I found this brilliant clip showcasing how the visual effects techniques that Willis O’Brien used in 1933, including matte painting, stop motion and miniatures were used.

King Kong 1933

If something like this can be achieved in camera in one take by such simple means even in 1933, the potential for using miniatures combined with the capabilities of CGI to remove rigging and cables, and digitally composite various elements is endless, and this is how I believe miniatures could play a big part in the future of visual effects.

In fact this can be seen in Peter Jacksons’ 2005 adaption of King Kong, where layers of miniature set extensions were combined with a very small piece of dressed set.

“I love the the fact that with miniatures you can create a scale and a grandeur and a stylization that you   are never going to get in the natural world” Peter Jackson. Critical Commons, 2013.


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.

Further to looking at the Romanesque style, because the book tells me that the race of the Clayr goes back millennia, I have been looking at various ancient cultures and their architecture. This is where I began researching rock cut architecture. I also want to take the influence of the huge blocks of stone used in ancient Egypt for the pyramids, for any built work in addition to the rock cut areas of the city.

Of course this research was done earlier in the year and has been a huge influence on my sketches and ideas for the look of the city. At this point I think it is important to catch up and show where a lot of the visual ideas originated.

Most rock cut architecture is found in South Asia, like the examples below (Ellora and Ajanta) which are both found in India. Other famous examples would be the sphynx in Egypt and Petra in Jordan which I have written about previously. I have taken the idea of carving straight into the rock face rather than the architectural styles that ancient civilizations had.

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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.

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.”

I have now added a separate page for The Build Diary where I will write about the progress of building the model every day. In this way it will be easier to see the timescale of each task and where tasks were simple to achieve/problems occurred. I will be updating The Build Diary every day to explain where the days tasks have taken me, so keep following to find out how it goes!