How impossible worlds came alive in movies – The story of Miniatures

1 September 2017

Truth is a highly respected virtue. In fact, one of the valuable lessons elders pass on to us is to be truthful. It’s a beautiful trait to have in one’s personal life but if you take it too seriously in certain professions…Well you might be doomed. Suppose you are a filmmaker and you are employed to direct a film set in a world outside Earth. Since you won’t depict anything other than truth, you wait until you are exported to that distant planet. Well.. Good luck with that! Fictions are lies and storytellers have to be liars! In a good way of course. So how do filmmakers go on creating some of the unique story worlds, objects and creatures?

All of us have seen science exhibitions while in schools. We have seen physical representations of the volcano eruption, the working of a windmill or powerhouse etc. This is just a mini version of the technology used in filmmaking. A physical representation of an object that maintains accurate relationship between most of its important aspects is called a scale model. And the usage of such scale models to create special effects in movies and television programs are called miniature effects or simply miniatures. They can be copies of buildings, animals, people, objects or settings. Understandably, they are used to represent things that do not exist or are impossible or too expensive to film. The use of miniatures is almost as old as films itself as delighting a viewer has always been the prime goal of moving pictures.

French Filmmaker Marie-Georges-Jean Melies, popularly known as Georges Melies and the ‘Father of Cinematic Special Effects’ was one of the earliest explorers of miniatures. His iconic film, Le Voyage dans la Lune, translated as ‘A Trip to the Moon’, which came out in 1902, made use of primitive special effects such as split screens, double exposure, stop action and miniatures. Half of the film that narrated the story of astronomers travelling to the moon included scenes of moon and space ship. These were created as miniature models and they were placed on the set. The costumes for the film were also mostly made using cardboard and canvas. Most of the prototypes of costumes were sculpted in terracotta by Georges himself. Another film that saw the extensive use of miniatures and went on to become one of the benchmarks in visual effects was the 1927 German silent film ‘Metropolis’. Directed by Fritz Lang, the film which is set in a futuristic urban dystopia made use of elaborate miniatures to create vast landscapes of the city. The film had another notable technique, the German Schufftan process, where mirrors are used to create the illusion that actors are engaged in the miniature sets.  Another creative use of miniature was in the creation of the famous Robot in the film. To achieve this, actress Brigitte Helm’s complete body plaster was taken and a costume was built around it. 

King Kong’, one of the earliest monster films marked another landmark in the use of miniatures. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the film was released in 1933. The scene where King Kong fights with the snake like dinosaur is one of the most famous special effect moments in the film. The scene was accomplished through stop motion animation, matte paintings, real water, smoke, foreground rocks with bubbling mud, a miniature set and two miniature rear screen projections of the characters Driscoll and Ann. For the film, four models of King Kong were built, two jointed 18 inch aluminium, foam rubber, latex and rabbit fur models, one jointed 24 inch model and a small model of lead and fur. The dinosaurs were made in the same fashion as King Kong and in some models Football bladders were used to simulate breathing. The Venture, Railway cars and the warplanes were all miniature models.

Another prominent film to make use of miniature models was the 1941 ‘’. Directed by Orson Welles the film went on to receive 9 Academy Award nominations. In the weeks prior to the production of the film, the main crew met to discuss every shot, set designs and properties. Miniature models were created to rehearse and perfect each shot. The art director then had detailed drawing for the set design which also included the film’s lighting design. The statues from Kane’s collection ranging from Greek to German Catholic were all model designed. The walls were designed to be fold and furniture to be moved easily so that it facilitated camera movement. The infamous ceilings were made out of muslin fabric and camera boxes were built into floors to smoothen low angle shots. 

The 1954 Japanese film ‘Godzilla’ directed by Ishiro Honda was another film that made extensive use of miniatures. The Godzilla suit was created using thick bamboo sticks and a wire to have a frame for the suit interior. The team then added metal mesh and cushioning over it to pillow its structure and finally they applied latex coats. Molten rubber coats, carved indentations and strips of latex were additionally added upon. This initial design of Godzilla weighed around 100 kilograms! Around 30 to 40 workers from the carpentry department was assigned to complete the miniature constructions and it took around a month to build the city of Ginza. The Diet building was scaled down to look smaller than Godzilla. Some of the miniatures were fixed with explosives to be demolished by Godzilla’s atomic breath.

The American epic biblical film, ‘The Ten Commandments released in 1956 is credited with one of the largest sets ever created for film. Directed and Produced by Cecil B. DeMille, it was one of the most expensive films of that era. DeMille used the paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma – Tadema to give his set designers an idea on the look he wished to have in the film. Interestingly, some of the properties, sets and costumes from the 1954 film ‘The Egyptian’ were re used for ‘The Ten Commandments’. Since ‘The Egyptian’ dealt with the story world 70 years before Rameses II, it gave a coinciding continuity to ‘The Ten Commandments’ as its story revolved around Pharaoh Rameses the first. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and it still remains the seventh most successful film of all time when adjusted for inflation. The American Film Institute ranked it number 10th in its list of top ten American films in epic genre.

Stanley Kubrick, who is considered as one of the greatest filmmakers ever, came up with his ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, in 1968 which is now regarded as one of the most influential films ever made. The epic science fiction film, which took three years to complete production was a giant progress in developing convincing models. Very detailed models of spaceship and locations were designed for the film to magnify the sense of reality. The sizes of these models ranged from two to fifty five foot! The shots which had the spaceship moving or where the viewpoint changed were accomplished by directly filming the model. For the interior of spacecraft which contained a huge centrifuge, Kubrick deployed a 30 short-ton rotating ferris wheel. The set was 10 feet wide and had a breadth of 38 feet! Some of the furniture designs in the film even went on to become regular office designs in the early 2000s! Even computer displays and fonts used in the film had high resolution fonts and graphics, a thing unheard of in 1968!

The next enormous use of miniatures came in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’, both of which was released in 1977. The aliens and UFOs in ‘Close Encounters’ were all part of creative designs. The design of the mothership was inspired by an oil refinery Spielberg saw in India. The team’s focus was to provide a bright look for the UFOs. To provide an irregular shape, one of the UFOs was just an oxygen mask with lights attached to it! Two puppets were also used to depict the aliens and the little aliens in the climactic sequence were played by local girls in Alabama.

Conceptual designers including a designer who worked for Kubrick’s ‘Space Odyssey’ was recruited by George Lucas for his ‘Star Wars’. The preliminary storyboard sketches were designed to visualize the costumes, characters, properties and landscapes. For his ambitious project, Lucas desired for a unique set different from all science fictions till then. He proposed the idea of used future, where in, the futuristic story world looked like a regularly inhabited and used place instead of clean and high profile futuristic worlds which were the common sights in movies! The interior of the millennium Falcon set was designed to have a look of a submarine and to design the set, scrap pieces of jet engines were broken down. A whole total of 30 sets ranging from starships, planets, control rooms, cantinas, caves and Death Star corridors were created for the film.

Miniatures continued to thrill the silver screen through films such as ‘Blade Runner’ in 1982 and ‘Terminator’ in 1984. From the start of 1990s, Computer Graphics started gaining prominence and miniatures slowly gave way to digitally created sets. Throughout the last three decades we have seen some spellbinding digital sets but even in this 21st century, miniatures have not become extinct. There are still filmmakers who rely on the hand created charm of human beings, which at times is unmatchable with modern gadgets. The Minas Tirith, Rivendell and Barad-dur of ‘Lord of the Rings’ Series, the snow fortress in ‘Inception’, Gotham city in ‘Batman’, Hogwarts in ‘Harry Potter’, Metropolis in ‘Superman Returns’ are some of the modern day examples of well crafted miniatures. The fact that a technique which came alive in early 20th century is still being used after a century is a testimony to its own ability!

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