Monday 27 October 2014

Movie miniatures

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a big fan of behind-the-scenes stuff in films (my various posts on matte paintings can be found here, here (about Return of the Jedi)herehere and here) and one which continues to fascinate me is the use of miniatures (as seen in my post on Derek Meddings).

These are scale models (often shot with high speed photography and occasionally combined with matte paintings) used to represent things that aren't there, are too expensive or difficult to film in reality, or which can't be damaged (by fire, flood or explosion) in real life.

Although they're now largely replaced by (often-appallingly-obvious) CGI (ILM, now completely digital, got rid of its model-shop and they struck out on their own for a few years - as Kerner Optical - but have since gone bankrupt), some threads of this fine art still exist.  Christopher Nolan, for example, is a huge fan of miniature work and uses them extensively in his films (such as the chase sequence in "The Dark Knight").

Rather than show the obvious here (you've all seen people making models for "Star Wars"), I thought I'd highlight films and effects where it's not immediately obvious that you're looking at a miniature.


Black Narcissus (1947, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
This wonderful film is filled with terrific examples of matte paintings but the one shot I'm going to highlight combines live-action, a large background miniature and a matte painting.

For Your Eyes Only (1981, directed by John Glen)
special effects supervised by Derek Meddings (for more details on him, see my post here)
Top - still from film, of a real helicopter flying through Becton gasworks
bottom - Derek Meddings in front of a large scale miniature.  This was placed in front of the real building, allowing the helicopter to fly safely past it whilst appearing to have come through it.  A similar trick was utilised on the opening sequence of "Octopussy" (1983)
Top - still from film (Bond & Melina escape from the sunken St George to their Neptune sub)
Bottom - A special effects man adjusts the Bond & Melina figures before the explosion (created by compressed air and flash bulbs)
ET (1982, directed by Steven Spielberg)
special effects by ILM, supervised by Dennis Muren
Dennis Muren manipulates the ET puppet (note that it has no legs) on a foreground miniature against a painted backdrop
Aliens (1986, directed by James Cameron)
special effects supervised by Brian Johnson
Okay, it's a sci-fi film set on a distant planet but did you guess that Ripley fighting the Queen on the loading bay was miniature work?  James Cameron is the blonde man with the dark shirt in the foreground
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989, directed by Steven Spielberg)
special effects by ILM
Top image - still from film
bottom image - miniature canyon, built by Paul Huston with painted matte backdrop by Mark Sullivan.  This photograph was taken at the 'wrong' angle, which shows the join (and the various workbenches behind)
Braindead (1992, directed by Peter Jackson)
special effects by WETA
Peter Jackson over a 50's Wellington street miniature
note - there are lots and lots of miniatures in the Lord Of The Rings films, but I won't mention them here
Casino Royale (2006, directed by Martin Campbell)
special effects supervised by Chris Corbould, Venice model by Steve Begg
Top - still from film
Bottom - the model is collapsed in the Pinewood backlot pool, before being digitally composited into location plate footage
The Dark Knight (2008, directed by Christopher Nolan)
special effects supervised by Chris Corbould, miniatures effects by New Deal Studios
Top image - still from film
middle left - the crew behind the miniature garbage truck
middle right - technicians working on the Tumbler
bottom - the miniature set of the tunnels

The next "Movie Miniatures" post will be a celebration of ILM and their non-Star Wars work


  1. Wow, they're fantastic!

  2. Cool entry, Mark.

    I've ALWAYS been amazed by movie miniatures in a weird geeky kind of way - especially when you are talking about early Godzilla movies.

    Mind you, I am not a film geek. I am a film aficionado - which is Italian for "multi-syllabled film geek".

    I took the liberty of tweeting about this post and putting it up on my Facebook page.