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Custom Projects – Backdrops and Dioramas

VeeBee had asked me to write something up about the diorama and backdrops I have been using for my MOTUC reviews for a while ago, but a combination of laziness, lack of time and reticence to toot my own horn has kept me from doing it for almost a year now.    I do get some questions about what I do and how I do it and I’ve gotten over my reticence to self promote, but laziness still delayed this by quite a bit.  If you are interested in how the dioramas/backdrops I use are made, click through for a very wordy rundown of my process for building this stuff.

First off, I like playing with my toys.  I enjoy setting them up in combat poses on my shelf or desk or what have you.  I also love looking at peoples’ cool pics of their set-ups.  That has translated into an interest is photographing the set ups I have made and sharing them online here at fwoosh in our various action photo threads.  That branched into doing mini-reviews for the ezine.  After doing a few write ups, I did get a little bored with shooting against blank screens and was never really satisfied with the quality of my vanilla shots, so I decided to try and make some backdrops so the figures would be in a setting that was almost as cool as the figures themselves.


I started out small with the backdrop for my Evil Lynn review.


It’s just sand ( I had just bought my kids a sandbox and borrowed some of the sand for the day ) piled up on the piece of plywood I set up my figures on for photographing and a piece of posterboard for the backdrop.  I thought it made for a more interesting backdrop to the pictures.  It also aided in posing as you could just sink the figures into the sand a little to get sure footing.  I liked the final pics and started thinking about making some other backdrops or bases for figures to stand on for future reviews.



I wanted a ‘space’ themed backdrop for Optikk.  This was done the day before I shot these pics – super quick.  I had seen some warhammer tutorials about using plastic knitting forms (known as granny grate in tabletop game forums) as futuristic looking flooring, so I bought some at Michael’s craft store and spray painted it flat black.  I also threw some tubing from home depot and some barrels from ‘toxic waste’ candy I had painted black earlier in there for flavor.  The backdrop was a piece of poster board I hastily painted silver.  The paint warped the board concave which was not planned, but looked a little neat.  It’s not really successful, but the results and feedback I received encouraged me to keep moving forward building this stuff.


Rocks and Sand

I liked the sand set up, but didn’t feature lugging buckets of sand from my backyard to the garage all the time and decided to glue a bunch of the sand to a posterboard that I could store in the garage for easy access.  My experience with the curling posterboard had let me know that I needed to clamp down the posterboard before wetting it with glue.  I laid down a thick paste of glue and then covered the posterboard with the playground sand.  After it dried, I knocked off the excess sand then soaked the posterboard in a watered down glue to secure what was left on there.  I then added some rocks from my yard and some pebbles from woodland scenics(a model train supply company) for a little visual interest.

I think the best part of this whole set up was learning the lit up background trick.  I had been reading a lot of DIY photography websites and one of the suggestions was to aim your lights at the backdrop.  I shoot my stuff on a makeshift table so I was able to aim the light at the backdrop from below which had a pretty cool effect of making a gradient to the backdrop and reflecting some of the backdrop color on the figure.


Etherian Clouds

I had planned to make a ‘whispering woods’ backdrop for She-Ra, but couldn’t quite pull that off.  The only part of my planned woods I finished was the seafoam green cloudy sky painting.  It’s just as well, since VB made an awesome whispering woods that blows away what I had planned by a mile.

I wanted to get a filmation feel for the pics and one of the stand out features of filmation backdrop paintings for me was the crazy colored skies.  Since I didn’t finish the floor, I bought a flagstone style paving stone at Home depot to place in front of the sky.  My idea was that She-Ra was standing on a cliff somewhere in Etheria.  Since I’m not very good at painting I keep the aperture stopped down which creates a shallow depth of field, blurring the cloud backdrop and leaving the figures in focus.  I feel like the cloud backdrop actually looks more like clouds if not in focus.

Count Marzo

Ruined Tower

I got a little more ambitious for Marzo.  When looking at the figure of Marzo, I thought he would look cool in a ruined temple or ancient alter about to perform some dark magic ritual.  I was looking through some google image searches for ideas and came across a ruined tower model for war games miniatures at  I loved the look and decided to try and emulate it in the MOTUC scale. also went over paint and weathering techniques that were also very useful.

To make the tower I:

  • Cut 1 inch thick blue insulation foam into two large circles to make the base.
  • Cut two large donut shaped circles from the foam, one for the top layer of blocks and the other was broken up and stacked as the ruined walls of the tower.
  • Cut the block shapes into the foam with a hot wire cutter (do this in a well ventilated place with a mask on!) and sanded them down with nail files to get a stone block look.
  • Cut one interior donut  ring from 1 inch poster board and 1 donut ring cut from 1/4 inch foamboard, and one circular piece of 1/4 inch foamboard with a brick pattern carved in to create the steps at the center of the tower.
  • Covered that foam board with some joint compound for stability and to give it more of a stone look.
  • Painted it all black with various gray dry brushing and washes and finished off with  some woodland scenics ‘scenic grass and ground cover to try and give it an overgrown look.

One of the features I love in the old MOTU box art illustrations are the dark gloomy clouds, so I painted up a yellow hazy sky on a piece of blue foam to go behind the figures.


Whiplash Cardback

I love Whiplash’s card back and though that I could recreate the scenery there with more blue insulation foam.  I also figured I could use that backdrop for multiple scenes.  The floor is blue foam cut in an irregular shape and covered with a paste of joint compound, glue, sand and some rocks.  The cliff wall is  four sheets of blue foam glued together (so figures could stand at the top of the ‘cliff’) and carved to try and resemble rock.  I tried carving lines at first and that made it look more like bark to me.  I then tried another technique of hacking away at the foam with a hobby saw and breaking off irregular chunks to simulate rocks.  I think that worked a little better and I’ve used it again for other sets.


Vine Jungle

For Chief Carnivous I contemplated making the gate to the Quadian village as seen in the Millenium MOTU cartoon, but changed my mind and decided to try for a Jungle scene as I could re-use that more often.  I looked at the vine jungle in the millenium cartoon and it looked to be basically made up of three components, background tree trunks, midground foliage and foreground large tree trunks.  I made the tree trunks by:

  • Shaping wire hangers into the general shape I wanted each trunk to be.
  • Covering each hanger shape with newspaper for thickness.
  • Covering that shape with ‘rigid wrap’ – these bandages that have a paper mache effect when soaked in water.
  • Coating that with joint compoud to get a more ‘bark’ texture.
  • Spray painting light grayish brown
  • Applying washes of dark brown and black

The midground foliage is all plastic leaves on wire stems found in the flower section of Michael’s craft store repositioned and glued to bases of cardboard with gorilla glue.  The base is foamboard with a paste of sand, rocks, glue and joint compound mixed together.  I painted it medium brown and used various colored washes to try and give it a varied slightly muddy feel.  The backdrop is a light green cardstock with a shop light directed at the board from below.   All the trees and foliage are modular for ease of storage and to allow for a variety of set ups.  You can see a slideshow of how the pieces all come together on my flickr account here.


Castle Interior

I built this thinking I could use it as an area in castle grayskull or perhaps a pre-filmation style royal palace.  I looked at some filmation  reference for  Grayskull and liked the design in the Sorceress’ chambers of large stone blocks framed by decorative arches and used this look for the back wall.  I thought that shooting figures framed by archways would make some interesting compositions, so I decided to create a hall with a couple of arch ways.  This was all cut from insulation foam as with the ruined tower.  I laid out a plan and estimated measurements before I started.

This was going to be pretty large so I planned for it to come apart with a stone floor, a  back wall and a side wall with a door.  I also thought I could vary up the look by creating several different doors which can be placed within the arches on the two walls, but I haven’t got around to making those just yet.  Once I cut out and assembled all the foam pieces I painted them black with a gray dry brush and a slight green wash.  The torches come from the backdrops from a SOTA Charmed action figure.


Fright Zone Interior

This one was based on some background paintings from the original ‘secret of the sword’ She-Ra movie.  Basically I watched the episode and made sketches of some of the backdrops and then drew up some rough plans which were transfered to blue foam, cut out and detailed with a hot knife.  I put some PVC pipes together in various configurations and painted them black for backdrop as well.  Over the months of storage in my garage the pipes have picked up a little dust and I think they look a bit better now.  They were too pristine originally.  I’m thinking I should go back again soon and weather the pipes a bit more.

Trap Jaw

Trap Jaw Cardback

For the 2010 retrospective I did with VeeBee and Ibentmymanthing I really wanted to recreate trap jaw’s cardback scene so I needed a tree and a rock wall.  The tree was built similarly to the Carnivous tree trunks except I didn’t use rigid wrap to cover it, rather tissue paper dunked in a glue/water mixture.  The rock wall was made in a similar fashion to the Whiplash backdrop.


Cliff Face

For Buzz-Off I wanted some cliffs he could be shown flying against.  I had the ‘bright’ idea to make the cliffs collapsable and modular so I could rearrange them into different configurations and make different canyons, caves and pathways by rearranging the pieces.  I cut the blue foam into a bunch of different 24 inch tall pieces and used my hobby saw hacking  method for adding a rock texture.  Each piece was painted a pretty bright orange brown (I recruited my daughter to help me with this, she loved it and is a much faster painter than I) and then given a messy dark brown wash.  These pieces could be taped together and stood up in a pile of playground sand.  here’s a pic from behind so you can get an idea of what it looks like.

I wish I had cut the pieces a little more uniformly so they matched up against each other better.  As is, they are pretty rickety and hard to reconfigure.


Vikor's Pass

Vikor called to mind Conan, particularly Cary Nord’s version of Conan from the adaptation of the Frost Giant’s daughter, so I immediately thought of  a snow covered mountain pass as a backdrop for him.  After all the things I made from blue foam, I had accumulated a lot of scrap foam, so I built two mountain type walls by piling up and glueing the scrap together with gorilla glue.

I tried to shape the walls so the path would be S shaped ( I had just read something about pleasing compositions and the S shaped river or road was mentioned).    I covered the scrap structures with tissue soaked in white glue/water mixture to try and give it the appearance of a large rock formation.  I didn’t love the finished look, so I added some texture with a sand/glue/joint compound mixture.  I painted that up in gray, washed with black and then added woodland scenics ‘snow flock’.  I think the snow flock saved the whole project for me as I was not loving the look of the ‘rock wall’ until the flock was added.  The snow on the path is rock salt with some table salt over it.


Skull Path

Skull path was a location in the She-Ra cartoon.  I had recently seen a blog entry on bustatoon’s blog that showed the background painting they used for one of the skull path episodes and thought the grossness would make a nice contrast to Bow’s cheerful color scheme.  I wasn’t sure what the structures were exactly, but they looked like they were created from bones and rotting flesh to me, so that’s what I tried to model.  The floor is the base I made for the jungle scene (aww yeah, reuse!)  The skull structures are all modular and made from floral wire covered with expanding spray foam and decorated with casts of skulls.

I bent the wire to the shape I liked then coated it in a layer of the spray foam.  With the help of local fwoosh friend AFR, I molded and cast a bunch of different ghostrider skulls and Scareglow’s skull to add to the structures.  I cast a ton of those things and I still think I could have used more, but I was seriously burned out on casting after this project.  I painted some random greens, browns, yellows and clear gloss to give the structures a gross, decaying look.

King Hssss

I wanted a cave in order to recreate some of the Hsss scenes in the Rise of the Snakemen minicomic.  The floor is another large piece of blue foam covered in the sand/glue mixture I use a lot now and the cavern walls were made in a similar way to the walls from the Vikor set, just covered with rigid wrap rather than tissue.  The crater is made by:

  • Cutting a circular hole in the base piece of foam.
  • Taping down a strip of cardboard to the perimiter of the circle.
  • Taping some newspaper to the cardboard for shape.
  • Covering the stuff with the glue/sand mixture.

The fun thing about this one is I was able to place a led tap light in the hole and also place some dry ice in there for steam effects.  Playing with dry ice is a lot of fun.



Battle Armor Skeletor


This is one I have wanted to make for a while but wasn’t quite sure how to do it.  A heck of a lot of scenes took place in this ‘back yard’ area in the old filmation toon, so I thought it would be really useful and reuseable for my purposes.  The Floor is blue foam again with the brick pattern cut in with heated knife and sanded with a sanding sponge for shape.

The wall is 2 pieces of 1/2 inch posterboard cut 9 inches high.  I cut a line every one inch along the back without puncturing the front of the poster board so I could bend it into a pleasing curve.  I then cut out some large curved pieces of foam board for the base and top decoration of the wall and glued those to the curved wall pieces of posterboard.  The main wall pieces join at the center spire.

The spire is made of foam and posterboard and some styrene strips for detail.  All of the wall was covered with another glue/sand paste to give it a bit of a stucco look.  The vine on the wall is spray foam sprayed in the shape of the vines seen in the show.  I laid out some tin foil on the wall prior to spraying the foam so it would be removeable.   I painted the foam green and sprinkled some green ‘flock’ from woodland scenics on there.  The background tree is a fake bonzai I bought on clearance at Joanne’s craft store a few years back.  It was sitting in my garage for years, but I’m glad I never tossed it now.  I knew I could use it eventually!  The sky backdrop is a large piece of blue fabric hung from a dowl.  It stores easily, but is a real pain in the rear to use because it wrinkles like crazy.  So I either have to iron it before use, which I’m too lazy to do, or fix it with my meager photoshop skills.  I need to come up with an alternative large size blue sky backdrop.


Skeletor's Throne Room

I had wanted a filmation style ‘bone throne’ for a while and thought it would be cool to have some Panthor pics curled up next to Skelly’s throne.  I kind of liked the filmation Skeletor Throne room, but I also liked the raised pedestal and cave of the millenium snake mountain throne, so I kind of combined those two for my version of Skeletor’s throne room.  I also wanted panthor to be able to sit up high with skelly, so that neccesitated a larger pedestal.

The Throne started out as a block of wood cut to a good sitting height for Skeletor with a few screws in back so I could anchor some floral wire to it.  The floral wire was bent to shape onto the throne and covered with apoxie sculpt to resemble bones.

The pedestal is made from blue foam 1 inch thick and the steps are from 1/2 inch pink foam.  I used the backdrop from the Hsss cave, but added a little height to it so I could have more flexibility with framing shots.  The floor is a large piece of pink foam with a large semi circular hole cut out.  I wanted a lava bed I could light from below and had tried to fill the cut out with some clear medium to represent lava, but it never really worked out.  What I ended up doing is covering a piece of plexi-glass with clear red wrapping paper and placing that beneathe the foam base on some risers.  I was able to put some lights under the risers to give the ‘lava’ a glow and add some atmospheric light to the set.  I used some dry ice in the hole while taking pics to obscure the plexi glass a little.  It turned out okay, but I’m not really pleased with this set.  It’s tough to shoot in because the base is so deep and my lens isn’t long enough to get the shots I really wanted from my tripod.


Fright Zone Exterior

I was thinking about what to build for Catra and considered revisiting the Fright Zone, perhaps a Hordak Throne room, but my experience building and shooting Skeletor’s throne kind of soured me on that process, so I started looking for another idea.  I put on some She-Ra for inspiration and saw this cool downward panning shot from the episode ‘The Reluctant Wizard’.  The shot starts out high on Hordak’s palace and pans down to the destroyed landscape just outside of the Fright Zone.  I loved all the machinery and the idea of a toxic waste dump as a backdrop, so I sketched the arial view of the terrain I saw in the episode, and extrapolated what that would look like at ground level, and then planned out what I was going to build.

The floor is, of course, two pieces of blue foam glued together with the ‘riverbed’ shape cut out of the top piece.  That assembly is covered with the now familiar glue/sand/ water paste and applied to the base to resemble sandy rocky terrain.  I painted that up in a few different browns and did some random dark brown washes all over.  After the paint dried, I used elmer’s glue to glue down some woodland scenics rocks and dead grass  randomly across the board.  After all that dried I weathered the ‘sand’ by brushing on some pastel powder and sealing it with a matte sealer.

The sludge plant and towers were bits of scrap plastic, fodder box material and PVC pipe glued together with PVC glue.  I painted the structures flat black and drybrushed some gray to highlight some of the detail.  The structures were glued to their own foam bases carved to resemble rock and were weathered by first getting a smattering of the glue/sand/water paste around the base of the foam and the structure and then with light brown paint and some pastel dust.

The toxic waste is some clear liquid plastic dyed black and poured into the ‘riverbed’ shaped hole.  I placed an old tiny skeleton toy in the riverbed (a dead Twigget, perhaps?) and the pipes from the main sludge plant prior to pouring.  I didn’t glue the pipes for the sludge plant together so only the bottom parts are fixed in the sludge so the set can be broken apart for ease of storage.

So, that’s a big portion what I’ve built so far and a rundown of how I did it.  Most of the techniques I used I’ve cribbed from model wargame terrain builders from sites like and model train builders forums and adapted for use with the larger scale backdrops.  The materials I’ve used have all been bought from craft stores like Michael’s and Joanne’s, model train stores and hardware stores like home depot.  If you have any questions about any of this stuff feel free to comment below or shoot me a PM on the fwoosh forums.  Thanks for looking!