Friday, January 29, 2016

Monochromatic Death: Painted Star Wars Miniatures

Here's the 3rd and final wave of painted miniatures for Return to Hoth, the latest expansion for Star Wars Imperial Assault (here are the first and second posts). Now I can settle down to some Hoth based games: skirmishes with my friend Nicos, and the campaign mode with myself (which may be a little lame since the campaign isn't designed for solo play -- but I love playing solo and seeing how the story of the campaign unfolds).

SC2-M Repulsor Tank, FFG Imperial Assault (2015, sculpted by B. Maillet)

SC2-M Repulsor Tank, FFG Imperial Assault (2015, sculpted by B. Maillet)

Return to Hoth features canonical miniatures (Snowtroopers and Wampa Monsters) as well as two models from the larger Star Wars universe: the HK-Assassin Droids and the SC2-M Repulsor Tank.

The HK Assassin Droid
Painting these miniatures was a challenge because of their simplicity. All of them are monochromatic, which means that as a painter we have to work hard to add interest to the miniature. I like to do this with some extreme shading, but even this is tricky, because its easy to over-do the shading so what should be bright white or bible black runs into nothing but grey.

Recently I've had a number of people mention that my painting style reminds them of cel-shading (i.e. blocks of graduated colour rather than seamless shading). If this trait is normally noticeable, it is dominant in these monochromatic miniatures. I used to feel quite ambiguously about this painting style of mine. Shading with ink glazes are much more fashionable, often beautiful and (from what people tell me) easy to employ with just a little practice. But shading with glazes and washes has never come naturally to me. 

Elite HK Assassin Droid, FFG Imperial Assault (2015, sculpted by B. Maillet)

Although I'm continuing to experiment with glazing, I've decided to embrace my cel-shading ways. Since it comes naturally from my brush, it seems to be an expression of something inside of me. It may make my miniatures look clunky, but at least they are clunky in a way that it uniquely mine. After all, miniature painting should be an art, not a craft... individual style has to count for something.

Well, that's what I'm telling myself.

HK Assassin Droid, FFG Imperial Assault (2015, sculpted by B. Maillet)

I should also add that I think that way I photograph my miniatures contributes to the appearance of cel-shading. I shoot them at very close range and flood them with messianic quantities of light. I like the way this technique makes the miniatures look (even though it tends to expose even tiny mistakes). But when using the miniatures on the table-top, where the light is more terrestrial, the shading gradients aren't half so noticeable.

In any case, I'd be very interested to hear if anyone else has found that they have a certain painting style that comes naturally will-thee or nil-thee. Please let me know... And otherwise, thanks for looking!

Wampa, FFG Imperial Assault (2015, sculpted by B. Maillet)

Snowtroopers, FFG Imperial Assault (2015, sculpted by B. Maillet)

All these new models can now be found in my galleries of the complete range of Star Wars Imperials, Rebels and Mercenaries.


PS -- If you like creative conversions for Imperial Assault, check out Suber's modifications to Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. By subtly adjusting their positioning, he's added a whole new level of movement to the miniatures. And as always, his paint jobs are great.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

1980's Citadel Lord of the Rings miniatures

Here's a complete set of the Fellowship of the Ring, the Nine Walkers -- miniatures from Citadel's 1980's range of the Lord of the Rings. I painted them up a few weeks ago, for use in Ares Games' War of the Ring, which is one of the best board games I've ever played.

Citadel only had the license for The Lord of the Rings for a short time in the mid-1980's, before the torch passed on to Mithril Miniatures. The brevity of Citadel's stewardship gave rise to a patchy range of miniatures. By my count, there are 4 different figures of Gimli, 5 of Aragorn and 6 of Gandalf. Yet many major characters are absent: there's no Faramir, no Eowyn, no Eomer, no Galadriel and no Glorfindel. 

And there are other problems with these miniatures. First, a wide diversity of sculpting styles from the various Citadel sculptors deprived this small range of coherency (unlike, for example, the Talisman range, where Aly Morrison's re-interpretation of Gary Chalk's illustrations created a highly recognizable family of miniatures). Second, the Lord of the Rings range bled at the edges into Citadel's larger Warhammer Fantasy Battle range: Noldor elves became WFB High Elves, and the Orcs of Middle Earth were virtually indistinguishable from the Orcs of the Old World. As a result, some of the miniatures don't stand out as uniquely Tolkien-esque.

And yet I still love these models, especially the Nine Walkers. They boast the best of Citadel's golden age: character-driven miniatures full of gesture, personality and mischief. They are sculptures that artistically jettison photo-realism so that they rather appear to step out of illustrations by John Blanche, Tony Ackland or the Brothers Hildebrandt. Indeed, this freedom from realism is what separates Citadel's 1980's LOTR miniatures from the later miniatures sculpted by the Perry Twins from 2001 onward. The later miniatures are modeled after characters captured in film, whereas the 1980's range arise directly from a world of books.

Here are my versions of the Fellowship, with a description of each character from the Lord of the Rings:

Frodo Baggins

"A stout little fellow with red cheeks... But this one is taller than some [hobbits] and fairer than most, and he has a cleft in his chin: perky chap with a bright eye." (FotR, Book I, Chapter 10). I've tried to show Frodo midway through his quest. Although his eyes are still bright, the Ring is beginning to take its toll.

Painted Frodo, Citadel (1985)

Samwise Gamgee

"Presently Sam appeared, trotting quickly and breathing hard; his heavy pack was hoisted high on his shoulders, and he had put on his head a tall shapeless felt bag, which he called a hat. In the gloom he looked very much like a dwarf." (FotR, Book I, Chapter 3),

Painted Sam Gamgee, Citadel (1985)

Merry Brandybuck

"Then Eowyn rose up. ‘Come now, Meriadoc!’ she said. ‘I will show you the gear that I have prepared fur you.’ Now she led Merry to a booth among the lodges of the king’s guard and there an armourer brought out to her a small helm, and a round shield, and other gear... ‘Here is also a stout jerkin of leather, a belt, and a knife. A sword you have.’ Merry bowed, and the lady showed him the shield... and it bore on it the device of the white horse." (RotK, Book V, Chapter 3)

Painted Merry Brandybuck, Citadel (1985)

Pippin Took

"Pippin soon found himself arrayed in strange garments, all of black and silver. He had a small hauberk, its rings forged of steel, maybe, yet black as jet; and a high-crowned helm with small raven-wings on either side, set with a silver star in the centre of the circlet." (RotK, Book V, Chapter 4)

Painted Pippin Took, Citadel (1985)


"Suddenly Forodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man sitting in the shadows near the wall... His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he waore a hood that overshadowed his face, but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits." (FotR, Book I, Chapter 9)

Painted Strider Aragorn, Citadel (1985)

Gandalf the Grey

"At the end of the second week in September a cart came in through Bywater from the direction of the Brandywine Bridge in broad daylight. An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat." (FotR, Book I, Chapter 1)

Painted Gandalf the Grey, Citadel (1985)

Legolas Greenleaf

"There was also a strange Elf clad in green and brown, Legolas, a messenger from his father, Thranduil, the King of the Elves of Northern Mirkwood." (FotR, Book II, Chapter 2)

Painted Legolas, Citadel (1985)


"And seated a little apart was a tall man with a fair and noble face, dark-haired and grey-eyed, proud and stern of glance. He was cloaked and booted as if for a journey on horseback; and indeed though his garments were rich, and his cloak was lined with fur, they were stained with long travel. He had a collar of silver in which a single white stone was set; his locks were shorn about his shoulders." (FotR, Book II, Chapter 2)

Painted Boromir, Citadel (1985)

Gimli Gloin's Son

"Gimli the dwarf alone wore openly a short shirt of steel-rings, for dwarves make light of burdens; and in his belt was a broad-bladed axe." (FotR, Book II, Chapter 3)

Painted Gimli, Citadel (1985)

Thanks for looking!

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Force Awakens: Star Wars & Zen Buddhism

Going into The Force Awakens, I had one criterion: did it deepen my appreciation of the previous films? If the answer to that question is yes, then it's a true Star Wars film. The magic of the original Star Wars trilogy is that every movie enriched its predecessors. As a result, the total was always greater than the sum of the individual parts. If there had only been A New Hope, we would have had a wonderful fairy tale set in space. But The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi transformed Episode IV into a mythical epic.

By this yardstick, the prequels (Episodes I, II and III) were dismal failures - no surprise here. Rather than increasing our appreciation of the original trilogy, they cheapened it. Darth Vader shrunk to a greasy teenager, and the Force was reduced to microscopic bacteria.

And by this same criterion, The Force Awakens is a great success: Leaving the theatre, I found myself thinking new thoughts about the original trilogy. My imagination is kindled.

The idea which has the greatest hold on me is the relationship of Star Wars to Zen Buddhism. There has already been a lot written on Buddhist influences on George Lucas... that the movies have a "Buddhist heart" or that Buddhism is part of "the Jedi philosophy". I'm both a student and a teacher of Zen, and in the past, I've been pretty skeptical of these interpretations. Whatever of Buddhism was in the earlier movies always struck me as superficial -- for instance, anyone who's ever tried Zen meditation will tell you that it doesn't teach you to control or suppress strong emotions like anger (although meditation may assist you in perceiving your emotions and accepting them for what they are). And sadly, Zen meditation will not allow you to choke people with your mind. I have tried.

Be that as it may, The Force Awakens has compelled me to re-evaluate what Zen and Star Wars have to say to each other. Not that I believe Buddhist morals were at the front of the screenwriters' minds. Rather, my view is that the screenwriters (Abrams, Arndt & Kasdan) were thinking deeply about what it means to pursue a path of mind-training, and in doing so, they encountered certain paradoxes -- paradoxes which Zen Buddhists have been thinking about for centuries. 

After the Death Star, the Laundry

The first of these paradoxes is what we could call "the fallacy of the happy ending". I loved the fact that The Force Awakens opens with the Rebels/Resistance struggling for survival. Although the second Death Star had been destroyed and the Emperor had been killed 30 years before, things are as bad (or worse) -- it was almost like Return of the Jedi never happened. What about Luke's mastery of the Force? Wasn't he supposed to fix everything? It's possible that such a breezy dismissal of the heroics from the original trilogy annoyed some fans, but I thought it was a bold move.

You will encounter one of the profound mysteries of Buddhism if you ever meet an enlightened Zen Master or a Tibetan Rinpoche or a similar teacher with a recognized spiritual attainment. The interesting thing about these people is that -- although they are usually wise and helpful -- they are also alarmingly human (especially if you see them up close). All their attainments don't necessarily make them any better at navigating life. Indeed, a few of them are dicks. 

This mystery is encapsulated in the old Buddhist saying "After enlightenment, the laundry". That is to say, after you have scaled your spiritual mountain, you will find that life isn't so different than it was before: you have the same personal failings, the same chores, the same problems.

There is another Buddhist saying: "How do you go higher than a 100 foot pole?" After you've climbed to the top of the holy mountain, where do you go from there? This is the dilemma facing anyone who's experienced any kind of spiritual insight, Zen Masters and Jedi alike. Where do you go from there? Do you expect to soar into the sky, like an angelic being? Good luck. And if that doesn't happen, how will you climb your way down this high pole so that you can resume life with both feet on the ground?

There's no answer to these questions: it's part of the mystery of meditation. The laundry continues to pile up. The same personal failings stare you in the face. Your best hope is that you have a different perspective on your failings, chores and problems. 

All of which is to say, Luke's failure to solve the Galaxy's problems was a great place to start the new trilogy. A master who faces the same difficulties he did as a youth is an authentic portrait of the later stages of a spiritual journey. The sad and enigmatic look on his face at the end of The Force Awakens suggests that this is a man who has seen his deepest failures unfold after his greatest successes. The path of the adept has no final, happy ending. Indeed, it has no ending at all. Endings are beside the point.

Curing the Medicine

The second echo of Zen in The Force Awakens in raising the idea of non-duality. That is to say, the original trilogy was all about the duality of the Light versus the Dark side of the Force. At the end of Return of the Jedi, both Luke and Dark Vader embrace the Light, reject the Dark and finish off the evil Emperor. This is a pretty traditional take on the hero's journey. However, as we've already discussed, this triumph of the light wasn't permanent, or even particularly long-lasting. 

At the beginning of The Force Awakens, Lor San Tekka speaks of finally restoring "balance" to the Force. The importance of balancing the Force is later echoed by Han Solo when he talks to Rey and Finn. It's a little too early to tell where exactly the new trilogy is going with the Force, but I hope that this talk about balance indicates that the filmmakers are trying to get beyond the eternal contest between dark and light, and explore what it means to achieve a synthesis between these two extremes.

Traditionally, early Buddhism drew a distinction between the purity of the enlightened mind and the delusion of the ordinary, dualistic mind. One was desirable and good, the other was undesirable and bad. However, one of the most important innovations of Zen Buddhism was the insight that perceiving a difference between enlightenment and delusion is itself a delusion. After all, drawing a stark line between purity and impurity is a pretty dualistic thing to do. Thus, Zen teaches us that meditating in order to free yourself of delusion is counter-productive, because it just perpetuates a dualistic mind. This idea is often encapsulated in the phrase: "Medicine cures the disease, but what cures the medicine?"

According to Zen, the only truly helpful meditation is meditation that doesn't try to actually make you a less deluded person. The goal is to have no goal. As one of my favourite Zen teachers says, "Every day, in every way, I am giving up on the idea of self-improvement."

How does this relate to The Force Awakens? I see in the character of Kylo Ren someone who is trapped in the jaws of dualism. His problem isn't that he has joined the Dark side -- his problem is that he is torn in between Dark and Light -- indeed, that's what he tells Han Solo. Both sides of the Force clearly have some purchase in his heart, yet he wants to be absolutely one or absolutely the other. His inability to settle on one side makes him miserable throughout the movie. He has no balance.

My hope for Episodes VIII and IX is that they fully explore what it would take for peace to come to a character like Kylo Ren. In my view, it is not simply embracing the Light side, which would ultimately amount to an unsustainable act of self-denial. A simple triumph of Light is what we got in the original trilogy. The result, as we now know, is just more laundry. Rather someone like Kylo Ren needs a cure for the disease, but he also needs a cure for the medicine. 

I wonder what would happen if he gets it...

Friday, January 8, 2016

Painted Verena Talos, MHD-19 and Loku Kanoloa: Return to Hoth (Part 2)

Here's the second installment of my painted miniatures for Return to Hoth, the new expansion for Star Wars Imperial Assault. These are the three Rebel Heroes, Verena Talos ("the cunning operative"); MHD-19 ("the loyal medic"); and Loku Kanoloa ("the deadly marksman").

Verena Talos, FFG Imperial Assault (2015, sculpted by B. Maillet)

These are three excellent miniatures: dynamic poses, detailed sculpting, and lots of personality. 

I was particularly pleased with Verena Talos. Although a she's a pure invention of Fantasy Flight Games, she has an authentic "Star War-sy" feel. Perhaps it's the dramatic braid of hair -- that's a trick that always worked for Princess Leia. In any case, I like the way that FFG has populated Imperial Assault with a number of bad-ass women, including Verena, Jyn Odan and Diala Passil. With the advent of The Force Awakens, strong women are certainly the new face of Star Wars.

Loku Kanoloa, FFG Imperial Assault (2015, sculpted by B. Maillet)

And here's the infelicitously named Loku Kanoloa, a deadly sniper named after a cooking oil. I would have thought that squids would be sensitive to anything reminiscent of a deep-fryer. Perhaps it's time for FFG to splurge on a new Star Wars name generator

At least I now have someone to lead my Mon Calamari Rebel Saboteurs

MHD-19, FFG Imperial Assault (2015, sculpted by B. Maillet)

My favourite new miniatures is the medical droid MHD-19. It pleases me that Fantasy Flight Games has given us this hero because Star Wars droids have always fascinated me. What is it like to be a droid? On the one hand, they are bought, sold and chopped up for spare parts. Some ("the Gonk Droid") are essentially walking toasters. In one of the first scenes of A New Hope, we Jawas pedaling droids to the dirt farmers of Tatooine as if they were copper pots. 

Servio ergo sum
On the other hand, many droids are sentient, sensitive and self-willed. They feel pain. C-3PO is downright emotional. And indeed, after watching The Force Awakens, I began to wonder whether R2-D2 is force-aware. 

Does this make droids like human slaves? Maybe. They are frequently shackled with restraining bolts (like the ones that Luke puts on R2 and 3PO on Tatooine). Yet droids all seem content with a life of service (with the exception of aberrations like IG-88 and 4-LOM). We never see a droid asking for wages or emancipation. So perhaps droids are a category unto themselves -- sentient beings without any personal aspirations or ambitions. That is something truly alien to us. I suppose that's what I like about droids; since the movies don't tell us what to think, their true nature is left to our own imagination. That's the way Star Wars should be... strange and mysterious.

Thanks for looking!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Painted Star Wars Miniatures: Return to Hoth (Part 1)

Behold Princess Leia Organa, Dengar, Echo Base Troopers and General Sorin. They come from the Ally and Villain packs that were released in conjunction with Return to Hoth, the new expansion for Star Wars Imperial Assault. They hit the stores just before Christmas, and I've spent most of my holiday time painting them up (or most of my holiday time when I wasn't sunk in a meat-pie and port induced stupor.)

Leia Organa, Imperial Assault FFG 2015

Seeing The Force Awakens a few days ago whetted my already keen appetite for all things Star Wars, so it was good to slake it on painting. The first miniature I tackled was Leia Organa -- we had to wait a full year from the introduction of Imperial Assault for Fantasy Flight Games to release a miniature for her. That's no way to treat a female lead, let alone a princess.

At least our patience has been rewarded -- this is a lovely sculpt, with an insouciant pose that embodies the acid sweetness of Carrie Fisher's Leia. My only complaint is that the miniature's face was longer and finer than Fisher's own, requiring some remedial painting: enlarging the eyes, shortening the nose, and rounding the lips. I'm not sure if I captured Fisher's features, but it was the best that my brush could do.

Dengar, Imperial Assault FFG 2015

Marat with bandages
Another miniature I was overjoyed to see was Dengar. I've never been exactly clear as to why Dengar's head is swaddled in bandages. Maybe he has dermatitis herpetiformis, like Jean-Paul Marat. In any case, he (Dengar, not Marat) is one of the iconic bounty hunters and it was fulfilling to finally paint him. 

Intriguingly, Fantasy Flight Games decided to make Dengar a giant of a man. He towers over Leia. I really like the fact that there is so much height variation in the Imperial Assault miniatures -- it gives certain figures a real sense of menace. And menace is something that the Dengar miniature needs, since the figure strikes a mincing pose that makes him seem a little dainty. His stride is just a little narrow -- I wish FFG could have come up with a more dynamic pose.

General Sorin, Imperial Assault FFG 2015

The next miniature is General Sorin, a non-canonical character invented for Imperial Assault. Fortunately, he's a dead-ringer for General Veers, the Imperial officer who led the attack on Hoth. Like Veers, Sorin wears AT-AT pilot armour, including a flaring helmet and a cuirass with life-support gear. The pilot armour is a visual cue to Sorin's special abilities and command cards when directing Imperial vehicles.

I love Sorin's pose: simple, commanding and self-possessed. Not every miniature has to be brandishing a weapon in order to seize our attention. Without a doubt, this is a miniature that speaks in an accent of English Received Pronunciation. I can just hear him saying "Fyah!"

Echo Base Troopers, Imperial Assault FFG 2015

And last of the figure packs is the Echo Base Troopers, aka Hoth Rebel Troopers. Like with Leia, painting these characters require a lighter shade of pale: whites, creams and light greys. Such a palate is extremely difficult to pull off, especially if (like me) you believe in a lot of black outlining. White garments aren't very forgiving when it comes to messy outlines, and in the case of these Troopers, the miniatures are covered in fiddly details (buckles, straps, holsters and piping) that required hours of work. 

I can't wait to get these miniatures on the gaming table. As befits her station, Leia is an especially powerful addition to the skirmish game. She's solid offensively and defensively, and boasts a new ability called "Battlefield Leadership". And all for just 8 points! She has the potential to turn any battle into the Rebel's favour. As Leia herself said, "I don't know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you'll do as I tell you, okay?"

Watch out for future posts on the rest of the Return to Hoth miniatures. And in the meantime, I'm updating my galleries of the complete Imperial Assault Rebels, Mercenaries and Imperials. Thank for looking!