Creating Miniature Worlds

By Sarah Street 

The appeal of ‘tiny things’ has long been recognized to satisfy ‘our desire for mastery and elucidation’. Film studios were perfect environments to demonstrate their usefulness in ‘bringing scaled-down order and illumination to an otherwise chaotic world’ (The Guardian, 4 Nov 2018). This was particularly the case in post-war Britain, as the studios attempted to return to normal by creating ingenious means of saving costs, time and resources. Models were used to assist different processes and technologies. They were constructed as mini sets which helped with planning shooting, lighting set-ups and solving other logistical issues. Models were also made as parts of sets which used materials that could be mistaken for ‘real’ materials such as bricks, columns or parts of a building. They were also integral to special effects and creating the illusion of perspective: when filmed they looked as if they were lifelike size. They were also good publicity for studios, featuring in special film industry displays which included set models that were shown at various Ideal Home Exhibitions. While as reported in a recent blog post members of the public did not often visit studios, the models’ portability meant that at least some of the techniques of filming could be appreciated elsewhere.  

But obtaining information on this important studio facility is difficult, and not many models of sets seem to have survived. An exception is one held by the BFI of a set model from Queen of Spades (1949). Curator Claire Smith describes the model’s advantages: ‘There is a strong sense of architectural proportions – working in half inch to the foot scale – easily interpreted by set builders and set dressers’. The beautifully made model incorporated Oliver Messel’s elaborate designs: ‘In one such detail, the bed’s pelmet is fringed with pipe cleaners, which simultaneously provide charm, structure and support’.

The trade press in Britain occasionally referenced set models when reporting on productions in progress. In the immediate post-war period a range of techniques were used to help make studios more economical in terms of staff time and materials. Models were used to supplement both studio and location shooting. They were also a source of commentary such as the notable work of special effects expert Percy Ralphs, whose V-1 (flying bomb) model was flown over a foreground model hospital for Green for Danger (Kinematograph Weekly, 25 July 1946: 35). 

A one-inch scale model was made of wood and metal and ‘flown’ on the lot at Pinewood from overhead cables. It approached the camera at almost roof-top height with the exhaust flaming at its tail. ‘The exhaust flame was the most difficult effect to achieve, but this was finally accomplished by placing a roman candle firework in the tail, which had draught holes drilled in it to keep the flame going while in motion’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 4 July 1946: 22-23).

An unusual model was required for The Blue Lagoon (1949), an adventure film about two children who are shipwrecked and marooned for years on a tropical island in the South Pacific. A report explained how the most realistic effects were achieved: ‘A tiny octopus, pickled in a jar, was lent to Pinewood Studios Art Department by the Natural History Museum to serve as a model for the construction of an octopus needed for one of the most dramatic scenes in the film’ (The Cinema Studio, 23 June 1948: 12). Experiments were carried out by designers Edward Carrick, Elvin Webb and Tony Inglis to make a sequence in which Jean Simmons and Donald Huston escape from an octopus. A nine feet long tentacle was wound around an actor and photographed as it was being dragged away. For the film this was projected in reverse so that the tentacle appears to come out of the water and encircle the man’s body. The whole octopus was constructed in plaster sprayed with a rubber solution and three of its eight tentacles were flexible. The Natural History Museum also provided models and photographs from which a barracuda, a shark, and underwater seaweed were made in plaster sprayed with a rubber solution. The close-ups were shot at Pinewood using pools built on the sound stage and on the lot. 

Edward Carrick found models very useful for planning intricate camera movements which involved tracking an actor’s movements going up stairs or across a hallway. Models saved time planning lighting set-ups and the positioning of microphones by the sound crew. In Captain Boycott (1947) the character Hugh Davin’s (Stewart Granger) cottage has two levels. The model, which helped plot the relationship between camera and the set, was used as one of Pinewood’s ‘film studio’ exhibits in the Ideal Home Exhibition, 1947. When Carrick published Designing for Films (1949: 62-3), he included a plan and sections of the same cottage. 

The large set allowed for freedom of movement for the actors and was constructed to evoke maximum verisimilitude concerning the spaces, materials and ‘lived in’ appearance. The detail provided by Carrick showed that as well as using the model shooting was anticipated at the drawing and construction stage of the designs which were also crucial for saving time and cutting costs. 

Another set model exhibited at the Ideal Home Exhibition was Take My Life (1947), a thriller directed by Ronald Neame.

Some models helped introduce new production methods. Art director Terence Verity experimented with a turntable setting (a method which had been used in theatre) for The Hasty Heart (1949), shot at Elstree Studios, Borehamwood. This involved a composite set mounted on a rostrum. When revolved, different aspects of the set could easily be filmed. The model included miniature lighting rails so that the director, camera crew and electricians could test in advance how filming would work out in practice (The Cinema Studio, 26 Jan 1949: 6-9).

Here we have a rare image of a set designer – Carmen Dillon – using a model in conjunction with her sketches of a set for The Sword and the Rose, a US-UK co-production about the life of Mary Tudor filmed at Pinewood and Beaconsfield in 1953.

Models occasionally publicised the construction of new studios, as seen here in this model of the Gaumont-British studios, Shepherd’s Bush. The model was sent on a tour to selected London cinemas in the Gaumont-British chain (Kinematograph Weekly, 21 December 1933: 27; Norwood News, 19 January 1934: 13).

It’s not entirely clear when models were first used to assist film production, but there are famous examples from the silent era such as the films of Georges Méliès and the model work used for Metropolis. They were also an important element of planning theatre sets. As the above examples demonstrate, use of models intensified during times of economic retrenchment. They’re important in the history of film technologies as key, evolutionary processes which anticipated today’s use of miniature sets, CGI and 3D ‘virtual’ modelling, The tiny and not-so-tiny worlds made possible via VR technology, including our own use of it for STUDIOTEC, similarly involves re-creating studios of the past using today’s technology. Off we go, down the ‘virtual’ corridor of Denham Studios…

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