“Wipers,” as the British soldiers delighted in mispronouncing its name, was also the last Belgian city before the coast - a vital symbol of why Britain had entered the great war: to liberate Belgium from the German Army.
Through these ruins passed countless convoys of materiel and processions of soldiers, on their way to the front lines of the war in the Ypres Salient.
Passing the shattered Cloth Hall, onto what had been the prosperous city’s market, the Grand Place, they snaked on between the stone lions of the Menin Gate, down the Menin Road, into the desolation of the Flanders fields and the battles of Third Ypres.
Yet the wrecked and evacuated surface of the city belied what was a hive of subterranean activity, supplying the British sector of the Western Front with the means to prosecute the war.
Beneath the fractured and ruined streets and dug into the city’s ramparts, existed stockpiles of munitions, aid stations, billets and garrisons, well sheltered from the constant German bombardment.
One poem printed in the November 1917 edition, as the Third Ypres Offensive neared its conclusion, perfectly expressed the ironic tone the paper struck and which soldiers found so endearing:
“If you can crawl through wire and crump holes, reeking with feet of liquid mud, and keep your head turned always to the place you are seeking, through dread of crying you will laugh instead...
“If you can fight a week in Hell's own image and at the end just throw you down and grin...
You'll be a soldier one day, then, my son.”
Over the years, tens of thousands of soldiers filed through Ypres’ streets on their way to the front lines.
Many thousands never made the return journey.
At the lower end of financed production, time and budget regularly compete to inform the 'best' narrative treatment of a subject, and in the case of creating this dioramic treatment of the centre of Ypres in 1917, these were critical considerations, to be balanced against the task of recreating, with a high degree of historical accuracy, the devastation of a dense and architecturally complex city.
The essential messages of the diorama were to express the role of Ypres at this stage of the war, a substantially subterranean logistics hub for the Allied war effort in this sector of the Western Front, and above ground a strikingly sculptural Gothic ruin, threaded with the constant procession of infantry and materiel flowing to and from the front lines of battle.
These messages could be explored by remaining in the central area of the city, including the avenue in front of the iconic Lakenhalle, better known as Cloth Hall, and along to the Grand Place, where prior to the war, markets were held.
Before the outbreak of war, in 1914, the city's main avenue and Grand Place seen here filled with markets.
Late in 1917, this photograph by one of Australia's official war photographers, Frank Hurley, illustrates clearly the transformation of the city after three years of artillery bombardment.
Modelling to camera
Although a relatively small part of the city is the focus of the diorama, sightlines in all directions were complicated by the ruined, non-uniform landscape to be accurately depicted. Primary issues for scene building were how to convincingly generate the ruined surrounds and other nonrepetitive elements, as well as how to represent the Cloth Hall, clearly a visual centerpiece for the whole scene.
The ruined surrounds were generated by analysing the profiles of the wrecked buildings as they appeared in late 1917. Fortunately Ypres at the time is well documented, including aerial imagery.
The wreckage was categorised in terms of detailed treatment into two tiers - those structures, such as retaining walls that would be seen close to camera, and major structures that remained more intact (seen here in red); and less 'heroic' facades that would essentially stand in as 'cards' that face the camera and provide a rational view and parallax behaviour as the camera passes them (here in green).
Producing enough of a variety of these crude profiles would make up enough visual diversity to populate the scene and reflect accurately on what was discernible in the photographic record. These were augmented by making additional flats from existing models of ruined buildings which were positioned farthest from the camera.
The numbered profiles as shown here in the background were traced from historical photographs, extruded and, with minor dressing, used to represent the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Martin, behind the Cloth Hall.
This technique of using flat profiles to create depth, detail and convincing parallax in a scene derives from theatre and film technique.
Here, a ruins profile, identified as 'hero' (close to camera) is treated with photo-realistic texture, extrusion, and its edges are given realistic brick detailing, using a tool which clones the brick objects in a semi-random offset pattern. This profile can then be flipped, rotated and used repeatedly at various distances to camera.
Here again, note the card-like quality of the flats when the camera's perspective is re-positioned off its track. This contrasts with the plausible behaviour of the model of the truck (behind) seen from any angle.
The following videos illustrate the progression from stand-in flats to finished forms, and the contrast with fully fledged models, especially Cloth Hall, which is further discussed in the next section.
The ruined Cloth Hall is an extraordinary and sculptural image and as Frank Hurley's diary entry emphasises, an iconic and lasting impression of Ypres for those who witnessed it in 1917.
Recreating its complexity was, especially initially, a daunting task. However, after discovering that a group of CG artists based in Belgium had produced geometry of the hall in various stages of ruin and repair some years before, (a collaboration between students of the Digital Arts and Entertainment College, part of Howest, and the In Flanders Fields Museum), a fairly wild goose chase ended successfully in acquiring their geometry, which we then used as the basis for our version of Cloth Hall. I'm particularly grateful to Joost Ingels at Howest, and Peter Slosse at In Flanders Fields Museum for their help in tracking down the files. The following video shows the result of the original Howest project and how it's used in situ at the museum in Ypres:
We inherited a great head start on such a complex part of the diorama, and began the task of modifying and developing the model to more accurately depict its state in September 1917.
This included reworking elements of geometry, increasing detail and adding new elements such as rubble and the wooden support beams along the front facade. Also completely texturing the model, which had not been attempted at all in the originating version.
The extensive texture work included the different types of brickwork used throughout the building, as well as creating an easily readable level of artillery destruction, including textured rubble piles, collapsed beams and smoke damage.
The Infantry soldiers that appear in this diorama were largely inherited and re-positioned from another scene designed to accompany this one. Called Journey to Passchendaele, it tells the story of soldiers' progress, after passing out of Ypres, through the Menin Gate, on toward the front lines of the battles of Third Ypres. That diorama and a study of its construction can be seen here.
Writer, director, compositor, scenic artist - Sam Doust
Principal scenic and environment artist - Reuben Hill
Character and object artists - Dean Finnigan, Levi Rice, Stephen Macris, Tony Wan Yen-Ren, Samuel Eeckhaut
Sound designer - Andrew Stevenson, We Love Jam
Narration - Richard Roxburgh
Watch the finished diorama:
For more information, contact Sam Doust at Latchkey.