I spy with my little eye...something I know is not real
January 2, 2021 2:43 PM   Subscribe

How do we (almost) always know that a photo of even the most well-scaled, intricately detailed and well-proportioned miniature room is not a ‘real’ room? For example, rooms in a dollhouse or other miniature rooms? What is it about these rooms that is somehow a little bit off? (Or have you come across examples that are impossible to distinguish from the real thing?)
posted by The Patron Saint of Spices to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
To me, the scale is always just a little wrong. Like, sometimes the chairs seem too big when seen next to the sofa, or the frames for the paintings look wrong. Or the pillows are way too big for wherever they are.
posted by cooker girl at 2:51 PM on January 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

I think a big part of it is that we have a good sense for how much things weigh. A full sized chair sinks into the rug in a way that isn’t replicated by a feather light miniature. Even when objects aren’t sitting on a soft or resilient surface, the miniatures just seem to sit in a way that makes it clear they don’t have any real heft.
posted by Kriesa at 3:02 PM on January 2, 2021 [30 favorites]

One telltale is sometimes a shallow depth of field. People use tilt-shift to try to simulate the effect.
posted by BungaDunga at 3:08 PM on January 2, 2021 [17 favorites]

I think it’s hard to replicate textures at an appropriate scale. In the pictures in your link, for example, one wall is covered in regular burlap, and the scale is all off for a real-world textured wall like that. The fabrics are standard commercially-woven ones and the woods have a real grain, which show the scale. I suspect that even if you were to hand-make a finer-textured surface, the light would reflect off of the materials differently, because you can’t make the fibers themselves smaller.

There is also no wear on anything, toys or chairs or carpets. The result is that it looks too clean even for a photoshoot interior. The depth of field issue BungaDunga mentions is also a point; you can use that to make big stuff look small but I haven’t seen much from the other direction.
posted by tchemgrrl at 3:18 PM on January 2, 2021 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Well, firstly those aren't the best examples of miniature trying to be realistic. They feel like doll-house examples of a design idea. Nothing wrong with that, just don't feel like they're trying to actually look real. Compare to this artist, and there are many more that really get it down. When done right it can be incredibly real. (There's one artist I cannot find but they do incredible work as well.)

1) weight - as mentioned, a small bit of wood isn't the same as a full size table. So you have to fake that somehow with other details to distract your eye and/or actually adding wear patterns to things.

2) detail and texture - in the examples you used, for instance the orange lamp shade, it has a HUGE weave. So in scale that would be a textured weave with like minimum 1" wefts. Real chunky fabric weave. Same with a lot of wood. So it's about finding fine grain fabrics with small prints, wood, and/or adding appropriate details. Often taking tons of time, skill, and magnification. Weathering is also a thing. Actual items have wrinkles, dirt, worn spots, etc.

3) how it's shot - the angles are important. Many miniatures are shot from a top-down way or in a way where it would be sort of impossible to get the whole view of a room without a fisheye lens and distortion. If you ever try to take photos of a full space you may realize you can't get the whole room in frame from one side of it most of the time. Lighting also comes into play. Often you can tell it's lit from outside, not any lightsource within the "room".

I think most of it really comes down to time and quality. There can be some extremely realistic miniature. But there is such attention to detail with the materials and time that it can be so incredibly expensive and all consuming that many can't manage it. Not to mention the skill involved.
posted by Crystalinne at 3:32 PM on January 2, 2021 [22 favorites]

Growing up, I had lots of conversations about this with my grandmother, a very elegant woman who was a dollhouse afficionado. We eventually ended up in London and saw an exhibition of amazing dollhouses, I think at the Victoria & Albert Museum. A docent there showed us dollhouses that had been made for royal children, and said that the quality of the textiles -- the size of threads, weave, the way they hung, etc. -- was always the hardest thing for artisans to replicate. I find myself agreeing whenever I see a photo of a miniature or dollhouse.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:32 PM on January 2, 2021 [10 favorites]

The fabrics always look too stiff. I don't know if there's any way to get fabrics to drape realistically at such a small scale because the weave is always too coarse and there's not enough mass to create the necessary weight to drape properly.
posted by HotToddy at 3:33 PM on January 2, 2021 [7 favorites]

Or what BlahLaLa said!
posted by HotToddy at 3:34 PM on January 2, 2021

The easiest tell is a mismatch in scale between the surfaces and materials objects and the item outer dimensions.

I work with theatrical set designers who build scale models of sets in the 1/4” = 1’-0” to 1” = 1’-0” range. That’s like shrinking the world down 1/12 to 1/48th size.

Surface and texture details are extremely hard to scale down that far. Imagine the threads on a plaid fabric upholstered chair. To make the fabric scale down as small as the chair structure would need woven fibers 1/48th the diameter of the real threads or yarns. You can try and cheat but your just not going to get it perfect.

The same applies to other textures like wood grain, carpet, wallpaper, and even small details like a joint line, weld join, or glue line between parts. You can print photorealistic materials I’m on a high DPI printer and glue the paper on but then the lighting or texture difference between the photo often looks wrong.

When discussing pattern we often specifically call out scale of fabric and wether the pattern is to scale or not to avoid confusion.
posted by sol at 3:36 PM on January 2, 2021 [5 favorites]

It's mostly little scale things. The rooms on that page are all really well done, but there are telltales. Specific examples:

homemadepepper: burlap on lamp. Lack of detail on books. Rug fringe is too thick.
homemadepepper 2: burlap wall. bad seam on wallpaper. cradle would be clunky at RL size.
alicewingerden: fabric on pillows wrong size. rug too fluffy. string holding pot is too loose.
mokimini: fabric on bed. paint on locker looks too thick. books better here, but not perfect.
lavenderbelle: beading on sofa is way too big. plant is unconvincing.

Looking three feet away from my desk, I can see the grain on my wood shelves. The furniture in these rooms has none, or when it does it's the wrong scale.

I can see some pattern in the paint on my wall 2 feet away-- but not across the room. Yet a few of the miniature rooms have painting patterns visible. That tells my eye that they're very close to the camera.
posted by zompist at 3:45 PM on January 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

(Or have you come across examples that are impossible to distinguish from the real thing?)

I don't know if I would say "impossible" but the best miniaturist I know of is Chris Toledo. He'll build you a doll house that will cost about as much as an actual home. Some of his shots are almost indistinguishable from real estate listing pictures.

I think there are a few things that set him apart, notably extreme care with things like woodgrain and scale. And after reading some of the above comments, I've only just now realized he uses almost no fabric which would probably give the game away.
posted by bcwinters at 3:49 PM on January 2, 2021 [17 favorites]

Best answer: FOUND IT! They do amazing stuff. So as you can see, extremely fine detail and attention to materials.
posted by Crystalinne at 3:57 PM on January 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

Shelter In Place Gallery has done some amazing stuff, and yes when there are giveaways it’s usually textural - fabric that doesn’t bend enough, too-big holes in concrete, stuff like that.
posted by mskyle at 4:06 PM on January 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

In my case, it's the grain of the wood (too big for the item or room) and the weave of the textiles (same.)
posted by blnkfrnk at 4:16 PM on January 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You may be interested in the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, the collection is designed to show furnishings from different periods and they’re quite meticulous.

posted by momus_window at 4:28 PM on January 2, 2021 [11 favorites]

In addition to what others have said about texture and surface details, the joinery and seams between things often don't look right. Gaps are too big and edges have irregularities that are way out of scale.

Crystalinne makes a key point about how the rooms are shot. Even in scenes that have good depth of field, the perspective is usually off in ways that we may not be able to put our finger on. It mainly comes down to the fact that the camera is really close to every object in the scene compared to a normal-scale room.
posted by theory at 4:50 PM on January 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for these excellent insights and observations. I particularly enjoyed the rooms and video clips shared by momus_window - especially the story re Picasso in the clip for the Californian hallway. It reminded me of my visit to the Stettheimer dollhouse in The Museum of the City of New York - the art in the dollhouse includes a splendid 3-inch version of Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’.
posted by The Patron Saint of Spices at 6:47 PM on January 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

As mentioned above, for me it's texture on textiles and natural materials, and the natural wear that minatures typically lack. I'm currently reading 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics which is all about the life of Lee and her work on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths (previously on the blue.) It talks about the great lengths Lee went to in sourcing her materials, especially fine woven fabrics and wood with a fine grain.
posted by Jilder at 7:24 PM on January 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another great example of wear: Abandoned Dollhouse
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:12 AM on January 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

You might enjoy Queen Mary’s Doll’s House.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 7:17 AM on January 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

+1 for the scaling of textures, as tchemgrrl says.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:44 AM on January 4, 2021

For me it's fabric - because it's mechanically made of woven or knitted fibres, it just can't scale down beyond a certain point bc the fibres would be too delicate. So the drape is wrong- a fabric that might drape heavily as a large piece will stick out stiffly as a small piece, because the small piece of fabric doesn't have enough weight to stretch the relatively thick fibres into hanging nicely at that scale. So table cloths and curtains in mini rooms always look wrong to me.

In those images I notice that the fabrics draped over the beds always stick out too far before changing direction to hang down towards the floor.

The little hanging plant pot isn't heavy enough to pull firmly on the strings that it's hung with - but a real life plant pot would exert tension on that hanger and the strings would be totally straight.

And the fibre size of anything woven is enormous - look at the lampshades and sofa cushions- in real life the fibres on a lampshade would be invisible in a shot of the whole room... those dollhouse fibres would be as thick as ropes at human scale.

Ditto cardboard / paper - it alway looks too "thick" for its size when it's made miniature.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 2:06 PM on January 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

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