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.
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:
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.