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Under the hood: Michael Paul Smith

February 1st, 2010 by Stu

Pictured: Professional model maker and classic American car buff Michael Paul Smith posed in front of his miniaturized winter wonderland.

No easy feat, Michael Paul Smith is in the business of recreating the past. But what makes his utterly nostalgic artwork so unique is the fact that it is fashioned in 1/24th scale. Take a look at the photos he has taken of these hand crafted, custom-designed scenes from yesteryear and you will likely have trouble telling them apart from the real thing.  Don’t worry, we did too. He is that good.

Source: Michael Paul Smith Flikr page (photos used with permission)

HOW DID YOU GET INTO MODEL MAKING?
I got into professional model making back in 1984 when I quit my job as an Art Director, due to a heart attack [Advertising is a very stressful occupation]. I just happened to see an article in the paper about architectural model making and started to call these places, looking for a job. I had zero experience except as a kid I would build plastic car kits and construct homemade buildings to give the models some context. Only one person took a chance on me. He said I could work for one week and he would review what I had done. At the end of the week, he said I could stay. I was 34 at the time. Over the years, the economy changed and so did the job market. As architectural model makers, you have the advantage to peer about 3 years into the future because you’re building projected projects. Few buildings were being designed and more renovations were starting to show up. The writing was on the wall, so we all started to look for other jobs. I became an illustrator for a publishing firm which lead to a job helping to design museum displays. That was a great job. All the research and artifacts and site visits; you had to immerse yourself into each project to get the flavor and feel of what was being presented. This exposed me to amazing resources. Again, the economy took a turn and new jobs had to be found. I took up wallpapering and interior painting which exposed me to renovation of older homes and commercial buildings. Finally, a well known Architectural firm in the Boston area had an opening for a modelers assistant. During all of this time, I was collecting Danbury and Franklin Mint diecast models [they are my only vice in this life]. With over 300 of them, just sitting on my shelves, I thought they would look better surrounded by buildings, which would give them some context. All of the experience from my past jobs started to come into play. Plus I had the use of the model shop from the firm I was working with. My evenings and weekends became filled 1/24th scale projects.

This 1939 Ford Deluxe Coupe was the Darling of the 1938 World’s Fair. It symbolized speed, style and optimism. Even when it left the showroom and became part of everyday life, it still had an air of “things to come”. I went to the Charles Cushman website to view his color photographic work from the ’30’s and ’40’s. I was interested in the “natural color” of his transparencies. Interestingly enough, there was a wide range of tints and saturation. After experimenting I settled on this particular tone, then added the black transparency frame to continue the illusion.

WHEN DID IT TURN INTO AN ART FORM INVOLVING ELABORATE SCENES AND PHOTOGRAPHY?
Photographing them as a way to document what I had done quickly turned into an Art project. I started to create scenes and quick, one frame stories. It was just a matter of time before I started taking them outside for more realistic photos. You can see my learning curve when you view my photos. The earlier ones are somewhat staged and pristine. Then there were the dramatic night shots with water and fog. As of this writing, the look is the “everyday, slightly gritty” snapshot.

YOUR FAUX ENVIRONMENTS ARE SO CONVINCING. HOW DO YOU DO IT?
One of the things I learned early on when constructing and photographing the models was to keep things simple. To have a main focus in the picture so it reads as a one frame story. Using existing resources and not spend money for special effects is critical for me. A 60 watt bulb does a great job. A box of baking soda is perfect for snow. My rule of thumb is: What I need is usually in the room I’m in. A huge surprise is that the better the digital camera, the worse the photos are. Big pixel cameras take in way too much information. If you study old photographs, you will notice a lot of details are blurry. Our brain tends to fill in the missing data, which helps to create a more personalized view of what you’re looking at. You might have noticed that there are never any people in the pictures. That is deliberate. It gives the photos a more dreamlike quality where you can project your own memories into them.

Here you can see the size of the set and how it’s really quite cobbled together. This shot was taken right before I poured water all over the road. With the overhead room light turned off, the only light source is the 60 watt bulb aimed low at the buildings. The buildings themselves each have one 10 watt, white christmas tree light in them.

This is one of those photos I kept studying and rethinking. The original Dink’s Speed Shop postcard looked correct, but didn’t feel settled to me. The short version of a long story is that I finally decided the custom fender skirt on the Ford was distracting. [Forgive me Danbury Mint for removing it and adding a chrome spear]. I re-shot the photo and although it pretty much looks like the original, the subtle difference now feels right. Perhaps this is the curse of having been a museum display designer and an art director. To slightly alter a famous quote: “The MADNESS is in the details”.

WHAT KIND OF FEEDBACK HAVE YOU GOTTEN SO FAR?
It’s only been in the last 2 year that I’ve posted my images on flickr. Before that, no one saw work.This may sound odd, but I really didn’t think anyone would be interested in my hobby. Due to Flickr, a few magazines have given me interviews.  A wonderful gentleman from the UK wrote a piece that created a flurry of interest in England. I can’t thank him enough for that. I have been trying to get a gallery show here in the Boston area…..

YOU ARE DEFINITELY A CAR GUY. WHAT’S IN YOUR DRIVEWAY?
As for the car I drive… actually I don’t have one. I did have a 1951 Studebaker for about 12 years. It was grand! I do follow the car shows and what’s new to the public. If anything gets me excited, its anything from the late 30’s to the early 60’s. Cars, such as Nash, Rambler, Kaiser and the like were very popular during their time. Many people today never experienced the diversity that existed back then. Granted, there are newer cars that make me stop and take a second look. But I miss the personalities of older cars. A few cars I would love to drive…A ’54 or ’56 Ford.  A ’53 Nash or Hudson. A ’55 Kaiser Manhattan. A ’61 Plymouth Fury. A ’61 Desoto  and of course a ’51 Studebaker. In the here and now, I would enjoy an Acura.

This is a piece I did for an exhibition on ROBOT ART. Who knew that Robby from Forbidden Planet and the Robot from Lost In Space got married and had a kid? The vehicle is a 1/18th scale Chrysler Turbine that I repainted.

A lot of baking soda was shaken over the set, then lit with one 60 watt bulb, that was just out of the frame. The glare from the bulb gave the appearance of falling snow being diffused by a street light.

There are a few things about making models and photographing them that are peak experiences. First is doing research and coming up with an era that would be interesting. From there it’s creating a look that suggests time has passed through the buildings and scene. There are rarely completely new buildings all lined up in a row. If you look around, you will notice buildings have been added on to, streets have be repaved, vehicles are not all brand new. It’s those kind of details that add subtle layers to any given scene. It’s at that level where the magic comes into play.

While surfing the web for inspiration, I came across a site, from the Library of Congress, that featured COLOR photographs from the US government, depicting everyday scenes from the 1930’s through the 1940’s. Each scene, at first glance, seemed devoid of any narrative, but after viewing all of the images, a complete story emerged. Here was a visual description of a bygone era. And here is my reconstruction of that type of photography, with a vintage Kodak transparency frame to complete the illusion.

69 Comments

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69 responses so far ↓

  • Fantastic post! Where do you come up with these super creative posts? Thnx much for the late breaking news! SO REALISTIC

  • Fantastic post Stu! Michael is really talented and deserves the exposure. Amazing craftsmanship.

  • awesome…. great feature article with lots of great photos, way to push the envelope beyond simply car-spotting. really enjoyed it… thanks !

  • For real… best yet. So good.

  • Wow… Some of those pictures are really looking real. Great work.

  • This guys car collection is nuts. What an interesting guy and incredibly talented.
    Love the photos, some with studio light and others outside using available light.
    Amazing. Great story.

  • All I can say is “WOW,” being a modler myself your work it totally OFF THE SCALE!!!!!

  • Absolutely amazing!!! I am myself into (aircraft) modelling and I think I can estimate the amount of work in all this. By the way I am a huge fan of the 58′-66′ Impalas and I have spotted some of those in the pics. :-)
    Ingo

  • Awesome, dude! Nicely done. Must be a jillion hours spent there. Museum-quality…and that’s
    where it should be–in a museum, for everyone to see in person. This is destined for the
    Smithsonian, to be sure!

  • The most realistic Dioramas and photography ever!!

  • I was there. I’m 66 years old, and I still have a few pictures from the 40’s with the cars in them . Your pictures make me feel like I’ve really gone back in time and I’m actually there in the scene standing across the street looking . I remember my Mother’s first car a 1950 Studebaker commander. I owned a 1951 Lincoln until I sold it in 1997. I drive a 1994 Corvette now. I lived in Westfield MA until 1986 and then moved to San Antonio TX . When I got out of high school, I could not wait to get away from the cold so I hopped on my 1953 BMW Motorcycle and went to Miami Beach. Some of the old Indian Motocycle’s would be nice in your scenes. The Indian Motocycle Museum is still in Springfield. Thanks Billy

  • very cool! I love the story of how your work evolved. Keep up the good work!

  • Your model work is astounding! My dad had a 1949 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon, just like the one you modeled. He also had a 1949 Oldsmobile “Rocket 88″, except it was a 4-door version. When I see your work, I am carried back to my youth in Elgin, Illinois with all the car models that were popular in the late 40’s into the 50’s. You should have a nationwide tour of your incredible work and photos.

  • Thanks a million for sharing your talent, art, and inspiration. You brought back some nice memories for me. In 1955-56 I use to thumb a ride to school (7th-8th grades) every morning. I almost always got a ride by the 3rd or 4th car from someone driving to Boston from Marblehead/Swampscott. It seemed that every day it was a new car and your exhibit highlights a large number of them. I guess the ’55 Olds holds a special memory for me with that unique swoosh.

  • Great work!!! I am a model railroader, and am fascinated with your detail! Do you build everything from scratch, or start with an existing model and embellish (what we in the model railroad hobby call “kit-bashing”)?

  • Mr. Smith—what an INCREDIBLE talent you have–cannot believe the time and patience it takes to do what you do SO WELL–would be very interested in acquiring a book about your work–do you have a book on the market and if so–where could I purchase this?–FABULOUS FABULOUS work–thank you for sharing this with us. Paul Barton, Humble, Texas email: phb007@comcast.net

  • I certainly wish I had just a little of your talent! I am an HO Gauge train buff and, as you know, scenery ‘makes’ the layout for the model railroader. The building kits offered by several well known model makers are poor substitutes for the work that you do. Congratulations of your great artistic ability. I also am a car buff. My first was a Model “A” Ford Cabriolet which I purchased in 1941. Sold it a year later and purchased a 1940 Ford Sedan. Sweetest running V-8 ever!

  • As a model photographer and journalist I’d like to get in touch with Michael-Paul Smith, could you please send me his email-address?
    Greetings, Hans Arend de Wit

    Two of my productions:

    http://www.switchimage.org/SAAB_96.html

    http://www.switchimage.org/phlog/Bugatti_Royale.html

  • Most magnificent models I have ever witnessed.
    If I were still publisher of Automobile Quarterly, this would be a great feature story. There could be none better.
    Scott

  • I AM IMPRESSED!!!!! BIG TIME, THIS IS AWESOME, I LOVE CARS ALSO, I HAVE AROUND 160 MODEL CARS IN MY OFFICE ( SHOWCASE ) I LOVE YOUR COLLECTION, CONGRATULATIONS.

  • I remeber all those old cars ( owned a few ) and the times they all “lived” in. What a wonderful bit of nostalgia!
    This blew me away. Mr. Michael an artist in its truest sense.
    His modesty is amazing. To think that he didn’t believe anyone would be interested.
    Congratulations sir, on a job well done.

    Martin Bernstein

  • Beyond belief !! What more can you say about the man’s work

  • Amazing attention to detail! Never knew such a broad range of scale model cars existed – thanks for sharing, I hope you will profit in ways other than your own personal satisfaction of things well done?

    Ed Quillen
    Georgetown Texas

  • You my friend, are amazing

  • GREAT WORK!!! You have models I did’nt know were available. Can you tell where the kits are available from?

  • Remarkable scenes, I’ve always wanted to do some dioramas, but haven’t had the time as yet. I have a few Danbury, and Franklin Mint cars, I reconized the Green Chev. Suburban I have. You are “THE MAN” Keep on keeping on. Lee

  • His work deserves more recognition that simply photos. It must be on display somewhere . . . Anybody know where?

  • I’M IN AWE OF WHAT YOU DO photo wise and model wise. if i could advise a master : by no means is this a criticism, but have you ever considered making your road surfaces and building surfaces a bit “dirty”, or weathered, to add to what is already total realism in these great works.
    the lack of human figures lends all the more realism to these artistic renderings of old cars. due to my age, and the way you have made/photographed these displays– i feel as though i could walk right into any of these scenes and climb in one of the vehicles. what else to say, but this was a joy to look at. thanks so much for making your work available for folks to view. monk, the engraver
    monk, the engraver

  • A friend sent me your flickr pics today and I am in awe of your skills. I am a miniaturist myself in addition to being a graphic designer so I know the skill involved with what you’ve done. But what really makes everything all the more special is the way you’ve photographed it using real backgrounds…brilliant. Ironically I do advertising for the Danbury Mint so I’m very familiar with the die-cast cars. If you haven’t already, you should contact the editor at Miniature Collector magazine, which is the premier miniatures magazine…I’m sure they would use some of your shots in the magazine. They would LOVE your stuff.

  • to michael paul smith: the car guys in ventura county, calif., have just discovered your photography and dioramas. i’m the secretary of the only model t club in the county, and if you’re ever in the los angeles area, we would love to have you make a presentation to our club. carol

  • Auto models are perfect. Sidewalks are too narrow. Buildings and background show no weathering. But, car models are perfect. Your work is inspirational. I used to model railroads. The late John Allen, a model railroader whose work is on the same level as yours once said,:” I photograph a model then examine the print with a magnifying glass. This reveals areas that could be improved.” Again, your car models are perfect!
    kla

  • these are very amazing model Pics very awsome to look at WOW. Ireally enjoyed seeing these it made me feel like a kid agian. Thanks

  • I had a family friend who collected classic cars (full sized), and his love was the Studebaker., which he drove for years. You are a true talent, and your model cars & photos certainly reminded me of him. Another of his cars was a Clinet (spelling??), as he actually designed one of the parts to the engine. I believe you would have enjoyed knowing him. Unfortunately, he died several years ago, but I believe his daughter & son-in-law still maintain his collection. Thank you for creating such wonderful recreations of this part of our lives in the 50’s & 60’s. Those were wonderful years!

  • Outstanding detail. As an old car model builder I can really respect your work.

  • Sir, You are a true artist.
    I had a blue Studebaker, just like the one in your exhibit, sure brought back some good memories.
    You are a treasure our great country.
    Sincerely,
    Fred Stephens

  • Incredible attention to detail both scenery and automobiles. Would like to hear from you again as I’m retiring and looking for a hobby. I have the equipment but lack ideas. Please keep up your fantastic work.

  • I have never seen models of this quality and writing to inquire if Mr Smith does any commission work for
    special individual work. I have a 1960 T Bird convertible which I purchased new in 1960 and wonder if he could produce a model of it and what the cost would be. I have many color photographs of it. My e mail address is trtabor @gmail.com

  • Is it when I noticed NO TV antennas I realized I was looking at a model scene?

    Wonderful stuff……….Cheers!
    Colette

  • Michael, these sets and vehicles are incredible works of art. What a joy and privilege to have the opportunity to be able to observe the results of so many painstaking hours of your labour, thanks to today’s technoligy. The cars of today do not have a fraction of yesterday’s character or beauty which you have brilliantly recreated to take us once again down memory lane. Thanks for the ride. Pauline.

  • Absolutely mind-blowing !

  • Talk about a guy who has honed the gifts he was given! This is excellent.
    Jim

  • Your staging and craft reminds me of Warther’s Museum and his handcarved trains. Because the guy has been long since gone and died his editions are definately “limited”. I think you should donate a stage set to the Cleveland museum along with mounted and framed photos, and see if they’d bite. Why should an artist have to become “known” after he’s dead and buried. Go for it.

  • Hello Michael Paul Smith, Do you have a published book of this work? I’d love to have it if you do.
    If you haven’t made a book you should. Contact Chronicle Books of San Francisco. I think they’d publish you.
    -Brenda Pizzo, Boston

  • Dear Mr Smith, What a wonderful recreation; brings back such nice memories. My wife and I are 70.. We always tell each other that we grew up in the best place, during the best time this country has experienced. That town could be ours here in CT We grew up and stayed here. The last 20 years of work,I trucked mostly in the Boston area. I have passed through Sewickley,Pa as well. Many thanks for sharing your hobby and stirring so many happy memories.

  • From a car crazy guy who collects die cast cars from exotic super cars to formula one, drag racing, nascar, dirt modifieds, etc….. from selling die cast cars at car shows to working for N”H”R”A. for a number of years and anything else to do with cars. I can appreciate your work of art. It is absolutely fantastic, keep up the good work, get it out there, there are millions of us out there who will enjoy this. If you watch the program Car Crazy on Speed channel , it will give you an idea how big the car hobby is . Maybe you should contact this show, maybe you will be on T.V. he usually does segments on peoples projects. Good Luck.

  • Love your work. I am also a scale artist. Have been in a couple of shows. Model Citizens by Oatman being one. I agree with your comment about galleries – what we need is a bigger forum. A big gallery for micro worlds. Perhaps we could work on that. I made some shots like these in the 50s, did not know someone would make it into an art form. Congrats, hope I can see them in person sometime. Thanks for posting. Henry

  • Great work. We lived in the Boston/North Shore area for 13 years, my wife grew up in Danvers. I fully understand your not owning a car at this time,”Who would want to drive in Boston?” I appreciate that you give credit to Danbury Mint for the models, many who have sent me links to your site think you have personally built each model, and you’re just not that old. Thanks for sharing and I wish you all the success in the world.

  • What talent! I’ve never seen anything THIS awsome! Keep up the great work, Michael.

  • amazing amazing – really takes me back…

  • Both the model building and the photography are astounding and the two together make for some amazing imagery.

  • Dear Mr. Smith,
    Will you please contact me about your craft and its usage
    in a car motion picture.
    Sincerely,
    deanpapadeas@earthlink.net

  • Michael Paul Smith,

    Your constructions are absolutely magical. I am a car guy and an architecture guy and I am in awe. I’m gonna guess I’m about 5 years older than you and had a career in advertising as a copywriter and creative director. Some people think the biggest division in advertising is between the “creatives” and the “suits.” Not so! Although as a writer I was close to “some” art directors, others really pissed me off. These were the ones who famcied themselves “artistes” and would give me this take-it-or-leave-it position. But I always recognized true talent and respected it and, my God, you certainly have it. Are all these cars available through the Danbury etc? Incredible. With every best wish, Barney Currer, California

  • I stumbled across your work one day while looking for a classic car web site – The first photo I saw I said to myself – wow! That is a fantastic quality photo of that ‘OK’ dealership – The old Plymouth outside caught my eye and I drank it in…After a several more seconds of going over it – something in the headlights made me start to shift my thoughts to ahhh, this is a model. Then I looked around my own room that I just dedicated a my studio at all my 1/24 scale cars and it clicked! I can’t beleive there is another ‘me’ out there! I had only just discovered my new hobby! But for years you have been taking it to the level I’ve been struggling with all along! Now I have inspiration! Thank you for your art and sharing your talent! Just AWESOME WORK!!

  • Attention-grabbing article and one which must be more broadly known about in my view. Your stage of element is nice and the clarity of writing is excellent. I have bookmarked it for you so that others will be able to see what it’s important to say.

  • Michael,
    I am 67 yrs young, and your pictures and scenes of yesteryear bring back many memories of those times.
    My first cars owned were, a 49 dodge, 54 and a 55 ford, 58 Chevy, 63 ford Fairlane, Then as family grew, a 1973 AMC Matador station wagon. Your re-enditions are imaculate, and I can see your work ethic to detail is excellent. A book with pics and details in explaining your work would be an great project, and benefit that you could do for those car and history enthusiests out there.
    Hartsel

  • Simply Amazing! Love, Love, Love the details, the house and travel trailer are just outstanding quality..

    WOW….. Thanks for making so many people happy with your skills..
    Ken

  • Bravo ! vos réalisations sont magnifiques, quel bonheur de visionner vos photos, avec les décors le réalisme est saisissant.

    Encore Bravo !!!!

    LaurentB

  • Howdy blogger, thank you for providing this article.. I found it first-class.

  • Wontherfull pictures and very nice work , my hobby is 1/18 scale automovile , special 1950 models ,
    and made same dioramas too .
    beautiful hobby
    congratulation
    regards
    Claudio Martínez

  • Fantastic job once again. Thumbs up!

  • got a kick out of them. being 86 years old i was familiar with a few but my heart goes for the packards ,all of them but the later models in the 40’s& 50’s i did not care foe.

  • I enjoy your writing style truly enjoying this web site .

  • Anyone who did not know what this article was about would be easily mislead into thinking those pictures of cars and the environments were real. Those are some of the most realistic models I have ever seen! The picture with the car in the garage looks so convincing!

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  • I received these pics in an e mail today I was absolutely amazed with the wonderful work!I thought they were real pictures!Had to google in Michaels name,He sure is creative!! Keep up the great work!!

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  • MY HERO…..THIS IS WHAT I AM TRYING TO ACHEIVE IN MY DOIRAMAS

  • This has been an enjoyable experience seeing all these amazing models and scenes. Miniatures have always been fascinating to me and these are totally “out of sight”. Thank you!!

  • I had to do a few double takes. I was astounded by the realistic feel of the photos. The pictures are so real it gave me some ideas for making commercial like video shorts. Just amazing.
    Thank you.
    Bruce