Monday, May 16, 2016

Down to the Sea in Model Ships

I know that I often bemoan the gradual disappearance of those wonderfully esoteric websites which used to seem to make up the bedrock pf the web, but I recently stumbled across a truly wonderful example which is still extant.  The site in question - Model Ships in the Cinema - is, as its title clearly implies, about the use of ship miniatures in film special effects.  You surely can't get much more esoteric than that, can you?  As someone who loves ships, loves miniature models and is fascinated by special effects, not to mention movies with maritime themes, this site is truly fantastic.  For most maritime themed movies made in the pre-CGI era, the use of miniatures to represent full-size vessels on screen was obligatory.  For one thing, chartering real ships would have been prohibitively expensive, let alone the complexity of the logistics involved in co-ordinating real vessels for shooting purposes.  The only alternative to miniatures would have been the use of stock footage, which is never satisfactory, as it rarely proves a good match with the newly filmed footage and is usually jarringly inconsistent, (just look at the way stock footage of trains is often arbitrarily slapped together for film use, with the locomotive and rolling stock changing radically from scene to scene, the producers desperately hoping that nobody will notice as the motive power changes from stem to electric to diesel and back again). 

When it came to films set in the age of sail, there really was no alternative to miniatures work to represent the ships.  Likewise, in World War Two, in order to represent naval combat, miniatures were the only way - access to real vessels, be they military or merchant for film makers would have been highly restricted.  Post war, security and practicality dictated the continued use of miniatures.  More often than not highly successfully.  Of course, for the models to be truly effective, they have to built to a large scale, with lots of detail.  Some of the most fascinating photos reproduced on the model ships site show such large scale models being manually manipulated by special effects technicians either in studio tanks or, on occasion, at sea.  The thing which usually gives away a model ship as a miniature rather than the real thing, though, is the fact that water cannot be scaled down.  Consequently, the waves produced by the bows of the model ships don't appear right, with foam, splashes and water droplets, for instance, clearly too big. Fins and other 'disturbers' fixed to the model's bow below the waterline can often compensate for these problems, giving the impression that the model is actually displacing as much water as the real vessel would as it moved through the water.

It's remarkable the number of films which employed maritime miniatures without me realising it: whilst being aware that that oil tanker and submarines in Spy Who Loved Me, for instance, were actually very large scale models constructed by Derek Meddings, I hadn't realised that the submersibles seen in another Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, were actually miniatures.  Perhaps the most fascinating thing I learned from the site was the existence of Japanese war movies.  Obviously, I'd always assumed that Japan must have produced its own war movies - propaganda films during the war and features after - but had never actually encountered any.  As it turns out, during the war there were various propaganda movies chronicling Japanese naval victories over the Allies, all making extensive use of miniatures.  Apparently, these were the films on which the technicians who would later create the effects for the Godzilla movies cut their teeth.  Post war, there were also feature films on similar subjects, colour miniatures footage from one such sixties effort was apparently later used in the US film Midway.  Which is one of the other great pleasures of this site: the way in which it chronicles the re-use of model sequences from one movie in another.  Not just footage either - it also tracks the re-use of specific model ships in other films.  Like I said at the beginning, a magnificently esoteric site which gives us all hope that Google hasn't yet succeeded in choking the diversity out of the web.



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