Member Profile: Paul Pallansch and Up-Close Realism



APMM Member Paul Pallansch is a Model Maker in the physical and digital fields, a Dioramist, and even a Handyman! (This becomes relevant toward the end of the article) He shared a few thoughts on how he got into the field and how he approaches the work.

The epiphany happened when visiting the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, at that time housed in the Arts and Industries Building, and a Quonset hut (really!). The Quonset hut had a series of dioramas showing aircraft in various wars. When I found out that these cool models were done for money, I was hooked! From then on, I did projects and took classes that would help me get closer to being a full-time dioramist. I got a job as a miniature properties sculptor for a local animation studio my last year in high hchool. I worked as a draftsman, then as an architectural model maker. I also built full-sized properties for a local regional theater. To me, properties were just big models.

"Oyster Bar" Educational Diorama

Most of my model building skills are self-taught, but I did pick up things here and there from various folks more accomplished than me. Helpful here were drafting of patterns that would fold into three-dimensional objects, learning how to cut paper accurately and square, learning how to cast, and learning various graphic programs to make artwork either as an end in itself, or for useful processes like laser cutting of plastic and photoetching of brass. Hand skills all have to be self-taught. You just have to build them through practice.

I'll emphasize here that this was anything but a steady trajectory toward a successful career as a dioramist. There were plenty of lay-offs, setbacks and blind alleys along the way. The nice thing is, almost all of them were some help, at least indirectly, to making a most interesting career, and being able to do a variety of things. Doing models that depict something specific and real, even if they aren’t dioramas, gives you a pretty good understanding of the subject you are showing. You end up learning quite a bit with each project.

Eight-foot-plus narwhal tusk casting that was displayed in a chart (detail on right) at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. 

If someone commissions a diorama, what do you ask them for to help you get what you need, and how do you find out the rest of the necessary info?

At the beginning of a project, there usually isn’t enough information to go on to even provide an accurate bid. Fortunately, I can usually look up the subject and get enough of a sense of it to ask pertinent questions, such as, “Do you want to show it this way or that way?” or “Is this detail crucial to your narrative?” There are some things that are exceptionally hard to build, so including them should require a really good reason, since they drive up the cost so much.

I can usually get a fairly accurate sense of what is wanted after getting those questions answered. However, I can rarely rely on the client to provide the sort of detailed information I need to actually build the model. For that, I do my own research, verifying as much as possible with the client. It’s a good idea to budget research time into the job, including the cost of source material, such as books.

One problem I’ve run into is disagreeing with the client on what is accurate. Naturally, I would defer to them, since they are the expert. However, if I see compelling evidence in source material that the client is asserting something that I think is incorrect, and insisting it be shown that way on the model, I will tell them I disagree, and why. I won’t necessarily prevail, but at least I’ll go on record as supporting my disagreement with evidence.

One thing the model maker can do is advise the client on improvements to the model that either make the concept clearer or avoid an unnecessary cost. Often, when they have put the model out for bid, it’s already too late in the process for that, and you have to either bid the model as specified, or turn down the work. I tried offering model making concept consultation for free, even if the client decided not to award me the resulting work. It is that important to me the client get good advice for the very concept of the model. To date, nobody has taken me up on my offer, which is sad.

There are so many really neat diorama concepts that are just itching to be built, but many project managers just don’t think of them, so something boring gets built instead. There’s a reason most people think dioramas are boring – many of them ARE! It costs just as much to build a boring diorama as it does to build a compelling one, so I truly hope more project managers get better concepts for dioramas. There is nothing wrong with the medium, only the message.

What skills make your work possible?

I do recommend a widely-varied skill set, as it not only makes us more employable, it also makes us more interesting people. It also makes us open to more options, as a multi-faceted approach to projects can really make for some interesting work, even if it isn’t a model! I just finished a project that was entirely digital. I made an exhibit that was basically a website, even though it is a stand-alone touch screen computer interactive. The ideas that went into that really aren’t much different from the ideas that would go into a diorama. I still had to do similar research and had to think of compelling ways to present the material. If I hadn’t done this work, I would never have thought to offer services as a web designer for online exhibits, something there will clearly be a need for now.

Even my pick-up work as a handyman has helped here. One of my clients is a whiz at JavaScript, and he provided crucial code for one part of this exhibit. I am hoping he and I can form a partnership on other projects, because I can come up with the concepts, and he can make them actually work. That would never have happened if I hadn’t overheard him talking to a client about his work while I was working on repairing his front door!

I agree that doing what you feel meant to do and what you love is the main thing, and hope people come away from this article with a sense that mine is only one path, and one I found rewarding. I hope anyone reading this has also come to realize there isn’t too much we can do about luck, that we can only work toward what we are compelled to do, and find contentment and meaning along the way. I also hope people remember how important humor is to get us past the rough spots.

Up-Close Realism website:



Bonus Material from Paul Pallansch!


Association of Professional Model Makers  |  Winter 2021 Newsletter