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.”