If, by now, you haven’t seen the works of Michael Paul Smith, you haven’t been paying attention. The prolific model maker who makes his diecast car dioramas look stunningly real has been profiled in the New York Times, on ABC News, and featured several times here. He’s even released a book compiling some of his many scenes from Elgin Park, the fictional town with all sorts of weird stuff going on.
For his second book, which he wrote with Gail K. Ellison, Smith takes us behind the scenes, showing us just how he creates such lifelike scenes. At the same time, he introduces us to his legions of fans, some of whom have over time become remixers, contributors, and inspiration for Smith’s work. With the publisher’s permission, we’ve included an excerpt from the book’s introduction.
His first book, Elgin Park: An Ideal American Town, brought more visitors. Many of them asked questions; they found it hard to believe that these weren’t period photographs found in an attic. Michael reconfirmed that his work isn’t done in Photoshop: “I place the models on a base, then align them with the background at the correct distance so everything is in the proper scale. It’s the oldest trick in the special effects book from the 1920s.”
After a photoshoot, rather than doctoring his images, he looks for the photograph that best conveys a sense of place, time, and emotion. “When I do a photoshoot,” he says, “It takes a couple of days for me to go through and find shots that have that certain something. I might add a filter or frame, but nothing is brought into the photo – no sunsets or other elements. The last thing I want is for someone to call me a fake.”
To this day, Michael’s followers continue to be amazed at his skills, struggling to figure out how he fools them time and again. He might not have originated the twchnique he employs, but as his modeling skills and photographic eye become ever more refined – and interact with his knowledge of midcentury America and his capacity to invent believable stories about the residents of Elgin Park – people all over the world find themselves immersed in an imaginary reality that seems not only kinder and gentler, but in many ways vastly preferable to the life surrounding them in the 21st century.
Elgin Park: Visual Memories of Midcentury America at 1/24th Scale offers a longitudinal perspective on Michael’s work, while illuminating his creative process and techniques, including mistakes and decision making. In looking behind the scenes, the book celebrates an unanticipated phenomenon: the birthing and sustaining of a community where millions gather to appreciate Michael’s talent while sharing their own stories – a benefit of the Internet in the 21st century.
All the while, Michael, child of the ’50s, still doesn’t own a cell phone, television set, or real-life car; nor does he heat his house to more than 57 degrees in midwinter.
Most of the modeling is done in Michael’s retro kitchen, which looks very much like it was transported from the ’40s and ’50s. As he says in his photostream, “No power tools, just old-school saws, drills, X-acto blades, and sanding blocks.” At nine by ten feet, the room is very cozy.
Elgin Park: Visual Memories of Midcentury America at 1/24th Scale, is now available. For more information, visit AnimalMediaGroup.com.