Battle of the River Plate 1956

AKA Pursuit of the Graf Spee ( American title)

One of the all time classic films depicting Naval Warfare and with a level of accuracy unmatched. The miniature effects were supervised by Bill Warrington and James Snow.

I was contacted by the granddaughter of James (Jimmy) Snow, Brigitte Grundy, who very kindly provided some incredible behind the scenes photographs of the miniature Graf Spee and its ultimate destruction in a tank at Pinewood. Jimmy snow was a pyrotechnics expert and he provided the terrific miniature explosions and fireballs seen in the sequence. In the photograph below Jimmy Snow is bending over the rear turret.

Battle of River Plate with Grandad bending

What is interesting from the photographs is the model appears to have been built “british” style with an open bottom. You can see that there is no full hull shape below the water line. It appears to sit on a pipe rig for support in the tank. It is possible that it never moves through the water and any movement is simulated by a camera move and the movement of the wake and waves in the tank. It is mostly stationary in the story.

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The two photographs above seem to show the ship when the water level in the tank is not quite full. There will be a couple of nozzles aimed up at the bow for the bow wave effect as well as some at the stern to produce the wake.

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The main reason for the model is to depict the destruction and it has to weather a great deal of flame in the process. Usually the model is strongly made of non flammable materials able to carry on take after take with no real damage. Bits of damage that fly off will be specially prepared mortar charges set into a metal funnel shaped device, designed to throw miniature debris into the air.

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While the pyrotechnic effects are brilliantly staged and executed, my one criticism is of the lack of sufficient surface detail on the model. There would be all manner of pipes, cables, ducting and electrical boxes on the superstructure which is not evident on the model. The close up sections with the catapult aircraft launcher and the guns are particularly lacking in this regard.

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Magic Island 1995

The previous post was about Producer/director Sam Irvin’s quest to complete his research on the 2 part miniseries Frankenstein: the True Story from (1973) for a comprehensive article he writing. Sam also sent me some details and screen grabs from a direct to video kids film he directed called Magic Island which features some shots with a miniature ship. Sam describes the modelship aspects of the production below;

MAGIC ISLAND (1995) was a direct-to-video kids film I directed for Paramount Pictures and Moonbeam Entertainment (the family film division of Full Moon Features). The film subsequently played in heavy rotation on the Disney Channel.
My recollection is that the production designer John Zachary rented this 15 foot model ship from a local Mexican film studio and literally had it anchored off the shore of Ixtapa, Mexico, where we filmed scenes on the beach with the boat in the background. I remember John taking a small motor boat to and from the model ship to make adjustments and to add and subtract the skull-and-crossbones pirate flag, depending on the scene.
Poster to MAGIC ISLAND.jpg
SHIP, Magic Island 1
SHIP, Magic Island 2
15 foot model ship anchored off the coast of Ixtapa, Mexico — with skull-and-crossbones pirate flag flying.
SHIP, Magic Island 3
Buccaneer from shore uses his telescope to see that his ship has been commandeered by pirates — with a skull-and-crossbones flag raised.
SHIP, Magic Island 4
Confrontation between the buccaneers and the pirates on shore. Hard to see, but the model ship is on the horizon in the center. It is anchored in the actual ocean off this beach in Ixtapa, Mexico.
SHIP, Magic Island 5
Again, very tiny, but the white spec on the horizon in the center is the model ship anchored in the actual ocean.
SHIP, Magic Island 6
Model ship anchored in the actual ocean, between boy and buccaneer.
SHIP, Magic Island 7
15-foot model ship anchored in actual ocean off the coast of Ixtapa, Mexico. Now, the pirate flag is no longer waving. The buccaneers have taken back their ship.
I thank Sam for supplying the screen grabs and information for this post.

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