The use of miniatures in film making is not completely dead and gone. It is still possible to get better results, for less money, using old school techniques.

Have a look here: for some photos of the model ship used in Underworld 2. This was built and shot by Fantasy II Film Effects in Los Angeles.

One of the tricks for shooting water miniatures is to use a BIG model (the ship shown is about 30 feet long). If the model is no less than one quarter the size of the full scale structure it can be completely seamless. The Underworld ship was smaller than quarter scale (in fact, there was no full scale ship… only the model and some sets), and if you pay attention to the bow wake in the traveling shots you can see the scale problem, but I would argue that the problem is less noticeable, and the whole shot more realistic, than a CGI ship and/or water would have been.

I did the explosion of the Underworld ship, working closely with Gene Warren to design the sequence. It was done in one take with multiple cameras. The only digital enhancement was the composited addition of a person in the foreground of one of the angles.

Similarly, none of the traveling shots used digital effects. The helecoptor flying over the ship was an RC model flying over the ship model, and the rippling of the water from the prop wash is beautiful!

The true artists in visual effects are the ones who know when to use miniatures and when to use digital techniques… and when to combine them. It’s knowing the tools. Do you reach for a wrench or do you reach for a screw driver? If you’re trying to turn a screw with a wrench you’re gonna’ have poor results!

Unfortunately, many of todays film makers only know digital techniques. This has given way the slew of crappy looking CGI extravaganzas that we see today. It is often assumed that it will be easier, cheaper, and better looking to go completely digital, when usually only the first of those may be true (as the second unit crew members often say, “If it was easy, first unit would have done it!”).

There aren’t many people still doing miniatures these days. Gene Warren at Fantasy II, the Skotak brothers from 4Ward, and Michael Joyce with Cinema Production Services are the ones who come to mind.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with all of them, and particularly with my “friend and mentor” (there’s a story behind that phrase), Joe Viskocil, arguably the best there is at miniature explosions (I’m second best). He blew up the death star in Star Wars, the marshmallow man in Ghost Busters, the White House in Independence Day, the tank truck in Terminator, and Mount Rushmore in Team America. There are some behind-the-scenes photos from a few of these projects in the gallery section at

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