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The Single-Minded Movie Blog

10 Movies With Mind-Boggling Miniature Effects

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The Single-Minded Movie Blog

Filmmakers are, by nature, liars. They’re masters of misdirection and optical illusion and whatever on-screen flim-flammery is necessary to get the shot. Which is why, even in our CG-heavy age, the miniature special effect is still in (occasional) demand. Recent movies like Inception and The Impossible proved that the use of small-scale models to simulate large-scale cinematic visuals is not only viable, but can even be preferable to all-digital approaches. After all, the best miniature effects provide the sense of weight and realism that computers often can’t. Here are 10 films whose use of miniatures is so subtle, we’re still kicking ourselves for believing that cars can fly, and that entire resorts, mountains, and cities were harmed in the making of these movies.

1. Blade Runner

Courtesy of The Single-Minded Movie Blog

By the time Blade Runner bombed at the box office, the use of miniatures in movies had been well-established. Close-up shots of tiny models were popularized by WWII and Godzilla films, and honed to a science by Star Wars and the motion-controlled camera rigs that Douglas Trumbull and his special effects crew pioneered. It’s no surprise, then, that Trumbull was behind the flying cars, or Spinners, in 1982’s Blade Runner. Though some shots featured a full-size prop, many of the in-flight and zoomed-in shots were of a 44-inch-long replica. Trumbull’s master stroke, though, is the use of bright, flaring lights on the miniature Spinner, partially obscuring the model while also creating a sense of dynamic, cop-car scale.

2. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Courtesy of The Single-Minded Movie Blog

It was 1984, and we were gullible, easily tricked into thinking that Indie and company really were tearing through tunnels in a minecart while other carts full of bloodthirsty cultists gave chase. But the majority of that sequence was done with action-figure-size models (of both the good and bad guys) in 10-inch-long cars. As with most miniature shots, the trick, apart from the painstakingly detailed models, was to slow the camera’s speed to match the smaller scale—for many shots, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) jerry-rigged a Nikon F3 still camera, cutting its motor speed by two-thirds.

3. The Abyss

Courtesy of The RPF

In retrospect, of course The Abyss was packed with miniscule versions of massive vessels. This was 1989, long before Titanic and Avatar gave James Cameron the kind of clout that could launch a thousand full-scale ships. So most of the vehicle shots feature models—for example, the 1/8-scale mini-subs that, like Blade Runner’s Spinners, were studded with working lights, and that also housed projectors, to display pre-filmed images of the actors against the inside of the domed cockpit windows. Even visuals that audiences might assume were breakthrough CG work, such as the iridescent “alien” vessels, were simply detailed models, many of them shot moving through smoke to simulate underwater murk.

4. Back to the Future Part II

Some miniature effects lose their magic once you know what to look for. That’s not the case with the swift, but completely mind-boggling night-time shot in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II, when the flying DeLorean comes in for a landing, with no visible cuts between the car hitting the road and the actors piling out. The shot starts with a 3-foot-long scale model, which swoops in and touches down. It passes behind a streetlight, which masks a split-screen effect—the car that emerges on the other side of the pole is a full-size vehicle, part of a completely different, but perfectly matched shot.

5. Independence Day

Roland Emmerich’s strangely gleeful detonation of the White House—a 1/12-scale miniature—gets all the glory, but the real highlight of Independence Day’s Oscar-winning visual effects comes during the on-screen carnage in New York City, when a wall of flame is shown rolling through the streets. It’s a dazzling trick of forehead-slapping simplicity: the modeled cityscape was tilted sideways, with downward-aimed cameras perched above. So as the fire bloomed upwards, climbing the miniature environment, it looked as though it was spreading laterally. The final effect is as physics-defying as an alien bombardment should be.

6. Titanic

Courtesy of Jeff DiSario

Though Peter Jackson and his Weta Workshop special effects company later tried to coin the term “bigatures,” in relation to giant miniatures, James Cameron and Dream Quest Images might have beat them to it, first with a 70-foot-long nuclear submarine model in The Abyss, and then with a number of large models in Titanic, including a 1/8-scale replica of the titular ship’s stern jutting up from the water (after the vessel has snapped). Positioning seaborne extras in front of the sprawling miniature allowed Cameron to avoid a composite, green-screened shot. Other scenes used various other partial or full replicas, with the biggest complete miniature of the ship stretched 45 feet (or 1/20 scale, above).

7. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Courtesy of Weta

All of The Lord of the Rings movies employed so-called bigatures, a term coined by a Weta Workshop model-maker to describe the 9-foot-high miniature of Barad’Dur, castle home of Sauron and perch for the villain’s baleful, all-seeing eye. Nearly every memorable environment, including Helm’s Deep, made extensive use of models, but Weta’s crowning achievement in miniatures is arguably the city of Minas Tirith (above) in 2003’s The Return of the King, which stands 14 feet tall at its highest tower, and sprawls some 30 feet wide, with as many as 1000 houses dotting its bulk. The besieged city is often shown surrounded by a CGI landscape, forming the basis of composite shots, and portions of it were hyper-detailed enough to stand up to extreme close-ups.

8. The Dark Knight

Courtesy of Behance

Christopher Nolan is famously averse to all-digital VFX, opting for air-launched miniature Batmobiles (or Tumblers) in Batman Begins and a memorable midair, multi-plane stunt in The Dark Knight Rises. But maybe the best, most deceptive practical effects sequence in Nolan’s Batman trilogy happens during the underground chase scene in 2008’s The Dark Knight. The Tumbler slams into a garbage truck, then swings around, skidding and speeding down the tunnel. The car, truck and tunnel are all 1/3-scale models, built by New Deal Studios, with motion-controlled cameras zipping along tracks alongside and behind the action.

9. Inception

Inception miniature explosion behind the scenes construction from S. Schneider on Vimeo.

For the climactic explosion of a mountaintop hospital (actually a figment of one character’s dreaming imagination) in 2010’s Inception, Christopher Nolan once again tapped the miniature-builders at New Deal Studios. The crew built a giant 1/6-scale model, topping 40 feet, mountain included, and then blew it up. But that was just the rehearsal. New Deal rebuilt and remounted the miniature, and destroyed it again, in a 5.5-second-long detonation sequence, filmed at 72 frames per second (two to three times normal filming speed, with the shots later slowed down to match the scale).

10. The Impossible

Image courtesy of FX Guide

While disaster movies like Deep Impact and 2012 have demonstrated menacing, purely virtual tidal waves, nothing comes close to the devastating tsunami sequence in 2012’s The Impossible. To simulate the initial impact of the 2004 tsunami on a Thai resort, Magicon GmbH created a handful of 1/3-scale bungalows, as well as the surrounding trees and nearby pool (above). The crew then dumped a million liters of water on their creations, creating a 1.5-meter-high wave. CG artists added poolside umbrellas and additional trees, but the (perceived) scale of the destruction, including the way the miniature buildings are left shattered and skeletal, is more convincing than its bigger-budget equivalents.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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