Model Miniatures vs. CGI


Just recently I listened to an interesting podcast which I shared in a recent post reminding me of my dissertation that I finished in late 2011. I’d like to share that with you now. It may have dated since it was first delivered as a seminar to my peers. It was a lot of fun to write and speak about something that is very close to my practice and my interest in film. As with any text of this size it is a long, long read with over 47 slides written for the seminar. I’ll be illustrating with a few clips and images to help explain my case. Where I can’t source online footage I have adapted the original text to fully explain my points.

Is the Realism of Model Miniatures more believable then Contemporary Special Effects (C.G.I.)?

Introduction

When I see the millennium falcon, flying through space, I know it is physically there. Yet today we do not have this certainty, with the use of computer generated imagery (C.G.I.) models filling the screen, a polished model that was created in a computer. Unlike it’s wooden cousin that has a physical body and presence that we can engage with. This lecture will explore the use of models in film and their evolution.

Model Miniature History

At the dawn of the sound era, in 1927 the world of cinema was shaken, no longer could they film their epics and use lights as freely as before, due to the introduction of the soundtrack.

‘Sound in fact created a lot of problems for people creating visual effects because up until that point, films had been made…in the great outdoors. And all of a sudden, because of sound recording, films had to be made indoors, in a sound stage. And so the problem was how to get the great outdoors indoors…’

The idea of now shooting on location was a technical issue they had yet to over come.

Turning to the soundstage’s, utilising model miniatures to supplement and create the background.

Interview with Richard Rickett (NPR Transcript 2009)

Yet two years earlier we could see model miniatures being utilised by Willis O’Brien, creating the tropical world in the stop-frame animation “The Lost World” (1925) where Dinosaurs lived. We see here that there is great considerations, for the substitution of large-scale objects, and appropriation of scale with the scenery.

The Lost World, Dir. Harry O’Hoyt, First National Pictures, 1925.

For the production of this film,

‘They had to be flawlessly detailed. It was on these table-top dioramas that the dinosaur models were to be posed and he [Willis O’Brien] constructed them on a scale so as to make the monsters appear huge. They were built at a ratio to life size of 1:40. Accordingly, huge stones passed for boulders, and broken branches, covered with starched or prop foliage, became trees.’

At this early stage in film, great consideration is given to the scenery.

Jeff Rovin, Movie Special Effects, Barnes: Yoseloff, 1977, p25.

Model Miniatures

When using model miniatures there are a number of considerations to undertake, before filming can begin. Plato believes art; to be an illusion that the artist wishes the audience to see this point of view in representational form. What see on film is the contemporary expansion of this idea.

“The maker of the image, the imitator, we say, has no understanding of what is, but only of what it appears; is it not so?”

Plato believes that the artist creates only create illusion or imitation, in a sense the film maker does this also.

Plato, Plato’s Republic, Book 10, Greece 360 B.C. Unknown Publisher, p303.

Staying with the notion of the illusion, we have to consider a number of factors for a miniatures to achieve realism on screen; believing the illusion to be real. One such factor for a reproductive illusion is a trompe l’oeil. To achieve a traditional painting trompe l’oeil.

  • ‘We perceive the painting as a configuration of marks on a surface …we are unable to reconcile our perception of the apparent object with our perception of the painting and see the apparent object itself in the surface of the painting’

Working this theory, acknowledging the process and applying to the photographic, a higher level of realism is required to achieve this, as you have to believe that

  • (1) that what I see is really an object and not a photograph,…
  • (2) that what I see is a non photograph being confused for its referent…the construction of an effective trompe l’oeil requires very precise control over the configuration of the elements within an image’

This is how we perceive what is on-screen or any piece of pictorial work, breaking up the components to understand the image itself.

Richard Allen, Projecting Illusion, Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality, Cambridge U.P., 1997,p83.

This brings us to the realism of the model miniature, how do the model-makers avoid the issue of producing what could be a visual phony?

  • ‘To begin with, the model work must be appropriately detailed.’
  • ‘There are many elements that contribute to successful photography of a miniature; one that ranks very high is the apparent atmosphere in the picture. Even on a relatively clear day or night, there is a diffused quality to a normal atmosphere.’

For example, a view of Sheffield looks hazy and desaturated; the hills in the distance further behind will be even hazier. If a miniature of Sheffield were built and filmed without a simulated atmosphere, we would see the phony nature of the miniature. We should be thinking about the environment the miniature inhabits, replicating this through lighting and other methods before being photographed. Essentially we’re talking about trick photography, which we will return to later.

Thomas G.Smith, Industrial Light & Magic, the Art of special effects, Virgin 1991 p105.

Another consideration is the level of painted detail, as Matthew Gratzner at New Deal Studios explains.

  • ‘Painting is one of the most vital parts of model construction,’
  • ‘It makes a building the correct colour, but also gives it authenticity and character. Woods, metals and other materials may have been reproduced in plaster, so they all need to be painted to look the correct material.’
  • ‘In the real world most objects are pretty dirty,’
  • ‘Absolutely everything is affected by environmental elements such as rain, wind, dirt, smog, smoke or the sun – and we paint all of that into our models.’

The painted finish of a model is the first level of realism that we focus on, when we replicate at any scale.

Richard Rickett, Special Effects, The History and Technique, London, Aurum, 2006, p121.

The level of detail of the models is another important factor.

‘The Death Star in Star Wars for example, had a diameter of only a couple of feet, although it was supposed to represent an orb that was a mile in diameter. It was built on a scale of 1:2,400. The Death Star worked at this minute scale because it had an incredible amount of detail on it. The camera could get very close to make the audience think they were looking at something much more enormous”

Detail is vital when working with smaller miniatures, especially those that play a pivotal role in the films narrative.

Jane O’Connor, Katy Hall, Magic in Movies – The Story of Special Effects, Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, 1980, p48.

Staying with Death Star in this clip The characters find the answer to their question, whilst the Death Star’s presence on-screen increases, allowing us to see the real possibility for life, as the level detail suggests even at that small-scale.

Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, Dir George Lucas, Walt Disney Studios. 1977.

However as these stills show, when we see a model up close we may lose detail, however there are ways around this obstacle; such as building sections as this clip demonstrates. Building sections at different scales suggests more depth and realism on-screen.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season Six DVD, Disc Seven Production, Dir. Unknown, Paramount Home Entertainment, 2002.

Returning to trick photography, which we accept as reality, as the photograph by it’s very nature, tells the truth as Richard Allens “Projecting Illusion” explains.

  • ‘The trick photograph is deceiving regardless of whether what it depicts is staged or real.’
  • ‘We are deceived into believing that the photograph is pointing to an object array in the world that is not in fact in the world.’

We have to bear in mind that

  • ‘The trick photograph trades on our understanding that it is recording of reality in order to deceive us about reality.’
  • ‘Trick photography becomes central to cinematic representation…’

What we see is a trick of some form, the viewer accepts this as reality, even though it is not.

Richard Allen, Projecting Illusion, Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality, Cambridge U.P., 1997, p88.

Like any other shot in film, the Mise-en-Scène; the construction of the scene has to be considered, regarding the composition of the shots that include model-miniatures.

These are taken as landscape shots as Benedict Sestini explains that we perceive landscapes panoramically;

  • ‘Landscape in its elementary phase consists in a panoramic view, that is to say a portion of the earth’s surface as perceived by the human eye from a certain viewpoint.’
  • ‘The concept of landscape is detached from that of an actual view and becomes a synthesis of views, either real or potential.’

Sestini is talking about the colours and patterns we view in a landscape, adding that the element that holds these patterns and colours together; the forms within the landscape.

  • ‘The actual features which make up the view, such as contours of the ground, vegetation …these too forming a pattern by virtue of their respective mass and position.’

These are the fundamentals of landscape.

Sestini in, Pier Carlo Santini, Modern Landscape Painting, Phaidon, 1972, p10.

Unfortunately when photographing model-miniatures, complications can arise, such as creating a layered scene, taking into account; scale, background and the level of technical sophistication at the time. As Gary Hutzel, a visual effects coordinator found when constructing a scene which contain multiple elements to create space debris. We can see from the stills, the making of the models to those in storage from previous episodes and films, the models being used photographed. This is all within the constraints of television, having no time to design and construct new models, to then be photographed, producing the final scene.

Star Trek: The Next Generation- Season Four DVD, Disc Seven, Visual Effects, Dir. Unknown, Paramount Home Entertainment, 2002

Another complication is the photographing of some models that can create reflection against blue-screen, as Steve Gawley from ILM explains. These issues lead to inventive solutions being implemented to achieve the shots such as removing the bounce light from the blue-screen simply by applying talcum powder. He added that today this issue would be easily resolve with digital technology.

Space docks and Birds of Prey, Dir, Mark Rance, Paramount Home Entertainment, 2003.

CGI

With the introduction of C.G.I. effects in the late eighties – early nineties, that have since increased in ability and capacity, taking over the role of the physical model.

The model-maker is now working at a computer in a geometric world, who focuses on;

  • ‘Solid’ objects such as cars, buildings or aircraft. These may eventually have animated movements such as opening doors or spinning wheels, or may possibly need to explode or deform.’

The construction of the models takes place in the virtual world now, with polygons.

  • ‘Polygons are the essential building blocks of any computer model – they are like the single patches that are sewn together to create a patchwork quilt.’

Think of these polygons as a cell structure that build up to create human tissue which form organs.

Richard Rickett, Special Effects, The History and Technique, London, Aurum, 2006, p156.

The model makers view of the virtual is through multiple windows that allow them to view multiple angles simultaneously.

  • ‘This is known as orthographic projections, in which different views of the modelling environment can be seen.
  • Normally there are windows that or ‘perspective’ viewport in which the designer can move around the model while working on it.’

Model-makers can now have multiple views speeding up production.

Richard Rickett, Special Effects, The History and Technique, London, Aurum, 2006, p156.

Staying with the idea of speeding up production, even studios who are famed for their stop-frame animation, using models to create world’s have shifted into this medium, as David Sproxton of Aardman explains on the production of “Flushed Away” (2007).

  • ‘We realised it was going to be a humungous thing to do, a stop-frameIt will be horrendous thing to make in stop-frame as it’s a very complex film.’
  • ‘We sent a team of our stop-frame animators [to Dreamworks]we cross trained into C.G.I. So they were part of the key animation team there, which is great as we wanted to retain that sensibility.’
  • ‘It’s a fantastic tool set, we’re making Arthur Christmas (2012) which we are doing at the front end here…It’s an incredibly powerful too’

The use of c.g.i.can be useful when the task exceeds current limits, and give a better finish to the film being being produced.

Interview with David Sproxton, Aardman Podcast 7: Making Feature Films part 2, Aardman, 2010.

The level of difficulty that could be found in a stop-frame has been resolved in C.G.I, as seen in this clip. As we can see the character traveling through water, this would be very difficult to replicate in Aardman‘s traditional medium.

Flushed Away, Dir. David Bowers & Sam Fell. Dreamworks, Aardman. 2006.

One last model aspect, is to complete its appearance, through the use of texture maps, giving us the finish that we see on the screen.

‘Surface materials are applied to models in a process called ‘texture mapping’ during which texture maps containing information about how a surface should look placed or ‘mapped’ onto a model.’

However there is more to the process;

‘Texture mapping…can involve physically altering the surface geometry of a model – making it more bumpy, for example – most of the time what is added to a model is not ‘texture’ but simply ‘flat’ colour detail.’

It’s becoming increasingly easy to turn to a computer to achieve the desired aesthetic result, solving all the creative problems surrounding model construction.

Richard Rickett, Special Effects, The History and Technique, London, Aurum, 2006, p164.

With the increasing use of c.g.i. in films, there is an increase in audience expectation, that can be found in television programmes competing with the special effects of the cinematic.

Even more so now than ever with its ever-increasing standard.

  • ”In the past…sfx limited the scene spectacle in both film and particularly in television, but now sfx are no longer ‘intermittent of isolated digressions and flashes of virtuosity’, but are the predominant aesthetic character of a great many sf films and television programs. Stargate SG-1 and Farscape both use a great many sfx as regular ammunition in their episodes,…’
  • ‘This integration creates a battery of illusionist spectacle, demonstrating the shift from storytelling to ‘formal preoccupations and excitations.’

Special effects in television are becoming so commonplace, they have become apart of the fabric of some genres.

Jason Johnson-Smith, American Science Fiction TV, Star Trek, Stargate, and Beyond, London; New York: I.B. Tauris & Co, 2005,p178.

As this clip from Farscape illustrates, that special effects and c.g.i. models are now an aesthetic standard in genre television, pushing the narrative forwards and enhancing it. The use of the special effects is now common place and part of the visual aesthetic.

Farscape, Dir. Unknown, Jim Henson Productions, (1999-2003).

Another point to raise is the production values of the film and television that became a big consideration in the late eighties and early nineties.

Yet there is a cost that is incurred to the film realism on screen due to the potentially massive financial return.

  • ‘The drive towards big budget spectacle in the 1980s and 90s is similarly driven by commercial incentives; differentiation of the Hollywood product is dependant on large budgets to create the special effects that can maintain a real/ideal, known/unknown oppositional structure between viewer experience and screen fantasy’
  • ‘The representation of a materially recognisable world is the one that the photographic media are most qualified to achieve.’

The universally known idea that special effects heavy films are now the big money makers, which may ignore realism in order for a big financial return.

Julia Hallam, & Margaret Marshment, Realism and Popular Cinema, Manchester University Press, 2000, p80.

Yet those films that are special effects heavies can be out weighed by a classically structured film such as Titanic (1997).

  • ‘Titanic [1997] ..an excellent example of a film that aims to entertain through spectacular realisation using special effects to create a believable illusion that digitally replicates perceptual realism. Rather like the realistic staged spectacles of late nineteenth-century melodrama, the depiction of the ship’s disintegration is structured around a romantic sentimental story.’
  • ‘This is classical Hollywood film making of a very traditional kind, taking events from history, stripping them of their socio-historical and political contexts and recycling them as entertainment.’

Such a film has spectacular special effects, yet they don’t draw your attention aware from the narrative of two lovers. You feel the scale of the situation, yet it’s not overwhelming.

Julia Hallam, & Margaret Marshment, Realism and Popular Cinema, Manchester University Press, 2000, p76.

In this scene from Titanic we have a combination of c.g.i. and large scale models in use, allowing for scenes to be filmed as desired on numerous takes. The c.g.i. can be used to create detail and action shots that standard techniques cannot yet achieve with dramatic effect.

Titanic, Dir. James Cameron. 20th Century Fox, 1997.

The form of the Titanic was easier to construct in the computer unlike natural forms that have to employ more complex methods of construction, that employ lasers and scanners.

  • ‘Complex organic forms such as plants and creatures are difficult to create using conventional modelling methods…so often ‘scanned’ using a laser to read their surface properties and convert them into a digital model. These techniques are commonly used…to produce accurate digital models of large-scale objects such as vehicles, buildings, and even entire landscapes. In such cases a scanning technique called ‘Lidar’ (Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging)…’
  • ‘The scans can be used directly, mapping textures onto surfaces to create realistic environments, or indirectly, as a framework on top of which a new, more functional model can be built.’

Other technologies are being employed to overcome creative hurdles.

Julia Hallam & Margaret Marshment, Realism and Popular Cinema, Manchester University Press, 2000, p63.

With the increasing use of special effects in the film industry, especially in Hollywood, they have grown reliant on this method, in-turn creating a hyper-realism.

‘Hollywood films frequently employ spectacle (and technical virtuosity), breaking their seamless narrational flow with sequences that can call attention to the film’s artificiality: special effects, spectacular cinematography and various forms of choreographed performance…’

We can see the effects more than ever in films, breaking away from the flow of the narrative.

Julia Hallam & Margaret Marshment, Realism and Popular Cinema, Manchester University Press, 2000, p63.

We have already discovered that c.g.i. can speed up production, and can also allow for 3-dimensional sketches to be made, that can lead to a final design and model; as used by Illustrator Rick Sternbach who explains.

‘This was a case of putting shapes together on the desktop computer, made the design work pretty fast, During [Star Trek] Voyager we used c.g.i. sketching a lot more than we had in the past. It was very easy to put together a number of shapes for the prison satellite, and finally we came up with a three lobed structure…’

Models can be loosely created in minutes now, the computer has become a sketchbook, a transition from paper to computer.

Interview with Rick Sternback, Ships of the Delta Quadrant, 2003.

Slide 29 – Moving away from models briefly to look at the broader possibilities of c.g.i, narrative elements that were once removed can now remain in the script.

‘For lower and mid-range – budget productions, script elements that might once have been discarded because they would be beyond production funding – such as snow scenes, boating scenes, or wilderness shots – could be weighed in terms of story value because digital visual effects make it possible for such images to be attained at a reasonable expense’

Script elements that were once beyond capabilities can now be filmed.

Shilo T. McClean, Digital Story Telling, the Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film, London : MIT, 2007, p43.

The combing of a number of techniques is now possible due to developments in c.g.i, for example.

  • ‘This shot might be composed of real arial footage…motion-control images of miniatures of the town backed by a CG matte painting that draws upon some of the photographic elements of the aerial photograph’
  • ‘CG shots show specific buildings created in 3-D, and CG treatments of the miniature shots to allow gradual revelation of seasonal changes…composited with a CG camera moves masking the transitions between forms of image creation or image capture,’
  • ‘If the time and place of the story are fantastical…the viewer will assume that the techniques described above have been used…the effects house may make it difficult to discern exactly which processes were employed. If the time and place of the story are contemporary, “real world” settings the entire sequence may pass undetected as a digital visual effects sequence.’

Special effects are becoming so believable now that we are simply ignoring their presence on-screen, but still limited to worlds we are familiar with, than those of fantasy, taking more work to achieve this.

Shilo T. McClean, Digital Story Telling, the Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film, London : MIT, 2007, p43.

Yet it is special effects believability that is now being called into question. With the increasing use of 3D cinema, the audience can now be immersed into the world that c.g.i. creates for us, such as the blockbuster Avatar (2009).

‘But the truly high art brought forth Avatar, above all other innovations, is the transportive experience itself; all efforts at visualisation were designed, ultimately, to serve this photorealistic, dramatic film-going experience. While technological advances are the enabling factor, the film’s success is earned by the technology passing unnoticed, as the viewer becomes fully immersed in the world Pandora and its epic landscapes.’

We are now able to be inside the film its self, allowing us the opportunity to explore more.

Lisa Fitz Patrick, The Art of Avatar, James Cameron’s Epic Adventure, New York: Abrams, 2009, p12.

I’ll now show you a clip of Avatar, sadly I can’t bring this to you in 3D today. You can still see how the audience can be transported in and around a fiction fantasy world.

With no physical camera, the computer can record the action from within the created world at any given angle and following the action through. We are free to roam this world as if we were there ourselves.

Avatar, Dir. James Cameron. 20th Century Fox. 2009.

Directorial Choices

One very important aspect is the directorial input, their choice and use of special effects and model miniatures, dating back to D.W. Griffiths, who used them sparingly and when he did, this was with little care.

‘The most glaring “fake” is a miniature set for one brief long shot of the Persians’ siege tower assault the Gates of Belshazzar in the Babylonian segment [Intolerance (1916)]…it was the budget that tempered Griffith’s quest for absolute realism. Despite the fact he spent almost two million dollars on a life-size recreation…of the ancient empire, this was a night shot and would have been terribly costly to light on a large set. Thus Griffith reluctantly substituted models, which are betrayed by the flickering miniature flames.’

D.W. Griffiths took realism to its extremes with life-size sets, in preference to a reduced scale. Only drawing on model miniatures when absolutely necessary.

Jeff Rovin, Movie Special Effects, Barnes: Yoseloff, 1977, p25.

In this still you can see, the lavish budget of was evidently spent on the large sets.When we come to the model scene, the light is first exposed at the top revealing the sky, as the light hits the city in the reveal, opening up to a very still and lifeless model. Giving more time to absorb the city from above as it crumbles. Studios even during the silent era were willing to work with large budgets, leaving the director with more creative freedom.

Intolerance: Loves Struggle Through the Ages, Dir. D.W. Griffiths, Triangle Film Corporation, Wark Production. 1916.

Where as Steven Spielberg, famed for his special effects can use them subtly when needed as seen with The Empire of the Sun.

‘He followed The Color Purple (1985) with Empire of the Sun (1987), another drama which included a CG “squadron of aircraft flying over Shanghai, a wide arial view of a stadium…These effects showed his approach to the use effects invisibly and seamlessly to enhance the Diegetic world, an approach many would consider out of character for an “effects director.”’

He chooses not to play up his stereotype instead utilising effects sparingly and where necessary.

Shilo T. McClean, Digital Story Telling, the Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film, London: MIT, 2007, p189.

Looking stills from that scene we have an arial shot of the crowd, the boy looks up to see the squadron passing over. Returning to the crowd, there’s a juxtaposition to his toy plane, both for dramatic effect, and suggesting the above planes actual scale. We can see an emphasis on the actors and the narrative whilst the special effects bring more context and depth.

Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg, Amblin Entertainment, Warner Bros, 1987.

Another major director; Peter Jackson utilised both model miniatures and cgi in the production of his film; King Kong (2005).

‘Films with lots of action now rely heavily on computer-generated pre-viz[ulization] sequences. These are 3-D animated sequences used to plan a movie before filming starts and they can include quite sophisticated CG environment models. When Peter [Jackson] particularly liked what had been created…we would reproduce that as exactly as possible in miniature.’

They focus on certain areas where the action in the film takes place, which is;

‘The most important area…we call the “red carpet”. This is anywhere the computer-generated pre-viz[ualization,] characters touch the environment – mostly the areas they walk on.’

Computers are aiding in the construction of models being placed in a set that will be filmed. Jackson is using the computer more as a visual aid in this respect.

Richard Rickett, Special Effects, The History and Technique, London, Aurum, 2006, p127.

However we must consider the capacity of the studio, its financial and technical abilities, such as the British Studio; Hammer Film, infamous for its horror movies of the late nineteen fifties through to the early seventies.

‘The Gorgon [1964] in legend does of course have, instead of hair, a head of writhing, hissing snakes. And Hammer’s special effects division promised such snakes would be delivered…In fact, the green toy snakes they used were as rigid as broom handles and wholly inert. The overall effect, in those fleeting scenes when Megaera comes looming out of the darkness, is that of a furious boarding house landlady interrupted in the course of setting her hair.’

Hammer made the best of their constraints to consistently create an aesthetic in their films.

Sinclair McKay. The Thing of Unspeakable Horror: The History of Hammer Films, London: Aurum, 2007, p79.

In these still we can see from the end of the film where the rigid snakes wobble in the actresses hair, or are either supported by wires above.After the beheading these snakes that are withdrawing into her head is a rehearsed, or the action is shot and played in reverse.

Followed by a series of composite shots completing the death sequence as the human identity is revealed.

The Gorgon, Dir. Terence Fisher, Columbia, Hammer Films. 1964

Now that we have seen what c.g.i. can do, and how directors employ this tool in their work, where does that leave model miniatures?

Returning to Spielberg, directing War of the Worlds (2005) we can see both models and cgi being used.

  • ‘There’s a shot…where a huge road bridge is ripped apart in the background and then a street of houses is destroyed in the foreground. The bridge was CG while the houses were miniatures. We could have done the road bridge as a miniature but it would never have been so convincing and…perform as dramatically.’

Special effects artist Matthew Gratzner who worked on the sequence believes in a mix of the old and the contemporary techniques.

  • ‘I also believe that mixing a range of techniques… brings much more texture and depth to a shot.’

The realism of models is still stronger than its c.g.i. contemporary, however they can work together to produce realism.

Richard Rickett, Special Effects, The History and Technique, London, Aurum, 2006, p152.

There is still a push to use c.g.i.more and more as it develops, as John Knoll at ILM has noticed between working on The Phantom Menace [1999] and Revenge of the Sith [2005]

  • ‘One of the main reasons was that we can now light models in the computer so much better, it used to be that you couldn’t easily re-create the naturalistic lighting you get in miniatures, especially interiors. But we can now use radiosity and get our CG environments and models looking as good as the real thing.’

The deciding factor is time and money rather than aesthetics. Staying at the same studio Lorne Peterson in the model shop argues that his skills will not become a thing of the past.

  • ‘I think a lot of people relish the idea of making and filming real things. Maybe [when] the new generation of visual effects supervisors are in charge – people who have never seen anything done outside a computer realise that doing some things the old way can be just as effective’

Both models and c.g.i. are being used on the basis of time and money now. This allows more creativity to occur in a films production. Now there’s is more ability to create convincing fake worlds that achieve realism.

John Knoll & Peter Lorne, in Richard Rickett, Special Effects, The History and Technique, London, Aurum, 2006, p127.

There’s a visual language being created here, in the on-screen worlds, a blending of many techniques.

Directors can choose to work with models and puppets in films such as Team America, (2004) where all the world is not to scale, the representation’s based upon signifiers, that the audience reads and acknowledges and still follow the narratives structure.

The setting is based on the iconic structures more than reality.

Within this world, both setting and characters are fake, which the audience readily accepts as reality.

Team America, Dir. Trey Parker, Paramount Pictures, 2004.

Reworking Star Wars

Returning to the forerunners in special effects; ILM, to the issue of George Lucas’s, reworking the original Star Wars trilogy.

With the recent blu-ray releases, fans are upset by alterations to the films, to fit his original vision.

This does not just effect the visual effects but also the editing of scenes, and score of the film for both the additional and original scenes.

  • ‘My original vision for Star Wars was to have a lot of epic scale and at the same time it had space ships and creatures…the ability to create those things on film was extremely limited and it was very difficult to make anything with any number of creatures or aliens and environments…There’s lots of ways of doing things but we’re always taking advantage of new technologies as it grows pushing forward, try to solve creative problems’

Lucas felt constrained by the limits of the special effects at the time of their release, now feeling more free creatively to make the necessary improvements. Yet he doesn’t ignore the old, he still respects them enough to use them in his latest additions to the Star Wars saga, whilst still striving to improve his work. If we turn to Marcel Duchamp writing in The Creative Act (1957) on the relationship between the artist, and the viewer surrounding a finished or released piece he says.

  • ‘The artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Artist History.’

In Lucas’s case it is the function of the fans to decide if he has produced a good, great or a masterpiece of a film and not director.

Interview with George Lucas, From Puppets to Pixels: Digital Characters, 2002.

Marcel Duchamp. The Creative Act, New York: Paragraphic Books, 1959, p77-78.

Below are a series of stills from the opening section of the Sarlacc Pit scene from Return of the Jedi.

The physical models have been removed and replaced with more polished c.g.i. models. Also in the pit we have an stronger alien presence that makes noises, that the characters are reacting to. We can see from earlier alterations made in the 2004 release, Lucas’s vision is finally taking place, with the advancing technology.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Richard Marquand, Walt Disney Studios. 1983, 1997, and 2004.

On the other side of the coin when revisiting films, with the directors edition of Star Trek the Motion Picture released in (2001) there was more a concern of aesthetics,

‘The concern was everything had to match up to nineteen seventy nine. So that was the directive that we discussed with Darren [R. Dochtermann] at the start…that whatever we produce, had to match these shots [that] we really want in. And wanted to make sure whatever new effects that ended up into this film…would only have been, what was possible to produce in nineteen seventy nine.’

There was a need to only do what was left on the storyboards caused by limitations of the original productions technical abilities.

Interview with David C. Fien, Redirecting the Future, Directors Cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. 2001.

Looking at the trailer for the directors edition demonstrating the seamless nature of the additional scenes that were altered to appear as if they were produced at the time of its original production As you can see there is a seamless blend of the original footage with new material, leaving us unable to discern what are the additions in this respect.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture: Director’s Cut, Dir. Dir. Robert Wise, Paramount, 2001, originally 1979

We must remember though that the film is the vision of the director, as George Lucas noted.

‘The secret to film is that it’s an illusion and its illusion that creates twenty-four frames a second. You have the illusion of movement, illusion of space & time…’

Film itself is a projected illusion, Lucas has the growing ability; technically and financially to do this. His vision is just being realised, if the fans like his process or not, it is happening

The world on the screen is an escape and doesn’t have to be a realist representation.

Interview with George Lucas, The Making of Episode I – Visual Effects. 2001

Original Conclusion

Special effects ever since their inception at the birth of film have been used to enhance our viewing experience, adding to the narrative structure of the film. Utilising the available means necessary, this maybe also down to creative decisions to construct the Mise-en-Scène. Model miniatures today still have a place in the special effects world, adding to the realism of the scenes they appear in. Still that capabilities being replicated more easily on screen, leading to blockbusters such as Avatar that immerse you into a fictional world. Models are used more conventionally for the more recognisable structures. The craft of model making works alongside c.g.i. in one form or another. Returning to the question, are model miniatures more believe that c.g.i? With the increasing level of sophistication of c.g.i, No. But they are still there on the screen, so there is a level of realism that models can achieve that CGI can’t, this maybe due a number of constraints of a production. However its a fact of human development that we are always improving ourselves.

Updated Conclusion

Much of how I felt back in later 2011 still pretty much stands, however I must add turn to Pixar’s John Lasseter who believes that it doesn’t matter what medium you ultimately work in. What really matters in the story the film is telling, if we the viewer don’t believe in the story then all of the effects and camera trickery are useless. I get romantic when I see a classic film that you can clearly see employs model miniatures, there’s more of a human touch. Obviously the effects are dated, however you know what the camera has captured was really in-front of it. CGI is still becoming more and more sophisticated, yet as an audience we are starting to see beyond the effect to find something more artificial, which takes you out of the film. If I notice a model miniature in a modern film I’m surprised and happy that they are still employed, I know then that even today 7 years later model miniatures still have a place in the world of film making.

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