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Miniatures In a Digital World

The stereotype surrounding modern effects films, such as this summer's slate of big-action movies, suggests their dazzling imagery is largely the result of computer-generated artistry. In truth, of course, the effects in such films as Pearl Harbor, Planet of the Apes, Jurassic Park 3, A.I., and others are actually mixed-media affairs, and virtually all of those films relied on model and miniature work in combination with CG effects.

“Our [model] shop has never been busier,” says John Goodson, ILM's model project supervisor for Planet of the Apes. “All recent big films used miniatures. The reason these films use miniatures combined with CG is that you would run into cost issues doing just CG because of outlandish render times. Plus, some shots still look better with real-world interaction, like explosions. For this reason, it's hard for me to see miniatures becoming extinct, even though CG is obviously improving at a rapid rate.”

This does not alter the reality, however, that there clearly has been a sea-change in the role of miniatures in film and TV production. The rapid rise of CG in the ‘90s led to the closing of several independent model shops in Hollywood, with well-known artists from such shops either transitioning into freelance work, becoming computer animators, or moving into other entertainment-related venues, such as theme parks, museums, and the toy industry. Most of the remaining miniature shops, with a few exceptions, are affiliated with major studios or are part of larger effects houses, like ILM, Digital Domain, and Disney's Secret Lab.

VisFX recently surveyed several accomplished Hollywood model artists about how CG's maturation has impacted their industry. Those artists include ILM's Goodson; freelance artist Greg Jein (creator of Close Encounters' mother ship, Red October's submarine, Star Trek: Next Generation's Enterprise, 1941's Hollywood cityscape, among others); freelancer Mark Stetson (Blade Runner, Fifth Element, Die Hard); Tony Meininger, manager of Disney's Secret Lab model shop and a Titanic veteran; and Brick Price, owner of one of the biggest remaining independent model shops, Wonderworks, Canoga Park, Calif.

VisFX:Has CG changed your industry as much as people think?

Mark Stetson: I'd say the total volume of miniature effects used in films and TV shows has been reduced somewhat from a few years ago, but at the same time, mixed-media approaches to specific shots, especially in films, are definitely on the increase. Combining digital and miniature solutions has actually been beneficial to our industry. For instance, in Fifth Element, take a look at that well-known shot of flying cars maneuvering through flying traffic. The flying cars were digital cars, but they were maneuvering through a miniature, futuristic cityscape — a perfect combination.

Digital compositing has improved our ability to add miniatures to the mix, and that has actually led to more ambitious miniature shots in certain films.

Brick Price: We use computers every day, but we use them as an adjunct to our main stock in trade-building and shooting miniatures. In many ways, computers have been a blessing. We can do more ambitious designs; we can more faithfully rig models now without having to limit ourselves to extremely fine mono-filament wire. Now, we can use heavier gauge wire because it's so easy to erase wires digitally. Since we've built almost full-size spacecraft and other models, requiring thick cables, this has been a godsend.

VisFX: What about the texture issue? Is there a business building maquettes to provide CG animators with real-world textures?

Tony Meininger: Models are the best direct way to get textural information for computer animation, and productions often ask us for models that can provide that information for their digital work. I'm seeing more of that work than ever before.

Greg Jein: Not just for textures. There is less miniature business overall for me than a few years ago, but a great deal of my work now is to create reference models for CG work.

VisFX: Why are physical models so useful for CG effects?

John Goodson: It's really hard to interpret little things in the computer without a physical reference. With a real-world object, you can move and examine it relative to light and get a priceless reference. Just the other day, our CG guys were animating a small spaceship crashing for Planet of the Apes, and [the film's visual effects supervisor] Bill George asked me to build him a heavy, wooden model, shaped like the pod spaceship. I built one, and he spent time throwing it around our back lot and taping it with a video camera, trying to see how it flips and falls. This helped them figure out movements for the ship during the crash sequence.

Price: Another area we have gotten into is the art of metal etching to add unique textures to computer models. It's based on the idea of making printed circuit boards, but we use sheet brass instead, etch letters or symbols on them, and then filmmakers scan them in and use them on CG models. The concept works both ways, in fact. We recently built a Taj Mahal model, and it has lots of fine art and lettering and mosaic tile patterns on it. We created those unique patterns entirely in a computer, came up with a special printer that used special ink, and printed out the images and added them to our physical model.

VisFX: What are some of the areas where miniatures can still provide filmmakers with superior effects?

Jein: The way debris fans out when you blow up a model can't exactly be replicated by the computer yet. Also, you usually aren't allowed to blow up real buildings. Other factors can make a model preferable over CG. For instance, for TNT's Mists of Avalon TV movie, I recently built a miniature landscape featuring the Avalon temple. The reason the producer asked for a miniature was that they had so many angles to shoot of the temple, and it was so large that it was easier for him to digitally photograph the 360-degree model rather than building the temple from scratch in the computer.

Stetson: There is still something to be said for filmmaking in a physical environment, like a regular movie set or a miniature set. When a group of artists working together can sit down with the same piece of art in front of them and discuss it, they are likely to have a more fruitful collaboration when they can see and touch it. The immediacy of that is important and valuable in the collaborative world. On the business side, there is the assessment of resources issue. If you build big environments in the computer, you will have to deal with heavy renders, which can be very time consuming. Render time is improving, so that problem may eventually go away, but it is an area where models can currently be more practical for a project's budget. On the other hand, of course, shooting motion control on a stage can be very expensive, especially if you need to do re-takes. So it just depends on what is right for your particular project.

Meininger: We tend to use models whenever there is major physical interaction going on-fire, explosions, water on an object, etc. — even if we later enhance it with CG. Close-ups are another area where miniatures often tend to be favored. With models, you can often achieve superior lighting of an object, relative to other objects. That's harder to do in CG, though the technology is improving. Titanic is remembered as a groundbreaking CG show, but people forget that film featured tons of miniatures. That's largely because of the interaction issue. Whenever water was spreading through the ship or around the ship, it made sense to use physical models.