Model Maker Explains How Miniatures are Used in the Movies

Many believed advances in CGI would doom miniature models in the movie business, but directors like Wes Anderson and Christoper Nolan have revived the art.

Model maker and prop maker Simon Weisse tells Vox in a fascinating video that these visionary directors want the “old-fashioned” techniques.

Weisse has made props for The Matrix Resurrections, Bridge of Spies, and for a host of Wes Anderson films including Asteroid City, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The French Dispatch.

The audience is not supposed to know that a miniature is being used but eagle-eyed viewers may be able to spot them when movies show an expansive establishing shot. These include the castle from Harry Potter or the opening gates to Jurassic World.

Miniatures are also useful when blowing things up, like the White House from Independence Day and the building from Inception. However, some of these miniatures are actually pretty big.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a good example, in these times when we talk about miniatures they are not so small,” says Weisse in a German accent.

“In the ’50s and the ’60s, you could have a very small house, and the audience was impressed but today we build those miniatures as big as possible.”

The hotel from The Grand Budapest Hotel was 13 feet wide (4 meters) and almost 10 feet tall (three meters).

“It was a good scale to have a good definition on the paint and everything. Most of the time we wouldn’t use the same material as you would on a real building because if you use plaster or bricks the structure won’t be up to scale,” explains Weisse.

“We would use wood but very special African wood with a very fine structure. In the end, the thing that really changes everything is the paint and the patina. If they take a big brush, you will see the brush on the model, no. They have to take the finest brush and find those dirty pieces near the window and everything.”

Essentially, the more detail a miniature has the more passable it is on camera.

Finding the correct scale is also crucial, Weiss tells Vox that he is a fan of working in 1/18 and 1/35 scales partly because there are a lot of props sold in that size.

Forced Perspective

Weiss says that he also works with different scales in the same shot using forced percepective to create a sense of depth.

“You have one scale in the foreground and you get a certain deepness to go smaller and smaller and smaller,” he says.

“So maybe in the foreground you are in 1/24 scale and then in the middle, you’re in 1/15 scale and at the end you are in 1/100 scale. If there is a mountain behind it is in 1/1000 scale.”

Weisse says that he mainly shoots outside so he can use a small aperture which gives a deeper depth of field — it is crucial that a miniature is all in focus to make it look realistic.

CGI Versus Miniatures

In the CGI versus miniatures debate, Weiss says he prefers CGI when it comes to natural elements like water and fire. That’s because rain droplets on a miniatures look massive.

For example, the huge explosion in Inception required a four-story model to make the explosion feel more realistic.

“Even if we do the miniature sets. It’s all in combination with CGI and other new techniques,” adds Weisse.