One of the things that I'm really looking forward to doing when I make the Iapetus movie, is doing practical miniature effects for the exterior spaceship shots. One of the earliest things I designed (back when this was an animated film) was the ship..


It's intended to be a colony ship, holding about three thousand people in the five cylindrical habitats, and the engine is a long linear array of accelerators. In real life, its about 3km long.

When creating convincing miniature effects, the real trick - apart from creating a highly detailed model - is miniature photography. The key to the effect is focus. In order to make a small object seem large, all of it must be in focus at the same time. You can see this very clearly when you look at the reverse of this principle. To make a large object seem very small, you blur the foreground and background, an effect known as tilt-shifting or miniature faking. This is the look you want to avoid at all costs.

A real train made to look like a miniature, the goal of miniature photography is to do the reverse (photo by Scot Campbell)

The solution is to make the aperture on the camera as small as it will go. This reduces the light that reaches the sensor, so you need long exposures. But, long exposures mean lighting effects (like windows, engines) get over exposed, so you have to do those in separate passes. That's where motion control cameras come in. They can perform the same movement as many times as needed to capture all the elements.

For the shots I wanted though, all I need is a simple pan. As it happens, there are motorized sliders out there which will do the job. They are usually used for time-lapse photography, but the principle is the same – capturing multiple long exposure images over time. It turns out the guys who made C had the same idea, so we now know it works.

There are only a few simple shots required for the trailer

Ok so miniature photography is important, but you still need a miniature to photograph. Because the design of the ship contains a few structures duplicated many times, I can take advantage of that and only build one of each. These objects can be physically repositioned, and a pass can be photographed on the motion control slider. When you composite them all together in the correct Z order, they appear to all exist at the same time.

The same object is photographed at different positions

To see if this effect would work, I decided to build a mock-up of one of the engine modules out of paper. I also put some lights in there to test how the engines would appear on screen. After photographing each element separately, I composited them together against a background. The result proved that the effect was convincing, the objects all appear to be part of a larger whole.

A paper model was constructed for the camera testSome internal lighting was added to see how it would work when photographedThis multiple exposure shows the how the principle works

The result works pretty well, it appears as a single solid objectA view from the rear to see what the engine lighting looks like in context

So I have a way to do the large scale close up miniature shots, but for distant establishing shots of the ship, a smaller model will be needed, large miniatures don't look 'small' enough when shot from a distance. I was originally planning on just constructing this from scratch using bits and pieces, but then I discovered 3D printing over at Shapeways. I created a quick mock-up of an engine pod in Blender and printed it out.

Thrown together quickly in BlenderAnd a week later it exists in the real worldSize comparison with the larger papaer model

This is printed using the coarse grained 'strong and flexible' material, a kind of nylon. Because there is no edge smoothing, and the mesh doesn't have enough faces, the curved surfaces are stepped. The Ultra Fine material with a high resolution mesh and a good paint job would be more than adequate for a long distance shot.

And that takes us up to today. I'm continuing to build out the small scale model myself, but I'm going to get a professional model maker to work on the larger scale piece over the next year or two.


It seems like an opportunity to grow always comes when you least expect it..

A short while back I went to a screening of Francesca, playing as part of the local Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. As my girlfriend is Romanian she got the tickets and was keen to go, but couldn’t make it in the end. After a bit of humming and hawing I decided to go alone, something I generally don’t like to do.

Now as I was leaving, I looked the movie up on the film festival website (which, but the way, was not very easy). They mentioned that the director, Bobby Paunescu, would be there. As I read it, I realised I had an opportunity to speak to a real life film director, a person already far along the path I’m undertaking. Naturally, this freaked me out.

Networking is tough when you’re starting out

Why? Because its scary walking up to a complete stranger, especially one you respect, and trying not to seem foolish or inexperienced. And if you’re just some random guy off the street you know for a fact that’s exactly how you will seem. I’m not sure how I managed to overcome that feeling this time round, but I made a firm decision – come hell or high water – I was going to talk to this person. I don’t care if he’s being mobbed by the entire theatre, I’ll push my way through. Not only that, I’m also going to ask him for some contact details.

The film itself was very engaging, I wont go into it too much, there’s plenty of details and clips on the web covering it. It’s bleak, no doubt, but there is a sense of upbeat hope throughout that really reminds me of Romania itself, something the director covered in a talk after the lights came up.

I asked one or two questions, about how he got started, what advice he had for someone else starting out. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that little or no black magic was involved. Hard work, dedication and the desire to do it was the vibe I picked up. It was round about this time that the Q&A came to an end, and the theatre started emptying.

I had to make my move, if I didn’t do it now, I never would.

Man, I must have seemed VERY green, embarrassingly green..

As I was walking up, two or three men beat me to it and formed a closed set around him. They were speaking Romanian, and as I got closer I realised one of them was the Romanian Ambassador to Ireland (whom I met before, oddly enough). By now it was too late. I couldn’t pretend to be doing anything but approaching them. I was in their space and there was no turning back.

I awkwardly barged my way into the small group, shook hands with all present and just blurted out a request for contact details. I was so nervous after writing them down that I could barely put the cap back on my pen. In fact, I don’t think I could manage it and just shoved it into my pocket, hoping no one had noticed. I’m sure they all did.

What’s the message here?

I’m sure you can see it coming. There’s no particularly earth shattering revelation here, and the experience is only really relevant to me. What I would say however, is that there was a sense of reality about what I did. Once you take a step and interact with the world, thoughts and wishes start to materialise into something you can actually see, and work with. It becomes a plan, a goal you can follow. Until you take that leap, its just a thought, easily postponed, regretted, and eventually forgotten.

That’s what I’m trying to do with this blog, put myself out to as many different people as possible, receive as much feedback as possible, and start pushing myself to do all the things I don’t want to do, but I know I have to do.