Triton helping the Argo past the clashing rocks

This website mainly concerns itself with the technique of photographing model ships in real water, whether it be in a specifically constructed studio tank with a painted backdrop, out upon a real sea with the real horizon and sky or a combination of specially constructed tank using a real horizon and sky. This is a process that is increasingly rare in these days of digital filmaking. The golden age was seen in the films of the 1940’s and 1950’s and there are still some strikingly effective examples seen in films right up to the end of the twentieth century. It will also cover model ships that have been built and photographed dry, with various methods for integrating either photographically shot plates of water, CG simulations of water surfaces and fogged in studios representing underwater scenes.


Most films today which seek to depict almost any visual effect concerned with ships upon the ocean would tend to use virtual digital model ships on a computer simulated and rendered sea. Some have still favored the building of a model, like the recent version of King Kong which had a beatifully detailed miniature steamer, built by WETA, which never got wet. Instead it was photographed in a “sea” of blue screens. It was solidly mounted to a steel rig which mimicked the rolling of the ocean as it was photographed by a computerised motion control camera. This footage was then combined in a computer program, composited with a mostly digitally simulated ocean. This was the approach largely followed by the 1997 Titanic movie,  a large 1/20 scale miniature was filmed motion control and composited into a digital ocean combined with elements shot of the wake of a real ex-ww2 liberty ship. Contemporary visual effects are concerned with being “photo real”. This is a recent consideration as traditional techniques were largely “photographed”, thus the photo part of photo-real was automatically achieved. The real, that is to say realistic part is another matter entirely. My own take on this is that it was precisely the unreal nature of visual effects that got me interested as a child in the first place. One of my favourite films was Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts. I loved the strange magical effect imparted by the stop motion animated creatures. I knew when a monster was about to make an entrance, as I noted a sudden change in the texture of the film just before it appeared. I just attributed it to a magical process, later realising that it was the colour shifts and extra grain caused by re-photographing the background live action off a rear projected screen. I definitely had a sense that what I was seeing wasn’t real, it was better than real, it was magic. A highpoint of the film for me, was when Triton emerges from the sea and holds back the clashing rocks to allow the Argonauts’ ship to pass under his arms. The wide angle lens, the low angles and the slow motion cinematography all contributed to the gigantic effect created. It was many years later that I realised that there is another ingredient that made these shots so special for me, (and probably to no-one else) and that is the size of a drop of water. Every effects person who has ever been involved in shooting miniature ships has said ” you can’t miniaturise a drop of water”. This is a physical constant, the viscosity of water means that when you shoot a man in a fish tail suit to represent a giant mythical god at 1/25 scale the water drops are 25 times bigger than normal, about the size of an orange. This effectively makes the water seem more viscous. This apparent honey-like consistency of water in miniature shots was appealing to me ( OK I admit I’m strange ). It’s one of the reasons I liked the 60’s TV series Thunderbirds. They used a very small tank, about 10 foot square, with quite small models making the water seem very syrupy indeed.

Mmm… Look at those lovely big water drops.

Larger Scale Pod. Same scale water drops.

This is the reason most film-makers these days prefer the digital route. The water droplet size is the single most tell tale sign of a miniature effect, and consequently many techniques have been employed to get around it. I’ll cover most of these strategies in later posts. As a bit of a postscript, one of the unique features of Jason and the Argonauts, as clearly demonstrated in the photo, is you can easily tell the size of the miniature because there is a man in the shot at the same time. This is one of the few examples of this in movies other than Japanese Monster films with a man in a giant monster suit. It allows me to estimate the scale at about 1/25th of full size. In fact most giant monsters that trash cities are also at this scale. Actually 1/25 scale is a bit on the small side for a movie model ship, they are usually a fair bit larger.See my post on MODEL SCALE.

If you are looking for tips on miniature cinematography, read this post Camera Lighting and Lens.

Information on the general technique of miniature ships in water, can be found in these posts Model Control and Tanks

6 thoughts on “About

  1. The sight I’ve been looking for FOREVER……great pix…great info…..I think “Sink the Bismarck” is the greatest sea-going movie ever made…..the miniatures were legendary…….better than CGI, perhaps……The Lydecker brothers, Buddy Gillespie, Sersen and Warren Newcombe…….all true artists…it is the job I would have loved to have.

  2. Many years ago i worked with Phil Kellison the legendary effects man, who had done the ‘page flip wipes’ for ‘Flying Down to Rio’
    I n my naive way, I asked him what was the best size for miniatures.
    “Full size” he replied instantly “Or bigger!”

  3. Hello,

    Wonderful site! I came across it looking info on Derek Meddings for a posting on another site.

    I do model ship news on the Model Shipwrights modeling site. I’d like to do a ‘shout-out’ news bit about your site, if you don’t mind.

    While news posting are primarily about new ship related modeling products, we from time to time do subjects on history, real naval stories and profiling a website.

    May I do such profile on your site? And may I use images from your site to show what you post here?

    Here are links to sites we’ve profiled in the past:




    If you’re ok with me doing this is there a name I can reference as the site admin and maybe any other information that’s not in you introduction on the ‘About’ page that you’d like to share?

    Thank you for your consideration.

    Michael Paquette
    Managing Editor, Model Shipwrights

  4. In the 1970’s or early 80’s I worked with a man who purchased many of the Tora Tora ship models. His name was Don Clair. Don owned a small steel company and scrap and salvage company near 73rd St in Oakland. He purchased and scraped Navy ships among the many activities. He was an avid collector of all sorts of things. He had an elephant foot waste basket by his desk that he had stuffed from one of his African hunting expeditions. On the desk was the bronze ink stand belonging to the captain of the Prinz Eugene, (that ship still resting in the bottom near one of the American Islands where it was towed after the Bikini blast). He had helped finance an expedition to salvage Spanish Galleons in Florida and had a warehouse full of Bronze cannons and other stuff. He made a fortune buying scrap and then reselling it for profit. When the city of Oakland decided to replace their ornate 1920 street lamps with new modern aluminum lamps Don purchase hundreds of them for scrap and then refurbished them and sold them or big money to decorate estates. His purchases of the Tora Tora ships were a master stroke. They had been stored in the desert in Southern California and had been allowed to deteriorate a bit. He hired me and two men from the Hollywood studios to restore them. This was a long time ago and the model maker’s names escape me but those expert craftsmen shared with me many of their model maker’s secrets. We restored the Nagato, the Shokakyu and the Kongo among others. For a while I had the bridge and b turret from the Arizona in my garage. They must have blown up several of these and these for the movie and these were spare parts for further explosions if needed. I had a six foot model of the Brooks class American destroyer as well. Don was a great fellow but he was almost totally uneducated and I had to supply him with 1943 and 1945-6 copies of Janes so he had some idea of what the Japanese had in the way of ships. In addition, I refurbished and labeled the ships in several 1/1200 sets of recognitions model sets to help him to understand what he had bought in the form of Japanese and American ships from the Movie. Don had scrapped many Navy ships and in the instruction rooms they often had training models including sets of Naval Recognition models stored in hinged wooden cases. These were primarily student models in 1/1200 scale and the larger 1/500 teacher models. I obtained many of these training sets from Don in repayment for my work on his Tora Tora models and his two ferry boats. Don had purchased three ferry boats. He planned to refurbish one to serve as a Naval Museum to be docked at the San Leandro pier. He had me in mind to be the curator of the museum but Don was too capricious a man for me to leave a good job and be subject to his ever changing whims. In addition, I learned that the San Leandro folks were not going to have this wild man him become a fixture at their marina. Don purchased the Tora Tora models for 100,000 and later resold the nm for a million according to his secretory. Don was a swell guy but he constantly changed his mind about what he wanted to collect and was very frustrating to work with. In later years Don’s health had deteriorated and last time we got together he showed me his new passion which was coo coo clocks. He wanted to know if I would repair some of them. I really liked the guy but he was a loose cannon and hard to be a true friend with. I heard from our mutual friends that Don had died in what must have been shortly after my last visit. I enjoyed your photos of the Tora Tora models, these bringing back fond memories. I was sorely disappointed that in the movie scant use was made of these wonderful models.
    ~~Jack in Alameda

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