Designing a Layout for Video

 By Nicholas Kalis


            A few caveats are in order from the outset. My layout set in the 1960s has not been videotaped yet. I must admit though, that having my railroad be the subject of an Allen Keller video is a not so secret dream of mine. In fact, I would wager that it is a fantasy of many who are reading this chapter. I have no expertise in video photography. My only qualifications for writing this chapter are that I have a layout under construction that might be a good candidate for being professionally recorded on video and that I have watched nearly every tape Allen Keller has made and quite a few other model tapes produced by others. I have volunteered my insights after having stood back for several years without anyone else stepping forward to tackle this subject. I should also note that while I will mention Allen’s name many times in this chapter, that I have no stake in his firm nor any commercial connection to him. Fact of the matter, I have never met him. Although, I bet I am not alone in wishing to have had the opportunity to spend an evening teasing anecdotes out of Allen about some of the great model railroads he has visited and great model railroaders he has interviewed. That said, most of us would acknowledge that having one’s layout the focus of an Allen Keller tape or some other producer such as Green Frog is the “Holy Grail” for many layout builders. I didn’t say “layout designer”, because if all you do is design a great layout, forget about getting any kudos. No layout will ever make it to a Keller video unless the aspiring modeler takes up his hammer or wrench  or whatever is his tool of choice.


            Designing a layout for video shares much with designing a layout for photography. Lighting may not be that critical as I suspect that a professional video crew will bring their own lighting. Video also requires that you design for operations. If you are going for a trackside look, narrow benchwork is in order. If you prefer a bird’s eye view, then deeper benchwork may be in order. In any case, the super-detailing that a video soaks up is probably best accomplished with a layout that avoids hatches and duck-unders.


            Most layout videotapes consist of, at most, three main topics: a look at the sights and sounds of the host’s layout; a clinic by the host and/or his friends; and an interview with the host in which he muses on what the hobby has provided him and his thoughts on the hobby in general. Hosts will also discuss their particular approach to the hobby. One Keller tape has even interviewed the husband and wife team that professionally built the layout for its owners – I speak of Cal Winter’s great layout and the Keller tape that so wonderfully transports us back in time and place to the Florida of many decades back.


            The sights and sounds of a layout will include run-bys and on-board views from camera-mounted rolling stock. Switching operations are also featured. Industries are often described with an explanation of what commodities are shipped into and out of each industry. Be sure you know what goes in and out of every on-line industry on your layout. Allen Keller will surely ask you.


            So what do you need to do to design a layout that is fit for a professional video? You must design small enough that you can super-detail it (I know this is an over-used term) to delight the video audience. With shipping and handling, video tapes can reach almost $50 in cost. Anyone spending that much money expects to be entertained. If all someone wanted to do was see an innovative track plan, they could buy a back issue of Model Railroader at a swap meet for 25 cents, so be prepared to entertain your audience with your layout or forget about it ever being featured on a videotape. The layout must run well and be thoroughly scenicked – at least in places. You must be able to keep it clean. The camera will bring out every minor flaw. You probably will need to spend a good deal of money on figures and other details to get a great looking layout. I know this is a taboo subject, but lets be realistic. Even if you are a great scratchbuilder and can work wonders with Strathmore board, a layout fit for a video cannot be inexpensive. A walk-around layout is in my mind best suited for a video.


            You or some friend that helped you build the layout ought to be able to demonstrate some scenery technique for the audience. Innovative, useful techniques that are neither convoluted nor expensive seem to be most prized. This has become a seeming requirement for Keller tapes. It helps to be able to communicate well when Allen interviews you. You should be able to communicate just what motivated you to build your layout. This should be easy, for if you ever achieve a great model railroad, it will be because you had a detailed plan – whether on paper or in your head. And if you have this plan, you surely asked and answered for yourself, just what you are seeking to accomplish with this layout both in terms of modeling particulars and in terms of gratification. You surely answered the question of era and locale for your layout. You surely had a goal of acting as historian, or operator, for instance.


            These same rules should also apply should you just wish to capture your layout with amateur video photography. While, at times, this chapter sounded more like a recipe book for having Allen Keller visit you, the ideas shared would work equally well with other producers. But lets be frank, Keller tapes provide more variety and professional quality to more people than probably any other line of model railroad oriented video tapes. Good luck to all who aspire to have their layouts appear on video. Write me or send emails with your ideas and thoughts on this topic.