The results of the 9th annual Washington Post Peeps Diorama Contest are in, and as usual, the competition was fierce. My sister and I have entered the contest 5 times, and have been semifinalists the last 3 years. The glory! The prestige! (You can see all our fabulous entries here.) We spend many hours every year not just working on our own project but also meticulously studying and analyzing all the winners. This illustrious contest is a great opportunity to see the creativity, ingenuity, and obsessiveness of folks in the DC area and beyond. We take this contest entirely too seriously, but judging from the many amazing entries every year, we are not the only ones. For the uninitiated, I’d like to share some of the many lessons I’ve learned from my years as a peep diorama contestant. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all my grade school teachers who assigned me all those intense dioramas, 3-sided boards, and scale models over the years. I couldn’t have done it without you.
Pictured: What we all aspire to be.
Before you spend days painstakingly handcrafting individual tiny costumes, you have to pick the perfect theme! Something that’s current and witty enough to get the judges' attention, but also original enough that it’s not overdone. While there are no official themes for the entries, most fall into a few specific categories:
Pop Culture/Internet Memes:
Movies, TV, & Books:
Famous Works of Art:
The Materials and Construction
The range of peeps merchandise available has grown considerably over the last few years. You can now get giant peeps, tiny peep-shaped candy, rainbow-speckled peeps, and all sorts of new season-specific shapes. The new sizes have opened up a lot of possibilities with scale. And even though you can get peep snowmen, hearts, and pumpkins, most people still stick to the classic chicks and bunnies. The bunnies are the most popular since they are the most anthropomorphic. There have been some really creative uses with the chicks, but they are generally harder to work with — they lean back so it’s hard to see their small little faces — and are usually just used to represent dogs.
Then there is the question of color. The classics come in pink, yellow, green, blue, orange, and purple. You can’t just buy whatever color is available at your neighborhood store. I’ve marched all over town to track down the perfect color to match my theme. Can you picture these James Bonds from my 2013 entry in green? The horror.
So you’ve gotten the perfect peeps and checked to make sure they don’t have crazy eyes. How are you going to dress them up? Pipe cleaners? Googly eyes? Felt? Construction paper? Paint? My sister and I have personally gone with clay. It is good for small details. Sometimes we use paint too (like the gold girl above), but paint is difficult because the sugar starts to break down when it gets wet. (It’s almost like these things weren’t designed for crafts or something.)
And in case you were wondering, contrary to my earlier suspicions, peeps do go bad. Once the package is opened, they start to stiffen a bit. And even unopened, eventually they do get kind of rank. And those sugar crystals make a huge mess.
One aspect that we have greatly improved upon is our peep poses. We’ve progressed from using paper clips for the limbs and just kind of placing the peeps on the board, to hot glue (which worked, but left visible blobs and wasn’t very forgiving), to strategically placed dowel rods and super glue. The above James Bond diorama was pretty ambitious for us at the time, but Timothy Dalton fell over about a week after being glued. The following year, we succeeded in suspending Baby from Dirty Dancing in the air and getting Spiderman not to fall off the wall.
And note how in our entry from this year, Left Shark is balancing on one foot. In full disclosure, he didn’t successfully balance on the first attempt. It took a lot of glue and cursing, but I am happy to report that he is quite solid.
The title is a delicate balance. You of course want a great peep pun, but you can really overdo it. Sometimes the pun is just not there, and maybe it’s better not to push it. Put some thought into this, and don’t underestimate the value of a killer title. It’s not everything, but it can make or break a project.
Photographing Your Work
You’ve spent the past week (or two or three) making sure every detail on your beautiful diorama is perfect. Now you’re ready to take the picture to send in to the Washington Post. Make sure it’s a good picture. You don’t want all your hard work to get lost in a poorly-lit photo. Make sure you can’t see the kitchen appliances in the background. Pick an angle that highlights all the details. We always take our diorama outside to get better lighting. We may get some weird looks from people passing by, but it’s worth it.
Once you’ve sent off your photograph, the only thing left to do is suffer through the long wait until the results are announced. My sister and I have been thrilled to be chosen as semifinalists the last three years. It’s on my resume. We haven’t won yet, but we’ll see about next year . . .
While I certainly would like to win, I also just look forward to seeing all the other winners. The other entries are amazing, and I always love seeing what everyone else creates. Here’s my favorite one from this year. Check out the details, the movement, the use of scale. Love it!