HMS Defiant 1962 (Damn the Defiant U.S. title)

The producer John Brabourne along with miniatures supervisor Howard Lydecker followed up the success of Sink the Bismark with Damn the Defiant, a tale of brutality in the English Navy during the Napoleonic era.

In his fascinating and somewhat acerbic book ” Are They Really So Awful- a cameraman’s chronicle” (Janus 1995), legendary cinematographer Christopher Challis, himself a keen sailor, devotes a chapter to the making of Damn the Defiant, including some details of the miniature work.

A top specialist from Hollywood, Howard Liedecker (sic), had been engaged to supervise the model work and he expressed the firm opinion that the only way to achieve something near realism was to shoot it at sea. If we could find a protected bay somewhere, he was certain it could be achieved. We all agreed whole heartedly with him and I left the meeting greatly encouraged. I had given the problem a great deal of thought and, after talking to various friends in the boat building industry, I was convinced that we could find stock fibreglass hulls on which we could build whatever we liked. There is a golden rule with model work. The bigger they are, the better they are, until the optimum is reached and absurdity taken to the extreme, when they are full size.

With these thoughts running through my mind, I was dismayed to get a call from (producer) Richard Goodwin to say that Leidecker had carried out a grand tour of all the studios and had hit upon some old models, relics of some long forgotten picture which, with a bit of work on them. would fill the bill and save a great deal of expense. They were being transported to a firm of model makers next day and I could go along and see them.

Needless to say, I was horrified with what I found. They had been constructed for a sequence which was shot in a studio tank, only four foot deep. they were built around an oblong, galvanised flotation tank with large pieces of iron grid battened onto the bottom to keep them upright. They had been pulled along by rails and cables on the bottom of the studio tank and looked, or could look fine above the water, but below they were open-bottomed, not boats at all. Even with engines installed, there was no way they could be manoeuvred at sea. I forcibly expressed my feelings and after numerous arguments with Liedecker i was told in simple terms to take care of the photography and leave the models to the experts.

Some weeks later, I was called in to see photographs and a chart of the place picked by Liedecker for the model shooting. It was on the Costa Blanca, at a little town called Villajoyosa, which boasted a large, artificial harbour with a long breakwater. the area chosen for filming was outside the breakwater, with a fairly wide arc of open sea. Work was under way on building a tubular jetty for the models to be moored on the seaward side of the breakwater. i found it impossible to curb my tongue and pointed out the significance of the breakwater, hich if it followed the normal convention had to face the prevailing weather! Six weeks later, I arrived in Spain to start 16 weeks of model shooting, to be greeted by the news that a storm had demolished the tubular jetty and most of the models.

A local boatbuilder was approached, a very bright and shrewd chap, who quickly understood what was needed and equally quickly appreciated that he was dealing with a wealthy film company in dire need of boats yesterday.

Of course what he produced was built in wood in a conventional way, but at least they floated – and the right way up, too!

Model-filming on water has its own particular problems, the chief being scale. if the model is one-eighth scale. then the height of the camera lens above the water has to be an eighth of normal. this makes the water in the foreground a matter of inches from the lens,so the waves must be reduced to ripples for it to look right.

A special raft was built for the camera, with a sunken well and glass panel extending below water level so that we could get the lens within inches of the water. large outriggers were added, onto which were lashed empty oildrums to improve stability and an awning erected to keep the crew from ‘frying’.

He goes on to describe the difficulties of arranging the unreliable aircraft engined wind machine barges and the boredom of long hours waiting for everything to be in the right place to shoot.

He then had to leave the model unit with 22 more model shots to do to photograph the live action main unit portion of the film. He later admits;

The model work turned out well, and the decision to do it at sea was right but, who knows it might all have been easier. There is always a first time for everything, and it is easy to be wise after the event.

This is one of those rare films with a good story very well cast, acted and directed combined with some of the very best Royal Navy ship model battles depicted. For me at least, anything with the Lydecker name attached usually represents some of the best model action committed to film.

The title was changed for the US release as apparently in America it was not commonly known what HMS meant.

 

 

Up the Creek 1958

I occasionally stumble across model ship sequences in the most unlikely and unexpected films. This was one of them, notable only for being the first ever feature film that Peter Sellers appeared in.

There is a brief comical sequence of a rocket accidentally launched from a ship which then falls straight back down through the funnel and sinks it. While the model itself looks quite well made, the studio lighting and the lack of fine waves on the water surface let the shots down in the realism department.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sink the Bismarck 1960

According to L B Abbott in his comprehensive book” Special Effects – Wire, Tape and Rubber Band Style” (The ASC press 1984),

“Lord John Brabourne came to the studio (20thCENTURY FOX) to discuss the possibilities of doing the miniatures here (in Hollywood). I had several meetings with him and made a budget. Unfortunately, a few weeks later it was determined that the figure was in excess of the amount allowed to be spent outside England under the Eddie Plan.”

The “Eddie Plan” Abbott was referring to was actually the Eadie Levy, a scheme started in 1950 and ending in 1985, where cinema tickets were taxed to provide a fund to support British Cinema. Non-British producers could also apply as long as at least 85% of the film was shot in Britain and there were no more than 3 foreign staff working on the film.

“Brabourne then requested that I be sent over to London to help lay out the project for shooting at Pinewood studios.”

“I spent most of the time with the art directors” ” the outcome was that Pinewood built a tank with a backing and the miniature ships were made of fiberglass and would float. Before I arrived, the art people had planned to build them British style- open bottomed and riding on railroad tracks.”

“Returning to the studio, I made a report to Rogell (Sid Rogel, his boss at Fox), who had already received a request from Brabourne that I be assigned to the picture. Rogell said,”You know that’s impossible; get someone else.” Returning to my office I explained my predicament to a friend. he advised me that Republic Studio had been sold and suggested that Babe (Howard) Lydecker might be interested. Knowing this man to be an old-time expert, I had my secretary locate him. Babe appeared in the office the next morning, and after half-an-hour’s talk, he elected to take the job.”

The Lydecker brothers, Howard and Theodore, were famous for their miniature work on the classic Republic serials of the 40’s and 50’s as well as Republic’s feature films.

Sink_Bismarck_004 Sink_Bismarck_001 Sink_Bismarck_002 Sink_Bismarck_003

 

The other miniatures credit on the film is Bill Warrington, who was responsible for many other really excellent examples of model ship action, including “Guns from Navarone” done the following year (1961), which has a particularly fine storm sequence. I will take a closer look at this film at some later date.

While the main shooting was done anamorphic, the miniatures were shot with standard spherical lenses. Anamorphic lenses have a much shallower depth of field, which if you have read my post Camera,Lighting and Lens you will know that this is not good for convincing miniatures. It meant that the top and bottom of the frame each 35mm frame, for all the miniature shots was effectively thrown away when it was finally converted to anamorphic, much the same as what is now known as “Super 35”. This results in a lowering of the resolution, or an increase in the grain for he miniature shots over the rest of the live action, which in the case of this film really helped with the gritty almost documentary look to the miniature work.

There are some spectacular scenes of destruction, particularly when HMS Hood is destroyed and the bow of the fictitious “Solent” is blown off.

The miniature waves on the “sea” are also particularly well done. There is always a convincing underlying rolling swell with finer wavelet detail with the tops of the crests being whipped off by the blast from the SFX fans.

All the water explosion plumes appear to be a fine powder ( probably Gypsum) detonated just below the surface. It gives a very realistic scale effect as the particles hang in the air and dissipate without the tell tale “large” water drops. See a previous post for more on this subject.

Technically as well as subjectively Sink the Bismarck is one of the best examples of the art of “Model Ships in the Cinema” you are ever likely to see. The action is convincingly and excitingly staged, and combined with a tightly scripted, well acted and directed movie it is a virtually flawless example of British cinema… with a touch of American know-how.