Trying something new: A 1:6 scale miniature set, with 3D tracking and digital extensions…

Having worked exclusively in digital formats for the past 15 years, I have recently been making a concerted effort to resurrect some of my practical design skills. Around five years ago, I started to sketch more frequently, as I began to take on more of a design lead on projects. It proved a great complement to pixels.

More recently, I have looked to expand upon this positive experience and started to explore the use of miniatures in filmmaking. The shots below are of a miniature I have been developing for a sequence of shots based on a snowy environment I have designed. Two faces of a section of a building have been constructed, and set within a snow covered landscape. This miniature set design will ultimately be extended through the use of digital set extensions and 3D tracking.

Shot of the in-progress, 1:6 scale, miniature set, featuring snow and ice effects
A shot of the miniature including snow and ice effects.

The shell of the building was made out of foamcore, which was then clad in balsa. The balsa was ridiculously pristine when first applied, but has since been aged and weathered with heavily diluted ink washes. The snow is a combination of polystyrene base, on top of which, model railway snow effects and marble dust (to add sparkle) have been applied. The icicles are made by applying model railway water effect gel to waxed paper. Once dried, they are glued to the eaves of the building. It’s not finished yet, but so far, it’s proved to be a hugely, enjoyable indulgence.

Detail shot of 1:6 scale miniature set, featuring snow and ice effects
Detail of the miniature in it’s current stage of development.

As with any miniature, depth of field has proved problematic. The only way to counter this, has been to dramatically stop down. Testing has shown f16 to be the absolute maximum, but to achieve optimum results, I am going to need to reduce the aperture even further. The direct consequence of this, is that I then need ridiculous levels of light.

I’m currently looking at stop motion techniques to achieve small apertures, with less light and longer exposures. This approach will allow for better digital environments through better depth of field and improved image quality and resolution compared to video capture.

I wanted to post these before Fortitude is screened tomorrow, as I started work on this last Autumn but business has been very busy and limited the opportunities to work on these kinds of personal projects.

Work schedules permitting, I’m hoping to have the first sequence completed by the Spring

An earlier shot of the miniature set, prior to adding snow and ice effects.
Shot of the miniature prior to the application of snow and ice effects.


Hashima Island, inspiration for production designs in Skyfall and Inception – now on Google Streetview


Hashima Island, commonly referred to as Gunkanjima, meaning “Battleship Island” in Japanese, is a former coal mining facility off the coast of south west Japan. At it’s peak in 1959, the island was home to 5,259 people. By 1974, the island’s mine had ceased to be economically viable and and the facility was abandoned.

Though it’s now a ghost island frozen in time, it’s apocalyptic appearance has inspired the production and set designs for films such as Inception*, and more recently Skyfall**. As Stu Maschwitz points out in his DV Rebels Guide, “Reference is God” and as references go, Hashima is proving to be very popular and persuasive source material. Visits to the island are possible, but access is highly restricted so it’s great to find that parts of the island are now covered by Google Streetview.

Hashima inspired set designs in Inception (…or maybe not, see addendum)
Hashima inspired set designs in Skyfall

* Addendum part 1: Limbo city in Inception combined scenes shot on a beach in Tangiers with ones shot inside a housing estate in Addoha, Morrocco. The decaying architecture was added and extended digitally by Double Negative. The crumbling buildings were inspired by collapsing icebergs and decalcomania paintings Europe After The Rain by Max Ernst. (In Dreams, Joe Fordham, Cinefex 123, pp66)

** Addendum part 2: Silva’s island hideaway was constructed as a set on Pinewood studios backlot and is acknowledged as being based on Hashima. The set was constructed over shipping containers and stood three stories high. Double Negative generated set extensions based on photography from Hashima itself. (Joe Fordham, Old Dog, New Tricks, Cinefex 133, pp47)

Thanks to Ilona Gaynor for snapping me out of my complacency an making me re-read my issues of Cinefex.

V-Ray Digital Environments in Looper

Kevin Baillie of Atomic Fiction talks about using V-Ray  renderer in their digital effects work on a number of recent films, including some very impressive digital environments for Looper.

Scroll to 1 min 55 seconds to get straight to the Looper digital environments, but the rest of the interview is also worth viewing.

The interview is via the Chaos Group TV channel.

Update 31/01/2013 – Since writing this post, Atomic Fiction (via Twitter) have directed me to some online articles about their effects work on looper at the following locations:

The Art of VFX

FX Guide

Beware of spoilers!

LOOPER_digital environment

Skyfall, Shanghai and Jellyfish: Bending the rules when designing architecture for the screen

Coming away from watching Skyfall last weekend, the imagery that stuck most in my mind was that of the Shanghai office interior where James Bond intercepts the assassin, Patrice. Looking at the clip below from Trailer Addict (scroll to 35s) reveals that the scene is filmed entirely on set at Pinewood Studios and comprises a stylised, partially completed office interior.

The design of this set immerses the characters within multiple layers of reflections of a set of animated lights and displays that adorn the buildings exterior. The unfinished raised floor, the frameless glass partitions and the lay-in ceiling grid all serve to reinforce and multiply the reflections. Lay-in ceiling tiles are a cheaper alternative to a clip-in ceiling tile system, and not what I would normally expect to see in a high spec office space (frameless glazing says high spec to me). Lay-in tiles do however have the benefit of an exposed aluminium grid, which is exploited to the full for its reflective and linear perspective defining properties here.

In purely architectural terms, the layout of the glass office cubicles doesn’t appear to make any sense, and it wouldn’t pass Part N of the Building Regulations (in the U.K. at least) without some sort of manifestation on the glazing. But this misses the point, as it isn’t the U.K. nor is it the real world; this is a film set and it is designed to be visually stunning on screen. The layers of reflections and lights in this scene are mesmerisingly beautiful and remind me of Bladerunner, a favourite of architecture students for decades. If I have learned one thing in designing architecture for the television, it is to start with something tangible and based upon real world criteria, but then to bend those rules to achieve something that looks great on screen*. This set epitomises this approach for me and I’m eager to soak it up once more when the Bluray of Skyfall is released.

The upcoming issue of American Cinematographer will feature the work of Roger Deakins on Skyfall, something which no other publication has sufficiently covered yet and something that I am very much looking forward to.**

Adding to the visual qualities of this set are a set of large format Shanghai backdrops by Rutters, and a pair of animated jellyfish. The choice of jellyfish is interesting not only because of it’s visual properties, but because it is a predator with no brain. A metaphor for Bond and his ’00’ status perhaps? Possible symbolism aside, I find these animated jellyfish quite beautiful. I was surprised to discover that the animation is stock imagery entitled Jellyfish Nightlights by Bass Visuals and available from iStock.

*One exception to my rule breaking that I must confess to, is that in all of my designs, the staircases comply with building regulations. There is something about this section of the rules that I can’t bring myself to break and I think it comes down to the fact that they are based upon a common sense approach that I feel always looks better and more credible on screen.

Addendum 5/12/2012

** I do now have that December 2012 issue of American Cinematographer and there is an interesting section on this scene. The scene is lit almost entirely by the spill from the large format 11m pitch LED screens which are positioned over 20m away. The story behind the Jellyfish is also interesting, Roger Deakins had this to say.

“We needed images for the monitor, and the art department found this footage of jellyfish floating through the frame. When it came time to discuss what we really want to put on those screens, Sam and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, why don’t we just leave it as jellyfish?’ It looked interesting and it was a really deep blue, and we wanted the whole Shanghai section to feel quite cold. So thats how the jellyfish got in the film. They were just stand-ins really!”

Roger Deakins interviewed in American Cinematographer pp38, Vol 93, No 12


Dredd 3D – Building Blocks in need of a few real world constraints


A short, behind the scenes piece on the design and VFX work done by Prime Focus to create Mega City One for Dredd 3D. The filmmakers chose to build their fictional city by adding to the existing fabric of Johannesburg. The realism appears grimier, lived in and more tangible as a result.

If I have one reservation about the designs in these digital set extensions, it would be that the blocks are treated purely as forms without reference to their function or environment. Specifically, the floor plates on the blocks are really massive, which would make the cores deep within these buildings oppressively dark in a way that would make Hong Kong’s Chung King Mansion seem generously light and airy in comparison. Even a slum needs light, and the struggle to introduce this light would lead to a different footprint and therefore an alternate form for the towers – time spent studying architecture does have its benefits.

As much as I like the look of these visuals, I would like to have seen the design extended further through the application of some real world constraints.

Sony Intelligence Gathered TV ad.

A TV ad for Sony caught my eye recently because it features scenes within a control room, a constant and necessary component in my designs for TV studios. The ad, part of a wider, Skyfall related campaign by Wieden + Kennedy, Portland   is designed to showcase Sony’s technology, particularly their Bravia screens. The space itself is simple in terms of its design and detail, but makes maximum use of minimal lighting and the quality of the surfaces on the walls and floor. A desk, five Eames chairs and a chandelier comprise the only non-tech, and therefore non-Sony objects within the scene.

The chandelier is a nice touch. It is anachronous and indulgent and within the world of Bond suggests a villain! The four chairs positioned below the screen seem unnecessary and detract from the power of the main desk and its occupant. Is the woman the boss, or one of the minions forced to hot desk on the bench below the wall of intelligence on display?