Lessons in Miniature

It goes without saying that I love cinema. I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t. And with that comes strange and wonderful obsessions with particular filmmakers, particular genres and particular tricks that can either bore or inspire anyone who dares to ask me about my particular cinematic interests. I posted on Sir Ridley Scott in my last blog, so here’s something on a particular film technique that I’ve always adored – the world of miniature cinematography.

As well as storytellers, filmmakers are nothing if not magicians, and cheating scale with miniature cinematography is one of the oldest and most widely used cinematic techniques. Back when film was in its infancy, the pioneers of the medium would strive to test their audiences’ suspension of disbelief with elaborate miniature sets, cunning edits and lighting tricks, that gave cinema its wonder and awe. The great silent filmmaker Georges Méliès was a pioneer of early special effects, and with his 1902 masterpiece Le Voyage dans la Lune took audiences to places only the imagination could comprehend at the time; with innovative use of forced perspective miniatures, stop motion and cunning editing tricks.

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings trilogy had extensive miniature cinematography

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Le Voyage dans la Lune

Since then films such as Fritz Langs’ Metropolis, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Ishiro Hond’s Godzilla, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner have all pushed the envelope in terms of what the technique can deliver in astounding, disbelief-suspending spectacle. Of course, today CGI has largely replaced miniature cinematography. Whereas once spaceships and set extensions were the bread and butter of a miniature’s unit, the guys behind the computer are very much in control. However, there are still filmmaker’s and film series’ who favour the traditional technique, such as Christopher Nolan, Denis Villeneuve and the Bond franchise.

Whilst watching a behind the scenes documentary on early special effects, it occurred to me that, in making corporate films over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have amassed a reasonable amount of equipment that isn’t far from what the early pioneers had when they were breaking ground in their experimentation. If I put my mind to it, and in the interests of learning from those previous masters, could I learn the traditional technique of cinematic miniatures and, well, have a go myself?

I thought why not!

The first shot I wanted to create was a classic establishing shot of a space ship that you might have seen in a 1980s sci fi film – think Aliens! I felt this would be the simplest entry into the world of miniature cinematography. Using my camera slider and a wide angled lens I would perform a simple push zoom into the craft, hopefully cheating the scale along the way. My inspiration came from the how the iconic opening of George Lucas’s Star Wars was filmed, with the three ft long model actually turned on its back and the camera pushing over it. Using basic skill I fashioned a much smaller craft, weathered to look larger, and then fixed it onto a tripod and shot with a passing move against a green screen. The final mix was composited against a moving star background, with sound effects.

As you can see, it’s far from perfect. But I learned a lot along the way. Most notably, in order to really sell scale on that level you need to be a master detailer. Which I’m not, sadly. The more texture you can add to what’s in front of the camera, the more realistically the light behaves. Lighting was an area I got a hard lesson in from internet comments – I should have made more effort to light the green screen separately and hit the miniature with light from a fixed single source. Like a distant sun. Instead, it comes across somewhat unrealistically lit. But lesson learned, for sure.

Next, I wanted to have a go at an environment miniature. This was still a widely used technique until relatively recently, with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings trilogy making wide use of miniature effects – affectionately nicknamed ‘Bigatures’ due to their prohibitive size during production. Fantasy was the genre I wanted to emulate – I’m a huge Studio Ghibli fan, and I loved the idea of something inspired by Miyazaki’s whimsical and poetic imagery. I decided upon a castle and a floating arcane vessel of some kind. Something that looks old fashioned but from a time beyond imagination.

The miniature landscape was relatively straightforward to construct out of industrial foam (I mean there’s only so far you can go wrong with a mountain miniature) and lit accordingly. I purchased a 76th scale miniature castle kit (based upon a real-world castle from Germany, I believe) and nestled it atop one of the peaks, for that whimsical fantasy presence.  I purchased a halogen work-light to represent a ‘golden hour’ sun hue, which I could point from an angle. The resulting look captured an early morning amber glow against the green screen, which I was quite proud to recreate entirely in a studio space. The vessel I decided upon was a hybrid kit-bash of a Spanish galleon (with some wings taken from a bi plane model kit) and a balloon. Physics wasn’t going to hold me back at this point. I shot it against the green screen using the same lighting setup as the mountainous landscape. The two separate shots were composited together against some stills from a real mountain range, sourced online. Getting the lighting to match was important.

I was really pleased with how this one came out. I built upon what I’d learned with lighting the last shot to really spend time with how the light behaved against the green screen, and I think I satisfactorily recreated that early morning hue entirely inside a studio setup. I added some heavy soft focus, but maybe the addition of a smoke machine to replicate a heavy fog might have sold it more. The addition of some sound effects helped too.

Finally, I wanted to mix the two previous efforts to recreate a fantasy landscape shot with a vehicle in motion. This time alongside Miyazaki I was really inspired by Terry Gilliam’s anachronistic visions of the future. I decided upon a ‘flying boat’ again, that would be in approach toward something odd in the sky – pulling an idea out of a hat I thought, yes, a floating windmill. I mean at this point the Miyazaki cards were fully on the table.

I fashioned the vehicle from a selection of model kits sourced online, into a ‘diesel-punk-esque’ fantasy flying tugboat, powered by some kind of otherworldly anti-gravity source (an LED light in this case). The windmill miniature was made to look as if it had been ripped from the ground like a tree, with a large clump of earth beneath it, carved from foam and plaster. I shot these two objects separately against a green and blue screen, using my camera slider in motion control mode to match the speed. With the camera moving past the objects, the illusion of movement was created. I carried over pretty much the same lighting technique from the last point, using the halogen work light to represent a rising sun. The two elements were composited together against a moving-through-the-clouds stock background plate. This wasn’t easy to do, as I had to match move the floating windmill against the clouds to really sell its buoyancy.

I’m super pleased with the final result. With the addition of some appropriate music and sound effects, I really think I’ve sold that whimsical fantasy vibe of a world being built before your eyes.

This has been a great learning process and something I’ve always wanted to have a go at. It’s amazing how much we can do with prosumer technology these days, and what we have at our disposal the early pioneer’s would have been in awe over. I learned so much about recreating natural lighting too, something not always so easy to do in the corporate world. Maybe I can sit a client interview inside a floating castle with the knowledge!

Or lay down the foundations of a short film? Oooh.

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