Fitzcarraldo 1982

Despite the director Werner Herzog maintaining that everything in the film was shot for real there are a couple of model ship shots in the film and they are very well done.

There must have been a miniature river rapids set built along with the scale model of the steamship.

Unfortunately there is no credits for the miniature sequence.

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Berton Pierce who made the wonderfull documentary about the legendary modelmakers of blockbuster movies “A Sense of Scale” contacted me through the comments section. He has a couple of photographs he took at an exibition in Germany that featured the miniature ship from Fitzcarraldo and here they are below. The first one is a behind the scenes photograph of the miniature shoot that was displayed alongside the model at the exhibition. Although it is a bit blurry it does show the scale of the model with people in the scene.

Fitzcarralldo_BertonPierce_exhibition1 Fitzcarraldo_BertonPierce_Exhibition2Berton’s documentary can be purchased from the link below and I thoroughly recommend it. He has produced a valuable record of a now dying art and even more than that, he has made an entertaining film that is chock full of my heroes talking about the subject I love…miniatures.

Sense Of Scale DVD

Raise the Titanic 1980


I saw this film in the cinema with my Dad on a free double pass that I won as a teenager. I remember feeling at the time that it was fairly lackluster in execution… except for the sequence of the Titanic breaking the surface, which was to me, then as now, the single most brilliantly staged and photographed miniature effect ever captured on film. It is pretty apparent that the filmmakers thought so too as they re-used the overhead back lit angle in its entirety, without a cut, for the whole end credits sequence. The sequence was shot using a high speed camera at 360 frames per second by Bruce Hill who was a specialist in high speed cinematography. 360 frames per second is 15 times faster than the normal rate of 24 frames per second, making 1 second in reality last 15 seconds on the screen, about as fast as it was possible to get 35mm film to move through a camera using a pin registered intermittent movement ( see this post for more). The shots of the large model Titanic with all the water streaming off, with sparkling highlights glinting off the drops is truly spectacular. The Model sequence supervisor was John Richardson, once again some really great miniature work. See North Sea Hijack for more of his work.

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The model Titanic was 55 feet (16.76m) long, 12 feet (3.66m) high and weighed around 10 tons (9.07t). This makes it’s scale to be 1/16th. It was built at the CBS studios in California and reportedly cost 3 million pounds. The hull is made from fiberglass with the superstructure built from steel, wood and resin. Inside the hull was piping and flotation tanks. Controversially for some fans, changes were made to the model, namely two ventilators either side of the forward mast, so that it more closely resembled the bow section of the full size ship (Athenia) used for the live action shots on board, thus spoiling the accuracy somewhat. The model was attached to a rig for the surfacing shots so the action could be repeated for the 28 times it took to acquire all the shots needed for the high speed sequence.


John Richardson walking the deck

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Two miniature tug boats were also built to the same scale. At least three Miniature remote controlled submersibles were constructed for the search sequences, one imploding as it supposedly drops past its rated depth. There were least two miniature naval vessels constructed which can be seen in the background of a few surface model shots. Other miniatures include the floatation tanks, the sea floor mines and a close up submersible manipulator arm used to set the mines in position and arm them.


A smaller 6 foot Titanic model was constructed but is only used in a long shot on the sea floor and a few shots as it rises up to the surface. I saw this model when it was very briefly exhibited in a glass case at a replica gold mining tourist attraction in Armadale, a suburb of Perth Western Australia, called Pioneer Village in the early 1980’s. It looked like it was made of brass sheet but was painted with a variety of stippled colours to represent the underwater accretion and corrosion.

Ken Marschall was a consultant for the miniature Titanic.

Ken Marschall was a consultant for the miniature Titanic. See the excellent Matte shot blog for more about Ken Marschall’s time on this film.

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rtt model No10


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Surface shots were photographed using the already existing large shallow tank at the studio facility on the Island of Malta. You can see the overflow edge in many of the behind the scenes photographs taken from a high angle. The surfacing rig was set up in the deeper well section in the middle of the tank.

A new deep water tank was constructed by the production for the underwater shots on adjacent land purchased expressly for it by the Maltese Government. The deep water tank was about 39 feet (12m) deep and had a 90 foot (27m) diameter turntable on the bottom in the center on which rests the Titanic model and some miniature sea bed. At the time it took 24 hours to fill it with 9 million Gallons (34068 m3) of seawater.


Deep tank being filled

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There are a couple of matte painted shots of the ship being towed into New York harbor which are not as successful as the miniature shots.

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Titanic is a painted Matte

Titanic is a painted Matte

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There was a sequence of the sinking of the Titanic shot with the big miniature first. The model was originally finished with a pristine paint job, outfitted with interior lighting and had all its funnels intact.  After these scenes were completed it was converted into the wreck version we see in the film. Unfortunately, this sequence was cut from the film.

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Sadly the miniature has just been left outside to slowly disintegrate in the weather since 1980. At one point it was repainted as a hospital ship, white with red crosses on the side, and used for a few shots in a production, though even that paint job has totally deteriorated.

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Still photographs fail to capture the magic of the 360 fps high speed footage of the surfacing sequence, but Raise the Titanic has just been released on Blu ray so you are now able to see it in all its glory.

The larger proportion of the images in this post are taken from the Blu Ray release courtesy of Network Distributing ltd, Rex Pictures & Jonathan Smith.

Here’s a link to get your own copy

The Abyss 1989 Part 4

This is Part 4. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here and Part 5 is here.

Montana interior flooding

Two miniature sets were constructed  and shot to provide rear projection plates for the live action portion of the Montana sinking. One set was of the engine room built by Wonderworks and filmed at Gaffney. it was about 4 feet wide, 12 feet long and 18 inches tall. Installed  with miniature lighting and hoses emitting spray it was lowered rapidly by a crane into the tank at a 45 degree angle with the camera attached so it looked like a wall of water was rushing forward. This plate was then combined with actors in a full size set and co-ordinated dump tanks to complete the illusion of catastrophic flooding.



Miniature Montana engine room set.


The other set was of the torpedo room which was rigged with a radial nozzle that sprayed water out as if coming from a blown hatch seal on the torpedo tubes, followed by a large dump of water under pressure which blows the hatches off. Unusually for a miniature shoot, this shot was filmed at 16 frames per second to really sell the power and speed of the water. Once again this was rear projected in a live action set with actors and sychronised action.

 Sea King Helicopters

It looks like these were shot motion control with a separate UV light pass for the rotor blades however I cant be certain as I can not find any information about them whatsoever.  They may not even have been used in the final cut. they look to be about 1/12 scale.

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Bud Puppets

A couple of different scales of Bud puppets were made for motion control shots of Bud falling down into the abyss in the Fluorocarbon emulsion breathing suit.

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NTI Scout and Manta

These models were made  by Dave Golberg and his crew . the outer hulls were made of a vacuum formed UVEX plastic which in one pass glowed under UV light. Inside was a series of acrylic frames and nested glass shapes. One evacuated glass vessel was filled with a gas mixture which would glow when subjected to a specific radio frequency. Other lighting was included with miniature neon tubes and sequenced fiber optics making a spinning turbine effect. Around 9 separate exposures were built up over the same piece of film to complete the look, shot using motion Control at Dreamquest.


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The NTI puppets were made by Steve Johnson’s XFX mostly from a flexible translucent cast urethane and vacuum formed rigid acrylic shells. They had a number of fiber optic light sourced embedded in the castings. They were shot in water tanks both at the San Pedro facility and later in the 8 foot (1.5m) square cloud tank at Dreamquest.  For shots where the puppet,s wings are undulating for propulsion purposes, the puppet main support and the camera were attached to a rigid beam that went up and down. The resistance due to the water made the wings flap as the body travels up and down with the camera linked to the same motion outside the tank. The body of the creature to the camera appears to stay still with just the wings motion evident. There is a very illuminating series of videos about the filming of these puppets on youtube.


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Part 5 will complete this series with screen grabs from the movie.

Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here and Part 5 is here.

The Abyss 1989 Part 3

This is Part 3. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 4 is here and Part 5 is here.

1/4 scale submersibles

Walt Conti was commissioned to develop and construct 1/4 (quarter) scale working miniatures of Flat Top and Cab 1 for the chase sequence.

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Jim Cameron wanted the submersibles to be able to move at about 4 knots and sustain damage through various collisions between themselves and rock walls. The Model construction was supervised by Rick Anderson and they were built very strongly to survive the action called for in the script as well as the pressure exerted by up to 50 feet (15m) of water. The hulls were cast from 1/4 inch (6mm) thick fiberglass. The various tube frame components were made out of thin walled copper tubing which is strong but could dent realistically when hit. The models ended up weighing around 450 pounds (240kg) and had to be moved around with a crane. In order to move such heavy models at the speed required and the fact that the designs were not particularly hydrodynamic in shape, meant that very a powerful propulsion system had to be developed. It was calculated that to get the models to do the 4 knot specification they would need 14 horsepower in a very small package to match the full size submersible thrusters. In the end they had to re-engineer 2 hp electric trolling motors to produce 150 pounds (68kg) thrust each. These motors needed a lot of power and had their own set of batteries which allowed for around 10 minutes at full thrust. Originally they calculated they would need about 1000 footcandles of miniature lighting but more and more lights kept being added to the fullsize submersibles which they had to match. In the end they needed to 3000 footcandles of miniature lighting. This ate into the storage capacity of the 120 pounds (54kg) of Nicad batteries onboard and meant that they had about 6 minutes of lighting power before a battery change. This meant that the lights were only switched on for the take and battery changes needed the models to be craned out of the tank and took about 20 minutes.


Ron Cobb’s Flat bed design

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They cockpits also contained 1/4 scale puppets with radio controlled head turns.


It was decided that the radio controlled vehicles would be better operated underwater and so developed an waterproof RC controller system to go with the models. The under water set they traveled across was about 80 feet (24.3m) long and 40 feet wide. As the visibility was only about 15 feet (4.6m)  and the lighting came predominantly from the models themselves they could easily move around rock set pieces to produce a new area of sea bed for each shot. The camera was run somewhere between 72 and 96 frames per second. After 6 weeks of underwater photography at Gaffney only 10 useable shots had been gathered.


Walt Conti and the 1/4 scale Flat top submersible

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Some months later the crew re-convened at the University of Southern California’s swimming stadium to continue the chase sequence. 90 gallons (340 litres) of blue food colouring was added to the water as well as the sea floor set pieces. Over four 16 hour nights of filming the remaining shots were captured. Also shot at this location was the implosion of the wrecked Flat top submersible as it plummets into the abyss. Jim Camerons brother Mike supervised a special breakaway 1/4 scale model  constructed over a thin walled glass vessel. The Glass container was wrapped in tightly wound Bungee cord which when the squibs detonated shattering the glass, helped pull everything inward. Inside the glass dome was a miniature gelatin Coffey cast around a 1/4 scale plastic skeleton. The cockpit had many details made from thin lead. The pool was only 17 feet deep (5m)  so the bottom was blacked out and there was a lot of particulate to drop the visibility off. The model had a cable running down to a pulley which imparted the dropping action. The first attempt failed when the squibs got wet and only partially exploded ruining the model, so a second model was rigged with waterproofed squibs and imploded successfully.


1/4 scale Coffey figure

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The Skotak brothers also supervised a shot of Cab 3 launching through the Benthic Explorer’s well deck using a varaiation of the “hanging” miniature technique. Pat McClung converted the Conti 1/4 scale Cab 1 to Cab 3 while his brother Jerry constructed a section of the well deck on top of the tank at the San pedro Harbour Star facility.  On the floor of the building was painted a full size representation of the deck. 7 actors pretended to look down through the well which was in fact above them at 1/4 fullsize. As a high camera speed was required for the model splashdown  but a normal 24 frames per second for the actors the two parts were filmed consecutively with the miniature first. The floor area where the live action took place was blacked out while the miniature was shot, then the film was rewound to the start with the model area blacked out and the actors shot. The timing was figured out so that the actions of each would coincide accurately. No optical post production was needed to combine the parts, it was all done in the camera. With the aperture of the lens stopped down with adequate lighting, the depth of field was at its greatest and the foreground model much closer to the camera was as sharp as the more distant actors thus maintaining the illusion. Even though both parts were shot separately, the focus must be locked off for both parts, as the image can change in size as the focus is racked and the matte and counter matte would not fit correctly.


First pass, the model shot high speed, floor blacked out.


Second pass, live action at normal speed, model area blacked out.

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NTI Ark Spires

Two large scale fiberglass sections of the NTI Ark’s spires and an arc surface section were constructed by Design Setters. One part was just the very top of the spire to get a shot of it breaking the surface. This model was 10 feet (3m) wide and 7 feet (2.1m) high, the other was a full length spire at a smaller scale, 20 feet (6m) tall used to show the tower rising up. The Ark rising sequence was shot at the Salton Sea, a once very large saline lake in the Californian desert. Currently the lake is in danger ecologically and has diminished quite markedly from that in 1989. There is an ongoing campaign to try and save it from further degradation.

The sequence using the spires and the large scale section with the Albany and Benthic Explorer (see part 1) was supervised by Gene Warren’s Fantasy II Film Effects. The spires were mounted on a lift mechanism that sat on the floor of the lake. The lake is quite shallow and very gently sloped so that they had to set up their equipment at about 500 feet (152m) from the shore to get the 12 feet (3.7m) of depth needed. The elevation system used cable and pulley system that ran back to an air air winch. Some difficulty was encountered with suction so sometimes a crane was used to assist with the lift. The spire top was shot at 128 frames per second with the rising full length tower at between 240 and 275 frames per second. Wind machines helped to blast the falling water and break it into spray.

A teardrop section of surface was constructed 20 feet by 30 feet, in 9 pieces at Fantasy II’s shop for transportation to the lake. The colour scheme was meant to suggest the colours of an abalone shell.


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NTI Arc complete smaller scale surface shots

In their carpark, Fantasy II built a shallow tank 35 feet (10.6) at the front increasing to 40 feet (12.2m) at the back and only 4 inches (100mm) deep except for a deeper well right in the center. Into this tank went a 17 foot (5.2m) diameter disk shaped arc complete with spires upon which sat small replicas of the Benthic Explorer, Albany,  Deepcore and other assorted warship models.

The arc was constructed by Dave Goldberg and crew by first sculpting one quarter of it in clay. A mold was made and four identical pieces cast and arranged to make the whole circular shape.


one quarter section maquette of the arc with mirrors to create a complete disk.


Colouring was added to the water and fans placed around the perimeter to produce the texture of ocean waves. There were over 200 tubes pumping out a mixture of vinegar and baking soda to produce miniature foam around the circumference of the arc. The arc disk was pushed up to the surface from its cavity by hydraulics in about a second. The camera shot at 300 frames per second which then had each frame effectively doubled on an optical printer to make it appear shot at 600 frames per second.

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NTI Arc underwater shots

A second 17 foot arc pulled from the same mold ( but only half as that was all that is visible) was cast from translucent resin to allow for backlighting. The glowing coloured lights were  fibre optics lit by lasers and designed by Gary Platek. This and  other larger scale spires and tunnel pieces  were shot motion control in a smoke filled environment at Dreamquest, supervised by Hoyt Yeatman.


Screaming Mad George sculpting a large close up spire for motion controlled photography.

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Part 4 will cover some other miscellaneous models used in the film.

Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 4 is here and Part 5 is here.