How miniatures and models are built and used in Special Effects film making.

Models and miniatures have been used to create special effects scenes since the earliest days of moviemaking. Models are used in a film when it is either too expensive, physically impossible, impractical or dangerous to do the effect with a full sized prop or vehicle. Many of the original photographic techniques had not changed much by the time the 1970's had rolled around. Digital technology didn't really come around until the mid nineties, so most special effects done before then were effected using operations rooted in very old filming techniques.

However, by the late 1970's, special effects artists had made great strides in photographic procedures, primarily using a concept called "Motion Control", whereby a subject being filmed (usually a model or other inanimate object which is supposed to fly or float through whatever scene is required) is mounted to a special stand and filmed with a camera on a crane that is capable of repeating various movements using a computer. The stand the subject is mounted to is also controlled by the computer, thus the motion is controlled carefully creating and replicating the kind of movement that it is desired for the subject to do during the scene in the film. In most cases, the subject is filmed against a blue screen which through special optical printing, would be substituted for whatever background is needed to complete the scene. The appearance of flight of the object is imparted by controlling the movement using the juxtaposition of the object relative to the camera, frame by frame.

This procedure requires that models used for these types of shots be especially prepared and constructed for this particular task.

How the models are designed

Models used for filming are not of the type that might be built for museum display or the kind a hobbyist would build to display in his curio cabinet. They are built for one task only... to look interesting on film when properly lit & photographed, and have the hardware needed for it to be mounted to the filming stands and have lights to impart life into the model during the various "passes" run over it by the motion control cameras. They are therefore designed, built, decorated and prepared with these tasks in mind. The following details the types of models portraying spaceships and aircraft, those designed to look as though they can fly around on their own, as opposed to things like buildings and ground-based structures or animatronics etc, which may be built quite differently.

After the shape and size (scale) of the model is decided, planning determines how it will be filmed. Since the model will be hard-mounted to a motion control stand rather than flown on wires as per the older Lydecker method (regularly seen in the old Irwin Allen shows of the '60's) and so forth,  an "armature" must be built into the model. The armature is usually made from pipe or steel welded together so that it allows the model to be mounted to the MOCO stand  from all angles, with the stand kept to the side away from the camera. So the armature can be accessed from the front, rear, sides, top and bottom of the model. Often, wiring to run the lighting effects, such as engines and windows, are also routed through the armature exit points. The armature is hidden from view on the filming side(s) by hatches made to blend into the decorative hull of the model.

Construction Techniques

The model is then framed in using a variety of materials such as wood, plastic, foam or whatever. Sometimes molds are made of a master pattern of the model so that hollow fiberglass castings can be fabricated for multiple copies or to allow lightweight or more durable shells to be applied to the armature. Lighting is also a major consideration. Exhaust and engine lights are often high intensity Quartz lights such as those found in projectors. These lights can get very hot, so cooling systems are devised using heat sinks, fans and even liquid cooling at times built into the miniatures to prevent the plastic and resin construction from melting or warping from the intense heat. Tiny windows and portholes are usually simulated with fiber optics, but some more sophisticated models use complex arrays of neon tubes built especially for them.

Some models can be somewhat crude looking compared to what one might expect, on the other hand, others are extensively detailed and very well crafted. It all depends on how they will be used. A model that may only be seen for a quick glance zipping across the screen in only a few shots are more hurriedly made than a model of a giant starship seen slowly crawling past the camera in a protracted shot, many times during the show or series. The Battlestar Galactica and Draconian Mothership are examples of large models built to very high standards of detail.

The detailing on a model is generally the most time consuming part of building a model, so shortcuts are taken. Thin panelling is cut from sheets of plastic. The thousands of fine mechanical details peppering the surface of such craft are often done through a technique called "kitbashing". This means that dozens (or in the case of the Galactica, hundreds) of commercially available plastic kits, like tanks, battleships, airplanes and cars, are purchased and the various parts are used in a strategic way, hopefully to conceal their original sources, to detail the model. The sharp-eyed viewer, however, learns to spot what kind of kit a lot of these details come from, but in the context of the drama the shots are used in, they are rarely noticed. Some models, such as the Draconis from Buck Rogers used detailing mostly sculpted from scratch with only the smallest of detils coming from kit parts.

Painting and Finishing

The paint work on filming models is done with the intent of understandiong lighting and compositing techniques, and colours are chosen for both artistic license and knowing how the model will be shot. Models painted blue, or with blue sections, for example, would not work well in compositing using the blue screen backing, as the model would disappear! This is why just about any colours OTHER than blue are used. The models are usually weathered employing various techniques such as differently coloured panels, heavily airbrushed streaking, mottled paintwork suggesting chipped and worn finishes and just about anything one can imagine, depending on the "character" of the ship that the script demands. Most times the weathering is a lot more severe and exaggerated than what would be seen if the object actually were real. Like makeup for an actor, the severe weathering gives a model the look it needs for visual interest and realism on film.


On July 4th, 2010, Pete Gerard, model shop supervisor at Universal Hartland, kindly and generously contributed the following information, quoted directly:

Firstly, I should comment on the various sources for the forms (or "patterns") of our models, as they were quite various.  The Draconia, for instance, was sculpted entirely from Chavant clay, the type of oil-clay long-used in Detriot for sculpting new cars.  The "Hatchet Fighter" pattern, (which model sadly does not appear in your series), was roughed up in several variations using pink 4 Lb. foam, then after the design was approved, one of these was more accurately carved in jelutong, a special pattern wood related to mahogany.  After several coats of well-sanded primer, it generated a silicone rubber "glove-mold" from which we could lay up as many epoxy/glass shells as we needed.  The pattern for the Earth Directorate fighters (or "Thunder Fighters") was carved and turned from eastern rock maple, the world's most accurate pattern wood.  We made a "waste mold" from that, once it was approved, pulled a heavy casting from that, then completed all the fine surface detailing before making the production molds.  Scribe lines in wood are next to impossible to make perfect.  

I should add here that the shape of the Pirate Ship model was so "stealthy" and complex, coupled with the fact that we never needed working drawings for the prototype, that it drove the studio set designers and carpenters nuts.  They were tasked with building the entire ship in full scale, complete with a working canopy, and we could only send them one of our fiberglass shells from which to extrapolate their blueprints.  Television deadlines being what they are, this did not exactly endear us to the studio.  Like I.L.M. in its heyday, we were regarded as something of a "country club" by the studio hacks.

The models for "Airport '79: The Concorde" were done in a more expedient manner.  Reality-based in all cases except the black missiles, these models were ordered from a San Gabriel company called Pacific Miniatures, and arrived nicely carved from wood, and painted, but not quite perfect in overall symmetry, and lacking all surface details...those fussy little extras that give MoCo models their ultimate veracity.  We spent all our budgeted time and money on the last 10% of these tasks, and then made silicone glove-molds of the ships from which to pull our castings.  By this time our mold crew was "state of the art", so we met our deadlines in style.

As a footnote to the lighting effects on the models' engines, I should mention that we made high-temperature epoxy (and sometimes ceramic) castings of engine nacelles when we knew there would be heat problems from the quartz halogen lights.  Grant McCune's people chose to employ liquid nitrogen blasts around their engine effects, which served not only as a coolant, but also gave a convincing blast of vapor nicely lit by the halogens.  We used a different technique in some of the Buck Rogers models, primarily the shuttle: actual fire was used for the engine exposures, produced by small torches or burners using propane and compressed air.  With both methods, a separate "burn-in" pass was needed to get dramatic exposures on these effects.

I should add a word or two on finishes here.  When one studies NASA footage from space, their vehicles and components are so perfectly made, and so sterile, that they often look like toys on film.  This was my only problem with the models Kubrick had made for "2001"...they were simply too good.  Of course none of these were shot in front of blue screens.  We soon learned from the model work that was done for "Star Wars", that a fair amount of aging not only made the models more believable on film, but it was actually necessary in many cases.  In those days the blue-screens were all illuminated from behind, and bright glossy finishes on models could be self-defeating if blue light were to bounce off the model's surface into the camera.  "Blue spill", as it was called, could result in big holes in the mattes needed for optical composites, and it was very expensive and time-consuming to have to go back to the animation stand and fill the holes by hand, frame-by-frame.  Dull finishes usually took care of this, but our sleek Concorde was supposed to look pristine and new, so we had to find another solution.  A yellow primer finish, fairly flat, was employed, and the blue light from the screens was absorbed instead of being reflected off the models.  The optical technicians were able to print the final elements as if they were white, and this was how the camera crew gave them perfect mattes form their "beauty passes".