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How To Use Miniatures With VFX Production

How To Use Miniatures With VFX Production

When you pair miniature cinematography with VFX compositing, the possibilities are truly endless.

From Star Wars to Wes Anderson, miniatures have been used to create some of Hollywood's most memorable VFX scenes.

Similar to matte painting, the use of miniatures brought a new dimension to filmmaking. In an effort to capture the magic of the original Star Wars trilogy, Jon Favreau and his team have even used miniatures to create most of the Razor Crest sequences in The Mandalorian.
What's so interesting about The Mandalorian's VFX is the synergistic use of old and new techniques. Virtual production is being implemented in most of the VFX (which is also like a return to matte painting), while at the same time, complex models and rigs are being created with the latest technology. 

The virtual production system allows for light projections onto the models, and when you bring all these pieces together, the result is a stunning, hyper-realistic VFX masterpiece.

Feeling inspired? Great! Let's take a look at how you can create your own VFX scenes with miniatures!

How to Add VFX to a Miniatures Shot

Some of the best miniature work relies not on the miniatures themselves, but on the composited shot as a whole, utilizing a nice set extension.

It's these types of shots that are so unique and surreal, it's hard to distinguish whether or not the shot is completely practical, all CGI, or a mix.  

One thing's for sure though, they look awesome!
As the tutorial above includes some time in Photoshop, exterior miniature scenes can especially benefit with Photoshop's new sky replacement tool. You can choose from various preset sky images, or import your own for an incredibly realistic sky.

How to Film a Space Miniatures Scene

One of the most iconic miniature effects is the spaceship effect we looked at earlier, used in early sci-fi films and made famous by George Lucas and ILM.

Even if you don't have a large budget, you can create a very similar look in your own home studio. There's a ton of creative flexibility and room for experimentation, so take some inspiration from this next video and find ways to make your project even more unique!
You’ve probably got some spaceship toys or models lying around somewhere to experiment with, or you could just run out and pick some up. Either way, this is a great method to learn and gather ideas if you want to film your own models in the future.

For custom models, you could design your ship’s 3D model and send to a 3D printer, then paint and tinker with it until you’ve got it looking how you want.

The example above showed how you could consider incorporating lighting into the ship as well, which would add yet another touch of realism to the model.

Lens Choices for Shooting Miniatures

As referenced in the previous video, the lens you choose for shooting your subject makes a tremendous difference in the overall feel of the scene. Standard lenses risk the possibility of creating a tilt-shift effect (reminiscent of the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood miniatures), but that may be the look you’re going for! 

On the other hand, a fisheye lens will provide a large sense of scale, like the USS Enterprise fly-by. Your lens choice really just depends on your project.

Of course, macro lenses are great at revealing tiny details, and can provide a unique look all their own, but you may have issues with their limited field-of-view. If you’d like something that shoots with the detail of a macro lens, but with a wide field-of-view that can capture much more of your scene, the Laowa Probe Lens is a standout choice.
The Laowa Probe Lens is an exceptional lens for shooting not only miniatures, but also products.

If you’d like to sharpen your game on producing better product shots, definitely check out our article on how to create exciting product videos. We mention the Laowa Probe Lens there as well, and provide a look at some of the very cool results this lens can achieve.

VFX + Miniatures = Pure Magic

At the end of the day, miniatures scenes are really all about finding the perspective you want to convey, and getting creative on the technical side to execute your vision. 

Miniatures can add production value to your scenes, and they’re also a quick and easy way to add VFX elements into your project. You can use toys, die-cast cars, models, craft supplies, or anything you can imagine!

When you pair high-quality miniature cinematography with VFX and compositing in post-production, you can achieve some truly amazing results. One of the greatest recent examples of this (other than The Mandalorian) is Thunderbirds are Go!
Thunderbirds Are Go takes a world of miniatures and infuses CGI characters into every scene. The animations and interactions are stylized like a modern cartoon. but almost all the set pieces are made up of miniatures. It’s a totally unique look that conveys that hyper-realistic feeling that really stands out on screen.

Miniatures don’t have to be used in final shots, either!  If you have a 3D printer, you can utilize printed 3D models for lighting references in your final VFX production that will be replaced with actual CGI.  

There's a classic and distinct look you can achieve with miniatures, and it all comes down to your ability to innovate and build a world around your creative vision.

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