Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Thoughts on model competition judging

Okayyyy... How to discuss this without coming across as a whiney sore loser? Something seems seriously flawed in the judging at the Australian Model Expo.

Let's get some important details out in the open before we begin:

  • I only have experience of the Melbourne Expo, I can't claim from experience that this happens elsewhere.
  • I mean no disrespect to any particular model makers whose works I may discuss or critique in this post. My gripe is with the judging criteria, not any individual's hard-crafted work. If you placed, and you are reading this, then respect, you did well my friend - honestly.
  • Full disclosure - I entered a diorama in each of the two categories I discuss. Thus, I am not impartial, but after years of seeing this happen again and again, I feel justified in questioning the system.
  • I know that at some point modelling is an art form, and opinions are subjective, although the judging criteria claim to be as objective as possible.
  • I mean no disrespect to any individual judges, who are fellow modellers who volunteer their time to do this. They're not the bad guys, they make the Expo happen. But the process is another matter entirely.

Right, with those caveats out there, let's get stuck in.

I have heard a lot of discussion on Facebook about the ... unpredictability ...  of the results at the 2017 Australian Model Expo. And I think something stinks.

Yes, there were some absolute showstoppers that won their categories. The 1/32 Beached Submarine, the Hungarian Tank diorama, the Native American warrior in the figure category - these were all world-class and deserved to win. Honestly, these were rightful winners.

Some of the second place, third place and Commended results were surprising.

Take the Single Model Military Diorama category. The Beached Sub was first place, and it was amazing. This rightfully won.

Australian Model Expo 2017 winning dioramas
Truly impressive.

Second place went to a Russian tank. It's fine, technically I can't spot anything wrong with it, but there is no way I would say this is an inspiring diorama, that it is telling a story. Imagine if you were describing this to someone who hadn't seen it. There are a couple of guys standing in front of a tank. Okay, what else? Some cornstalks. What's the point though, what's the scene, what's the story?

Australian Model Expo 2017 winning dioramas

Third place went to a crash-landed bomber. We are definitely telling a dramatic story here, so I give full credit there. There is some well-crafted battle damage. But the actual model itself is very amateurish. The paint chipping is everywhere, it is overscale, it is blobbed on with a paintbrush. The less said about the painting of the figures, the better. Apparently this placed so well due to its fidelity to reference photos. (Also, according to the rules of this category models should have a maximum of 6 figures and I count 7, but I'm not going to be pedantic about that, that seems more of an initial scrutineering error than any judging issue)

Australian Model Expo 2017 winning dioramas
Slightly blurry pic, sorry.

Australian Model Expo 2017 winning dioramas
Look at the gap between the front plexiglass bubble and the fuselage!

One Commendation went to a piece called "Beauty and the Beast". I don't know if the destroyed Tiger tank's tracks are close to a reference photo, I assume they are, it looks reminiscent of photos of Tigers destroyed by Allied airpower. But holy crap, the painting of that figure scares me. That face!

Australian Model Expo 2017 winning dioramas

The second Commendation went to a small Vietnam War diorama. It didn't tell much of a story, but it was very evocative of a time and place, the build was very accomplished and the groundwork was great. So full credit there.

Here are the other entries in this category that didn't place at all:

A wonderful Pacific wreck diorama. There were some build issues, but for storytelling, imagination and innovation, it was second only to the winning sub for me.

Australian Model Expo 2017 winning dioramas

A North African / Middle Eastern abandoned missile launcher. A flawless, complex build. Slight dust on the base frame, I assume that could have been brushed off.

Australian Model Expo 2017 winning dioramas

A really stunning 1946 VK1602 Leopard "paper panzer", weathered just right. Again, a flawless build.

Australian Model Expo 2017 winning dioramas

Now I can't vouch for any references that any of these unsuccessful entries provided, but thinking over these results, it seems to me that you can make a poorly painted model, really poorly finished, and just plonk it on a base not bothering to tell a story, and as long as you have stayed faithful to a goddamn photo of the original you will succeed.  Leaving aside the sub which rightfully won, none of the other four models which made it to the second round of judging deserved to be there.

Poor build quality? No problem.

Inferior figure painting? Essential to a diorama if you ask me, but no problem here.

Not telling any kind of story? Not an issue.


It was a similar story in the Open Military Diorama category. The winner, "They Need the Bicycle", really did deserve to win, it told a poignant story and had the best European forest groundwork I have ever seen in person on a diorama. Those pine trees - wow, just wow.

This photo doesn't do it justice. World class.

Second place was a Horten jet in a workshop. Again, it was amazing, and truly worthy. Those cluttered workbenches are just spot on.

Holy crap, this was well done.

Regardless of whatever bullshit criteria the judges had to work within, these two dioramas would have won, and rightly so.

And then we enter the Twilight Zone again.

Third place was a WWI tractor and artillery train. The model tractor and limbers were fine, the build quality seemed good. But the diorama quality was seriously inferior. It was a boring, empty composition. The dirt road was almost totally flat, with one small attempt at ruts. The multi-tonne tractor was sitting on top of the dirt, it has no weight. The trees look like broken twigs from the garden. These are all very important elements of a diorama as opposed to a single scale model of a vehicle.

That tractor should not be sitting on top of dirt like that, its weight should be pushing it down.
Shep Paine taught me that, and if i was important for Shep, it's important for me too.

There was also a Commended diorama, "Tiger Fright", a small battle-damaged Bren-carrier. There was a nice touch of a bird's nest and eggs in the bocage hedgerow. Other than that, it was nothing at all special. The damage to the Bren carrier didn't look like much, and it was positioned on its base so that the focal point was away from the viewer. Lots of empty dead space at the front.

Australian Model Expo 2017 winning dioramas

The last Commended diorama was "Memphis Belle", a jeep covered in B17 aircrew. Very accomplished figure painting, but as a story-telling diorama it is nothing to write home about. I think it's meant to replicate a famous photo from the movie, but if so there are some inaccuracies such as the number on the jeep and some of the poses. I'll be honest: to me, it was boring, but I'll admit that is a subjective view.

Australian Model Expo 2017 winning dioramas


"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark"

Going over all these, it seems to me that the Australian Model Expo has a serious problem when judging dioramas. There is a misguided insistence on slavishly replicating a photographic reference, at the expense of expertise and storytelling. Poorly finished execution seems to lose less points than a polished, masterful build that (heaven forbid!) tells a dramatic but fictional story.

But I can't be sure of this, because we have no idea how the judges scored each entry...

At the Expo I asked an organiser if it was possible to discuss the results with a judge, in order to take on board criticism and better my results in the future. This wasn't possible, and I get that, it is a busy venue. I was told to join a local modelling club, that I would get a lot of valuable feedback there. He was pleasant, it was a civil and interesting conversation, but not very illuminating.

I have also been told on Facebook that without seeing the references (which only the judges are permitted to see, by the way) I cannot fully appreciate what scores well and what doesn't. That without officially judging - picking up the model, examining it from every conceivable angle - then I am simply "leaning over and peering at the entries".

Leaving aside the objection of "How the hell else is this artform designed to be viewed?" I have to say that this state of affairs leaves entrants in the dark. Scores are not publicly available, visual examples of best-practise references have never been given, and successful references on the day are not publicly available. You can try to improve your technique all you want for next time, but you are flying blind when it comes to knowing what you scored badly on.


A proposed solution

I'm not here to bitch and moan (really, I'm not). I'm here to improve my modelling skills, and if I'm being honest, improve my chances of winning next time. Taking on board honest, constructive criticism is essential if you want to develop as a model maker. That's why I'm here.

The current judging does nothing to constructively help people improve. I think even if you disagree with all of my above comments, you'd have to agree on this point. There is absolutely no feedback loop unless you come First, Second, Third or Commended, and even for them there is no supplied feedback on why you got a Commended instead of a Second, for example. Currently, all you know is you won or you lost. This is a problem.

I suggest two changes at next year's Expo:

Suggestion 1

A single page printout on each table showing the itemised scores of each entry, publicly displayed once the results are known and the little "First", "Second" etc stickers have been stuck to the winning entries. This way, entrants and spectators alike can see the itemised, objectively-decided strengths and weaknesses of each entry. Entrants can get an idea of what they need to improve on.

Suggestion 2

All references on the table, publicly accessible. This way, entrants can see how to provide great, relevant references next time. The public can see the inspiration or original photo of each model. Yes, there may be a little queue to see the references at busy times, but it gives an added dimension to the exhibition for people to appreciate. Art galleries regularly display "visual diaries" or preliminary sketches to give added understanding to artworks, so why don't we? Why do these have to be secret, hidden away, for the judges' eyes only?

Result? Feedback and constructive criticism on what needs improving. Two simple solutions that don't take any more of the volunteer judges' precious time, and which actually give added depth to the display for entrants and spectators alike. Win/win.

What do you think? Valid or not? I'd be keen to hear feedback, and if enough people agree with me then I'll present these two suggestions to the managing committee for Model Expo 2018. Please, let me know your thoughts - comment below or email me, so I know whether I'm onto something here or just a sore loser! ;)




  1. Your Completely and utterly correct with the comments you have made Dave. I personally identifide my faults, which was my figure had all been "weathered/Damaged" as I dont like Bright colours etc where his was Bright and vibrant. Again its who is judging though what their taste is I guess.

    I did get out of another Competitor who has been going since 1989 (1st started) that they do LIKE to have References images/written information on the subject/scene, especially if its a Diorama.

    My comment straight away after the nob head judge had said his bit was, how the *** am I suppose to know where I went wrong? So I can Improve? Yes I am there to win a trophy! Like you Dave not expecting 1st, but at least 2nd 3rd,or Commendation!

    I strongly feel to after my experience, that there should be a limitation on how many models you are able to enter into a single category.

    Anyway, got to get ready for work. Speak soon

  2. When you volunteer your time to judge at Model Expo - if ever - then you might get a better appreciation of how the judging is done and why we don't have the time or luxury to provide feedback as we once used to. With competition entries now in excess of 750+ each year it is no longer feasible and Model Expo is not the place you should expect such feedback as every judge has their own opinion and is not a subject matter expert. If you want such feedback then join a club or website/Facebook forum were you will hopefully receive much more useful critique/feedback from your peers. As for placing references/results on the tables this was done many years ago but was discontinued with, as it created a lot of clutter and made the competition tables look like an office desk, instead of the displays you now see. If you want to return to the Dark Ages then feel free to contact us and offer to take over the running of the Model Expo at anytime. It's all yours.

    1. Rene, I take your point, and I appreciate what the organisers (yourself included) do in actually making the Expo happen. I really do. But why can't entrants expect feedback? Entrants pay to enter, they provide the actual content that the spectators are all coming to view, I think it only reasonable to expect a little back in return, because ever since I first entered in 2007 I've been flying blind. And yes, in ten years of attending the Expo (not entering every year, but attending) I've never seen it done differently, so maybe it is time to consider a change?

  3. Spot on Dave....you are dead right. I picked out almost the same stuff as you that was winning quality...but like you also, I picked out some shockers that seemed to have faired very well in the competition. A lot of models were shifted to the back of the tables (including yours) and were very hard to look at or see any detail at all so I don't see how they could be judged fairly.
    I paid a lot of attention to who was looking at what model and it was your Tiger 1,the rusty sub and the pine tree tank thingy that got all the attention.
    There was also some shit hot planes that have gone unnoticed too and they had some of the best paint jobs Ive ever seen on a model.....


  4. The simplest answer to this problem is to do away with the absurd notion of judging the modeller's reference material as part of the decision making process.

    You may truly want feedback but almost everyone does not like to have the flaws in their latest pride and joy pointed out to them... specially so if they have not asked for any.

    1. I totally agree about reference not being such an important part of the decision. Sure, it can be a little of the input, but at the moment it seems to be about 25% of the consideration.

      Re: feedback - no, I actually do want and appreciate it. I'm a member of the Scale Model Critique Group on Facebook, and it has taught me a lot about taking criticism and actually using it to improve my next effort. It's a valuable process. So if you've got anything to point out, please get stuck in, I promise I won't cry ;)

    2. Yes, I for one would be happy to have the reference requirement scraped for dioramas unless the scene leans towards the bizarre because as we know, fact is sometimes stranger than fiction; and only be supplied just to illustrate the point of how odd things do happen. People should not feel compelled to recreate a scene from a photo(though it remains the prerogative of the individual) and should be free to express without penalty for lack of supporting references their thoughts, with some leeway for artistic license all while maintaining historical, geographical and cultural accuracy etc.
      Obviously other aspects would be quality of build and finish that should be considered together with the story line.
      Just my 2 cents...thanks for bearing with me everyone who's read this, and i'm also happy to hear peoples thoughts on references.

  5. Dave,
    I built the Holt tractor dio, thanks for the input, I know it's not perfect, none of my kits are but this is a hobby and I build kits to de-stress and have fun.
    Lets be honest, your Tiger diorama should have been entered in the single vehicle diorama category, was this a scrutineering error or did you spot the big sub (which arrived early on the Friday) and think that you would have a better chance in the multi-vehicle category??
    I agree that some results were strange, helicopters (which I did not enter) had a bizarre result however you might feel it is truly disingenuous to pull apart others efforts, for that reason I shall refrain from commenting on your models.
    Kind Regards
    Brent Simpson

    1. Hi Brent,

      Thanks for your comments. Mate, I apologise that I tore into your model - it was a bit brutal, and not very respectful. In hindsight I perhaps should have been less harsh on individuals and more focussed on the judging process. As I mentioned in the very first paragraph: you placed, you did well - respect. Your diorama was better than mine according to objective opinion on the day. I am open to criticism, if you'd like to comment on my models I'm open to it. That seems only fair.

      Re: which categories I entered - no, I didn't see the winning sub. I was the second person to enter models in the whole Expo, was there at 4:45pm on the Friday - the only models ahead of mine in the scrutineering were the cutaway 1/24 Hurricane and the 1/72(?) Krupp railgun. I do think my Tiger was in the correct category, as the single model diorama section only allows "simple scenery" and I thought a scratchbuilt well as well as a ruin didn't classify as "simple". Anyway, I wouldn't have won in either category!

      Thank you again for your courteous and diplomatic comments.

      All the best,