Tips for building a miniature set
At its core filmmaking means creating a perfect illusion. Lots of great movies of the past used one of the simplest yet effective methods to trick the spectators: miniatures that look like real-life objects.
The effect of shooting well-crafted models with the forced perspective technique can be stunning.
Remember the final scene from Casablanca, when the main characters talk on an airfield under the pouring rain? Well, the plane behind them is actually a painted backdrop and the people “serving” it are dwarves. Stephen Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is also a great example. The impressive shot of a huge ship in the middle of the desert was actually made with a scale model and a wide lens for the wider depth of field.
Nowadays anything can be modeled with the help of computer graphics. But...
Even in the modern era miniature sets still in demand
Why bother and not turn to CG? Well, there is just no better way to keep production costs down and save time. Such a set - if well made - looks more believable, tangible in all ways. Besides, it’s easier to build a miniature castle than a real one, and to buy a model tank than to rent one. CG can always be applied after, if necessary, to increase the effect. Although with a proper approach the results will be as realistic even without any post-production.
But how to build your own miniature well, especially with a limited budget? Here are a few tips:
Carefully measure the elements of your set and maintain the proportions. Stay true to the scale you’ve chosen. Keeping it in a typical size like 1:6 might be a good idea for a start. This particular one is very practical, since it’s large enough to manipulate with and a get a good level of detail, but also small enough to fit in your room or garage. There’s also a large assortment of dolls and props that size that can be bought.
Put the set on a table or some sort of platform so you can reach from underneath and make adjustments.
Glue all the models well. You don’t want anything to move which is not supposed to - it’ll ruin the shot and a huge amount of work will be lost.
Make a lot of tests with your set before you go too far into construction - not to find yourself in a situation when everything has to be redone from scratch.
Find the right materials to make it look real. Foam, plastic, metal, wood and silicone can create wonders, when duly treated, and can resemble almost all you can imagine.
When painting, keep in mind the imaginary surroundings of the set. Is it cold, rainy or sunny out there? Weather and time always affect structures in some particular way.
No need to make a perfect replica for everything. A lot of stuff can actually be printed out on paper and posted on a wall, or put on the floor, for example - like rugs, curtains, etc.
Check for possible repetitive patterns, like bricks on the wall. You can create a master cast for them and then mould a needed number of copies.
Construct the set of detachable sections, so that you can easily rebuild it elsewhere or make changes on the go.
If you’re combining your set with a real life backgound and objects, the biggest issue, apart from preserving the proportions and maintaining correct perspective, is to have all you need in focus, otherwise the trick won’t work.
Therefore, make sure your set is properly lit, and the real-life objects are lit in a similar manner. You’ll have to close the iris as much as possible to make things appear in focus, as if they were close to each other, even though in reality they can be really far away.
If you intend on blowing your set up, make sure to prepare chunks of the structure that are going to appear after the explosion and make in look more credible. Bring some considerable disorder to the interior, fill it with with dust and debris. Once the design of the pre-destroyed interior is finished, cover it up with the intact façade.
HD has set new standards to the detalization of the models - it was easier to get away before, with grain and lower resolutions. But beware of having too many details on a prop that is supposed to serve as a distant background. Nothing gives a model away as much as this.
Keeping those basic tips in mind, you can start experimenting
There are lots of books, guides and video tutorials out there that will take you really in-depth. But start from something simple and see if it works for you. Creating a miniature set is a lot of fun. After all, filmmaking is not only about money - it’s also about being inventive and finding elegant solutions.