Beyond Lights, Camera, Action – Understanding the Craft: Miniatures

Unfortunately locations are usually not a perfect match for a filmmaker’s vision. Big budget films “makeover” their locations to match their needs or build sets to accomplish their desires. Nevertheless, a particular location may not be available or may not even exist and building a full sized set may not be practical.

In the digital age we have seen the use of CGI models and animation to create convincing virtual sets. It allows for the completion of shots that would otherwise be too expensive, too dangerous, and or physically impossible to go to or build. However, we will save digital sets and models for another post.

Then there are miniatures which have been used in film for nearly 100 years.  They can be cost effective and used to great effect. A quick Google search will provide a wealth of images and information regarding miniatures used in film. The American Cinematographer Manual and the VES Handbook of Visual Effects have extensive information about practices and procedures on this topic and many others, and are the primary references for this post.  As for miniatures there are essentially two types used in filmmaking; static miniatures and action miniatures.

Photo Credit: Adam Howarth – Creative Commons License

Static miniatures may be set extensions, or hanging foreground miniatures, forced perspective miniatures, or split scale miniatures (more on these later). Essentially static miniatures are models that will not be damaged or destroyed during filming and can be built at relatively small scales. If shot from a distance miniatures can be 1:48 to 1:96 scale, but if the camera is very close larger scale with more detail may be required (1:12 to 1:48 scale and possibly larger).

Static miniatures are within reach of most indie filmmakers and should be considered a viable approach to solving production needs. The primary consideration for static miniatures is how small it can be without sacrificing detail and compromising depth of field.

Photo Credit: Karen Roe – Creative Commons License

Action miniatures on the other hand are designed and built with destruction in mind. They are large scale models (1:8 to 1:2 scale) due to the fact that they are interacting with non-scalable elements like fire, explosions, smoke, and water; action miniatures benefit from real world physics which if done well, will look real on screen because they are real. While action miniatures can be costly and may be out of reach of most indie filmmakers, they are far safer and much more cost effective than their full sized counterparts and might be a consideration when a script has suitable action elements in it.

Nevertheless, there is much more involved in an action miniature shot than the model alone. Action miniatures are shot at higher frame rates so when slowed down to the projection frame rate it scales correctly. Motion control camera rigs may be needed as well as motion rigs for moving the action miniature at properly scaled speeds. Miniature destruction effects like their full size counterparts may require multiple cameras to effectively capture the action.

Photo Credit: Adam Howarth – Creative Commons License

The hobby industry provides a large selection of highly detailed models that can be useful to filmmakers particularly for static miniatures. They come in a variety of scales and for relatively low cost these models can be very effective. Using your imagination to repurpose all kinds of things is an equally important approach. Craft stores, hardware stores, recycling centers, and the proverbial junk drawer can be a treasure trove.

In addition a model can be designed in 3D software and used to create plans for the construction of a physical model. The benefit of this approach is you have both a physical and a CGI version of the model. Once the physical model is painted and finished, photos of it can be used to texture the CGI version. The now photorealistic CGI version can be used in the production as a seamless match to the physical model.

Perhaps even more exciting is the advent of 3D printing; miniatures can be built to virtually any spec and can be a feasible option for indie filmmakers as well. In this process a model is designed in 3D software and the parts are printed. These parts can be assembled into the final model or molds can be made from the printed parts and multiple copies of each part can be cast then assembled and finished as required. Depending on individual requirements it is even possible to 3D print the mold directly, eliminating the mold making step from the process.

While the material options for 3D printing are growing rapidly, action miniatures, which by definition are made to be damaged and destroyed, need to be built from materials that work well with the physics of the intended shot. The VES Handbook of Visual Effects contains a list of common full scale materials and their miniature scale counterparts. It seems likely these materials will always find a place in miniature construction. Nevertheless, the scalability of 3D printers from desktop to house-sized and their potential for printing a vast array of materials are likely to cause them to be employed more and more in all areas of human endeavor, including filmmaking.

So, even though technology will once again prove to be a valuable tool, the artistry and craftsmanship of model makers will continue to be an essential asset in filmmaking. For example, proper painting is critical so as not to give away the fact that the model is anything but full scale; as is aging and weathering to match real world conditions. It takes a good deal of planning, time and skill to build and use miniatures. Not only that, but testing everything along the way to ensure when its time to turn the cameras on there are no problems or surprises.

Hanging foreground miniatures, forced perspective miniatures, and split scale miniatures allow for the shooting of miniatures in combination with live action as an “in camera composite”. Which means the shot is completed during principle photography requiring no post production compositing, thus saving time and money in post. Camera movement however, is limited to locked off or nodal pans and tilts only.

They rely on a bit of visual trickery to achieve the illusion.  In a 2D image the camera as well as the human eye cannot perceive scale or depth in the absence of visual cues such as linear and atmospheric perspective, and focus. So, a small scale miniature carefully positioned can stand in for full sized set pieces and be completely believable.

By combining live action, miniatures, CGI and matte painting a shot can be built with high production value far beyond the limits that a physical location imposes on a filmmaker. These techniques can open up possibilities for indie filmmakers and free their imaginations to soar to new heights. If you’re a “run and gun” kind of filmmaker you might scoff at these techniques. However, if you are a filmmaker who believes in creating a great story well told, you will want your “tool bag” filled with options and break them out when needed.