Materials and Methods

“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 HDVideo Pro, 2012

Part of the excitement of working with miniatures is the random factor, the excitement that comes from getting a real interaction between elements and not quite knowing what you will capture on camera. The above quote from Steve Begg, Skyfall, also touches on the fact that with miniatures you can capture all of this interaction in camera in one shot. The problem with CGI is that by definition everything is contrived to be exactly how it is.


Throughout this year I have used David Neat’s book Model-Making: Materials and Methods and his blog on the subject for hints and tips on materials and their properties for the physical model build that I have done. I was interested to find out his opinions on the cost implications of building miniatures and the role of the found object in his work:

Would you say that the happy mistakes and coincidences that you get when you are working with physical materials are what makes a model ultimately have a higher level of realism over a digital model?
I know what happens when I work with physical materials, but I can only imagine or guess re the process of creating those same things in digital form, since I haven’t worked enough in that way to compare the processes themselves. But yes, materials have a will of their own, and can either force or inspire the unplanned .. and every time that happens it forces one to re-evaluate the look (whether stylistic or realistic) that one was initially trying to achieve, to see whether the ‘happy mistake or coincidence’ is either in line with that aim, an improvement .. or a diversion from it. So it’s the ‘unplanned’ that generates the questioning .. and it’s the questioning, and careful answering! .. that leads to a possibly ‘higher level’ whether that is realism, stylization or abstraction .. whatever the goal! I suppose, in short, if the digital method produces less of the unexpected and therefore less need for questioning then it may not result in a higher quality of much at all!
But I think it’s also fairer to say that the two forms produce a different form of realism rather than one being necessarily higher or lower, or better or worse. That’s a matter of personal preference and taste. Some might argue that it’s the visible mistakes (the ‘handprint of the maker’ the spots of glue) that give a real model it’s tangibility. We know, and we’re reminded, that it exists in realspace .. and that somehow makes the experience more real. But others might argue that it’s exactly those things i.e. fingerprints of the maker, spots of glue .. that destroy the illusion! 

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 of course keeps the costs down. Mary MacLachlan, a Weta Workshop miniature builder, explains in The Two Towers The Appendices, part of a series of documentaries on the making of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, that ping pong balls make great domed roofs when cut in half, and that the insides of spiced herbal tea bags look exactly like leaf litter. David Neat, a model maker, tells us on his blog, how doilies can make great architectural details. The spontaneity and happy coincidence of finding and using everyday materials is something I took on for my own miniature build. I used wire brushes to achieve the texture of the rock for the bridge, alongside a hand made tool for the brickwork. To achieve the rock face itself required nothing more than a kitchen knife to carve the insulation foam sourced from the local builders merchants. My own project proves that with minimal equipment and budget something tactile and real can be achieved.

For my practical project I tasked myself with making a miniature, something which I have no previous experience with, in order to test some of the theories of why miniatures have the potential to achieve a visual effects shot better than a digital version. After 8 solid days of working, which I have documented on the page “The Build Diary”, I have now finished my model:

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For more information on the actual build process please look at the The Build Diary page.

Before I began building the model one of the most important decisions to make was what scale to build at. Too small and there wont be a big enough capacity for detailing the model, but the bigger the scale the more expensive the materials become despite being able to make it look more realistic. In the end I decided on 16th scale, which has a balance between the two arguments. This makes the model 500mm square and 750mm high. Depending on the shots planned by the director, in industry the model could well have been made to a bigger scale, but as a student I am restricted by work space, time and budget.

I have recently ordered some materials from the 4D Model Shop, based in London ( after recommendations from David Neat on the range of materials available only from this shop.

One such material is Kapa-Line Foamboard which contains polyeurathane as opposed to the standard polystyrene. Once the paper lining is removed this allows you to emboss the material, which keeps the shape. One way of exploiting this quality for my project is to make custom stamping tools with designs specifically for the Clayr’s Glacier environment. Another option is to use found objects to create patterns.

I have been experimenting over the last couple of weeks with this technique of testing found objects. The images below show how really simple basic found objects can be used and can be very effective, without spending money or time.

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I’m hoping to use my recently made stars from the 3D printer to make a custom tool for embossing the foam. I have also made a stone block tool so that I can make a repeated pattern that gives the impression of the slight depressions and raised areas of a stone wall like I have demonstrated with the practice piece below. You can also see how beating the foam with a wire brush can give the texture of stone, and how the foam keeps this texture even when I compress the foam by pressing the stone block tool into it.

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3D printing is a way forward for props and indeed miniatures, by best utilizing the time given, so for my project I want to make some element of the miniature using the 3D printer we have available. To do this I needed to teach myself how to use the appropriate software in order to digitally build up the elements. From my previous studies I know how to use the vector program, Adobe Illustrator, but for this purpose I have chosen to teach myself how to use 3d studio max.  In order for the printer to recognise the design it has to be saved as an Stl file (STereoLithography). I managed to design a simple star shape, and using the 3D printing technology produced the following:

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The 3D printer works by looking at the 3D shape and converting it into slices, then “printing” the material, plastic in my case, in sequential layers, beginning with a simple base which you can see above.

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On this photo you can see how the required shape is printed on top of the lattice base, and below how the star can be peeled off the base.

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Once all the stars are popped off, you can see below the left over bases.

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I plan on using the stars, which fit into a 10mm square for my 1:16th scale miniature, for decoration. Particularly for the moulding on the bridge which I am working on at the moment.