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HomeCraftsArt Dept: Shrinking World of Miniatures

Art Dept: Shrinking World of Miniatures

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“Light does real stuff,” says Jeffrey Okun, talking about one of the virtues of using the “old school” technique of building miniatures, even in the digital age. Okun should know: He’s been special effects supervisor on films like The Last Samurai, Death to Smoochy and the upcoming Cameron Crowe film, Elizabethtown.“You get so much farther ahead,” with a judicious use of scale models, he asserts. Okun points out that it can take days for an effects supervisor to try and digitally tweak light levels on fully CG environments, whereas using miniatures is more instantaneous. There’s also the budgetary side: he estimates the cost at around $100,000 to build a miniature and put eight cameras on it. Then having done the bulk of the work, “I can always tweak something on the computer.”Okun supervised visual effects for Barry Levinson’s Sphere, a film adaptation of the Michael Crichton book, which concerns a spaceship found at the bottom of the ocean. He remembers having a scale model that he was able to walk around and figure out angles. “It’s a more tactile experience,” he says. “And I was able to do four-to-five shots a day.”Says director of visual effects photography Alex Funke ASC, “If I need to put a lot of moss and algae on a rocky wall, my art department can have it on my miniature in a half hour. Why would I want to create moss digitally?”Funke, whose credits include Mystery Men, Mighty Joe Young and The Lord of the Rings installments, is currently back at the WETA facility in New Zealand working on King Kong.Of his collaboration with large-ape and small-hobbit director Peter Jackson, he says “Jackson really loves the ‘look’ of real photography and is very good at seeing where to use the virtues of digital effects, matte painting, live and scenic photography and miniatures. The miniatures in Rings ran the gamut from minor extensions of live-action sets, to entire environments existing only in miniature that ran on the screen for many minutes.”More and more, he says, the miniatures provide not only complete shots, but also texture elements and flexible surfaces that will later be used to create digital constructions. “The real becomes the miniature and the miniature becomes part of the real.”It was that search for “the real” that led to extensive use of miniatures and models in Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator. Matthew Gratzner, of effects shop New Deal Studios, was the miniature effects supervisor on that film, working with FX supervisor Rob Legato. “The movie came out,” says Gratzner, “and nobody knew how (the effects) were done.”The mysteries were contained in techniques used by Cecil B. DeMille 80 years ago: miniatures, forced perspective, and a lot of in-camera work. In particular, the astonishing sequence that recreates Howard Hughes’ nearly fatal test piloting plunge into a Beverly Hills neighborhood.Primarily, for that particular sequence, quarter-scale homes were used: “Three houses played as seven,” says Gratzner, by changing angles between sequences, and thanks to a detailed pre-viz”conducted by Legato, where he was able to tour what was essentially “the set” and plan the shots. “People don’t grasp how much of it was practical,” he says.But it’s that “planning the shot” that Gratzner suspects may be behind what he—and Okun—both consider an unjustified dismissal of miniature work in the digital age. “A lot of directors don’t want to commit to what the shot’s to be until they’re in post,” says Gratzner. He cites younger directors coming up from commercial and video work, who are “used to manipulating images ’til they’re blue in the face.”“The ‘keyboard kids’ don’t get it,” agrees Glenn Campbell, a supervisor at Burbank-based Area 51, a shop whose logo is “effects for the digital age.” And while his pedigree runs to such iconic, digital-age fare as The X-Files series, Campbell says there are still plenty of times where you have to “get out of the damn chair,” because more times than not, “practical is best—all the old timers know that.” Often, it can take just as much time to build a set in the computer as in real life—or whatever passes for it during a movie shoot, he claims. But Campbell allows that doing effects in a Technicolor world isn’t all black and white: both the time-honored and the newfangled have a role to play. Using miniatures, he says, is often “a matter of personal taste.”“In a perfect world,” says Funke, “the live action would be shot first, the miniatures would shoot second and then the digital effects would assemble and enhance the whole mix. But it doesn’t usually happen this way. It’s more likely that the miniatures will be shooting along with live action, and the digital artists will be trying to get rough assemblies of shots done so they can find out just how muchwork they will have to do.”But if miniatures are on their way out, they’re evidently not going without a heck of a fight: “Look at Spider-Man 2,” Okun notes. “The entire pier where Doc Ock’s lab was, was a miniature. They shot the hell out of it, and it was brilliant.”But it’s not just Spider-Man or the The Aviator keeping miniatures alive: Gratzner is hard at work on miniatures for Disney’s upcoming The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; Funke is working WETA’s combination miniature/digital magic for the King Kong remake; and there’s even the example of a certain Episode III in a certain ongoing space saga. The last installment of the Skywalker family’s adventures, rather than going completely digital, was, according to insiders, the biggest miniature shoot in the history of Lucasfilm.But Okun fears that miniatures will only have a special place in blockbusters. For other movies, the art of using models “remains a goldmine to be rediscovered,” he says.

Written by Mark London Williams

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