Affiliate disclosure: I sometimes use vendor & product links that can pay me a small monetary commission if you click them and/or make a purchase. Learn more about this. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Monday, April 8, 2019

In my LEGO City, the sky is rising

When I first set foot in the second living/family room of this house, I immediately knew this is where I would put the LEGO city, if I got so lucky as to win the bidding war in the cut-throat near-coastal California real estate market.  I thought about how I'd arrange the tables and started to consider options for smoothing out the very uneven background image so viewers could focus on the LEGO, not the fireplace, the wet bar, goings-on in the next room over, etc.  Four years after winning the bidding war, I've taken the next major step in implementing my vision.

If my Amazon wishlists are to be trusted, I first prepared to purchase some materials to test in early 2017.  I didn't pull the trigger back then, though, instead embarking on a roller coaster journey of research & reconsideration.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

One thing I needed to decide upon was exactly what I wanted viewers to see beyond the edges of my tables.  Here are some of the possibilities I pondered, with thoughts on each:
  • Pure white void
    • No.  Just no.  No more white void in my life.  Please.
  • Pure black void
    • Interesting.  Contrasty.  Striking.  Essentially impossible to do properly in this small space due to light bleeding and/or reflecting around.
  • Gray?
    • The compromise of compromises.  Dull and boring.
  • Solid sky blue
    • Lively, appropriate.  What about the horizon, though?
  • Sky with couds
    • Better from most angles, likely awkward from many others with no horizon.  Essentially the table edges would look like the ends of the world with sky extending below surface level.
  • Realistic sky & horizon
    • Great in theory. What color/design would I choose for the ground?  Should it be a city? Mountain range?  How would I rectify the contrast between the blocky, limited palette of the LEGO world and a realistic backdrop?
  • Realistic sky & LEGOified horizon
    • This would be similar to the last option, but with lower resolution.  It would take a tremendous amount of work to design, and I'd still have major problems anytime I held the camera up high or too far past table edges.  
  • Realistic sky & LEGOified horizon with tables against the walls
    • This involves a total redesign of the entire city and my approach thereto to take an approach common in model railroading and many other diorama-centric hobbies & art forms.  Real objects are placed right up to and against the background, which is then fully customized & integrated to extend the fantasy beyond the limitations of physical space.  Fascias can be used right against the walls for better integration -- think single brick thick buildings.  I actually considered this at length when I was preparing to expand my layout in 2017.  The entire idea was ruled out at that time for too many reasons to detail here.
  • Abstraction
    • When one train of thought keeps hitting roadblocks, I like to try turning either 90 or 180 degrees.  Rather than going for some level of simulated reality, I could use geometric or organic shapes with multiple colors or shades to camouflage the reality in the background and allow the eyes to ignore it.  I liked this idea quite a bit and gave it some serious consideration.

While all this was going on, I also needed to think about implementation, not just what I wanted the end result to look like, but exactly how I'd make it happen.  There again, I had a lot to think about:

  • Painting
    • This is great in theory and model railroads & natural museums have countless fantastic examples of how to do this perfectly.  Unfortunately a great deal of my city room is unpaintable.  I have a huge ground-level window & sliding glass door on one side.  There's the fireplace which I'm not spending thousand$ to remove, devaluing my entire house in the process.  There's another window at the far end.  There's an inset with cabinets, granite countertops, and a sink.  Finally, there's a 90-degree stairway landing with banisters and a load-bearing beam.  This is all bad for painting.  All.  Bad.  The best solution would involve drywalling over nearly everything, which is again, all bad.
  • Adhesive panels/appliques
    • It's possible to get what amount to wraps for walls, applied like the artwork on billboards in big rectangular sections with a light adhesive.  You can get actual photographs in place this way for truly ultimate realism.  Unfortunately this needs flat, gluable surfaces, leaving me at the same dead end as painting.
  • Rigid panels
    • In lieu of the rather nuclear drywall option, I could affect a lighter weight solution with large canvas panels (or the like) that would be much easier to uninstall if needed in the future.  It would just be prohibitively expensive.
  • Suspended flexible panels
    • I could find ways to drape either printed heavy vinyl or cloth-based material from high on the walls, if not directly from the ceiling.  I researched many products & techniques in this grouping and bought a handful of candidate samples to evaluate in person.

Decision Made!

I eventually settled on flexible overhead tracks with cloth drapes running as close as possible to the walls & windows so as not to reduce the size of the room appreciably.  Just shy of 100 feet (over 30 meters) of the stuff was run with two doubled-up zones to allow panels to be slid away flat when I'm not filming or want to access the collectible minifig display.  I looked at dozens, if not hundreds of fabric options including solids, gradients, and prints, and eventually purchased some samples to evaluate in person before making a final choice and buying (and ironing) 20 panels plus spares.

Next Steps

Getting all of this hardware installed was a long time coming and a big move forward, but there's still more to be done.  I need to come up with a good solution for tidying up the ends of the individual panels so they can close up neatly, but be detached on demand.  The solution likely won't be as simple as "just add magnets." I also need to extend my overhead track lighting towards the 2017 expansion so I can remove the torchiere in the photo above and normalize the brightness of the backdrop around the room.  After that, I can begin to experiment with ways to distinctly light the background itself, independent of the city, to make it look much better and more believable.  Lastly, I'll get really creative & playful with lights & props to take things to a higher level and really add to the viewing experience instead of just eliminating distractions.

The work that goes into large projects is all but never appreciated by people who contribute nothing to the effort, but that doesn't make the effort itself any less valuable and necessary.  I, for one, feel this entire display room has finally been transformed into the standalone mini-world it was always intended to be, but that I never truly saw.  I can now look at the streets & scenes and feel the sense of childlike awe that I've previously only gotten from looking at model railroad layouts.  It's all coming together now, all making sense.  After all these years the vision is at last becoming a very tangible reality, and I absolutely love it.


  1. I guess it will be nice at eye/camera level, but color, at least in this photo, reminds more of an hospital rather than sky :)
    Rings at top show up like a shower curtain, maybe you could do something about that too :)
    Keep up your wonderful work!

  2. That is very exciting news! I'm happy for you because making decisions and doing all the work to implement this idea is challenging. I never really thought about it, but I guess I was always gawking at the minifigs, and one time the Saturn V, in the background during updates. This will definitely help with creating that "childlike awe", which is the goal many of us have with our layouts whether or not we realize it:) I like it, and my sister is going to absolutely love this as just last week she said she wished that somehow you could hide the visual distractions, such as the minifigs, in the background! Thanks for sharing all your thoughts on the process.

  3. Seems nice, not entirely convinced the time spent on that was the most productive, but aside from slightly alienating the hobby from the real life that was shown through stuff in the background, it all looks quite good.

    Looking forward to another building season!

  4. Your last sentences summarize it all: that’s the right spirit! :)

  5. Just a thought Jang, but have you thought of hanging up 1 or 2 beamers and make them green? Like the do on tv or in the movies. The options would be endles! :-)

  6. How did you decide on the panel width? In other words, why not larger curtain/drapes width.

  7. I just loved your enthusiasm and excitement in the videos describing the process the work you've done. Really enjoy following all the background detailing.

  8. Did I hear on one of your videos that there's a "Mellanby District"??? If so, I'm immensely curious as to the choice of name, as I am a Mellanby :)

  9. I love your projects. I'm building my city too. And bought a lot cheap cities sets from