction novel I read when I was 13, The Time Traders.   (which became a series of novels )

The Time Traders, first in the series,  was written in the fifties at the height of the cold war.  The basic premise  is that the Soviet Union finds an alien starship preserved in the Arctic ice cap and starts using that technology (at the time of the so-called, later proved to be non-existent “missile gap”) and the United States must counter the Soviets.

Both sides some how, it’s never explained,  develop time travel and in a time travel arms race send agents back in time to various ages when the aliens later dubbed the “Baldies” were active on Earth. The “Baldies are alien pale, white, hairless, alien humanoids.

Norton only described the starship as spherical.  And various cover artists had their own interpretations of the ship trapped in ice. Every cover is different,  unlike movies or television where the design is fixed, so that gave me a little flexibility.

 

Time Traders paperback cover.
Time Traders hardcover cover.

So I decided to start  with an N scale propane tank model from my  model railway days ( I may try other approaches to baldie ships in the future)

I then added a bridge similar to the first cover, using a manufacturers container for contact lens (which didn’t work out as well as I had hoped) and stand/main engine from a bottle top.

 Once the model was complete,  I took it out into the snow of my front yard.

Perhaps this is how a 1950s helicopter might have spotted the Baldie ship in the thinning Arctic Ice.
And this is what the helicopter crew might have seen as they go down for a closer look. (Robin Rowland)

Of course I couldn’t leave the model out in the snow. So I created a base using another cover, from the novel Galactic Derelict.

Landing on an alien base.
Another view of the starship

There are a couple of differences here.  In Galactic Derelict the spherical ship is a scout, capable of holding perhaps up to five humans/humanoids.

It is discovered in the American west during the Palaeolithic when there is still volcanism in the Rockies (at least in the novel) and during an attempt to bring it forward to twentieth century time, instead it sends the crew on a journey across the galaxy and back.  In the several thousand years the “Baldie” civilization has collapsed and one of the bases the Terrans visit is a refueling station that, luckily still operates.

So in this case the model remains the full size starship. not the scout. The landing zone is a container for frozen meat pies.  The “tower”  really should be further away. Once again I used two toothbrush containers glued together,  then add details from scrap.

To match the cover, I photographed the base in available light late on the afternoon of April 1.   Also there are images of the model in full light to show more details.

The Baldie ship at the refueling base (Robin Rowland)
The “tower” at the alien base. (Robin Rowland)
A closer shot of the “Baldie” ship after landing at the base (Robin Rowland)
The base in full light. (Robin Rowland)
The tower in full light (Robin Rowland)

Turning router packing into a ruined alien temple

Original router packaging and the resulting model photoshopped into a jungle setting. (Robin Rowland)

Just before Christmas, I purchased a new router. Opened the box and the router was packaged in papier-mâché, a more environmentally friendly to all that plastic.  I took one look at it and it reminded me  of all those photos of  jungle ruins.

Finely carved corridors from the ruins of the Buddhist temple of Angkor Ta Prohm in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It dates to the 12th and 13th century and was built by king Jayavarman VII who is considered to be one of the greatest rulers of the ancient Khmer Empire. Allie Caulfield/ Wikimedia Commons

 

Ruins on a hill behind the better excavated ruins at Palenque. Alastair Rae / Wikimedia Commons

So I imagined that once on an alien world (of course it could just as well be Earth) that once there was an impressive building, the Emerald Temple, that was for some reason lost to history abandoned and thus the jungle took over. But this temple was so well built that most of it has survived the ages.

So I put my several ongoing kitbashing ship model projects aside to create the temple.  It took about five hours work over three days.

Close up view of the packaging. It certainly looks as if it’s a web of vines . (Robin Rowland)

I am calling this the Emerald Temple.  There was once cladding or covering or paint that when the temple was new and active would have been a bright emerald green.  That has now decayed so I began with a very light spray of emerald green spray paint plus a little camouflage olive green spray paint.

The Emerald Temple begins to take shape. (Robin Rowland)
A closer view of the emerald paint on one of the towers (Robin Rowland)
Top view of the unpainted packing (Robin Rowland)

I began with the top of the temple, adding a mix of commercial autumn leaves ground cover with dried tea from old tea bags to create the old leaves and other forest detritus that has built up over the years.

Ground cover and tea leaves create the detritus that has built over the years and decades. (Robin Rowland)
Front view with the old leaves and other forest detritus. (Robin Rowland)

I then added several layers of different coloured ground cover and foam bushes.

Ground cover added to all sections of the Emerald Temple (Robin Rowland)
A closer view of one of the towers. (Robin Rowland)

Additional plant life were twigs from my garden and a tomato stem, dipped in dilute white glue and then with some ground cover added.

An even closer view of the tower. (Robin Rowland)

And here is the final product

The Emerald Temple model. (Robin Rowland)
A slightly different angle. All the final product photos were shot in direct sunlight through a window. (Robin Rowland)
Close shot of the tower with modelling complete. (Robin Rowland)

Finally I photoshopped the completed model into an old screen grab of the jungle in Thailand from a documentary I shot back in 1997,  worked so that the temple appears to be part of the older, lower resolution video. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether or not the temple is part of a lost civilization on Earth or on an alien world.

Star Wars in camo II. A forward observation post on the front line

I began recreating science fiction models about two years ago for a couple of reasons. One I wanted a creative outlet that was somewhat separate from my career as a photographer, journalist and writer. That’s so I could relax and have fun. Second, as a kid in the 1960s inspired by Star Trek, the Original Series, I had built the kits and scratch built my own models and now that I’m retired I wanted to start again.

I began following various modellers and toy photographers on Instagram and came across the amazing work by Matthew Callaghan, a U.S. Marine photographer who also has a hobby of recreating scenes he is familiar with using the larger size Star Wars figures in photographs that simulated the reality of combat in Iraq.

Callaghan’s work immediately struck a chord, and not just because I am working on my own Star Wars model projects. From September 2003 until I retired in March 2010, I was the photo editor for CBC News, based in Toronto. That meant as soon as I got into work and for the rest of each day, I would see the photo feeds coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan from the Canadian Press, the Associated Press, Reuters, Getty/AFP and Canadian Forces Combat Camera.

I worked closely with CBC reporters, producers and technicians based in Kandahar, many of whom would be filing their photos back to me in Toronto. Finbarr O’Reilly who was embedded with both the Canadian and US Forces, including the Marines, was once one of my students at Ryerson University School of Journalism. He is co-author of Chasing Ghosts  along with former Marine Thomas Brennan.

At CBC, as editor, I worked on an Afghanistan project with photographer Louie Palu who was also embedded with both the Canadians and Americans in Afghanistan and is known for his portraits of Marines and is author of the new book Front Toward The Enemy.

I had just started working on my Star Wars camouflage project and was looking for an idea for doing some kind of similar combat simulation , inspired by Callaghan’s gritty and realistic photos of the Storm Troopers

I work with Star Wars Command figures which are much smaller than the larger figures most photographers work with. I noticed one of the rebel fighters from Hoth with a pair of galactic binoculars and that gave me the idea of recreating, in Star Wars terms, one story of my father in the Second World War, when he was a British artillery officer in Malaya, fighting the Japanese.

The battle was at Kampar . My father’s 88th Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery was defending the outer British perimeter.

As Wikipedia says:

Major General Archie Paris (temporary commander of the 11th Indian Division) had to defend a line from the coast through Telok Anson (now Telok Intan) up to the defensive positions at Kampar. The defensive perimeter at Kampar was an all round position, straddling Kampar Hill (Gunong Brijang Malaka) to the east of Kampar town, overlooking the Japanese advance and well concealed by thick jungle. Paris placed artillery spotters on the forward slopes protected by the 15th/6th Brigade on the western side of the position, and the 28th Gurkha Brigade covered the right flank on the eastern side.[2] The two brigades were supported by the 88th Field Artillery Regiment, which was equipped with 25 pounders, and the 4.5 inch howitzers of the 155th Field Artillery Regiment. Once the 12th Brigade had passed through Kampar Paris sent them to cover the coast and his line of retreat at Telok Anson.

My father, Lt. Frederic Rowland, was one of those artillery spotters. For his actions that day he was awarded the Military Cross.

What the citation doesn’t say was that my father was in a spotter dugout along with two “other ranks” connected to the artillery headquarters with a field telephone. At one point a mortar round landed right in the dugout. The two men with my father were killed instantly but in the random nature of the universe, my father had barely a scratch, although he would tell me that most of his uniform was blown off. He had to crawl out of the dug out to re-splice the severed telephone wire and then crawled back into the dug out to call in the artillery on the advancing Japanese tanks.

Later as a prisoner of war in Changi Jail, Singapore, he commissioned the war artist Leo Rawlings, who later became famous of his drawings and paintings of POWs  to recreate the action at Kampar. Here is a detail of that painting. The two spotter positions, black box, are suggested with just a couple of strokes of a water colour brush.

RELATED

Star Wars in camo I. If you were a Storm Trooper wouldn’t you want some camouflage?

The first step was to paint the Hoth rebel figures not in winter white but in the Second World War British uniform colour (somewhat) from Vallejo paints, with a couple of appropriate adjustments.

Here’s a close up of the spotter officer, the forward observation post commander, as he might appear in a WWII photo, using the Kodak Tri-X filter from Perfect Effects.

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A contemporary digital image of the  spotter officer and his two men with an R2 unit in the background.

Of course, I added  an R2 unit, which I call R2C1 (C for camouflage model) plus one other soldier, a reinforcement.

So I started, as with some other projects, with a clear blister pack provided an idea for a futuristic popup but portable armoured forward observation post, complete with all kinds of high tech communications gear.

Then I added a coat of grey auto primer on both sides.

Then some dark brown camouflage super flat spray paint.

Then I found the right position for the figures.

I created the com panel using the web and reduced the images using Photoshop, then reduced the entire image even further to fit on to a square on the inside of the original blister pack.

You can see that AT-STs are approaching just like Japanese tanks were attacking my father’s FOP.  Given the tech of the galaxy far, far away they are in communication with rebel headquarters and have multiple sensors, rather than binoculars and a field telephone connected by a wire. And yes the multi coloured buttons on the panel are from the Star Trek Original Series bridge <grin>.

 

The R2 access panel was created the same way.

 

 

Combat is never found in a clean environment. So I wanted to dirty up the scene. The fallen trees are from hothouse tomatoes, painted black as if they’d been scorched. I laid down a layer of standard ground cover, including some grass. Then it was all covered up with a mixture of about one third ashes from my barbecue, one third talcum powder, and one third a mixture of fine model railway ballast and fine rubble.

 

 

 

 

As well as the standard photographs, I wanted to duplicate a Second World War look with black and white and some old style photographs plus two water colours, one where I tried to duplicate the limited colours available to Leo Rawlings as well as the kind of quick watercolour painter that was common in that era.

To duplicate the Rawlings watercolour from the image, I first used the charcoal and chalk filter in Photoshop, then added a sepia photo filter. Next I duplicated that layer and used the Jixipix watercolour filter. It was a bit bright, so I used the lighten tool under the Photoshop saturation adjustment, then adjusted opacity to bring out more of the chalk and charcoal layer.

This follows the style of the “quick sketch’ watercolour used by some war artists from the Napoleonic era to the Second World War and probably even today. Created using the Jixipix water colour filter.

The front of the forward observation post as it might have been captured on old Kodak film, using a VSOC Lightroom plugin.

Another view that duplicates a faded colour photo from the era, no filters, desaturation in Photoshop.

And a couple of gritty black and white images.

The hunt for the Millennium Falcon – the diorama

Once again the Millennium Falcon is on the run. Once again in this non-canon, non-legend Star Wars Micromachines diorama, the Falcon is trying to hide out in a crater on an unnamed, uncharted minor planet at the edge of that galaxy far far away, perhaps in the mysterious “Unknown Regions.”

The Millennium Falcon hides at the edge of the galaxy. (Robin Rowland)
The Millennium Falcon hides in a small crater on a minor planet in the middle of galactic nowhere. (Robin Rowland)

Unfortunately for the Millennium Falcon crew and passengers, a bounty hunter comes up over the planetary horizon.

A Slave 1 class scout vessel comes over the horizon of the minor planet right over the Millennium Falcon. (Robin Rowland)

 

The Slave 1 class scout hides in another crater, while waiting for the Super Star Destroyer to arrive so the bounty hunter can collect a reward.. (Robin Rowland)
The Super Star Destroyer appears in orbit over that minor planet where the Millennium Falcon is in that crater. (Robin Rowland)

So what happens next? I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Creating the dioramas and photographs

All the models are Hasbro Star Wars Micromachines that were part of a Hasbro Star Wars Micromachines Epic Battles 48 piece set that fortunately was on sale at half price in my local supermarket.

Rebelscale.com lists the MicroMachines Millennium Falcon at 1/682 scale, the Slave 1 at 1/551 scale  and what Rebelscale calls the Imperial Star Destroyer (if it is the same as the Super Star Destroyer) at 1/23529 scale.

The problem with the Millenium Falcon MicoMachine is that the detailing is way out of scale, especially compared to some of the other models. Also the shiny “vinyl plastic” (according to Rebelscale) didn’t really work for the much loved but by now old and beat up Millennium Falcon.  The model was first painted with Krylon white primer,  then  lightly sprayed with Krylon Ivory Satin.  I added detailing using sharpie style art ink pens. I then sprayed with Krylon Matt finish.  Some of colours of those inks run when sprayed with the matt finish (especially reds).  After the matt finish had dried, details were touched up with the pens.

I left both the Slave 1 and the Super Star Destroyer as is.

The base is the Lunarscape vacu-form crater mold from  Amera Plastic Mouldings  from Low Prudhoe, Northumberland, in the UK.

The sheet of plastic was first covered with Krylon white primer.  Then I brush painted a thin grey wash with ordinary (not modeling) arcylic artists’ paint.   I then sprayed the surface with Krylon Fusion for Plastic white paint and Krylon Make it Stone textured grey paint, two handed, at the same time.   Finally I finished off with a quick pass of the Krylon Ivory Satin to give the surface some variety.  Serendipitously by that time the Ivory Satin can was almost empty and the spluttering spray left lumps of paint which became the surface rocks.

The spray painted Amera Lunarscape with the Micromachines Millennium Falcon (Robin Rowland)

My work table is grey and some what dirty as you can see.  I pinned a black cloth on the wall in preparation for photography. The light for this image was daylight through a window to the left.

Setting up the shot of the Millennium Falcon and the Super Star Destroyer (Robin Rowland)

To take the photograph of the Millenium Falcon and the Super Star Destroyer the Star Destroyer model was on a platform (actually a pile of books) also covered in black cloth.  The main lighting for the shoot was an LED video light high on an extended light stand at the door to my workroom. For this shot the overhead light was also on.

All closeup images were taken with a Sony Alpha 77 and a Sony 100mm prime macro lens.

I wanted imaginative backgrounds, like the covers of 50s-70s science fiction paperbacks, so I choose public domain shots from NASA.

The barred spiral galaxy NGC 6217 (NASA Hubble)

The barred spiral galaxy NGC 6217 was photographed on June 13 and July 8, 2009, as part of the initial testing and calibration of Hubble’s ACS. The galaxy lies 60 million light-years away in the north circumpolar constellation Ursa Major.

The NGC 4536 galaxy, captured here in beautiful detail by the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). Located roughly 50 million light-years away in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin), it is a hub of extreme star formation. Released April 14, 2017  ESA/Hubble & NASA

HH 901 and HH 902 in the Carina Nebula Star-forming Pillars and Herbig-Haro Objects with Jets  Taken in 2010 by the Hubble the region is two light years across and 7,500 light-years away from Earth. ESA/NASA

Photoshop

For both the Slave 1 and the Super Star Destroyer,  the NASA image was added in a new layer, then the eraser tool was used to reveal the spacecraft which were lighted the same way as the Millennium Falcon on the surface.

The “line” between the Lunarscape craters and the work table was blended using a combination the blur tool, the clone tool and the healing brush tool.

 

“Do or do not. There is no try” – the diorama

Yoda and Luke Skywalker on Dagobah after Yoda lifts the X-Wing from the swamp, (Robin Rowland)

For my second diorama (the first was the Emperor Palpatine and his guards) I tackled two scenes, from different perspectives from The Empire Strikes Back.

Photographed from one side, young Luke has arrived at the swamp world of Dagobah and has met Yoda.

Welcome to Dogabah, young Luke. (Robin Rowland)

Shot from the reverse angle and using forced perspective, the frustrated Luke Skywalker has just watched Yoda use The Force to raise his sunken X-wing fighter from the waters of the Dagobah swamp.

Both Luke and Yoda are Star Wars Command figures, painted in the appropriate colours. The Luke figure, unfortunately, is one of the poorest in the Star Wars Command line, compared to other personalities and even ordinary stormtroopers.

The snake (the creature that ate and threw up R2 D2) is from a $2 packet I bought at a dollar store. The flying creature was a lucky addition to the background shot I chose.

Here is the concept art of the scene from the official Star Wars site

How I did created the diorama

I started with the X-Wing which I painted in the standard colour scheme. The tiny R2 unit on the model was removed since on Dagobah, R2-D2 was with Luke. Military modellers often dip figures in Miniwax wood stain to bring out details. Usually I use a light stain, Minimax Fruitwood. This time I used the darker Walnut stain and rather than cleaning most of the stain, I let it drip into the a small aluminum pan.

Yoda also was dipped but he was wiped clean.

For the X-Wing I then added deadfall Witch’s Hair lichen (Alectoria sarmentosa) which is common in northern British Columbia where I live.

I then built the diorama using standard materials, with one exception. The styrofoam base was small so instead of commercial model water, I used several layers of standard food cling wrap (which actually comes with a slight blue tint in a private brand version) to make the snake/monster emerge from the water. I painted the layers of cling wrap with a light brown wash.

Here’s how the diorama  looks.

To photograph from different angles I then chose photos that would work as backgrounds.

Did I visit Dagobah? I wish.

The background images were photographed during a canoe trip in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refugee in south Georgia, ten years ago in April 2006.  The photographs were printed on Epson matt paper so there would be no extraneous reflections

Background image for Welcome to Dagobah
Background image for Do or do not, There is no try.

Finally here is the X wing on the diorama  showing the aft end of the star fighter.

Close up images shot with a Sony A77 and Sony 100 mm macro lens.  Others shot with a Sony 6000.