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The Single-Minded Movie Blog

10 Movies With Mind-Boggling Miniature Effects

The Single-Minded Movie Blog
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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6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)

Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards' near-90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. BEST ACTOR // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (female writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), and Beery won for The Champ, which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.

2. BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT // 1950

By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. BEST ACTRESS // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.

4. BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE // 1987

The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.

5. BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION) // 1995

More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars Richard E. Grant (Girls, Withnail & I) as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.

6. BEST SOUND EDITING // 2013

The latest Oscar tie happened only three years ago, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg said to the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

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11 Haunting Facts About Beloved

Toni Morrison—who was born on February 18, 1931—made a name for herself with The Bluest Eye, Sula and Song of Solomon, but it wasn’t until 1987’s Beloved, about a runaway slave haunted by the death of her infant daughter, that her legacy was secured. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in the decision to award Morrison the Nobel Prize in 1993. All the awards aside, Beloved is a testament to the horrors of slavery, with its narrative of suffering and repressed memory and its dedication to the more than 60 million who died in bondage. Here are some notable facts about Morrison’s process and the novel’s legacy.

1. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

While compiling research for 1974's The Black Book, Morrison came across the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave from Kentucky who escaped with her husband and four children to Ohio in 1856. A posse caught up with Garner, who killed her youngest daughter and attempted to do the same to her other children rather than let them return to bondage. Once apprehended, her trial transfixed the nation. "She was very calm; she said, 'I’d do it again,'" Morrison told The Paris Review. "That was more than enough to fire my imagination."

2. MORRISON CAME UP WITH THE CHARACTER BELOVED AFTER SHE STARTED WRITING.

The book was originally going to be about the haunting of Sethe by her infant daughter, who she killed (just as Garner did) rather than allow her to return to slavery. A third of the way through writing, though, Morrison realized she needed a flesh-and-blood character who could judge Sethe’s decision. She needed the daughter to come back to life in another form (some interpret it as a grief-driven case of mistaken identity). As she told the National Endowment for the Arts’ NEA Magazine: "I thought the only person who was legitimate, who could decide whether [the killing] was a good thing or not, was the dead girl."

3. SHE WROTE THE ENDING EARLY IN THE WRITING PROCESS.

Morrison has said she likes to know the ending of her books early on, and to write them down once she does. With Beloved, she wrote the ending about a quarter of the way in. "You are forced into having a certain kind of language that will keep the reader asking questions," she told author Carolyn Denard in Toni Morrison: Conversations.

4. MORRISON BECAME FASCINATED WITH SMALL HISTORICAL DETAILS.

To help readers understand the particulars of slavery, Morrison carefully researched historical documents and artifacts. One particular item she became fascinated with: the "bit" that masters would put in slaves' mouths as punishment. She couldn’t find much in the way of pictures or descriptions, but she found enough to imagine the shame slaves would feel. In Beloved, Paul D. tells Sethe that a rooster smiled at him while he wore the bit, indicating that he felt lower than a barnyard animal.

5. SHE ONLY RECENTLY READ THE BOOK HERSELF.

In an appearance on The Colbert Report last year, Morrison said she finally got around to reading Beloved after almost 30 years. Her verdict: "It’s really good!"

6. THE BOOK INSPIRED READERS TO BUILD BENCHES.

When accepting an award from the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1988, Morrison observed that there is no suitable memorial to slavery, "no small bench by the road." Inspired by this line, the Toni Morrison Society started the Bench by the Road Project to remedy the issue. Since 2006, the project has placed 15 benches in locations significant to the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, including Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, which served as the point of entry for 40% of slaves brought to America.

7. WHEN BELOVED DIDN’T WIN THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN 1987, FELLOW WRITERS PROTESTED.

After the snub, 48 African-American writers, including Maya Angelou, John Edgar Wideman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., signed a letter that appeared in the New York Times Book Review. "For all of America, for all of American letters," the letter addressing Morrison read, "you have advanced the moral and artistic standards by which we must measure the daring and the love of our national imagination and our collective intelligence as a people."

8. IT’S ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY CHALLENGED BOOKS.

Between 2000 and 2009, Beloved ranked 26th on the American Library Association’s list of most banned/challenged books. A recent challenge in Fairfax County, Virginia, cited the novel as too intense for teenage readers, while another challenge in Michigan said the book was, incredibly, overly simplistic and pornographic. Thankfully, both challenges were denied.

9. MORRISON ALSO WROTE AN OPERA BASED ON GARNER’S LIFE.

Ten years ago, Morrison collaborated with Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour on Margaret Garner, an opera about the real-life inspiration behind Beloved. It opened in Detroit in 2005, and played in Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York before closing in 2008.

10. MORRISON DID NOT WANT IT MADE INTO A MOVIE.

Although she publicly claims otherwise, according to a New York magazine story, Morrison told friends she didn’t want Beloved made into a movie. And she didn’t want Oprah Winfrey (who bought the film rights in 1988) to be in it. Nevertheless, the film came out in 1998 and was a total flop.

11. THERE'S AN ILLUSTRATED VERSION.

The Folio Society, a London-based company that creates fancy special editions of classic books, released the first-ever illustrated Beloved in 2015. Artist Joe Morse had to be personally approved by Morrison for the project. Check out a few of his hauntingly beautiful illustrations here.

This article originally appeared in 2015.

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