Friday, December 30, 2005

HowTo - Weathering Model Aircraft

Duplicating real-world items in miniature requires that you duplicate normal wear and tear as well. Although most models that are constructed are not made for filming purposes, you can learn alot by looking at what hobbyist modellers do to achieve a realistic look. Here's an excellent article regarding the weathering of aircraft models that has wider application for other items as well.

Weathering Model Aircraft by David W. Aungst

HowTo - NiubNiub's Dioramas

If you're interested in building film miniatures, you might want to check out this Web site by a Star Wars fan who builds dioramas for his action figures in his spare time. His main materials are foam core, Sculpey and the odd bit of junk, but he shows how even basic materials and a little bit of creativity can produce some fantastic results. Although he focuses almost exclusively on Star Wars dioramas in approximately 1:18 scale, these techniques can be used for a wide variety of realistic environments at a relatively low cost.
Niubniub's Universe

Friday, December 16, 2005

InfoLink - Weta Workshop

It's likely an impossibility that any miniature aficionado overlooked the arrival of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The effort put into the films by Jackson's Weta Workshop is astounding in every aspect, but the effect is lost on many moviegoers who are so immersed in the world of Middle Earth that they are unaware of the fact that much of what they see does not exist in the way they see it. Much has been made of Weta's use of digital effects in creating the effects for the film. Many assume that everything they see is composed of computer creations, but this is not the case.

Luckily, the interest in this film has been so pronounced that the special edition DVDs include many hours of extra features, including details on how the special effects were created. Each of the three films has a segment outlining the creation and filming of the miniatures used for that film and the depth of the coverage goes much deeper than you usually see in DVD special features. The segments outlining the miniature work actually coins a new word to describe the work done by Weta - "bigatures." When you see the scale of some of the miniatures created for the films, you'll understand just how apropos that word is. Whether creating a forest city filled with tree houses, a tower for the evil wizard or a city built into the side of a mountain, the miniature artists excel at using detail to bring their miniatures to life.

In some cases, unusual building techniques are employed. The Tower of Isengard, for example, was imagined as being built of carved black obsidian. To get this effect in miniature, the team utilized carved wax, which on screen has the exact effect they desired. In addition to examining building techniques, a good deal of attention is focused on how the miniatures were shot and composited with live-action elements to achieve a seamless imaginary world.

Although the special edition DVDs of the films have great behind-the-scenes footage, they also feature extended editions of the films themselves, adding a great deal of additional story to be amazed with. Each extended movie spans two DVDs and each film's special features two additional discs. If you enjoy special effects in general, beyond an interest in miniatures, this is an excellent set of movies to turn to. There are hours of behind-the-scenes info, enough to keep you interested for a long, long time.

Although Weta is best known for the Lord of the Rings films, they have produced effects for numerous films. Their Web site has a section detailing miniatures they have constructed, along with a photo gallery of some of their best work. The link below will take you directly to the miniatures section.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

DIY: ...and Speaking of Tanks...

In the previous review, I mentioned the large-scale model tanks used during the filming of Coronado. If you're looking for tanks of your own, have I got a deal for you!

In the world of ready-made miniatures, there are a wide variety of scales available for different items. One standard scale for military items is approximately 1/18th scale, about the size of the small Star Wars action figures or the small sized GI Joe toys. There are several manufacturers of military-themed miniatures in this scale (a future article, I'm sure), but I found an unexpected gem at a bargain price.

It's a toy tank I've had my eye on for some time, but hadn't purchased because I'd only seen it online, never in person. I've purchased a few items from this military toy line before - their toy Humvee vehicles are accurate enough to be background models after painting and basic customizing, but several other items I've seen are so inaccurate and toy-like as to be useless for most film use. However, when the price dropped to $10 through, I decided to take a chance and see if it was a worthwhile buy. Since other tanks in this scale that I've purchased are 3-5 times that price, you can understand why I jumped at the chance.

The tank in question is part of the "World Peacekeepers" line (sometimes called "Power Team Elite") and they bill it as merely a "Combat Tank." It's real-world counterpart is the modern M1A1 Abrams tank used by the US military. Detail-wise, I am quite impressed! I wasn't expecting such a high degree of accuracy from a manufacturer that I'm often not happy with. The tank is molded in dark olive green with a minimum of detail painting, but it could easily be repainted with a camoflage or desert tan with weathering. The turret turns nearly 360 degrees and the tracks roll independently. The main gun barrel can be elevated slightly.

When compared to the real deal, there are many areas in which the nit-picker might point out this miniature fails as an exact replica, yet it's more than accurate enough for a background mini and with minimal work could be used for foreground and closeups. It sits easily among the several more-expensive tank miniatures in my collection and I hope to have a chance to rework it soon. In the meantime, I am so happy with this miniature, I've purchased several more, expecting that one or more will end up being sacrificed in effects shoots in the future.

The company Web site is at, though it seems to be under redevelopment at this time.

For pictures of this miniature as it comes from the box, check out this review from a GI Joe enthusaist

Behind the Scenes: Coronado

When a movie uses "from the Academy Award-winning special effects team that brought you Independence Day!" as it's main selling point, there's not much good in hoping for a plot as well. Actually, Coronado isn't so bad as all that. The plot is thin and the acting OK, and even though, effects-wise, this is no Independence Day, it's not bad for a rental when you need to kill a couple of hours. It's a low-budget effort, but some degree of care went into making it look good. Although the film crew seldom left the courtyard of an abandoned prison in Mexico during filming, the special effects team makes you think they were in lots of different locations.

Where this DVD really shines is when the behind-the-scenes features kick in. There are lots of effects secrets to talk about, including some great miniature work. Since the effects team is behind the whole picture, there is apparent delight in revealing how they did every little thing. It's a great primer in how a low-budget outing (1.2 million, reportedly) can be put to good use.

Miniatures were used in several of the main action sequences and a few other areas. The first two covered in the behind-the-scenes footage involve two army jeeps that are chasing the heroes. Both jeeps are destroyed in spectacular fashion, the first when a misplaced bazooka shot launches the jeep impossibly high into the air before crashing to the ground and the second that encounters a speeding train.

One thing that I really appreciate in the jeep sequences is the use of readily-available models instead of fully-custom miniatures. I'm a big proponent of using off-the-shelf components when possible and it's nice to see a famous effects company using this method as well. In this case, the effects team used 1/6th scale jeeps designed for GI Joe action figures along with a few Joes as driver and passenger. They did customize the miniature jeeps a bit to match the full-size versions they were shooting, including painting them and adding a convertible top.
If you're thinking that GI Joe toys aren't up to snuff, you obviously haven't looked into the scale accuracy of some of these toys. Besides, if Spielberg can get away with using GI Joes for a shot in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I guess others can as well.

In use, one jeep was blown up and tumbles through the frame as the truck containing the heroes speeds into the distance. The model was blown into the air using a compressed air cannon, which was highly effective when composited in with the live action segments. The second jeep was hit from the side using a compressed air ram to simulate the oncoming train, then composited in with footage of a real train. The commentary track on the DVD mentions that one of the GI Joes managed to lose his head during the train sequence. It's awkward to admit that I'd already discovered this on my own by examining that section frame-by-frame. Go ahead- call me an effects geek if you like.

Another model sequence showed the crossing and collapse of a log bridge by the heroes' truck. Two different miniature bridges were built in different scales. In one behind-the-scenes shot, a model truck is pulled across the miniature bridge by fishing line. Isn't low-tech grand? The bridge itself was rigged to collapse using hydraulics, so it could be recreated and collapsed the same way multiple times for different shots. The model truck came into play again during the scenes when the group explores an abandoned town.

There is also a sequence showing the large-scale (I think it was 1/4 scale) radio-controlled miniature tanks used for several battle scenes. One model was eventually rigged for explosions and destroyed. The use of these tank models was very effective.

There are a few other miniatures that are touched on, but unfortunately are not examined in depth, such as the ancient temple cave and the destroyed hotel miniature. I would have particularly enjoyed a better look at the temple cave, as the few moments of footage show someone crawling around inside the minature cave taking still photographs.

Coronado: movie - kind of lame. Behind-the-scenes segments - wonderful!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Why Movie Miniatures?

There are blogs for all sorts of things. Why one on movie miniatures? Simply, because I like them. I've always had a soft spot for special effects and using models to simulate reality on film has always caught my fancy. As a member of the Star Wars Generation that watched in awe as the Millennium Falcon first lifted from Docking Bay 94 and Red Leader had the flight lock their S-foils in attack position, I was amazed to see what wonders could be brought to life using what amounted to toys!

As I've grown, I have not lost my fasination with miniatures, even as the world of movie production has embraced digital effects. As a home-grown filmmaker myself, I delight in having the chance to use models in my own productions.

For now, this blog is a catch-all for my interest in movie miniatures, providing links that I find interesting, tips and tricks on using miniatures to enhance production values and any little thing I find fascinating.

I hope you enjoy.