Back To The Future Part III: The Amazing Art of Miniatures

If there’s one thing I wish we’d spoken a bit about during our Back to the Future episodes, it’s the amazing usage of miniatures throughout the films. It got brought to my attention just how amazing the miniature work was for the films while researching behind the scenes photos for Part II. It was during this I came across the image of the miniature train in Part III with coloured smoke billowing out of it. It blew my mind, the level of detail in that image (even though it’s a picture from a distance) is amazing. So much so that I naively had never really thought how they did those scenes. I guess I’d always just believed that they were full size trains and a full sized Delorean in front of it! Thinking about how great the usage of miniatures in these film is led me down a train of thought about how in a digital/CG world, must films would opt to completely digitise the train from Part III or the flying Delorean from Part II.

I guess there are quite a number of articles that could be written from that statement, the whole Physical vs. Digital film making debate. When you really think about the film makers who are choosing physical (when possible) over digital, there is a realness to their films. There’s something that feels so much more tangible, rather than the strange emptiness that can be felt when watching a giant digital set piece. A prime example of this is George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the physicality of that film enhances the spectacle and makes it one of the best action/chase films in a very long time. Again, I digress and let’s be honest, I could rant about my love for George Miller and Mad Max: Fury Road all day long. Hopefully one day we can have a season on Miller as he is a fantastic film maker. My point is that the physical provides something so much more special to watch and feel. If I can use one more example it is Star Wars, the opening of A New Hope features a miniature spaceship passing by the camera. The way the light passes over the ship, creating shadows and giving an idea of just how huge this ship is. When in contrast, take a look at the opening of Attack of the Clones, where a digital ship passes by, it just doesn’t have the same impact. It looks cool but it just doesn’t feel the same and this is why miniatures in film are so important.   

After doing a bit of research into the usage of miniatures in film, it became apparent that the 80’s were when they were really in their prime. They were being built with a size and detail never seen before and it was all because the digital revolution hadn’t arrived, or just could do what they needed. One film in particular that pushed the limits of miniatures is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If you’re like me, you love a good behind the scenes video so I’ll throw a few in to watch amongst this as they give the info in a way I could never type out. Below is an awesome interview with Lorne Peterson discussing the miniatures used in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and during it he talks about just how detailed they needed to be. It’s a fascinating watch.

The importance of the miniature work in films like Temple of Doom is often over looked. You see, a great miniature is never spotted and therefore it’s easy to not think about the role they play in films. If it wasn’t for films like Temple of Doom then some of the amazing modern usages of miniatures would never have happened. Again compare The Lord of the Rings films to The Hobbit films, the miniatures used on LOTR for Helm’s Deep are phenomenal while in The Hobbits films a lot of the castles were digital and the result speaks for themselves. They just didn’t feel as real in The Hobbit, as lived in.

I’m not sure if I’d call miniatures a dying art, but I’d definitely say that it’s an art form that is utilised less and less. Alongside, Peter Jackson, one film maker that is keeping the art form alive in a modern era is Christopher Nolan. His Batman films feature many miniatures, especially when the Tumbler is being used, the scene in The Dark Knight where the Tumbler smashes head on into a garbage truck is one particular example. But a film where Nolan uses an amazing miniature is Inception. I’d argue that Inception is his best work and one of the key, and under rated elements of the film, is the way that his effects ground a high concept film in reality. In particular, the scene towards the end where the “Dream Fortress” is destroyed. That fortress set amongst the snowy backdrop is a combination of physical buildings and miniatures. Again, where most film makers in a modern era would use digital technology to build the fortress, the tangibility that a physical location (and miniatures) provides is vital to the way in which the film feels and in a film that takes place outside of reality, it is the real nature of everything that completely sells the concept. Just look at the effort they took to build a miniature version of the fortress and tell me that it doesn’t sell the scene more!

When we’ve talked about Zemeckis’s usage of technology in his films so far, we’ve always applauded him for his restraint and his ability to use technology to enhance and sell his films. During the Part III episode we talked about how real and amazing the explosion of the train was and I believe it is because of the amazing usage of miniatures in this film. There is a realness that the physicality brings and that completely sells the entire train scene. Just like I mentioned earlier the usage in these films were so good I didn’t even think of miniatures being an avenue in which the results were achieved.

There are a lot of things I’ve loved about doing this podcast so far, but one I could never have imagined was how it would be like going to film school. Each film brings a new and exciting lesson to learn and just when I think I couldn’t respect Zemeckis any more as a film maker, then I’m taken to school again. I hope you’re enjoying it too.

Big Love, yeah!

Geoff