Miniatures used to be the standard in movies. Back in the days before CGI, they were pretty much the only way to create a lot of things. If you need an alien spaceship in your movie, building one to full scale was impractical, and actually making it fly was impossible. So, miniatures were used with some clever filming techniques in order to make them look real. To make them look full size.
Once CGI came along, a lot of things were just much easier to do on the computer. Some filmmakers, though, didn’t believe they looked real – not that miniatures were always believable. Wes Anderson is one such filmmaker. In this video, Vox had a chat with miniature and prop maker Simon Weisse to find out why and how they’re still used in movies today – particularly Wes Anderson movies.
Movies are generally quite loose with the term “miniature”. For most of us, who might have perhaps played or at least seen tabletop miniature gaming, miniature really means miniature. In the movies, it basically means anything smaller than full scale. Often, they try to build them as large as possible in order to help sell the realism. The larger something is, the more detail you can add to it and the more believable it appears in the final movie.
Simon worked on the recently released movie Asteroid City as the film’s miniature unit supervisor. Starring actors like Tom Hanks, Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, and a host of other big names, Asteroid City followers a writer on his journey to a small rural town where his worldview is changed forever. Of course, being written and directed by Wes Anderson, it’s not your typical movie.
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It had a big focus on miniatures for the various effects. After all, a spaceship isn’t exactly the easiest thing to design, build and fly at full scale. But spaceships weren’t the only things created and shot in miniature to simulate the real world, as the train examples above illustrate.
Seeing miniatures still being used in movies always makes me smile. Even if I’m not a fan of the movie – and I haven’t seen Asteroid City yet, so I don’t know if I’m a fan or not – seeing people using real miniature models instead of CG just looks better on camera most of the time. There are times, as Simon mentions in the video, when CGI definitely beats out miniatures. Water effects, for a start. A raindrop on a miniature car, for example, looks very different to that of a real car.
But miniature effects often bring a lot more realism to shots than CGI does. Even with the advanced physics engines available in many 3D applications today, you can’t beat reality. Scaling things down does present many challenges, though. You can’t film miniatures the same way you do full-size objects and expect a believable result. Angle of view, focal length, subject distance and aperture all have to change when you go slow motion. And you may need to slow down the footage to emulate the physics of the real world. But it still often looks much better than CGI.
As for Wes Anderson… He believes that audiences can tell. Whether it’s CGI or a miniature, he says it doesn’t really matter to many audiences. They can tell either way. And at that point, it becomes a stylistic choice. Wes prefers to go with the more traditional option.