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Practitioners

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 davidneat.wordpress.com, 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.

Recently I have had some communication via email with an Australian artist called David Rutherford. He interests me simply because he started out as a miniature model builder in the film industry, but then made the transition in the 90’s to working as a CG artist. I asked him a few questions about this, such as why did he make this decision, the differences in the two art forms, and where he sees the use of miniatures in film in the future.

This is a quick summary if his skills and experience taken from Mr Rutherfords’ Linkedin page:

“I have experience in every facet of visual and special effects.
From practical rigs, props, miniatures, and pyrotechnics , right through to digital effects, creature animation lead, FX animation, compositing lead, on set supervision, previz and cg effects supervision. I’ve directed animated commercials and been nominated for an AFI visual Effects award for a documentary series.
I have strived to learn as much as I can about all facets of the visual effects field.”

Below are some of the responses to my questions. I have highlighted the most important and enlightening points in relation to my research question, Is there still a place for miniatures in contemporary film?

On his background:

“I was always making things as a kid, robots from old batteries and transistor radio parts. I always pulled things apart to see how they worked.”

“I was going to be a film director and I was planning to go to the Australian Film Television and Radio School then at age 17 Star Wars came out, along with a massive amount of information about special effects that was very hard to find previously. I realised it was the special effects I was interested in rather than the live action parts of the movies and that it was a job that you could actually try to do.”

From here, Mr Rutherford went on to study media design, mostly focusing on animation. Outside of University:

“I thought maybe a way into effects was through model making, so I sent off photos to all the industrial and architectural model making companies in Perth. Got lucky and was employed at the largest of these companies in Western Australia and learnt the trade for two years. I did a lot of plant and piping models, ship models, and Petroleum, gas, and mining models and some small architectural stuff, still making the odd spaceship at home.

I moved to Sydney at the beginning of 1987 and worked at Mirage Effects for a year and got a special effects education. We did everything from models and miniatures, props, rigs, floor effects like wind, dry ice, Liquid Co2, set detailing (sci-fi) whatever.

One of the last things I did was a documentary series about early aircraft and I really enjoyed it. I was utterly sick of advertising at this point and so moved once again across the country to work on prehistoric furry creature TV documentaries among others. Did that for 4 years learnt a pile of new stuff and could specialise in animation and compositing . After that all wound up I moved back again to Western Australia and have been working for the Producer of the Aircraft documentary series on developing projects.”
On steps for producing CGI and miniatures:
“In a nutshell the same. Build the shape, paint or texture the shape.

Its in the controlling of the action and getting the image onto the screen that is different.
The miniature is lit, controlled and shot all in one session ( day, days or weeks). Depending on the subject many variations or takes can be tried at the same time.
The Cg models motion is animated or simulated, passed on to the lighting department to be lit and rendered.
A CG shot is usually rendered in discrete passes where each contributing element, such as diffuse colour, specular, reflection, shadow, global illumination, etc etc is rendered as a separate file and recombined in the composite. There is an alternate more recent view that this is overcomplicating in time and storage space and less efficient than just rendering a near final image in one beauty pass that can be subtly corrected in the comp. This has come about because of the growing push to unbiased renderers in which the light interacts and bounces about based on physical principles. Traditionally there have been many fixes and workarounds and tricks to get around the slowness of the rendering process but with improvements in hardware and software it is more efficient to discard all the tricks and just do it like it really happens in the real world. It is easier and takes less time to set up than all the workarounds take to save in rendering time.
In both scenarios there could be a compositing step before the image is finished. The model shoot could capture the final shot in camera but in this day and age less likely, it is more usually going to be an element of a shot to be composited with other elements.
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.”
On CGI vs Miniatures:
“In terms of CG I have never worked in a big facility. I have always had to do pretty much everything in smaller places with very little money. It was such a luxury to be able to concentrate on a couple of things like animation and compositing and let other people worry about the other aspects. My skills in those two areas improved greatly because of it. Now I am back to being by myself and having to do everything again. I find I am getting increasingly frustrated by CG and am pining for the old days of miniatures, when I knew or could work out how to solve the problems. Actually miniatures are just more fun. Sitting in front of a computer all day is frankly dull. There is a level of excitement on a miniatures shoot that is simply not matched by any CG process. For many people in VFX these days their work is pretty tedious, rotoscoping, data wranglers etc very few actually see a whole shot through.
CG has got more complex and it is pretty much impossible for one person to be able to do everything at a level that is acceptable to audiences used to what a facility of 200 plus crew can achieve on 200 million dollar movie.
I am also 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.
It is what I term low stakes,  there is no risk to limb or property in CG.  In miniatures there is risk, the model gets destroyed, somebody worked on it for weeks. The shot might go wrong so there has to be a backup.
The other important aspect is that 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.”
On the future of miniatures:
“Ironically miniatures now more than ever could be a solution to many visual effects shots. With digital compositing it is so easy to remove control rods wires etc.

Radio Control has become ever so much more reliable and glitch free than in the past with 2.4 gigahertz technology.
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 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.
The interchange between digital modeling and a physical model is now a simple task for the 3d Printer 3D scanner.
You can print water slide decals on your home printer.
The same can be said for animatronics. The technology for doing really good lip sync and computer control started appearing as the industry jumped to CG creatures.
Now more than ever it would be possible to do really amazing animatronic creatures where the facial performance can be done ahead of the shoot like an animator would animate a CG creature. That performance can then be played back on set in sync with the prerecorded character voice over and over perfect every time. Variations could be called up for alternate takes. A layer of improvised control could be mixed in live over the top.
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.
People only remember the dodgy model shot, the good ones go unnoticed whereas the dodgy CG shot is largely forgotten and dissmissed.
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.
Having said that I detect a resurgence of interest in the old school. I think there is a growing backlash against the CG or nothing approach.
I think it will come from the indy film sector, not from the majors who only make comic book films these days , though the economics of making those films are at the cost of bankrupting the VFX facilities.”