Visual Silence is a term I keep coming back to. Its meaning is drawn from many places. One of the most important of these is how a miniature is painted, but here I'd just like to talk about some of the elements which spring almost purely from form. How a model is shaped.
One of the first and most important is the time signature of a miniature. This describes the slice of imagined time that a model is assumed to occupy. After thinking about this I've broken it down into a handful of sketched categories of time in miniatures;
This is the far end of the scale. Even using this in comparison to the time signature of 'living' forms is a bit of a cheat but it makes a handy place to begin. Imagine a huge stone head or an abandoned imperial building on the battlefield. It is not meant, or imagined ever to move in the ideaspace of the game. So the imagined period of time which that form is assumed to occupy is huge, and that feeling is part of how it is meant to work.
But to stop cheating and to focus on living figures for a moment.
This is one in which the figure is standing in a comfortable position, perhaps not emotionally calm, but with their body absent kinetic tension, muscles largely relaxed and their particular objects held close to the bodies centre of gravity or stowed in a way in which their weight is centred and contained. In this we can imagine that the figure paused for a portrait. They might have been there for an hour, and probably someone could stand like that for maybe an hour, with some minor shifting about, without becoming too uncomfortable.
Or, really, Contrapposta time, after all those Greek, Roman and then Renaissance statues of someone in marble captured in the act of stepping forwards. This is the time signature that Skagrott the Loon King and Yvraine both occupy, in almost the same position and dress, producing some amusing comparisons. (Oddly, both of these have animal companions that go with them which have their own time signatures. Yvrain has her smooth and slinking Gyrynx which pairs and mirrors her own style of movement while Skagrott has two manic little Squigs captured in mid-bounce who's time signature breaks his up a little and adds a touch of the ridiculous.
This is a signature much more common to old Warhammer Fantasy where a huge number of its line models had it. Here the figure is bearing a weapon, but it’s not swinging, firing or impacting. So the weapon is not captured in the exact moment of its use but instead in the minutes, second or even possibly hours directly before its use. Those times of near-violence. Here the bodies balance is usually slightly out of its centre of gravity. Muscles are under some tension and some extension, but not too much.
Between bearing time, and the one after this, fragment time, there are probably a huge number I have failed to analyse and spot. Really each army and figure can have its own subtle interpretation of time depending on what it is like or assumed to be doing. The new AoS ghost models are all in a state of assumed movement. It's hard to tell if they are going slow or fast but the general sense is of them flowing over the earth like a leaf on a breeze, and their forms flowing with motion like washing on a line. It's not quite like a figure running as we don't have bodies to looks at so the assumed motion is not sensed in the same way. It is its own particular thing.
Anyway, this space between Bearing Time and Fragment time is the space between the swing of a sword and its impact, the moment as a lance thrusts forth, the seconds before a shield takes a hit. I'm marking this one - MORE RESEARCH NEEDED.
A dark elf assassin, or a modern Squig Hopper, are both caught in the same splinter of time. A fragment of explicit kinetic movement, the apogee of an arching curve which, if it were to continue for even a fragment of a second longer would result in some shift in form or a change in the image they present and the space they occupy. This is form treated like a photograph, except most actual photographs would blur if you tried to capture something moving this fast, (which actually might be really strange and interesting if you tried to mimic it in form, how do you blur a shape?) so its like a high speed photograph.
Those are the basic categories of time I'm thinking about, but more important than any particular classification is simply addressing or thinking about the time which the miniature or sculpture you are looking at is made to occupy.
And then thinking about how that meshes with, reflects or alters the times of all those figures around it.
Because silence, or at least quietness, in movement as in sound, is relative. It is created by its context.
There are a handful of other concepts I would like to go into as relating to visual silence.
A key difference between old Warhammer Fantasy and AoS is the loss of neatly grouped square formations. Instead, everything is individual, bounded by its own round base and only somewhat jostled together with its kin.
An important thing with older minis is that they are both sculptures in their own right, but also, and at the same time, tiny pieces in a mosaic of shapes which makes up the regiment or group it is part of.
One of the strongest ways in which this becomes evident is in the case of long weapons like Halberds, Muskets, Spears and a few others. Here, with the minis as it would be in reality, the long straight lines, either standing up like a forest of spikes or pointing forwards, form this gridwork which both illustrates and emphasises the morphic tessellation of the block as a whole.
(I think its going to be hard for GW to bring back long weapons like these in AoS because when you pick them up and then re-pace them after a move, you _really_ need all the lines, all the sticks, pointing in the same way in a nice group. If they aren’t oriented properly then the length of the line really calls attention to that.)
The same can be said for apparent uniformity and micro-differences in stance, loadout and appearance in minis in these blocks. Because every figure is arranged on the same axis, facing the same way, with the same weapons and armour, small differences in stance and other elements stand out more than they would otherwise and create a different effect. It is like a lineup of similar looking men. If they were to mill around randomly it would be a blur of similarity, but in a line, and regarded both sequentially and as a whole, these small differences count for more individually and add more life than they would in an unstructured crowd. You both see and sense them more powerfully due to the spatial uniformity of the block.
Put simply, the block as a whole is the sculpture as intended. That is the reached-for affect, the individual parts are largely that, just individual parts.
Heraldic Minis and Swiss Cheese Minis
One of the interesting qualities in lead and plastic moulding is the flat plane the figure must be on. The two sides of the can then be pressed strongly together so that the molten liquid flows through it properly.
(I don't know if you could invisibly 3D print a multidimensional mould inside a seamless bock of metal in some way. That would be kind of a trip if you could.)
Modern GW tricks its way out of this by breaking down a complex 3D model into a series of fragments exhibited on a flat plane, then you clip out all the bits, glue them all together and there you go, a more spatially complex model. But back in the ancient times they were less good at this so you had to have all of the model, or almost all of it, as one neat thing presented across one plane in the mould.
Obviously this had some limitations but there were some aspects and some models where the limitations were used to produce an effect, one of these is the heraldic aspect of many models.
In heraldry, many of the animals and living figures are presented with the axial tilt of their bodies incorporated into the visual image more than would be possible in a photograph or purely realistic painting. So the lion or unicorn or knight or whatever is showing you more of its body and different elements, different planes or sides, than would be possible from just looking at it from any real life direction, no matter how it was posed.
This lends it that feeling of strange starchiness and hyper-presentation. These figures seem slightly gauche and, from a modern pov, slightly silly, frozen in these strange display positions and often filled with a sense of their own serious gravity. But they are also hyper-presenting, showing more sides, more elements, more expression than should be possible in a realistic viewpoint, and this helps to give them a peculiar intensity.
Some of the good early GW minis make use of this quality. They perhaps hold their weapons in a way which is slightly presentational, as if they were on parade, or on a stage. They seem like figures from greek theatre, presenting these very simple, stark, almost overloaded expressions. And, crucially, they tend to occupy only one axis in space. I imagine space and form almost flowing around them like a diagram of aerodynamic flow.
The Big Melon Comparison
One way to imagine this is to picture one of these minis as if it were the seed in a big soft fruit like a melon. Something with a juicy, somewhat adhesive sticky sweet pith. You have a knife and your job is to get in there and just get a clean seed out of the fruit.
For some axial or heraldic figures it wouldn't be hard to do that, once you cut it open they would just slide right out and once you had it out, scraping any remaining fruit out of the cracks could be done easily with the point of a knife.
Modern minis are less like that. Space does not flow around them, instead it pokes fingers into them. They interpenetrate with space in a variety of complex ways. If you had to get one of these minis out of a huge melon and then clean it, firstly, your melon is fucked because you are probably going to destroy it getting the seed out, or at least gouge a huge hole in it. Then if you want to clean it off then it’s going to take ages. The seed will drag a lot of fruit with it and getting into all the crevices is going to be a nightmare. There are bits you will never, or not easily, reach from the outside.
The idea of the sticky and difficult fruit here, being a kind of tool of thought to let you sense how an object interacts with the space around it by replacing Nothing with Melon.
There must be many more elements of course, not the least of which is painting. A Blanchitsu-style mini when compared to a Sughammer mini is going to feel a lot more visually quiet. And there are all the accoutrements its objects and the things it wears and holds. And what GW would call the 'pace' of a mini, its relationships of 'empty' or calm areas of form to its busier or more baroque elements. And expression of character of course, the little goblinish grin or snarl always lends an air of mania. The stoic observing space marine is a little more silent than the shouting space marine.
But I focus here on three elements which all relate almost entirely to form. That is, they would be the same if the figure were matte grey or not. And three elements which I am reasonably sure I can define well and which I have not seed described that much buy others;
• The time signature a miniature is captured in.
• Whether it is meant to be part of a mosaic of form.
• And the axial or melon-retaining nature of its shape.
All these play a part in creating relative visual silence, or relative visual noise.
The Silence of the Troops.
So in old warhammer, troops in general, especially when you look at any individual model
and especially when those are models meant to be arranged in a block, are visually silent, or relatively silent when compared to their squad or battalion leaders and the army generals and special characters.
When the eye plays across the army, the hierarchy of visual silence matches the hierarchy of the imagined force. Big figures feel big, energetic, important, not just because their models are that way but because they are that way when compared to the rest of the army. That sense of importance and visual power and 'character' is in large part a relative one created by the scene and the frame, not the thing at the centre.
The Noise of Meritocracy
In AoS that hierarchy and patterning of silence has broken down somewhat. Minis aren't locked together in precise arrangements, they can 'choose' their own position relative to each other.
There has been a revolution or upending in silence. Before the leaders tended to be loud, relative to their comparatively silent troops. Now it is more likely for the troops to be visually loud and silence is more often reserved for the grim, still, leaders.
Now every mini can be special in its own way, it is not just part of a visual or morphic chorus, and advances in manufacturing combine with this to mean that every mini can be interesting in a three dimensional way, they no longer have to be heraldic or axial.
The problem here, (and its only really a 'problem' if you define it as such, cognitive mode, personal aesthetic and momentary feeling can all play a role), but even if it’s not a problem you think is bad, its still an element, question or polarity you should recognise;
Is that because every miniature gets to be freee.
Every miniature HAS to be free.
And to a much greater extent than before
It is a lot like moving from a feudal hierarchy to a meritocracy. Everyone gets to do what they want, which is good. And everyone is in almost constant competition with absolutely everyone else almost all of the time, which is possibly not good.
You can see this when comparing old generation Warhammer Fantasy minis with modern new ones. They don't look quite right on the same battlefield. In terms of their time signatures, their personal magnificence and the degree to which each figure is expected to dominate and interpenetrate with the space around it, they are very different.
An AoS figure tends to be like an individual instrument like a horn blaring, or a guitar doing a solo, while a Warhammer Fantasy instrument is more like one of a row of violins, who's job is to work together with the other violins. So if you take one person out of that row, and have them doing the same thing on their own, and compare that to a guitar solo, they look stupid and not very good. But they were never meant to be experienced on their own.
And that's (arguably) a problem, or at least an aspect of an AoS battlefield. Its a LOT more visually noisy than a Warhammer Fantasy battlefield, everyone is much more just playing their own music and so the general volume of visual noise has to go up.
The key point here isn't that you should hate AoS or the way it does things, but that comparing the two visual and morphological paradigms, more simply; the way sight and shape work in these two different games and eras, without considering the fact that they are playing very different kinds of music, (albeit they seem highly similar in other ways), might lead you down a wrong path, of comparing like to like without appreciating the differing contexts and intentions.