Sunday, February 08, 2009

"Ye Knows too Much"

OK, I admit it; I'm a big fan of Disneyland. I think the same is true for many model railroaders, because the idea of creating the world in miniature is common to both. I was thinking about one of my favorite attractions, Pirates of the Caribbean, the other day while working on a design project. At one point, a voice intones a warning that goes something like this:

Perhaps ye knows too much. Ye’ve seen the cursed treasure, ye know where it be hidden. Now proceed at your own risk! These be the last friendly words you’ll hear … you may not survive to pass this way again!

It's not surprising that this particular project brings these words to mind: it's a fascinating prototype, the client has lots of detailed background information, but there's just no way that we are going to get all of it into the available space. Sometimes the more one knows, the more difficult it is to leave anything out. Indeed, many folks I talk with are afflicted with "analysis paralysis" – they know so much about their prototype that they can't decide how to begin.

Often, a big part of my job in working with a client on these prototype-inspired projects is to help with the process of prioritizing and trade-offs. What will meet the client's interests best, whether that be replication of favorite scenes, operations that suggest the prototype, or some compromise. "Knowing too much" can indeed be a curse, me hearties.

On the other hand, a deep understanding of the prototype can create serendipitous opportunities for capturing an element of the prototype in a perfect spot. On a recent project set in the Colorado Rockies, I remembered a segment of the prototype where the tracks curved around a series of swampy areas on fills and short trestles. When an empty spot in roughly the right location became available, I was able to drop in this atmospheric scene.

Another danger of knowing too much is that it can make you want to know more. And with the vast proliferation of prototype information becoming available in books, magazines, and online in the last twenty years or so, there will always be more to learn. How do you know when to call it "good enough"?

The key, as is so often the case in model railroading, is finding the right balance. And that, unfortunately, is a personal value for each of us. My client on the project that kicked off this "knows too much" reverie already recognized the dangers himself, because he included in the background materials an article by John Edwards (no, not that one) from the January 2003 Railroad Model Craftsman. Edwards laments that in the process of learning so much about his prototype, he was also learning all that he didn't know – and he almost came to feel he didn't know anything.

Hopefully, Edwards found the right compromise for himself, as I'm sure my client and I will find for this project. And after some twists and turns through the pirates' lair, we'll pop out into the sunlight at the end. Yo ho, yo ho, a designer's life for me …