Sunday, November 29, 2009

To Detail or Not to Detail, That is the Question...

I have long fancied scratchbuilding the mighty MBT-70 Main Battle Tank under development as a joint US/German project in the late 1960s. The pre-production prototype batch demonstrated great potential, and a number of its innovations appeared in other tanks on both sides of the Atlantic, but the vehicle itself was too ambitious, too costly and too unreliable. It is a long, low, mean-looking tank with unusual features, such as a driver in a stabilised cockpit in the turret, and a secondary cannon which could be operated from within. I have long pursued research, trying to untangle the differing running gear details of the US and West German versions, and one way I tried to do this was to find Aurora’s old 1:48th scale kit on eBay, to see in three dimensions how the repetitive detailing of the unique hydropneumatic suspension system was handled.

I was somewhere between surprised and disgusted when I discovered that Aurora’s solution to all that complex detail was to ignore it. No suspension detail was offered at all, which makes the kit a somewhat expensive and rather pointless addition to my stash (joining the eBay sell-on pile…) Back to the drawing board on the MBT-70 project, but that absence of detail set me thinking.

What constitutes a necessary detail for a kit?

Knowledgeable folk will tell you that not a single truly accurate and representative F/A-18 model exists in 1:72nd scale, and that is more than likely true of just about every subject, but it must be a matter of degree. Detail appropriate to the scale is a major consideration, as the resolution of detail reproduction will make it clumsy to try to include some details when they become too small. Go to the other end of the spectrum and consider the older kits in which detail in the wheel wells, even the cockpit was considered unnecessary. In the 1970s Airfix’s 1:24th scale ‘superkits’ were something of a benchmark, but while they featured significant cockpit detail (not actually complete, it should be noted), they featured no wheel well detail at all, simply the open interior of the wing with a mechanical pivot for the gimmicky retractable landing gear.

Then there’s the odd notion of including things in the kit that aren’t there on the real thing, in the name of marketability, or having to add a detail and making a genuine mess in the process. I’m thinking of the tile pattern grid Revell added to their 1:72nd scale Space Shuttle back in the 1980s… A truly overscale raised grid to represent the actually recessed micro-fine division between the ceramic tiles of the craft’s hull… I'm sure the 1:72nd scale raised representation was actually larger than the 1:1 scale recessed reality, which goes to show whaqt accuracy counts for compared to the young buyer's expectation that something as important as the thermal tiles must be there, whether it's visible or not. The company engraved the moulds, the same approach as raised panel lines, and just as inaccurate, though compounded by the regularity of the grid over the craft’s surface.

I had that kit, bought it for a great price, but a few years later I sold it on, unopened. Why? I just could not bring myself to build a hypersonic flying machine with a rugose hull texture that would shame a rhinoceros, any more than I could see my way to laboriously removing the entire grid and rescribing it. Had Revell left well alone I might have got up the chutzpah to try scribing the grid (though I’d probably have made a mess and ended up refilling it and trying some sort of paint trick, spraying through a mesh perhaps, which I once saw done to great effect on the 1:144th scale orbiter.) As it stands, though I would love a large scale shuttle, there’s no way I’d tackle the Revell offering, even with my current skill level.

I’m not entirely sure but this beast may have been retooled to switch the grid to recessed, but it would still have been way overscale. Decal company Cutting Edge went a long way to rectifying the whole accuracy problem for Orbiters with decal versions of the heat shield areas, and accurised engines and window painting masks were also produced, way back on 2003. Check them out:

So where should a kit company draw the line between what needs to be there and what needs to not be there? My gut feeling is that if the detail is recessed, recess it, and if the detail is visible at the equivalent scale viewing distance, it should be on the model. That’s a fair yardstick, with plenty of wiggle-room, and I think the best companies are probably working around just such philosophies now. Perhaps that’s called learning from the past, standing on the shoulders of yesterday’s industry and building on not just their experiences but the consequences of their choices. Models certainly look better, right out of the box, now than they ever have before, even if they are not ‘accurate’ in the sense that purists use the term. And yes, the gentle art of ‘rivet-counting’ will be another topic!