miniatures

8 Movies Where Miniature Special Effects Trump CGI

From the stop-motion animated works of the legendary Ray Harryhausen to that White House scene in Independence Day, effects involving miniatures have long been a part of cinema’s rich history…though some examples have aged a lot better than others.

In this age of rampant CGI, miniature work is an art form all unto itself and today we’re going to celebrate the finer set pieces that have endured in popular culture. Presenting:

8 Famous Movie Miniatures

Digitally blurred miniature fake of Jodhpur

King Kong (1933)

Although stop motion had seen use before this point (most notably in 1927’s Metropolis and the works of Georges Méliès), it was the era-defining monster epic King Kong which really showed off the potential of miniatures.

In the above climactic scene, King Kong scales the Empire State Building in what could be the most iconic movie scene of the 1930s.

Naturally the effects employed 80 years ago have since been eclipsed by modern techniques, but the scale of what was achieved in this classic was nothing short of impressive even in retrospect. Marcel Delgado was commissioned to create four different scaled-down models of Kong (which was then known by the slightly less snappy moniker “Giant Terror Gorilla”) as well as a huge bust of the creature’s head and upper chest to use during close-ups, operating by three workers operating it from within.

Alien (1979)

Miniatures saw a lot of love during the sixties and seventies, particularly within the sci-fi genre. Star Wars, 2001: A Space Oddyssey, and Star Trek all made extensive use of miniatures to depict a huge sense of scale at a lower budget.

Featurette on bringing the Alien universe to life using miniatures.

The introduction of the intricately designed Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien is a premier example of this, and as you’ll hear in the “making of” clip above, the amount of work that went into the miniature effects on this movie was unprecedented at the time.

And really, the term miniature for something so huge doesn’t seem particularly apt. The separate landing leg model—used in scenes where the ship touches down on LV-426—measured an impressive 42 feet high and, like the main ship itself, was moved into shot using a forklift truck.

Blade Runner (1982)

A production steeped in mythology, inter-crew fighting, and bad blood, Blade Runner may have left a sour taste in the mouth of many of those who made it (including Harrison Ford, with whom Ridley Scott frequently butted heads) but to sci-fi fans it remains one of the most visually impressive movies ever released.

Creating an entire city with miniatures and forced perspective, back when 3D computer modelling wasn’t an option.

A huge amount of miniatures were used to bring Philip K. Dick’s dystopian vision of Los Angeles to life (and one which the writer was reportedly very happy with on seeing test footage shortly before his passing.) The model work can be seen most prominently in scenes involving the Spinner vehicles and establishing shots of the city, but we can also thank Imgur user Minicity for uploading this huge collection of behind-the-scenes shots earlier in the year.

Back to the Future Pt. II (1989)

The second installment of Robert Zemeckis’ quintessential trilogy raised the bar for a lot of special effect techniques (digital compositing and motion control cameras in particular were used to great effect in Part Two.)

Miniatures only saw limited use, but when they do appear, you’d still be hard-pressed to identify them let alone figure out how they did some of the shots. Consider this one, for instance, which has the 3-foot scale model of the DeLorean touch down from the sky, pull into the driveway, and then…people get out of the model?

You can re-watch it a few times and still probably not figure it out, but because it’ll drive you wild if we don’t reveal the trick, pay close attention to the street lamp. This is in fact two separate yet perfectly matched shots, with the lamp providing the nearly imperceptible seam between the two.

GoldenEye (1995)

The first Bond flick to feature CGI, but it’s the miniature work that stole the show.

GoldenEye was the final movie worked on by special effects master Derek Meddings, to whom the movie is dedicated. Incredible miniature work was a defining quality of Meddings’ career, and he certainly pulled out all the stops for Bond’s 19th outing—here, fellow visual effects designer Nigel Blake discusses his colleagues work on the movie (featuring some pretty mind-blowing shots of the GoldenEye miniatures without the forced perspective you see in the final cut):

Independence Day (1996)

The aforementioned “Time’s up” scene in ID:4, because it’d be virtually criminal not to tip one’s hat to it while talking about ultra-memorable miniature set pieces:

Everyone’s day gets ruined in Emmerich’s iconic disaster flick.

Miniatures were also used (alongside CGI) for the aerial fight scenes, as well as the skyscraper explosion. In fact, the movie still holds the record for the most miniature model work to appear in a single title (and with the dominance of CGI, it may well hold the title forever.)

An interesting facet of the production is that those destruction shots were filmed with the models placed sideways—naturally, flames go upwards but Emmerich wanted them to appear as if they were exploding towards the camera (as explained in this “making of” segment around the 14:00 mark.)

And as you can imagine, they only had one shot to make sure those explosion scenes were a success, otherwise a lot of model makers would have been on overtime to recreate all the miniatures again (with the original, 12” wide White House model costing around $50,000 to construct.)

The long-awaited sequel nearly ended up on our list of movies that’ll never get made, but it looks all but certain that we’ll get an Independence Day 2 next year. That said, you can bet your bottom dollar that the follow-up will eschew the kind of miniature work that won the original an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in favor of heavy CGI.

The Lord of the Rings Series (2001 – 2003)

For Peter Jackson’s landmark achievement in the world of special effects, lead actors were digitally altered to hobbit proportions… and conversely, the miniature cities were blown up to epic proportions.

The LOTR team on making the “bigature” photography look realistic.

And the team in charge of the miniature special effects had their work cut out for them, working longer than any other SFX crew during the entirety of the production. Coining the phrase “bigatures,” many of the cities seen in the final cut were shot from beautifully crafted models (including Helm’s Deep, Osgiliath, Minas Tirith, Isengard, and the Black Gate.)

Further complicating the work of the special effects and model making teams was the varying height depictions of the characters; Bag End, for instance, was built at two different scales—one which allowed Elijah Wood to walk through doorways of a seemingly appropriate size, and another which had Sir Ian McKellen having to stoop in order to enter them.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Huh? They used miniatures in Christopher Nolan’s Batman epic?

They sure did, and extensively so… though as is the measure of all good visual effects, most audience goers were none the wiser.

Visual effects supervisor Nick Davies discusses the practicalities of using miniatures on the set of The Dark Knight

That incredibly impressive scene in which the tumbler slams into the garbage truck at high speed was all miniature work (as were most of the chase scenes involving the tumbler on the streets of Gotham.) We’ve got New Deal Studios to thank for this seamless piece of work, who also masterminded the miniature shots of the opening plane scene in The Dark Knight Rises.

So there we have it—eight exquisite examples of miniatures proving they’ve still got a place in the world of special effects. 

Of course, there’s plenty more that we’ve not covered here; got any favorite scenes missing from the list? Head on down to the comments below!

Learn more about the School of 3D Animation & Visual Effects at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.