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A still from King Kong, Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, (1933).
Stories & Ideas

Thu 01 Oct 2020

They be little, they be fierce: miniatures used in sci-fi

Exhibition Film History Pop culture
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

From King Kong to Blade Runner 2049, filmmakers have been making movie magic with the help of miniatures for decades – and new technology isn't changing that.

As filmmaking technologies have changed and evolved over the decades, much like audiences, miniatures have endured as one of the most effective film special effects. Comparatively cheaper than other methods used to obtain a similar result, miniatures have a rich history in the science fiction genre predominantly.

From the turn of the 20th century, miniatures were used in iconic movies such as Metropolis (1927), Citizen Kane (1941) and The Ten Commandments (1956). Monster movies like King Kong (1933) and Godzilla (1954) were some of the better-known examples, with the technique being adapted for popular kaiju features such as The War of the Gargantuas (1966). The 1970s were considered the golden era for the technique, with George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) and Sir Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) setting the standard for what could be done realistically in unreal worlds.

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The underside of the Nostromo spaceship in Alien (1979). Originally shared on Recollections of Alien.

When Scott backed up just a few years later with Blade Runner (1982), that standard was raised yet again. “The original Blade Runner is an absolutely pivotal film in the history of visual art,” said two-time Academy Award winner Alex Funke in a behind-the-scenes video about the making of Blade Runner: 2049 (2017). One of the great cinematic miniature artists, Funke worked in the medium on key science-fiction films like The Abyss (1989), Total Recall (1990), Starship Troopers (1997), The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001–03) and Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) remake. Having started in the 70s himself on titles such as Battlestar Galactica (1978) and Buck Rodgers (1979), he leapt at the opportunity to use the technique in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel as the miniatures unit director. “The idea of being able to use miniatures in this modern context, that’s very exciting,” Funke said. “There is a certain amount of magic to when you just finish doing a shot that took an hour and a half to shoot, when you see it there its existing, it has a soul into itself.”

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© Sony Pictures Entertainment, © Ghost Busters/imdb

The golden era continued somewhat in sci-fi, with miniatures used in movies like Ghostbusters (1984), Dune (1984), Batman (1989), The Fifth Element (1997) and much of the work of Roland Emmerich Universal Soldier (1992), Stargate (1994), Godzilla (1998) including the famous White House destruction scene in Independence Day (1996). For Fon Davis, the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) was supposed to be the end of the artform cinematically, due to the groundbreaking use of computer-generated graphics instead of miniatures. Instead, it was the birth of something better.

Jurassic Park came out and it changed everything for us and our industry,” said Davis, one of the most prolific miniature creatives working, in an interview with Make. “Immediately everyone panicked and thought ‘we’ve gotta stop doing this for a living, we’ve gotta find something else to do, we’ve gotta study computers’. So I did: I studied computer technology and instead of finding a path into computer graphics as a career, we found all these really incredible tools that we could utilise in the fabrication of practical visual effects. It revolutionised what we did to a point that it actually bought us more time in the field because we became faster, we produced more high-quality work.” This “hybrid approach to visual effects” saw Davis staffed on George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy (1999–2005), the two Jurassic Park sequels (1997, 2001), and Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes (2001) all with Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).

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On the miniature Gotham City set of Batman (1989).

Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix trilogy (1999 – 2003) was ground-breaking to the world of miniatures for a whole other reason. “When we were working on The Matrix, there was a term created specifically because of that movie,” said Davis. “Because the miniatures were so large, they actually started calling them bigatures.” With everything to a tenth scale – rather than, say, Blade Runner: 2049 which had everything to a forty-eighth scale - that set had ‘bigatures’ some sixteen feet tall and thirty feet wide like the gates of Zion. It was a unique time, because although computer graphics had advanced and were becoming increasingly used in mainstream genre movies, the three dominant trilogies at the time were all spearheaded by filmmakers who revered the art of miniature making and deployed it extensively: Lucas, the Wachowski siblings and Peter Jackson.

The Lord Of The Rings and Weta Workshop specifically – where Funke also worked at the time – proved how seamlessly the ‘old school’ technology could be used alongside the ‘new’. This was an approach sci-fi blockbusters in the following decade adopted, like Pacific Rim (2013), Inception (2010) and even the much smaller scale but equally as effective Moon (2009). “A lot of people don’t even realise when we use miniatures in a movie now because they just look real, people don’t question it,” said Davis. “That’s kind of the unfortunate side of computer graphics: you can tell it’s computer graphics when you look at it. When we do miniatures for film now you don’t actually know it’s there, so there’s a lot of people who believe there’s not miniatures being used in film. That’s what we’re achieving, that’s what we’re trying to maintain in film: that quality of work. The best visual effects are the ones that you don’t notice, that’s always been our philosophy.”

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