Wednesday 10 September 2014

Movie miniatures - an appreciation of Derek Meddings

Derek Meddings, surrounded by various James Bond-related miniatures 
Derek Meddings was a special effects genius and whilst most movie-goers won't know his name, millions of them have seen his work (especially on films from the 1970s and 80s, when American movies utilised British talent based on our technicians outstanding international reputations).

Derek, working on the Thunderbirds episode 
"Fireflash" in 1965
Derek was born in London on January 15th 1931.  His father was a carpenter at Denham Studios, whilst his mother was Alexander Korda’s secretary and occasionally the stand-in for Merle Oberon.  Derek attended art school and, in the late 1940s, secured a job at Denham lettering credit titles.  A meeting with special effects artist Les Bowie led to Derek joining his matte painting department which thrived in the 1950s as they worked for Hammer Films, whose limited budgets necessitated many ‘string and cardboard’ creations.  This served Derek well when he was hired by Gerry Anderson to work on ‘Four Feather Falls’ (creating backgrounds of ranches), ‘Supercar’ and ‘Fireball XL5’, before designing (with Reg Hill) the models for ‘Stingray’ and then to ‘Thunderbirds’, where he was given a free hand to design the series.

With his early experience, Derek created simple solutions to problems like tracking moving vehicles (either on roads or runways), using an escalator system where the model was stationary whilst the set moved around, under or over it.  His work moved to the big-screen with ‘Thunderbirds Are Go!’ (1966) and the live-action feature ‘Doppelganger’ (also known as ‘Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun’) in 1969.  Back on TV, Derek designed effects for ‘Captain Scarlet’ (1967) and the live-action ‘UFO’ (1970), both for Anderson.

Drafted into the Bond franchise by producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli with 1973’s ‘Live and Let Die’, Derek struck up a working partnership that would last until ‘Goldeneye’ in 1995.  Between Bond’s, he went back to the ‘string and cardboard’ method on ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ (1975) and did some excellent work on ‘Aces High’ (1976) where he rigged the planes for the flying sequences.

Some of the miniature work on 'The Spy Who Loved Me' (1977)
top left - Stromberg's Atlantis base is lowered into the sea (two crewmen hang on)
top right - filming one of the Lotus miniatures
bottom left - the 60ft miniature of the Liparus (showing the wake)
bottom right - a crewman adds a sense of scale to the Liparus miniature
On ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977), Derek supervised filming of the underwater and supertanker sequences, which meant spending four months in the Bahamas.  Since using a real tanker was prohibitively expensive in terms of insurance, he built a 70ft long miniature and put an outboard motor inside it, to replicate the enormous wakes the real ships create.  He also created the Atlantis headquarters of Stromberg (based on the design by Ken Adam) and the submersible Lotus Esprit (shot using a combination of full-size body shells and one-quarter scale miniatures).

top - the Golden Gate Bridge miniature for 'Superman' (1978)
bottom - David Michael Petrou (author of the making of paperback) stands in front of the Hoover Dam miniature)
He went straight to work on ‘Superman’ (1978) and shot all of the miniature sequences at Pinewood Studios, including the Golden Gate bridge, Krypton and the Hoover Dam, earning an Oscar for his effects.  The drowned village part of the Dam sequence was completed by another company after Derek left the production and, unfortunately, the join between the two is all too obvious.  Nevertheless, he amply delivered on the films promise that the audience would believe a man could fly.

Derek working on the Moonraker miniatures, 1978
For ‘Moonraker’ (1979), the production schedule was so tight that Derek was forced to utilise a very old technique for all the space-set shots and shoot everything ‘in camera’, winding the film back after each element had been shot and running it again with another model.  One shot, apparently, has 48 separate elements in it, meaning the film was wound back at least 96 times (imagine messing that shot up one before the end!).  For the destruction of the space station, he and his team hung the model in the James Bond 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios and shot at it with a shotgun.  At the time, Sir Roger Moore was quoted as saying of Derek and his team, ‘if [NASA] had our boys working for them, the real Shuttle would have been launched by now.’

Derek and colleague at work on 'Superman 2' - Metropolis streets on the left
After more great work on ‘Superman 2’ (1980), including replicating the streets of Metropolis for the climactic fight, Derek created the St George miniatures on ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (1981).  Briefly appearing in ‘Spies Like Us’ (1985), he worked on ‘Batman’ (1989) and believed he got that job because director Tim Burton was a big fan of ‘Thunderbirds’.
Derek, touching up the satellite station miniature from "Goldeneye" (1995)
Going back to the Bond franchise with ‘Goldeneye’ (1995), Derek created incredibly realistic miniatures that are peppered throughout the film (notably the satellite station, the train and the radar dish) and they serve as a wonderful memorial to the man (a dedication in the final credits reads ‘To the memory of Derek Meddings’).

Derek Meddings died of colorectal cancer on September 10th 1995, aged 64.

He won a Special Achievement Award Oscar in 1979 for his work on ‘Superman’ and received the Michael Balcon Award from BAFTA in the same year.  His work on ‘Moonraker’ was Oscar-nominated and ‘Batman’ received a BAFTA nomination.  He was posthumously awarded the 1996 BAFTA Award for Best Achievement (in special effects) for ‘GoldenEye’.


Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)
Thunderbird 6 (1968)
Doppelgänger (aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun; 1969)
Z.P.G. (1972)
Fear Is the Key (1972)
Live and Let Die (1973)
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
The Land That Time Forgot (1975)
Shout at the Devil (1976)
Aces High (1976)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Superman: The Movie (1978)
Moonraker (1979)
Superman II (1980)
For Your Eyes Only' (1981)
Krull (1983)
Banzaï (1983)
Superman III (1983)
Supergirl (1984)
Spies Like Us (1985)
Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
Mio min Mio (1987)
High Spirits (1988)
Apprentice to Murder (1988)
Batman (1989)
The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter (1991)
Hudson Hawk (1991)
Cape Fear (1991)
The Neverending Story III (1994)
GoldenEye (1995)

There is a Facebook group dedicated to Derek, which can be found here on this link

Pinewood Studios Special Effects award winners
Left to right - George Gibbs, John Stears, Kit West, Charles Staffel, Brian Johnson, Roy Field, Derek Meddings, Richard Conway.
plenty of links to ILM and Lucasfilm here too - Gibbs worked on "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom", Stears on "Star Wars", Kit West on many projects and Johnson on "The Empire Strikes Back"


  1. What an amazing talent. So happy I learned about him and his achievements. M Marino

  2. Wow! This man is a genius! What career he's had.

  3. Amazingly talented man. Died much too young.