Special Effects in Film and Television
by Jake Hamilton
Special effects (SFX) is the art of making the impossible into a fantastic reality. Special effects has always pushed the boundaries of human imagination. It keeps today's movie and television audiences glued to their seats in starry-eyed wonder.
The art of miniature model-making has always been an important part of special effects in movies. Some movie stories have big, spectacular, action-filled scenes. They may call for fights between dinosaurs, explosions on the Golden Gate Bridge, or an armed force charging through the desert. Movie-makers can save time and money by making models for these scenes. This article tells the story of the building of a miniature landscape for a television show.
1 A General Idea
A special effects team must build a prehistoric world in a workshop. The team's first step is to make a "concept" model of this mini-world. The model will give a general view of what the finished product will look like. [The] model shows that the landscape will include a fallen tree and a circular lake.
2 Getting Larger
The movie-makers study [the] concept model to decide on the size and shape of the finished product. Then they make a larger and more detailed "prototype" model. This gives them a clearer picture of how the finished product will look. The prototype comes in sections that are fitted together like puzzle pieces. The 2 ft × 2 ft (0.6 m × 0.6 m) prototype is fully painted and fitted with bushes and trees. Now the team can work on the final product.
3 Getting Started
The full-size miniature model will be 24 ft × 24 ft (7.2 m × 7.2 m). Building it will take real cooperation among all the SFX team members. The model's base is made of the kind of plastic used in fast food cups and boxes. Model-makers carve the plastic surface to make hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. They use references such as pictures of trees and rocks to guide them. [The] modelmakers [use] photographs of a dry riverbed as a guide.
4 Carving It Out
[Next], the model-makers [cut] out the area of the huge circular lake at the heart of the model. They will then add more surface detail and mark out other features in the landscape.
The model is cut into sections so it can be taken on trucks to the television studio. Since the model is so large and detailed, each section is numbered. That way, when the pieces reach the studio they can be reassembled easily.
6 Foaming the Model
At the studio, the model is put back together, and the miniature trees, rocks, and other surface details are all put in place. Then a technician wearing a special protective suit sprays the model. He uses a light foam made from toxic chemicals. The foam gives the surface of the model a smooth, natural look. He also adds bumps and dips to the surface. This makes it look just like a real landscape.
7 In the Studio
Putting the miniature landscape back together takes a great deal of attention to detail. Every last tree, bush, and rock must be exactly in place. A huge painted backdrop of blue sky streaked with clouds has been placed on the far wall. Lights positioned overhead will give the landscape more texture and shadow.
8 Fixing in Place
Model-makers use a special glue to make sure the sections will not come apart. The glue is carefully dried by hand. Technicians use the same kind of blow-dryer people use on their hair. That way they can aim the hot wind just right so it will not disturb any delicate details on the landscape's surface.