The man in the photo is Michael Paul Smith, but he is no giant. For 25 years he's been building remarkably lifelike dioramas of a fictional, mid-20th-Century American town called Elgin Park using meticulously crafted model cars, a card table and a $200 point-and-shoot camera. That's right – the cars in this photo are diecast models.
All photos by Michael Paul Smith
In a recent interview with FStoppers, Smith goes into great detail about his process and what inspired him to start shooting these lifelike scenes in the first place.
[Smith] builds eerily identical scaled models of cars 1/24th the size. He carefully picks out real world environments for these cars and builds whatever else is needed to sell the shot. He then uses backgrounds of real environments to make the shot as realistic as possible. Here’s the kicker: he’s doing all of this on a $200 point and shoot.
"The whole forced perspective process was used extensively in early movie making back in the 1920′s," says Smith. "Because it was too expensive to create massive full size sets outside, detailed models were created and placed at the correct distance behind the actors to create the illusion of a city or some fantasy location. It was a very effective special effect."
Besides his camera and his car models, another arrow in Smith's quiver is a 3-foot-by-4-foot “road” that's been painted and textured to look like asphalt. Combine the road with the car models, set them against your real-world backdrop, find the perfect angle and you can go from the setup you see on the left, to the simulated reality on the right:
"The actual math that is involved to create a consistently good forced perspective shot is something I can’t figure out because I am math challenged," he tells FStoppers. "Over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve developed a sense of how far I have to be away from any given background to make the scene work."
It's very impressive work – incredibly convincing, even at high resolution. I look at the two photos above, for example, and I find myself wondering if it's not actually the photo on the left that's a fake – that, in reality, there is genuine '65 Mustang in a genuine parking lot, and Smith just is using forced perspective to make it LOOK like it's sitting on a foldout card table. There are times, says Smith, when even he has trouble believing what he's seeing. As he remarks on his flickr page:
[The top photo] is my view of the diorama right before I start shooting... If you cover up the bottom half of this photo with your hand, the magic takes place and scene comes into focus. I'm amazed every time it happens. Really, how is this possible?
According to Smith, the idea for Elgin Park emerged from a desire "to put [his] 300 diecast model car collection into some sort of physical context":
It occurred to me I could construct a 1/24th scale building to showcase the cars. Starting with a gas station, because it’s something universally connected with cars and trucks, it was just a matter of time before other structures started to be made. Utilizing all of the knowledge I had acquired from studying 20th century culture, these dioramas could be authentic down to the last detail.
Those details must be seen to be believed – and even then, it can be hard to accept these images as anything other than photographs of actual, life-sized cars, buildings and other scenery.
For more on Smith's process, and the challenges he faces in creating these incredible images, check out his interview with FStoppers. To see many, many more examples of his work, visit his flickr, or this gallery of buyable prints.