My research this year has focused on the topic of the use of miniatures in film, and how it’s direct competitor, Computer Generated Imagery, has affected and may potentially affect it’s use within the film industry in the future. To do this I have collected both primary and secondary information from practitioners from both disciplines, and alongside this have compared my own experiences of building a miniature through the practical project I undertook.
Model-making is a technique that has been around since the earliest films as a way of producing realistic representations of things that don’t exist in reality, or would be too difficult to film. The first use of miniatures in film is credited as the 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) directed by Frenchman George Meliés. Traditionally miniatures were the only way of representing new worlds, fantastical architecture and natural disasters, and allowed the explosion of Sci-Fi films in the 70’s. For further information see blog post “When are miniatures used?” October 31 2012.
Independence Day (1996) could arguably be considered the pinnacle of miniature work, with more than twice as many miniatures built than has ever been used before or since, a statistic that can be attributed to the fact that it was produced at the cusp of the rise of CGI.
There is limited information on the role of miniatures in film, the only piece specifically on the subject being DVD documentary Sense of Scale (2012) by Burton Pierce (for further information see blog post “Sense of Scale” Septermber 16 2013), yet with the fast moving development of new software and technologies it is important now more than ever for someone to gather up-to-date information on the subject.
“ Although technologies and techniques have evolved throughout my 30 years in film, one thing that hasn’t changed is the need to problem solve” Mark Stetson, VFX supervisor.
This statement describes succinctly what any model, be it physical or digital, is trying to achieve. My research leads me to believe that any decision made by the director or Visual Effects Supervisor, including the choice between a digital or physical model, is driven by the relationship between quality and budget. The answer to my research question lies in a direct correlation between the two factors; can a miniature “solve the problem” best using the least amount of time and money, and any conclusions I make based on my research into my chosen subject fundamentally rely on this statement.
There are multiple factors that affect the time and ultimately the money spent on a visual effects shot which I have researched and written about extensively in my blog.
Perhaps the first and most obvious factor that affects the costing is the raw materials needed for either a CG approach or a miniature. To produce a digital shot multiple artists need a computer and the relevant software, the latter of which is often developed in-house to answer a specific problem in relation to each project, adding to the time and cost involved.
David Rutherford, Australian miniature builder turned digital artist, tells me, “It takes about the same amount of time to build a miniature as it does a CG model. The cost of the hardware and software (for a digital facility) would easily equate to or exceed the cost of workshop equipment for a model shop. It costs about $10,000 dollars to equip each CG person with hardware, software, chair and desk”.
His balance of understanding the world of both disciplines allowed me to question and gain an up-to-date and unbiased opinion on the state of miniatures and CG at the moment. He believes, “It takes a good deal less people to do a model shoot than it does to have all the modelers, texture artists, simulation TDs, lighters etc you need to do a CG shot. There is a myth that miniatures are more expensive, I don’t see how, the crew lists on cg films are huge.”
With this comment Mr Rutherford touches upon the number of stages involved with producing a CG shot in comparison to using miniatures. To begin with both techniques have a similar process, “Build the shape, paint or texture the shape. It’s in the controlling of the action and getting the image onto the screen that is different.”
With a miniature the lighting, shadows, reflections etc are all caught in the same stage of filming, whether the shoot takes days or weeks. With CG each of these elements are dealt with separately, often by separate artists who are trained to specialize in just one of these areas.
In addition to this, with big budget films CG work is often sent out to multiple vendors who each work on separate shots or elements. Can such a range of artists all contributing to one project produce a cohesive piece of story telling or would working with one miniatures unit to achieve a whole sequence be more effective? There are also additional on-set roles when a CG shot is being composited into live action that need to be taken into consideration. For further information see blog post “The VFX advantage” July 1 2013. All these extra roles affect the final costing of a CG shot.
In the case of the cost of building miniatures, every model maker retains a backlog of knowledge of found objects and how they can be ultilised for a model that in turn keeps the costs down. For further information see blog post “Cost and the use of the “found object” in miniature building” September 16 2013.
The ultimate role of a special effects shot is to fool the audience into believing the shot is real, and model maker José Granell believes to achieve this the modeller needs to understand how the real thing looks and feels. For further information on José Granell’ career see blog post “Interviewing José Granell” April 28 2013. He believes the problem of achieving a naturalistic look using CG relates back to the sharing of shots between multiple vendors. This means someone potentially can train him or herself to technically understand a piece of software to achieve a specific outcome without needing any artistic or observational skills. Being in front of a computer for long hours working with coding and algorithms doesn’t allow the modeler to observe the physical counterpart of what they are building. Miniatures on the other hand need to be fully researched as a whole entity, accurate to life, and functional in order to look real to an audience. I observed this first hand when I visited Mr Granells’ space at Leavesden Studios, where he and a small specialist team of boat builders were in the process of building a fully functional, watertight galleon for a series of Captain Morgans’ television adverts.
As part of their job a miniature builder is inherently tactile, interacting with real materials on a daily basis, gaining an understanding of their properties. In José Granell’s opinion CG artists “need to get out more” and observe the world that they work in, in order to achieve a higher level of detail and understanding of the nature of human interaction with our surroundings. For the full interview see blog post “Interviewing José Granell” April 28 2013. If realism held the highest importance in choosing between a physical or digital model, everyone that I have spoken to holds the opinion that miniatures can best achieve this.
The excitement of working with a miniature comes from a sense of risk.
“Visual effects no longer have a hand made quality to them. They are like the most refined processed packaged food, tasty at first but ultimately lacking nutrition. There are very few happy accidents in CG. Usually everything you see has been deliberately put there. There are very few surprises.” David Rutherford.
This is something I found within my own project. Often the accidents produced a much better effect than any method I was planning on trying, particularly with the weathering of the stone; the natural wear and tear on the bridge whilst I was working on it and piecing the model together looked much more realistic because the material really had gone through the process of being worn down.
Of all the traditional uses of miniatures, interaction with natural phenomena and explosions are still a common use, like the MI6 building in Skyfall. The reason for this being that, “with a computer you just don’t get that randomness, that haphazard commotion of a nice explosion”. Michael Joyce Wired UK, 2012.
“I’ve always been a fan of miniatures in a big way and with digital here to stay, I think they may come back in a big way, since you can see your results immediately. The interaction between physical objects carries a random factor that you don’t necessarily get using CGI since serendipity can’t be programmed for” Steve Begg, HDVideoPro, 2012. For more informstion see blog post “The random factor” September 16 2013.
However it is the producer and Visual Effects Supervisor who ultimately makes the decision. At the beginning of the project they must make the decision to hire a miniatures team or a CG facility when they are planning the movie. At the point of pitching for a job each team has to have a projected cost for producing the required shots. Mr Granell explained to me how he believes the projected costs for a miniature build are not necessarily cheaper, but are fundamentally much more accurate than that of a CG alternative. Forward planning is hugely important in producing the best results and keeping costs down, and using miniatures forces decisions to be made at an early stage. A miniature build needs to stick to an accurate build schedule in order to hit the completion date ready for the filming of the model. The costs of a miniature build can be accurately projected because of this, since there is a set completion date and the construction materials are bought up front. For further information see blog post “Interviewing José Granell” April 28 2013.
The processes used in building miniatures are also evolving alongside CG, utilising the new technologies available. 3D printing is just one such new technology, which speeds up the process of making miniatures and therefore saves time and money. Another such technology is 3D scanning, which can be use in combination with CGI by building a beautifully textured model physically and scanning the model to make a digital version. These kinds of technologies I think are going to change the nature and role of miniatures in film rather than allowing digital models to supersede them.
One case study I have used is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the differences in the use of miniatures in comparison to The Hobbit (2012), which was also directed by Peter Jackson . The Lord of the Rings films included 72 “bigatures” built for the films, whereas the final cut of The Hobbit is entirely CGI, using miniatures only as a way for Peter Jackson to play with camera angles and plan his shots.
When asked about this Peter Jackson explained that with miniatures you cannot get such freedom with shots, whereas your “camera” can swoop in and around and much closer to a digital model. For further information see blog post “The Hobbit – No miniatures!” August 1 2013
David Rutherford said, on the subject of the lack of miniatures in The Hobbit:
“I am finding that I am so unmoved by CG these days, the Hobbit being a case in point. Everything in the frame is synthetic, the camera moves in an impossible way, there is spectacle but not any excitement.” For the full interview see blog post “Interview with David Rutherford” September 3 2013.
This is an important point when it comes to CGI and if it can achieve the same level of realism; if a camera cannot achieve a shot in real time then the audiences’ eyes will tell them it is impossible and therefore not real.
Despite all of these factors that at least put miniatures on a level with, if not ahead of, CGI in terms of realism and the cost of producing the shots, it seems most practitioners including David Rutherford and José Granell, believe that:
“The problem is that all the VFX supervisors come from the computing world now. They have no experience of miniatures or animatronics. They are used to their world and are unlikely to change. Directors are followers of fashion. They think that they have to go CG because everybody else is doing it…
It will take a maverick director to say no I want to use miniatures here, in the face of studio pressure.
It will take a maverick VFX supervisor to suggest miniatures in the face of that same pressure.”
So ultimately the answer to my research question, Is there still a place for miniatures in contemporary film? Is that although “Ironically miniatures now more than ever could be a solution to many visual effects shots” (David Rutherford), the decision to use miniatures relies heavily on the preconceived ideas of directors and VFX supervisors rather than a models’ capability to capture an audience and perform to a high standard.
I believe the future of miniatures is inherently linked with CGI. As seen with the visual effects in contemporary film, like Skyfall, the best shots come from a marrying of the two techniques.
VFX supervisor for the film, Steve Begg, says, “It was a real hybrid approach to visual effects. We’d use miniatures to kick off the shot and then sweeten it with CGI” fxguide, 2013. Ultimately the miniature can achieve a higher quality of realism through its tactile nature and a sense of risk and excitement, and CG can add the impossible.