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American Cinematographer Magazine
Miniatures Add Grand Scale

by Simon Gray

An integral component in The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been the production's miniatures unit. Located in an inconspicuous building in Rongotai, a suburb of Wellington, and led by Academy Award-winning visual-effects cinematographer Alex Funke, the miniatures unit shot for more than 900 days on the epic production.

"Peter Jackson always intended miniature photography to be the means by which a lot of the large environments, such as the stairs of Khazad-Dum, would be created," says Funke. "It was simply not feasible to build the stairs as an entire live-action set. Also, while it was possible to transform many of New Zealand's natural locations into Lothlorien, Mordor or Fangorn Forest, they were always going to need extra elements, such as set extensions, to make them totally believable as parts of Middle-Earth. Miniature photography is a great way to accomplish this. Miniature sets can be fully detailed by our model technicians directly to camera, and fine adjustments are interactive, quick and simple."

Funke believes that miniature photography also lends visual effects a distinctive sense of realism. "At some subconscious level, viewers can tell when they're seeing real photography," he remarks. "So in the interest of telling a believable story, the more actual camera elements you have, the better. That's the basis of Peter's brief: to use the maximum number of photographic elements."

From the commencement of principal photography in October 1999, the trilogy's director of photography, Andrew Lesnie, ACS, worked closely with the miniatures unit to establish the lighting styles that would run throughout the films. "We sat down with Andrew regularly and went through the general approaches to scenes, detailing the key-to-fill ratio, colors used, contrast, texture of the light and so forth," explains Funke. "We constantly and carefully referenced what he was doing on set or on location in order to match our photography to his. We were lucky to have Dave Brown, the first-unit gaffer, as our information pipeline; he kept a concise record of everything that was shot, which he passed on to us. Our other main source was the art department, in particular the paintings and drawings of Alan Lee and Jeremy Bennett. They painted virtually every shot. It was a wonderful treat to be involved in a film that was so beautifully art-directed, and that had so many production illustrations. It made our lives much easier."

Funke says the miniatures unit's shots were obtained in several ways: "Some of our shots were driven by 'Tech-B,' in which a live shot was exactly tracked and the motion-control move file was sent to us for matching on the miniature set. Other shots we matched visually from animated previsualization scenes. For the 'mini-leads,' each shot was initially planned out with the aid of a handheld video camera, with the key positions of the camera move established by markers placed on the set." Adds motion-control operator Henk Prins, "It's basically the same approach as animation key frames. Each marker represents a specific point in the shot, with the space between the markers representing a certain number of frames. We then go through the move slowly to find out what the obstacles might be, and to readjust the key markers as necessary. In effect, this adds or removes frames. Then it's simply a matter of refining the shot. The process is quite tricky, because there's often no physical latitude - the lenses are almost touching the walls of the set."

The miniatures unit used seven cameras: three Fries Mitchells; Funke's own rackover Mitchell, which was linked to a 'Thing-M' camera controller; and three of the new Arri 435-Advanced motion-control cameras. "The Mitchells have been the mainstay of motion control for many years," says Funke, "but since the middle of The Fellowship, we've also been using the Arri Advanced, which is a fantastic camera for motion control. For years, various filmmakers have tried to convince Arri to turn the 435 into a motion-control camera, and I'm happy to say we were the ones who finally got them to do it. We worked closely with Arri to solve the problem of the camera's separate motors on the shutter and the movement, which previously prohibited it from running at motion-control speeds. Fortunately, we have a great in-house electronics engineer, Chris Davison, who was able to test the camera and work with Arri to get it up to speed, so to speak. The Arri's swingover viewfinder let us look through the camera even in the most awkward of setups, which is a godsend for miniatures work. I think it's the ultimate effects camera.

"For lenses, we used a Praxis snorkel, which is wonderfully sharp, and a Revolution snorkel, another great piece of equipment. The Revolution can roll the image optically, which came in handy for a lot of the flying shots on Minas Tirith and other sets."

Funke notes that "a lot of very clever people worked in the miniatures unit on this project. One effect of this was that we significantly streamlined our referencing passes. The digital folks always want to have color references, which we used to shoot on flat color charts. That was a bit time-consuming because we had to point the chart toward the key, then the fill, and so on. One day, Alastair Maher, our master painter, came up with the idea of painting some balls with the exact colors from the chart. The gray ball gave the digital boys the nature of the shadow transition, while the six colored ones provided a three-dimensional color chart that had the key and the fill at the same time. It's a handy innovation that worked beautifully."

One of the most heavily used miniature sets in Return of the King is the Gondorian city of Minas Tirith, the centerpiece of a huge battle. Constructed in 1/72 scale, the buildings of Minas Tirith were initially built to be filmed in long shots only. "The first time Peter saw it, he said, 'That's a great set. We need to do some vertiginous, Star Wars-style trench shots,'" Funke recalls with a laugh. "Minas Tirith had never been designed to be shot from the back or in close-up, let alone in shots where the lens is virtually scraping the paint! So we had to go through the whole set and rebuild all the buildings, streets and so forth with much more detail. A good example of the type of shots Peter likes is one in which the camera follows a fell-beast with a Nazgul rider on it as it careens over the city streets. The camera then cuts around 180 degrees and flies backward, in front of the fell-beast. We used the Revolution snorkel for a lot of the shots down the narrow Minas Tirith streets, because we could roll and bank while we flew between the buildings."

For reasons of practicality, many sets had different sections constructed in multiple scales. "Sauron's tower of Barad-Dur, the main part of which is 1/166 scale, is a good example of using multiple scales," says Funke. "Peter wanted to have the camera skim over the bridge and the heads of the marching orc army. It was physically impossible to get the lens in that close with the 1/166-scale set, so we had to build a larger-scale version of the bridge, which was shot separately and then combined digitally with the rest of the set. It's very common to combine different scales in this manner. A huge amount of Minas Tirith uses a mixture of 1/72 and 1/14 scale, while a few special set pieces are 1/35. Minas Morgul was shot in 1/40 and 1/120 scale, depending on how wide the shot was 1/40 if we were creeping across right in front of the gate, 1/120 if we were supposed to be 500 meters above it. Helm's Deep, which was 1/35 scale, was actually the 'proof of concept' set that Peter had built to help sell the project all those years ago.

"Peter wants to knock the audience's socks off with Return of the King," says Funke. "He wants them to see things they've never seen before. This film is enormous in terms of both the emotional content and the action; everything is bigger, wider and certainly more complex. This film has as many effects shots as the first and second pictures combined. I believe that this trilogy has given a shot in the arm to miniature photography. If the audience is thinking about the process, then we've lost them, and we've failed to do our jobs. We need to do the work, then erase our tracks and disappear.

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.