AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Discrepancy of size is a form of distortion, and all forms of distortion shock us into attention.
--Steven Millhauser, "The Fascination of the Miniature"
Now she realized that this was the world of powerful, underworld men who spent most of their time in the darkness. In their voices she could hear the voluptuous resonance of darkness, the strong, dangerous underworld, mindless, inhuman. They sounded also like strange machines, heavy, oiled. The voluptuousness was like that of machinery, cold and iron.
--D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love
I live in a city where a special show on "the miniature" (Small Wonders) was on display at the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum for two years, the leavings of a woman obsessed by dolls and dollhouses. I was born in a city where the Narcissa Niblack Thorne Miniatures and the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle are prominent items at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry, respectively. I grew up in a city within easy reach of Disneyland's "Storybook Land," which floats you past Mr. Toad's miniature house; "Mott's Miniatures" at Knott's Berry Farm; Andrew Leicester's Zanja Madre, a stylized miniature cityscape; and the impressive Carole and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures, featuring such famous exhibits as Pat and Noel Thomas's Greene and Greene Craftsman Bungalow and the Golden Train from Copenhagen a with its little cargo of rubies and emeralds. I've known from the start that the wealthy have the best miniatures (c.f. the famous Queen's Dolls' House, built by numerous craftsmen and presented to England's Queen Mary in 1924), the most lifelike miniatures, the most detailed and enormous. Detail is important. As a child, I nursed a potent fantasy that I could have an entire doll city to play with, to see at once, and to imagine that I lived in. I drew maps of it and countless pictures of its various neighborhoods, always seen from a bird's-eye view, always at twilight, when lights from the various doors and windows would spill out into the darkened streets. This town of mine would not be your average, Pollyanna doll town, with its pristine chapels and picket fences. Nor would its houses be built in that irritating two-dimensionality, missing their back wall. My houses would be models of real homes. My town would have parks and filling stations and outlying districts. It would have its neon signs and its amber streetlights, its used-car lots, and its mournful, distant harbors and factories. Perhaps I longed for these details because of my childhood of privilege and protection. Perhaps I longed for them as a teenager because of my early memories of industrial Indiana. Maybe I shared with Gudrun Brangwen, in Lawrence's Women in Love (1921), a sense that the city was voluptuous in its grittiness, and this was my way of domesticating it. In my imaginings it became gigantic, and engulfed me. If it were spread out before me, filling up an entire football stadium in all its minutia, I would crouch down in its narrow streets, bringing my eye to doll level (as I did so often with my tissue-box houses) and try to see it as "normal." Falling into the doll town was as important to me as flying over it--why, I do not exactly know. Perhaps this article will bring me closer to finding out. For in the world of commercial miniatures, I am always disappointed; but in the world of movie miniatures, my wish is granted. Watching the movies, I do not remain a crouching giant: the camera brings me down and into the horrifying and fantastical world of the set--at doll level. The movie miniature gives me a taste of shrinking, but in the safety of a virtual city. A simulated city. What it implies about not only simulation, but power, privilege, sexuality, and the urban experience, remains to be seen. I shall begin with the technology of the filmic miniature and move from there to theories about cities, miniatures, and film.
Cinema history is overflowing with films about distortions of size (Gulliver's Travels [dir. Willard Bowsky, US, 1939]; The Incredible Shrinking Man [dir. Jack Arnold, US, 1957]; The Incredible Shrinking Woman [dir. Joel Schumacher, US, 1981]; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids [dir. Joe Johnston, US, 1989]; Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman [dir. Nathan Juran, US, 1958]; Honey, I Blew Up the Kid [dir. Randal Kleiser, US, 1992]; The Borrowers [dir. Peter Hewitt, US/UK, 1997]; and so on). These are not my concern in this article. My emphasis, rather, is on the "invisible" miniature of fabulous cities. Beginning and ending with a slow pan over the elaborate and eerie miniature set of the Hollywood Hills, Tim Burton's Ed Wood (US, 1994) satirizes the eponymous moviemaker's low-budget effects: The flying saucers are aluminum plates, you can see the wires, the flames are disproportionately huge, the smoke too dense, the background too stark. The miniature itself is visibly miniature. The shot of Wood (Johnny Depp) and his assistants (as they stand next to their little Hollywood set and swing their saucers over it with fishing poles) turns them into giants. It offers little exaggeration of the original film and its grade-B special effects: in Wood's Plan Nine from Outer Space (US, 1958), the saucers wobble precariously, and in one particularly inept shot, the burning ship reveals itself to be several inches wide. It's very hard to miniaturize either fire or water. Special effects have come a long way since Edward D. Wood Jr., but despite its satire, Burton's film pays homage to the passionate need of a filmmaker to create illusion.
Illusion has become the particular market for a number of film effects companies. By means of a process called "optical compositing" (now "digital compositing"), Industrial Light and Magic, DreamQuest, Entertainment Effects Group (EEG), and any other technical company can project a moving image against a matte painting. (1) By a similar process, a film set can be composited with a miniature model of the set and/or a painting to achieve the illusion of flying up and over a cityscape meant to suggest a larger area than any life-size set could be built to cover. Forced perspective (created by making the buildings in the background smaller and lighter in color) gives a sense of distance. (2) The Schufftan process, adapted from an old theatrical trick and used by Fritz Lang, projects the images of actors into miniature sets by superimposing their reflections from an angled sheet of glass. (3) The use of miniatures in every genre of film is common-place to the point of banality. A technique called "bridal veiling" solves the problem of the overly stark, obviously close background landscape, such as miniature mountains, by interposing a series of gauzed panels for the look of atmospheric density. (4) High-speed film and small apertures overcome the depth-of-focus problem that cause so-called foreground blur in amateur photography. This telltale blur can work to good effect, though, as in the eerie shots of E.J. Gold's Bardo Town, featured in Galaxy Magazine, which I have reproduced for this article. (5) Otherwise, the viewer usually never notices that the Pacific Ocean Park, shot from above in Steven Spielberg's 1941 (US, 1979), is a miniature used to create the illusion that the giant Ferris wheel detaches and rolls away. In mainstream cinema, an overhead shot of contemporary Manhattan is economically achieved by shooting film from an actual helicopter (as in the opening to Mike Nichols's Working Girl [US, 1988]). But when the city to be flown over and descended into is an imaginary city for a futuristic or fantastic film, then the tools of illusion are more complicated and costly. In Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Germany, 1927), David Butler's Just Imagine (US, 1930), Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (US, 1982), Tim Burton's Batman (US, 1989), Burton's Edward Scissorhands (US, 1990), Alex Proyas's The Crow (US, 1994), and Proyas's Dark City (US, 1998), each of which spent thousands or millions on elaborate miniature photography, viewers are treated to an aerial vista of a city into which they descend along with the protagonists. I aim to examine the reception of that illusion in the viewer, and its implications. I will begin with a brief summary of the illusions presented in each of these films and then proceed to a critical discussion of them.
Just Imagine Metropolis
Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) treats us to amazing visual effects. With frequent dissolves to huge, menacing engines and steam towers that run his futuristic city, the film offers us various angles of an urbanscape that was inspired by Lang's visit to Manhattan: layers and layers of stacked buildings, domes, and art deco skyscrapers in diminishing shades of gray; street ramps and expressways suspended stories high; great yawning depths; tiny cars moving on the suspended ramps; biplanes wafting through the upper thoroughfares; and, if you are sharp-eyed, cryptic words on buildings: "Utamoh," "S. Gondeal," "Eranot" Dominating the center of the city is a spectacular decagonal building with five winglike projections. Called the New Tower of Babel, it was originally intended as both administrative headquarters and airport; it houses the lofty offices of John Frederson (Alfred Abel), ruler of Metropolis and father to protagonist Freder (Gustav Frohlich). (6) It was all an enormous miniature.
Lang was one of the first to put miniature photography to fantastic use in his multimillion-dollar production. A few years later, David Butler's Just Imagine (1930) borrowed heavily from Metropolis in its depiction of New York in 1980: looming, brilliantly lit gothic towers (250 stories high) disappear into the murky night sky; rows of lights stretch to infinity; the dark gridwork of a suspension bridge in the foreground is silhouetted against the glowing nighttime cityscape. Effects director Ralph Hammeras added a canal level for ocean liners and traffic cops suspended from balloons. (7) Eerily, it resembles something of contemporary New York City, at $250,000--a monumental sum in 1930. All this expense was for a mediocre musical comedy, even though the set exceeded Lang's in scope and detail. (8) Nonetheless, it was effects like these that eventually inspired the filmic miniature in Blade Runner.
Los Angeles, 2019
To the haunting strains of Vangelis's score, Ridley Scott's 1982 science fiction film opens with "Visual Futurist" Syd Mead's nightmare image of twenty-first-century Los Angeles, a vast industrial wasteland dubbed "the Hades Landscape" by the EEG crew (an elaborate miniature, eighteen feet long and thirteen feet deep): smokestacks belch ominous fireballs (shot as separate elements and inserted later); lights stretch to the dark horizon (seven miles of fiber optics); "spinners" blast out from under our gaze, heading away from us; not a single building below is recognizable as anything but weirdly …