What makes a miniature look large?

Laspector

Master Member
I'm not a film maker so someone please tell me something; what is it that makes a model look large on film? I've seen a lot of sci fi movies in my day and I've always wondered why some look fake while others look real. Some shows might have actually very good model work with lots of detail, great paint jobs, etc, yet they still look fake while some shows might have models that are not really that detailed and still look large. Sometimes smaller models look big and sometimes large models still look fake.

Just one example = Logan's Run, that model city was the size of a huge room, yet still looked fake. Parts of the Death Star surface were only tabletop size, yet looked large on screen. Same with space ships, airplanes, and so on and so on. You get the point.

So, it can't (I would guess) just be size, paint job, and details. Is it something in the camera? Seems like it can't just attributed to under (over?) cranking the camera...is it? Seems if it was that easy all models would look right.

I'm sure the simple answer is something like "all of the above" but what exactly does it take to get it right? What is that special trick that can make small models look life size while sometimes bigger models still look "fake" ??
 
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starks

Well-Known Member
Someone with more experience will have to jump in here but from memory it has to do with scale and filming speed.

Atleast in a documentary I watched they used a quarter scale model so around 1/24.
If memory serves me correct they filmed the model at 4 times normal speed and when they slowed it back down to normal speed it made the model appear as full scale.... or something to that effect.
I suppose different film makers on different budgets and time restraints and differing quality equipment are all going to produce different results. ILM were seemingly always at the fore front of special effects so it's no surprise theres held up so well.

Cheers,
Josh
 

mung

Sr Member
For a miniature to look real the photography of it needs to mimic as close as possible what it would look like if it were full size and shot by a camera person.

Depth of field is one critical element. You generally want all of the miniature from foreground to background to be in relatively sharp focus. If the foreground is soft it instantly gives away the miniature as a full size objects that get represented as miniatures would be shot from far enough back that everything would be in focus. You can see the reverse of this in those videos using a tilt shift lens where the full size scene looks like a tiny model as the focus point is a narrow band through the middle of the scene with foreground and background going soft. It helps that the shots are usually sped up which also makes them also look small.

The tilt shift lens can also help to make a miniature look large in a specific example. The star destroyer model from the original 1977 Star Wars, a relatively small model (3-4 feet long) used a tilt shift lens adjusted so the focus point was different down the frame. The top of the frame was in focus close to the lens where the model enters frame and the bottom of the frame was focused more distant where the tip of the star destroyer would eventually end up, thus it could all be in focus along the entire length.

The other critical element is aerial perspective. The atmosphere scatters blue light so things that are distant lose contrast with all the scattered light between the observer or the camera making the shadow areas less black. Also the thicker the atmosphere between the observer the more blue gets mixed into the colour of the distant object. So shooting a miniature also needs to simulate this effect, whether with smoke in the studio or scrims layered into the miniature or just painting the miniature elements bluer and less contrasty as they get further back. The other method is some form of diffusion on the lens to fog the shadows bloom the highlights and mimic distance.

Camera position and movement should also mimic the method you would have to employ if shooting fullsize. The miniature camera should be the scale distance from the ground that a scaled down tripod would be. Wild and crazy camera moves that you could not achieve fullsize using standard cinematography equipment are a dead giveaway. Scaling down the distance and speed of travel plus simulatiing the amplitude and frequency of vibration you get shooting from moving vehicles such as cars planes or helicopters helps for a miniature shot can help the verisimilitude of a miniature shot.

Shooting high frame rates slows down the action of a miniature and makes it seem larger. You can prove this by playing miniature shots back at a faster rate with on screen playback. Model ship miniatures on water are a good example to try as you can see instantly how they seem smaller bobbing about at a higher frequency. The old rule of thumb for shooting high speed miniatures was to multiply the frame rate by the square root of the scale denominator, so a 1/16 scale model would be shot at 4 times the normal frame rate of 24 frames per second which is 96 frames a second. A 1/4 scale model would be shot at twice the normal frame rate, 48 frames a second. These were starting points and generally testing would be carried out. Explosions in miniature are generally shot at a greater frame rate than the rule would suggest jusrt because they look bigger and more detailed.
There were limits in how fast a 35mm intermittent motion picture camera movement could operate and not shred the film. The Mitchell high speed could achieve 128 frames per second. The upper limit for a 35 mm intermittent movement special high speed camera was around 360 frames per second which is 15 times normal speed which is the frame rate the explosions of the miniature ships in Tora Tora Tora was shot at.

To achieve the small apertures required to achieve the wide depth of focus in a miniature shot a lot of light is needed and even more if shooting high speed with short exposure times. Big miniatures shot outdoors in sunlight generally have a better chance of looking large.

As a general rule the larger the scale of the miniature the easier it is to achieve the points listed above.
 

joberg

Master Member
^^
This and lighting is critical when filming miniature effects. When you see the behind the scene from 2001 (I know...huge models) the amount of lighting is quite impressive. Some of the shot would raise the temp in the studio up to 130 o_O There's a lot of interview on line with guys like Doug Trumbull, Dereck Meddings, Nick Alder, Brian Johnson, etc...
 

Pyramidrep

Well-Known Member
For a miniature to look real the photography of it needs to mimic as close as possible what it would look like if it were full size and shot by a camera person.
................
Wow. Very comprehensive and impressive answer to the question posed by this thread. The wealth of knowledge by the folks here always great.
Can I ask, does film resolution have an impact as well?. I only say this because recently I viewed both Blade Runner in 4K and Star Trek The Motion picture in Blu-ray and some of the model shots look ..... well ....like models. I know the movies are old but it never struck me before. Maybe looking at crappy dvds, vhs video for years is the reason.
 

MARK M3

Master Member
RPF PREMIUM MEMBER
Here are a couple of my videos, using my built up scale models...Both were filmed with a Canon HD Video camera...But differently.

The Star Trek video was filmed in front of a black screen to replicate the effect seen in Star Trek The Motion Picture.
The Lost in Space video was filmed...in camera.



 
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robn1

Master Member
Lens focal length also plays a part. Wide angle lenses make objects appear farther away than they really are, but they also make distances between objects seem larger.

Light and shadows also have an effect, it's very important to adjust light positions to make the subject appear as if it's in the intended environment and that any shadows are in scale.
 

Analyzer

Master Member
Also model details and the surroundings play a part

Out of scale bits are a dead giveaway

Something on a beach for example, will need powder like consistency instead of sand to look right as the grains in sand will be too large and out of scale

They used a special "micro balloon" material for example in the battle of Hoth for the AT-AT environment because it was super fine detail. Of course the problem was they had to wear mask to protect themselves from breathing it in

water and fire seem to be the hardest to achieve in scale. Waves tend to look really fake if it is just a model sitting in the tub for example and flames can't be too large

cloth is also hard to make look in scale

and the reason they did not use glass in most canopy shots for Star Wars was because of the unnaturally large light reflections it would give

likewise bits like antennas and stuff need to be super fine

the bigger you can make models for shots like that, the better, but in space type shots I think it is a little more forgiving and you can get away with smaller models as long as you get the lighting correct
 
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batguy

Sr Member
Detail, film speed, lighting, depth-of-field, water & fire . . . . the problem is that you need all the factors to work. Any one of them can make a model look fake.

The Logan's Run city looks fake because it's not important how big the model is, it's the scale that matters. The subject matter of the model (a whole city) was so big that it still worked out to a very tiny scale.

The biggest giveaway for that city was probably the water in the lakes. It didn't look anything like real bodies of water. That, and the lighting didn't look natural. But it's hard to know what the light should have looked like under a big sci-fi dome structure.
 

HMSwolfe

Master Member
It’s really hard to shoot physics at a smaller scale, as a few have already mentioned. Water, fire, sand, etc. all need to be done in a specific way. I’ve heard of dish soap or oil being used to break the surface tension of water in order to achieve miniature, and I think I read that the water in Temple of Doom (at the end of the mine cart chase, when it all comes rushing down the mines) was blasted with air to get the same effect. As also mentioned above, shooting in slow motion helps scale another property of physics: gravity. Something with more mass will be more affected by gravity; it’s why old Godzilla/King Kong movies look just like people in suits, because they move like regular scale people in suits. But yeah, there really is just so much that goes into it, and it mostly has to do with capturing the image rather than the model. Although, I do think I saw something about metallic or smooth surfaces not working well for models—I think a preliminary version of the original Death Star was quite metallic and just wasn’t working out because it always looked like a model.
 

joberg

Master Member
I saw an interesting video/interview with Douglas Trumbull about practical effect vs CGI. For him, both have to work together to achieve the right look. As discussed above some effects cannot be miniaturized to the size of your model: fire, water, smoke, fabric, gravity.
Trumbull argues that nothing (including CGI) can replace the organic feel of a real physical model. The enhancements/tricks you're using to photograph/film that model have a limit (piece of glass in front of the camera to smooth hard edges, spraying the model with water, saturating the whole shot with smoke, lighting, etc). Now comes CGI to complement the shot, things that you cannot achieve practically/physically.
 

StevenBills

Sr Member
RPF PREMIUM MEMBER
Everything that mung said is correct. There is a whole chapter in the Visual Effects Handbook (lookup VES Handbook) about miniatures, from planning to shooting. Everything from scale considerations to using different frame rates to aid in the look of scale. Here's a snippet:

Screen Shot 2021-09-04 at 10.03.25 AM.png
 

publiusr

Sr Member
The challenge of an all black ship might help with scale. I have often thought about sinking a model in the bottom of a pool with little light… and letting it float now first to the surface….camera sideways.

The nozzle would spew vantablack…that would look like a pyroclastic flow powered craft fueled by darkness.

I imagine it as Darkseid’s ride.
 

batguy

Sr Member
There is a rule-of-thumb that physical effects (water, fire, objects in motion, etc) should be at least 1/6th scale if possible. The bigger the better.

The 'Das Boot' submarine work demonstrates it. The 1/6th-scale shots hold up tolerably well but the smaller scaled ones don't. James Cameron also used a 1/6th scale model of the Titanic when it broke in half (that model was the size of a semi trailer).
 

joberg

Master Member
The challenge of an all black ship might help with scale. I have often thought about sinking a model in the bottom of a pool with little light… and letting it float now first to the surface….camera sideways.

The nozzle would spew vantablack…that would look like a pyroclastic flow powered craft fueled by darkness.

I imagine it as Darkseid’s ride.
Yes, the "Model-in-the-water-tank" trick works well. Gravity and a properly weighted model could make for a great shot.
The quality of the water is also key: distilled water is one important component of your shot and to maker sure your glue is holding everything together for a long period of time;). I did the same trick eons ago (B & W 16mm) and it worked well; you also have to be careful to remove all the bubbles that will cling to the models (let's say a docking bay from which your vessel would exit).
As you can imagine, there's no wires, no CGI, no blue/green screen involved. Put a good black background with stars outside the tank and bingo! You'll have your practical effect. Big challenge for this shot is the lighting!!!
 

publiusr

Sr Member
Best as a nebula scene perhaps. Maybe not good for pool on an old video camera, but an underwater explosion would look nice. Now, at phys.org a month or 3 back…there was a blurb on how to get motion out of single photo. A better way to knit Mt. St. Helens footage together than blobby morphing programs. So the underwater footage would expand slowly with this new tech, where the actual footage would show the bubble collapsing.
 

CT1138

Sr Member
Camera height definitely plays a factor. Shooting a miniature from above makes it a lot harder to sell as real, than shooting at miniature POV height. For instance, shooting a large, scaled object next to a 1:6th figure is more easily sold as real if you're shooting from the figure's height rather than your own. For instance...
e64gpMi.png
 

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