Monday 5 January 2015

Movie miniatures, by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM)

As regular readers will know (from my previous miniatures post here, as well as other behind-the-scenes film posts which can be found here, here (about Return of the Jedi)herehere and here), I am fascinated by movie miniatures and how they can trick the viewer into completely believing the world the film-maker presents to them.

When I wrote my first miniatures post, I didn't want to talk about the ILM work on "Star Wars" as it's been so well documented in the past (though I couldn't resist one) but having enjoyed the process of researching and writing it, I realised I couldn't ignore ILM in this area.  So here then are some fantastic examples of miniature magic (most of which come from the 80s).
original ILM logo
Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) was founded in 1975 by George Lucas to produce the special effects shots for "Star Wars", since the major studios had closed their departments down.  Originally in Van Nuys, California, it moved to San Rafael during pre-production on "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) in 1978 before moving to the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio of San Francisco in 2005.  By this time, ILM was almost completely digital, having sold off its miniatures department - renamed the Kerner Optical company (after the building it was housed in) - though they continued a working relationship before Kerner went bankrupt.

ILM has won 15 Academy Awards (nominated 29 times) and 15 BAFTAs (nominated 17 times).

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982, directed by Steven Spielberg)
Dennis Muren - visual effects supervisor
E.T.'s ship lands in the forest clearing
Poltergeist (1982, directed by Tobe Hooper)
Richard Edlund - visual effects supervisor
Building the Freeling's house, as used in the climax of the film
Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984, directed by Steven Spielberg)
Dennis Muren - visual effects supervisor
Although some of the mine car sequence was shot full-size, the scope required by the film dictated it use miniatures.  Working backwards, from deciding the camera size (they used a regular Nikon still camera, adapted to shoot celluloid), Muren realised they could make the sets not only very small but also very cheaply - all of the rock formations are created by painting aluminium foil.
Putting together the set
Left - the converted Nikon and the miniature mine-cart
Right - Tom St. Amand stop-motion animates Indy, Willie and Short Round
Top - frame from the film, as Indy, Willie and Short Round investigate the caves (nicknamed the Jaws shot, for obvious reasons)
Bottom - combining a Frank Ordaz matte painting with a foreground miniature
Back To The Future (1985, directed by Robert Zemeckis)
Ken Ralston - visual effects supervisor
Steve Gawley (left) model-shop supervisor and Ira Keeler, with the miniature DeLorean used in the end sequence
Always (1989, directed by Steven Spielberg)
Bruce Nicholson - visual effects supervisor
Most of the aerial work and all of the fire effects were done in miniature.  Check out the camera car, something of an ILM stalwart!
Back To The Future 3 (1990, directed by Robert Zemeckis)
Scott Farrar - visual effects supervisor
Whilst the train sequences with the actors were filmed on full-sized props, most of the work was completed with miniatures.  And good use was made of the ILM car!
Star Wars: Special Edition (1997, directed by George Lucas)
visual effects supervised by John Dykstra (original credit)

Okay, so I couldn't resist one "Star Wars" entry...
Lorne Peterson brushes up the Sandcrawler miniature, re-furbished for the special edition

 And to finish (for now), here's George Lucas posing with some of the miniatures created for the original "Star Wars" trilogy, housed in the Lucasfilm Archives (c. 1983)


  1. Thanks for helping me figure out some of how "Always" was filmed!

  2. Wow! Thanks for the article.