Low Budget Filmmaking
In filmmaking, sometimes the simplest solution will be the cheapest, most realistic and easiest. This doesn’t happen often…but when it does, embrace it and enjoy it. In a world where CGI seems to always be the first choice…models and miniatures offer realism and immediate feedback in-camera to let you know if you got the shot. There is a rich history of miniatures and practical visual effects in Hollywood and it will always be a major component of filmmaking at every level.
In ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, Steven Spielberg used a model ship in the Mojave Desert of California to double for the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. By placing it close to the camera and using a wide lens with deep-focus…he sold the size and scale of an impossible scenario that visually awed the audience. The secret? Forced perspective…No green screens or computers needed.
If Spielberg can get an epic shot like this…I knew I could at least get a believable foreground miniature shot in my film. It’s a feature film titled ‘The Grind’ and it is still in deep post production even though it was shot 3 years ago. As the Executive Producer, DP, Editor, Sound designer and Colorist…my hands are more than full and I keep chipping away whenever I can. ‘The Grind’ is a crime drama set in Los Angeles and we shot in over 65 locations. One day soon I will be able to share it with you all! What we needed was a Humvee miniature for a flashback scene that occurs in a desert during the Gulf War. Because we didn’t have access to a real Humvee or the Iraqi desert…we bought a 1:18 scale model Humvee at Walmart for $23.
Finding the desert location was our next challenge. Living in Los Angeles, we are lucky to have many geographical options within a couple hours distance. The Studios discovered this same fact back in the birth of Hollywood. Not only were there more than 300 days of sunshine a year…but also facsimiles of famous and diverse global locations scattered across Southern California. Here is an old Paramount Studios map that displays the possibilities available to filmmakers.
We plotted a course for Brawley (California) about 200 miles east of Los Angeles and on the edge of the Imperial Sand Dunes. These sand dunes have doubled for all sorts of deserts in film history, including the little indie film…Return of the Jedi. The home of the Sarlacc and his pit can be found in the Imperial Sand Dunes.
We picked a weekday so that the chance of dirtbikes and ATVs buzzing through our shots was reduced. During the weekends, they dominate the dunes and their blasting engines would have made recording audio almost impossible as well. We staged an area that work for the scene and I set up both the camera and the model Humvee. Now, in a perfect world, there are formulas and ratios that should be adhered to when using models and forced perspective. The best and most thorough breakdown of how to stage and film miniatures is found in Stu Maschwitz‘s indispensable book The DV Rebel’s Guide. We only had a couple hours of good light and 4 pages of dialog to shoot…so I eyeballed the shot until it looked and felt right. Since I was also acting in the wide shot that established the scene, I had to lock the camera down and hope for the best.
The wonderful aspect of using models is that once you position them and get your camera angle…they are part of the scene. The sun and your lights strike them naturally and if your perspectives are correct, everything blends together in a seamless fashion. If the model is the slightest bit off, the illusion is ruined and falls apart. In this example, we were shooting on a Panasonic HVX-170 with a 1/3″ sensor at the widest lens setting, so depth of field was not an issue. I was at f/11 and everything from one foot to infinity was in focus. The Humvee was about 2 feet from the camera and the actors were 40 feet away. Here is the Humvee visual effects shot at the beginning of the scene as it plays in the unfinished film.
I was very happy with the outcome and everyone who has viewed it without knowing the secret, asked where we got a Humvee! I think the biggest reason it works is that audio contributed just as much as the visual to sell the effect. On the close-up of the soldier…we hear a metallic sound (the door opening offscreen) and we want to see the source of that sound. As I cut to the wide shot to reveal the Humvee…you hear the door slam and SEE another soldier (me) emerge from behind the Humvee. Because of the audio and deep focus…It feels authentic and looks real. I hope you think so too…
At the end of the day, we got our establishing shot in a foreign country with a Humvee all for the price of gas, two pizzas, many beers and the cheapest hotel in Brawley. I would call that Mission Accomplished. If you have used models or forced perspective in your films or have other examples to share from Hollywood films…please do so below in the comments. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you put your mind to work. Money doesn’t always solve filmmaking obstacles…your creative juices do.
Also…keep your eyes open for ‘The Grind’…
Until next time…