Monday, January 4, 2010

Illusions in Using Miniatures in Film

In this age of computer graphics and animation, there is a special effects art form that's quickly losing popularity and earning a place in film making history. What is this art form? It's only the use of miniatures in film making. Have you ever watched those Godzilla movies in the past that didn't use any computer graphics animation? The destruction scenes of Tokyo and other suburbs used miniatures. They may be crude, but they do a nice job in convincing the audience that Japan is being trampled on by a giant lizard - at least for the duration of the movie.

Of course, there are miniature effects that are more convincing. In James Cameron's Titanic, the director used a partial scale replica of the rear part of the ship as the background of a scene with survivors in the water. Movies like the old Sinbad movies also used miniatures to film stop-motion creatures. In Superman, the Movie, miniatures were used to show the effects of the shifting of the San Andreas fault. Indeed, for years, movie audiences were agape in fascination with these miniatures because they were very effective.

It may be old, but the technique of using miniatures for special effects is not dead. In fact, it is something that budding film makers can use quite effectively. They only need to know a few things about using miniatures to make the scenes more realistic. For example, since the laws of physics (like gravity) makes small objects behave differently, making them look small, film makers "overcrank" their cameras. In other words, they shoot the miniature scenes with a very high frame rate per second. This allows the motions of the scene to be slowed down, making it appear that a falling tiny Statue of Liberty is actually the real thing that's heavy and massive.

Overcranking usually solves motion problem, except for water shoots. In small-scale, a tiny waterfall or tidal wave would produce droplets that are too large for scale. This discrepacny does not escape the human eye. The solution would be to make associated scale models like ships bigger so that the water flow and clumping appear more natural. This was also done by director Cameron in Titanic. Ship models a fraction of the original size were made for ocean scenes.

Miniatures can be mixed or composited with normal scale live action scenes. They can be placed on the foreground and made to appear as if they are in the background at a distance from the subjects. This technique is called forced perspective and was often used to fake UFO photographs in the past. Another technique would be to use a mirror with the silver (reflective material) scratched out a section. The miniatures are filmed through this hole as the normal scale scene plays as a reflection in the mirror. It can be tricky, but it really works. A variation of this is to use a matte painting on glass with open spaces through which the miniature scene is filmed.

There are many ways to use miniatures in film. Just be creative and you may find use for it still in this age of computers!

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