At The Movies

The Best Movie Models

There are many techniques to bring the world of movie making to life, yet miniature models have provided some of the best ways to do so. Take a look at our picks of the best.

MARCH 24th, 2021

© Warner Bros.


ovie magic comes in many forms and once such form has been used for centuries - models and miniatures. From the fantastical realms of J.R.R. Toklein’s Middle Earth, the devastating sinking of a legendary ship and a thrilling car chase - the use of miniatures have brought some of Hollywood’s greatest scenes to life in a way that CGI still fails to do. We’ve rounded up the top 10 movie models which have stood the test of time.

Minas Tirith - The Lord of the Rings

© New Line Cinema

The Lord of the Rings is arguably one of Hollywood’s most beloved franchises, and with their spectacular setpieces the movie is certainly a feast for the eyes. Yet, whilst some may think the epic locations were solely CGI, in fact Weta Workshop constructed many of the forts, castles and towering buildings as models (or bigatures as they were nicknamed).

The model of Minas Tirith featured in 2003’s The Return of the King was one of the franchise’s most revered models. Standing at a height of 14 feet and 30 feet wide, the model included over 1000 houses across its construction. Due to the model being the backdrop for one the movie’s biggest battles, director Peter Jackson asked that the model be as forensically detailed as possible, so that no errors would show up on camera.

The result has ensured that Minas Tirith was perfectly reconstructed as if from the pages of J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic book itself.

Titanic - Titanic

© Paramount Pictures

It is one of the biggest movies ever made and redefined the epic blockbuster, yet Titanic was also one of the first films to also push the boundaries of CGI and model making to new heights. Wanting to make the audience feel as if Titanic was sailing once again, director James Cameron asked his team to build a 45 footlong replica of the legendary ship.

© Paramount Pictures

Furthermore, the team also built a ⅛ scale replica of the ship’s stern towering out of the water to simulate Titanic splitting in two. The sprawling miniatures enabled Cameron to forgo green-screen shots and instead provide an authenticity to the movie, which still stands today.

Hogwarts Castle - Harry Potter Series

© Warner Bros.

Harry Potter is the world’s biggest franchise. Eight movies have brought the world of the boy wizard to life from the pages of J.K. Rowling’s celebrated books, yet one backdrop which has remained throughout all the movies is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Regarded as the “Jewel of the art department’, the 1:24 scale model of the iconic castle is arguably one of the most detailed models ever created. A team of 86 artists built the first Hogwarts castle for The Philosopher’s Stone and have added and changed elements of the castle throughout the years.

The model features over 300 fibre optic lights to simulate lanterns and torches to give the illusion that students are walking through the corridors, and the surrounding grounds were constructed from real gravel for the boulders and plants for the trees!

Mountaintop Hospital - Inception

© Warner Bros.

Inception is one of Christopher Nolan’s most beloved movies and for the climactic explosion towards the end of the film, the filmmaker brought in New Deal Studios to build a giant ⅙ scale model of the hospital and surrounding mountains.

The model stood a whopping 40 feet and was then blown up. However, that was just a “simple” rehearsal. The Studio rebuilt the model once again and detonated the explosion a second time. Captured at 72 frames per second in a 5.5 second-long detonation sequence, the model looks impressively lifelike, with many unable to tell if the set is a model at all.

The Mine Chase - Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

© Amblin

Indiana Jones has some of movies greatest action sequences and yet the mine train chase from Temple of Doom is perhaps the most recognised. Thrilling, exciting and epic, the sequence was mostly a miniature with action-figure-size models in 10-inch-long cars.

Similar to most models, Steven Spielberg asked for the model to be as detailed as possible to give the illusion that the set was real. To add to this illusion, the camera speed was slowed down to match the smaller scale.

The final result may have aged compared to modern-day CGI, yet the thrill of sequence still remains.

Nostromo - Alien

© 20th Century Fox

Ridley Scott’s iconic Alien movie redefined the sci-fi genre. Regarded as the antichrist to Star Wars, the movie also introduced audiences to one of popular culture’s greatest spaceships - The Nostromo. 11-foot in length, the Nostromo was mainly constructed from wood panelling built on a metal frame and completed by a team of 11 model makers.

The model was recently sold at auction for $300,000 after being fully restored by effects house Grant McCune Design.

Death Star - Star Wars

© Lucasfilm

It is the most recognisable weapon throughout the galaxy and its simple grey sphere image is emblazoned on all Star Wars’ fans minds. The Death Star model was created by John Stears who only completed the front side of the 137-centimeter sphere. To assist with the illusion, Industrial Light & Magic model makers used a mixture of complete and sectional models as well as matter paintings too.

The original model was lost though eventually was rediscovered in Missouri and is currently being refurbished for public display.

White House Explosion - Independence Day

© Warner Bros.

Exploding the White House was a big ask, and yet for Roland Emmerich’s epic Independence Day, he managed to pull off such an impossible task. Though thankfully the real White House was unharmed due to an impressive model standing in for the scene.

Using a 1/12-scale miniature of the iconic ‘People’s house’, the scene usually gets all the glory, yet equally the on-screen carnage of the destruction of New York City is just as jaw dropping.

Tsunami Resort - The Impossible

© Summit Entertainment

There are many disaster movies which have used the ocean as a force to be reckoned with, and whilst most are purely virtual effects of tidal waves, 2012’s The Impossible accurately and frighteningly simulated the devastating impact of the 2004 tsunami.

Magicon GmbH were hired to create a handful of ⅓ scale bungalows, a swimming pool and surrounding trees. Complete with sun loungers and towels, the filmmakers then cascaded a million litres of water onto their creations resulting in a 1.5 metre high wave. CGI was then used to add umbrellas and additional trees, yet the physical model reaped the benefits for authenticity with many critics praising the accuracy of the sequence.

Batmobile and underground pass - The Dark Knight

© Warner Bros.

There are some movie moments that seem so real that it becomes a shock when you discover some version of special effects were used. The Dark Knight is no different. Christopher Nolan is famously averse to all-digital VFX and tries to create as much “reality” in his movies as possible.

In the underground chase scene in 2008’s The Dark Knight, between a garbage truck and Batman’s Batmobile (or Tumblars), many audience members were tricked into believing the stunts were performed by life sized vehicles on location. They weren’t. The truck, car and entire tunnel were all models, built by New Deal Studios.

The final result was a stunning example of how movie magic can work and be effective in bringing the unbelievable to audiences in an authentic way.

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