It was part of the school’s Model Making course.
Recently, I happened upon a few tweets showcasing a miniature that had been crafted for series 2 of the Sky TV British police comedy-drama television series Code 404. It was of a futuristic prison, dressed on a table-top against greenscreen.
What intrigued me is that this miniature was not made by one of the few remaining model shops, but instead by a group of students at the National Film and Television School as part of their Model Making course.
I wanted to learn more, so I contacted the Head of Model Making at NFTS, John Lee, who himself has a rich history in model making, miniatures and visual effects. Lee shared details of the Code 404 work, how the course works, and some other fun miniatures creation–including replicating Moon and The Shining scenes–done there.
b&a: John, what’s your own history in model making, miniatures and effects?
John Lee: I have always been fascinated by visual effects from an early age. Brought up on a diet of 60’s TV series such as Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Land of The Giants, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, as well as the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen, so became obsessed by special effects and stop frame animation. During the 70’s, my education was primarily focused on art and design, however, working in TV and film was my real goal.
Myself, and a lifelong friend Steven Woodcock, who shared the same dreams and aspirations decided to do something about it, by creating our own showreel and portfolio of model effects which we designed, directed, and shot on 16mm film. We hired a local industrial film studio and used this as our base between college semesters. We’d typically spend months designing and building, usually with a futuristic aesthetic, heavily influenced by SFX maestros Derek Meddings and Brian Johnson.
We tracked down TV director Alan Perry (dir: UFO, Joe 90, Captain Scarlet) whom we met regularly during a period of around eighteen months. Alan kindly made an introduction to Cosgrove Hall films in Manchester, who happened to be looking for model makers on their TV film Wind in the Willows. We took along our show reel and portfolio, and landed a job! Willows was a stop frame animated film, with state of the art models and puppets, so it was a great place to experience how things were done professionally, which to be honest was not any different from what Steven and myself were already doing in our studio. I’ll be forever grateful to Alan for his encouragement and making the initial contacts, as this got me/us a stepping stone into the industry in which I’ve worked ever since.
After Cosgrove Hall, we worked for Gerry Anderson on Terrahawks which was a dream come true. We were in a small model workshop led by the late Nick Finlayson, making a variety of models, with a fair bit of design influence where we could. It was my first introduction to the fast paced episodic TV show where you’d typically only a few days to make everything for the next upcoming episode.
It taught me how to work even faster whilst learning new techniques from some of the senior model makers on the team. Since then, I’ve worked and kept in touch with pretty much all the Terrahawks model effects crew including Gary Tomkins, Steven Begg, Mark Harris, Kaye Moss, and Terry Adlam, and Steven of course. Sadly our HOD Nick Finlayson, and senior modeller Peter Bohanna are both no longer with us.
After Terrahawks, Steven moved back to his hometown to begin a writing career, and I moved into London, working at Clearwater Films, then model makers PPL, before moving onto feature film work, such as Aliens, before setting up my own model making company. During this time, I co-created, designed and produced, a preschool TV series Potamus Park for one of the UK broadcasters. In total we made 75 episodes over a three year period, finishing around 2000, where I moved back onto features, working on the miniature effects on projects such as Thunderbirds, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Alien Vs Predator, two Harry Potters, Fantastic Mr Fox up to more recent projects The Martian, Rogue One – A Star Wars Story, Ep 8: The Last Jedi, and Solo: A Star Wars Story.
b&a: For someone who doesn’t know how the NFTS model maker’s course works, can you explain the way students participate?
John Lee: To give your question some context, during the last 20 years, I’d gradually started doing some visiting tutoring at a few Universities in between film work, which I had really enjoyed. Working with students at the beginning of their careers is something which still resonates with me. I wish I’d had access to this kind of knowledge, encouragement, and support at the start of my career. In 2009 I was introduced to The National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, West of London, where I began working with students from the Masters; Digital Effects, Animation directing and Production Design courses. Along with Fiction films, Games, TV Entertainment, Documentary, and Natural History, the School makes some pretty incredible Animated short films every year, so I found myself helping and advising the designers and directors to visualise their projects in a real 3d studio space. Something I’d done instinctively, having worked on three stop frame animated features.
Much later, during a two year period, with support from the School’s new Director; Jon Wardle, I wrote and developed the one year model making course, set up the workshop, and am now Head of Department. The course sits very nicely within the NFTS curriculum, and offers an intense one year of study, focussing on practicalities of model making, collaboration, and helping student’s transition into industry.
We’re also the only model making course I know which is situated in a working film Studio; Beaconsfield Studios. We collaborate on various projects with other courses at The NFTS including the Masters Visual Effects course led by Ian Murphy, Directing animation led by Robert Bradbrook, and Production Design, led by Caroline Amies. The first half of the year includes the workshop inductions, individual and collaborating modules, before concentrating on the Schools Grad Animation films towards the end of the course. The Film School is unlike anywhere I have ever worked. It’s as ‘real world’ as it gets, offering incredible opportunities for its students.
Some previous NFTS alumni include: Nick Park, Roger Deakins, Lynne Ramsay, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Segun Akinola, and David Yates.
b&a: How did the Code 404 project come to you and NFTS, originally? How did you and the students approach the design and build of the miniature prison? What materials were employed in the build, and what particular techniques were used to help ‘sell’ the model shots?
John Lee: I received a call from production designer Julian Nagel, whom I’d worked with on a futuristic Channel 4 sitcom pilot a few years ago, and he was looking to develop a miniature sequence for Series 2 of Sky TV’s Code 404 with director Al Campbell, who is a big futurist fan. At the time, we were slowly coming out of lockdown so I thought we’d be able to tackle this on the course. After discussions with Julian and Al, we agreed it was not possible to design and build a totally bespoke miniature, so came up with a quick, cost effective solution to use a series of found objects and enhance them with handmade details etc. Julian supplied some references of brutalist architecture, and details he liked, and I did a couple of simple sketches, which started the ball rolling.
I brought the job into the model making department at the School, scheduled the work with four graduates who had finished the course a few months earlier, and the new intake of students who started in Sept 2020. I did a lot of the very fine detail myself to help the scale, which was quite small using the kit parts, castings, and wire work, which I had in stock. The major practical lighting was handled by expert Gary Welch, who wired small items remotely, whilst my students added some additional micro LEDs, adding another layer of scale. We built the Plissken miniature prison, surrounding landscape and shot it with a motion control camera from our friends Mark Roberts Motion Control. The model elements, prison, landscape, foreground prison wall, background cut outs were shot as separate elements, as they were built at differing scales. The post production work was carried out by Andrew Booth and his team at Blind Ltd, whom I knew from the last few Star Wars films. They took the work to the next level, by adding more atmos, set extensions, and composited graphics onto the building.
b&a: How did you also incorporate other elements in there, such as panels for projections etc? And how was the model ultimately filmed? Who handled the final VFX work?
John Lee: Blind Ltd handled the post work as I mentioned above. The screens on the model were fitted with greenscreen, so that graphics could be added in post. The lighting was controlled on dimmers, so we shot various passes which Blind could comp together. We added practical smoke atmos, to give it another level of realism without having to add it all in post. The more you can do on set in front of the camera the better, otherwise you are adding more complexity to your post schedule, and ultimately the final bill. This wasn’t a feature film, so our budget and timeframe reflected that.
I was keen to get involved because both Al and Julian wanted to try to elevate the series a notch by enhancing their locations. Often you can produce some really nice work when you have less time, as it forces you to go with your instincts, rather than over-think everything. Of course, it depends on the show and the key team who are directing and designing. You have to trust your collaborators, so if everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet the better. We worked efficiently to shoot different passes and angles on the Milo Moco rig, in a tiny studio in London under strict Covid shooting rules.
b&a: There’s been some other great model making projects done via NFTS – can you elaborate in particular on the Moon and The Shining model builds?
John Lee: Over the last few years on the course, my students have made miniature representations from some pretty iconic productions. We have made quite a few 1:6 scale sets from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which are pretty accurate considering there is little information out there about exact sizes. I help my students to re-create them in miniature, using industry standard techniques and expertise I’ve picked up over the years. All the sets have floating walls, so that when we are on the shooting stage we can put the camera anywhere, as if they were animated sets. They also include practical on set lighting to add another level of realism to the shots.
Earlier in 2020, we made a realistic section of the Sarang base in 1:8 scale from Duncan Jones’ Moon, which was a film I’d also worked on back in 2008/9, working with model supervisor Bill Pearson. Duncan very kindly did a zoom masterclass and Q&A with my students talking about his career and his BAFTA winning film. During the construction of the miniature, designer Gavin Rothery (dir: Archive) popped in and spent the day with us in the workshop, reliving some of his memorable moments on the film.
We include a very high level of detail, not usually seen on a model making course project. All these sets have incorporate practical lighting and careful attention to surface and paint finishing to create a fully realistic shot. We’ve just recently finished our set build from another Kubrick classic; 2001: A Space Odyssey, which includes some fabulous visual effects done by Ian Murphy’s VFX department at the School.
b&a: What’s your perspective on the state of play of models and miniatures in film/tv etc right now, and the balance between practical and digital effects filmmaking?
John Lee: There certainly appears to be a resurgence towards practical effects, such as the latest Foundation TV series with miniature work by Ian Hunter and Odyssey Studios. To be honest, everyone has been saying practical model making is dead in the water since the early 90’s. It’s true that a lot of the work has gone digital, however, I’m a firm believer in trying to create as much of the work as possible in camera by a photographic unit. It means you have to be organised and know the shots you are trying to create. Also, if you do your best work, collaborate well, and keep an open mind by combining techniques, both practical and VFX then you get the best results. Often, it’s surprising that so many directors simply don’t know about alternate ways of creating visual effects, which can be simpler and quicker. Unfortunately, it’s always about the budget, so occasionally, it’s not always necessary to go completely CGI from the outset.
I’ve been fortunate to work on three animated feature films: Fantastic Mr Fox, Frankenweenie, and Isle of Dogs, which all rely on practical model making at the highest level, and I’m comfortable working across live action prop making, miniature effects and model animation, which along with heading up the new NFTS Model Making course has kept me pretty busy for nearly 40 years.