Miniatures in Films

Earlier in the year I spoke on the subject of moving between the two disciplines with Roma Patel, a practitioner within digital theatrical design and lecturer here at Nottingham Trent University. When learning new software to build digital models and environments she had observed that pupils who had previously built physical models were much more adept at transferring these skills and much quicker at picking up the software than those from a technical background, like animation for example. The same principles could be applied to a miniature builder transferring their skills and understanding of physically building a model to logically building a digital model, much as David Rutherford has done. Perhaps this could result in more realistic painting and texturing of CGI, and could potentially be a way for miniature builders to go forward in the visual effects industry. However, from my research I have concluded that miniature builders take joy in playing with and interacting with real materials, and the life and way of working of a digital artist would not be fulfilling, and does not correspond with this nature. I think this is shown in the disappointment and feeling of being unfulfilled that  David Rutherford intimated to me in the interview I conducted with him.


Sense of Scale is a feature length documentary style film, compiled between 2010 and 2012, and directed by Berton Pierce:

“The documentary is an oral history of the amazing hand crafted workmanship that has produced many iconic film effects over the last 35 years. It focuses on a subject Berton cares deeply about; how computer technology is slowly taking away practical hand made craftsmanship.” Sense of Scale film, 2012.

 It is the only directly relevant piece of research/information on the subject of the story of miniatures throughout history and looking to the future that I have been able to locate during my research this year. 32 notable model makers are interviewed for the documentary, telling their personal journeys and stories of working with miniatures and visual effects.
Something that I have taken from the DVD and researched further with my first hand interviews is the range backgrounds that miniature builders initially come from, which I will analyse further in the future in order to find out if this has an affect on the nature of the final shot outcome. It was great to hear how most of these well known model makers, who worked on huge films like Titanic and Star Wars, stumbled into the work, working with minimal budget and on such short time scales.

One of the factors I wanted to investigate this year is the backgrounds of miniature builders and CGI artists. I wanted to know if this affected their approaches to modeling.

For both José Granell and David Rutherford it started as a hobby from an early age. There are few institutions and courses in model building, and I think the different routes and skills that poeple gain before they get into model building, gives them a wider knowledge base to begin with. This is backed up by all the artists interviewed on the Sense of Scale documentary. These different skills result in alternative problem solving solutions that might not have come about without the mix of skills and knowledge. I think in this way miniatures are capable of continually developing and pushing the boundaries of visual effects techniques.

In comparison to this, in order to be a digital artist first and foremost you have to train yourself to understand technically how the software works. Perhaps this supersedes observing the randomness and subtle nuances of our surroundings and how humans interact with it.

As David Harberger explains, “The skill is in taking things that people have seen all their lives, recreating them … and making them believable”

If this is the role of a modeler, who has more skills and knowledge of the real world in order to achieve this?

“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.

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.