Before the days of computer-generated graphics (fighting Transformers! scowling sabertooth tigers!), filmmakers such as George Lucas relied on tiny plastic models to lure us into a world of X-Wings, Death Stars and Millennium Falcons. Back then, it took a lot of time and a lot of imagination to trick the eye into believing that the fate of the Rebellion rested in a small piece of plastic. Still, many film buffs maintain, the old models looked more realistic than today’s expensive effects. Lucas’s team of F/X wizards took home an Oscar for Star Wars in 1977, and one of the quiet but crucial innovators among them was Grant McCune. Since then, he’s built models for over 100 films, spanning decades of sci-fi and action classics, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Speed and Spider-Man 2. McCune granted PM a rare interview from his California-based studio, where his company, Grant McCune Design, still pumps out today’s R2-D2 2.0 designs. —Seth Porges
What’s the secret to making a good model?
For motion picture miniatures and production miniatures, I’ve always told people to get a good background in photography first. The most important thing is what you see with your eye. Movies are a lot different from reality. This is because you’ve isolated the viewer’s eye to a certain spot—you can’t look anywhere else. If you’re a photographer, you get the idea of what you need to do by analyzing what it is that needs to be set and where it is and how much detail it should have. All the best people who ever worked for me were first good with the eye.
So what should amateurs do to perfect this?
Just look at photographs, sit and analyze what’s there and where it’s positioned. Miniaturization is really just fooling the eye about perspective—how far away it is really. The 1:10 scale is just 10 times closer. If you’re a hobbyist and want to become a movie modelmaker, take your models and set them up and photograph them and see if they look real. You can use real background with your model—they call them dioramas in hobby modeling. Some work as a diorama, but they don’t work as a realistic miniature. So you need to try different things and see what works.
What’s the simplest way to make your models better?
The first big thing is what we call surface excitement or surface enhancement. If you take a model of a 747, it’s pretty plain, it’s pretty homogeneous across the body. But if you look closely, there are really subtle differences in contrast, reflections, oil, grease spots, dents. We try to overdo that a bit. It’s kind of like extra makeup on a model: You try to get all those blank spaces that are just going to pass as nothing, and then a little excitement and a little enhancement. It doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be something that fools the eye. For Star Wars, for the models of spaceships we used to make, all the stuff on them was model kit parts from tank and bridge models. We just put them in places they were needed. And the marks don’t have to have rhyme or reason—the Millennium Falcon probably had 15 pounds of model parts off plastic trees taken from tank and bridge kits. You just clip out the stuff and glue it on and then paint it. We painted the Millennium Falcon all gray—it makes the lighting right. There’s a certain three-dimensionality about it.
What’s the perfect scale for making a model look real?
If it’s kinetic and in motion, it has to be pretty big—minimum 1:4 scale. If it has to blow up or fall in water, then you need to go bigger, because water and fire don’t miniaturize well. Almost everything else does, but water has this peculiar property. Water drops are white when you see a bunch of them, but up close they’re clear. It’s because of surface tension.
And scale also depends on how big a space you have to photograph in. I’ve used car models that were down to 1:24 or 1:32, but they were just background stuff. And then, in the movie Daylight, we built all these 1:4 scale models that had to actually look like they were moving. When you get too small, it gets pretty tedious.