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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.