Building A Battleground

Model Making on "Battlefield Earth"
A personal diary by E. James Small

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In The Beginning...

It all began with a phone call. My friend Chris Trice, who is a special effects model maker by profession, called me up one day toward the end of April 1999 and asked if I would like to help build models for a film he was working on in Montreal, Canada, called Battlefield Earth. Chris normally resides and works in England, but got the job as a motion control specialist on the film with Bill Pearson who was the miniatures and special props co-ordinator. Naturally I said "yes" to the offer, kissed my wife and kids good-bye and headed for Montreal.

When I arrived, after a brief tour of the facility which was an unused military warehouse on the east end of Montreal, I met Chris, Bill, Ronny Gosselin (the model shop supervisor) and other members of the crew and I was immediately put to work. The model crew was roughly divided into two groups. One group was responsible for fabricating the large number of "destroyed" and aging miniature skyscrapers seen throughout the film representing the thousand-year-old city of Denver. Another group was charged with building generally everything else. I was assigned primarily to the second group.

The Work Starts

Bill gave me the first job, which was to aid in the construction of a section of the "dome" that covers the city of Denver in the film. This prototype piece was a test to see if building the dome in miniature in scale with the 64th scale miniature city was a feasible alternative to matte paintings or computer graphics. We had a four-by-eight piece of Lexan to which sections of EMA pipes and girders were attached. Sections were also detailed with "wiggets" (as Bill calls detail bits and bobs taken from whatever) from old dismantled computers. The idea of using a miniature for the dome was eventually abandoned, as it was discovered too impractical to build the model big enough to cover the city. The dome would be later realized within the computer in Post Production.

The primary Psychlo aircraft, the "Mark-II" as it was called, was also in the preliminary stages of construction by Chris Trice, Dave Loveday and Alain Dufresne. Chris thought I could get my feet wet in the project by fabricating some parts of the very complex miniatures. Two models of the ship were eventually built. One was about two and a half feet long at 24th scale, and a larger five foot model was built, with full motion control functions built in, at 12th scale. There were, at any given time, about four to seven people building the two models of the Mark-II working twelve-hour days and some weekends. It took about three months to complete the two ships. No one single person was responsible for the ships as the Mark-II project was a full team effort, with many people building various sections to complete the models.

In between working on the Mark-II, I was also given odd jobs building other items. Early in my stint on the film, I was given the job of building some of the "air-exchangers" that were to be seen populating the interior of the dome. A drawing was provided along with an approximate size of the unit, and Bill Pearson designed the model from a salad bowl and modified banana stands bought from a dollar-store, and more bits from cannibalized computers! These unlikely trinkets were attached to sections scratch built from sheet ABS plastic and vacuformed parts. After Bill had designed and built the first one, I basically copied his and made about seven more of them. After they were built in their basic form, they were put aside, unpainted, until it was determined they were needed. Later, only two of these pieces would be used. One would be detailed and painted with grey primer for use as an aid to the computer modelers, and another was modified with extra detailing and large protrusions that would make the model look bigger for a shot used in the miniature city.

The Plot Thickens

Many projects were built in stages. Sometimes a model would get half built, and something else would quickly take priority. Although the modelshop crew does it's best to accommodate the shooting crew, there are always changes to the scheduling that turns a few things upside down! Often, Erik Henry, the FX Director or Rick Fichter, the Director of Photography (DP) of the miniatures unit may make a snap decision on the spot that something is necessary to "fill a blank space" or something deemed artistic which deviates from the pre-planned sequence. Then we'd have to scramble to build a model that is needed for shooting almost immediately. When this happens, you go into overdrive and scramble to get something built, sometimes in only hours or minutes! This really sharpens your brain, racks your nerves, hones your skills and teaches you to take massive shortcuts! When pressed into this kind of work, one of two things happens: You either produce as required, thereby surprising yourself as to how you managed to actually do it, or, you completely fail and someone else helps to cover for you! Either way, sometimes you just have to produce SOMETHING for them to shoot. Many times the models are finished right on the set and cameras roll when the paint is still wet! These kind of rushes can get pretty hairy, but it's an exhilarating experience that makes you feel proud when you actually accomplish the goal!

The Mark Of An Interesting Model

As time went on, I got to work on more of the Mark-II. I primarily worked on the 24th scale model, but occasionally built some parts for the big one. I built the paneled area just above the cage on the small model, and I also built the retractable winglets on the base of the tail on both models and the top of the tail root on the big one. I also built part of the aluminum armature on the big model that held the various sections together and allowed it to be mounted to the motion control rig. I helped Chris install the lighting systems for the engines on both models, as well as other small details peppered all over the ships. The Mark-II was the only main model that had to be accurately built from detailed plans, as it had to match the full sized mockup.

The complex cockpit section was completely made from faceted pieces of ABS plastic. We were given many hand-drawn blueprints along with many computer generated sections of every part. Working carefully with the art department, the cockpit was constructed by placing dozens of bulkheads made by cutting out plastic sheet (according to patterns produced by Computer Aided Design drawings) and glueing them onto a central profile pattern. Then, dozens of the faceted shapes were cut out (again with the aid of CAD patterns), fitted, and glued to these bulkheads. A tedious process to be sure. I don't know of any other model with this kind of complex surface that was ever done this way before. Although some of the surfaces look flat, they are actually made up of many individual sections. After the faceted surfaces were done, many of the bulkheads were broken out, creating a hollow interior. Although I built most of the nosecone of the small model, I got called away on another project (more jumping around) so the rest of the cockpit, primarily the bottom section, was built by Dave Loveday.

Most of the miniature models representing Psychlo technology were painted "Psychlo Blue", a name we dubbed to describe the specific colour of paint we used on the models. Psychlo Blue was actually a lacquer-based metallic blue spray paint we bought "en masse" from Canadian Tire (a huge hardware store chain prevalent throughout Canada) that most closely matched the colour chosen by the art department.

Miniature Settings Abound

Chris Trice had roughed out a big mining tower model, and this miniature was designed only for one shot. It was also worked on by other members of the model crew, and was completed by adding operating trolleys that moved back and forth, and the model was painted by Chris and also by Celine Turcotte, who showed tremendous talent for weathering. In fact she did the weathering on a lot of the models. However, a background and landscape had to be built, and a few of us were commissioned to build a set of cylindrical structures resembling a refinery. We cobbled these structures together from EMA cylinders and domed shapes, dressing them with whatever we could find. "Fridge magnets" of various configurations were primarily used, and they were mounted on the plastic backs of some old TV sets, old Commodore 64 floppy drive cases (remember those things?) and such that were kicking around in the parts boxes. These bases were also dressed with "wiggets" and other bits of detail. We used just about anything we could get our hands on to build these things! Most of it (well, all of it actually) was made up as we went along. The crude models were painted "Psychlo Blue" and weathered, dressed with fiber optics and placed behind the mining tower. I also built two Psychlo "office buildings" which I designed, built, painted and weathered. They were placed on the set and dressed to camera. Chris sculpted a landscape to be placed in front of the set, which he and Patrice Jacques dressed it to camera, and the model was filmed in a smoke-filled room to give depth to the scene. The whole setup took hundreds of man-hours to construct, and the shot lasts about five seconds on screen!

Another fun job we had to do was make some smashed up and rotted away thousand-year-old cars for a shot where some of the Harrier jets are hiding in a dilapidated car-park. Now, we all know that after a thousand years a car would be nothing but dust, but artistic license abounded on the film! Ronny bought more than a dozen 16th scale metal car models which we destroyed! Although these car models are expensive (ranging in price from forty to sixty Canadian dollars), using these treasures were a lot cheaper than building the models from scratch! So, under the guidance of Chris Trice, we disassembled them and used Dremel tools, grinders, files, solvents, dirt and paint to make these cars look like they'd been sitting there for a thousand years. As it turns out though, these cars were barely visible in the finished shot.

Ronny Gosselin came to me with another one of those "real fast" jobs for a scene. I was given two hours to build a Psychlo airlock doorway and a sketch of what it was to look like and told I had to have it ready to shoot in two hours! It was to be "about this big" and had to be finished and painted, ready to shoot. The first thing I did was quickly prioritize my time. I figured it would take me ten minutes to weather, five minutes to paint. It was to take three quarters of an hour to "frame up", and the rest of the time to detail. So working on this basis, I kept to this schedule. I timed myself. Since I absolutely HAD to have this thing ready on time, I knew that if I fell behind on one aspect of my schedule, I'd skip it and move to the next step. It worked. This kind of forced scheduling caused me to work to the limit, and the model was actually done with ten minutes to spare, time enough to take photographs of this prop before it went on set. The model was delivered to the set, where it was positioned on the top of a miniature building roof and dressed to suit the rest of the scene. The model was filmed shortly after.

Prop Yourself Up

Due to a sudden rescheduling Bill Pearson delegated some of the construction of the Psychlo Blaster handgun props that the actors would use, and I was thrilled that he chose me for the job. Since these would be major devices in the film, they had to look fabulous on screen, and look fabulous they did! Bill had designed the guns from a prototype that he had done a while ago, and some of them needed to actually function!

Bill designed the practical mechanism which incorporated a blank-firing pistol hidden within the prop, so when the trigger was pulled, it would actually fire with smoke and flame, and the alien firearm would look like it really worked. The models that fired had to be built to withstand the pounding they were likely to take during filming, but the budget and time was limited. We couldn't afford die cast parts, for instance, so all the structural parts of the gun were fabricated from heavy-gauge aluminum sheet around the pistol, glued together with "Adlock", a special acrylic adhesive similar to epoxy, and decorated with bits that Bill found to make the gun look interesting. I was charged with preparing some of the aluminum assemblies that would be finished by Bill. He would then take the parts I had made and assemble them around the functioning pistols.

Not all of the guns were functional. Bill had me build some dummy guns using the same techniques used to make the practical ones, but instead of a functioning pistol, I made a wooden mockup with which to assemble the aluminum parts around. I built all these dummy guns. Later, it was decided that more dummies and some rubber stunt guns would be needed, so Bill had me make a master model of the prop from sheet plastic and MDF which would be used as a pattern from which a silicone mold would be made. Almost all our model molds were made by Patrice Jacques, who also made most of the resin and stunt rubber castings that resulted from the molds. These patterns were made in two stages to match the two configurations of the gun. There was an "unfolded" version, which the Psychlos would wear on their uniforms, and a "ready to fire" diamond-shaped version, most prevalent in the film. I built the pattern in the "unfolded" version first, and then after the mold was pulled from that, I reconfigured the pattern into the firing version, and aother mold was made from that. From these molds, the rest of the dummy guns were made, both in hard resin and some in rubber. .

The battle sequence toward the end of the film called for some Psychlo grenades to be used. Bill Pearson had built a small prototype of the grenade, but it was considered too small for the Psychlo's oversized hands. Bill had me build a larger version. I had to make an "action" model which was to be used in closeup showing the "pin" being pulled and the grenade transforming itself to the "armed' position, and I also had to produce dummies that would be shown attached to the Psychlo uniforms and ones that had to be thrown in the action of battle.
I began by drawing a rough plan of the grenade at a larger scale, dictated by Bill. From that I scratch built the grenade parts from plastic. When these parts were done, I made a mold of them so the non-functional dummies could be fabricated. Using Bill Pearson's design as a guide, I took the master parts, cut them up and installed some springs and slider mechanisms to make the model actually work. The idea was, when the pin was pulled, half of the grenade would slide up and the bottom piece would slide sideways, giving the impression through verisimilitude, that the grenade was "armed". The prop worked fine after some tweaking and was painted, ready for filming.

Unfortunately, the grenade never made it to the screen.

Model-Making Mania

One of the most fun things I made that had to be done in a hurry was a most unlikely subject. Chris came up to me and said something like "We need a garden spade made in 12th scale ready to shoot in half an hour".

I said,"Pardon?"

"A garden spade", said Chris. "You know, a shovel. 12th scale. It'll go into the cage of the Mark-II for a shot where the ship flies off to mine the gold. It'll go right in front of the camera, so make it look good."

Sounds easy right? Well, with no time to waste, I got busy. The job wasn't too difficult, but when you've got only half an hour to design, build, paint and weather a model even as simple as this, you find yourself running out of time real fast! Plus, since this is a recognizable subject, it's GOT to look right, since you can't just make up and cobble something together like you can if you're building an alien type gizmo that nobody's seen before. Anyway, half an hour later I had the three-inch garden spade ready. It was placed into the cage of the ship and filmed. I didn't get a chance to take pictures of this one!

Two thirds of a year later, when I saw the film, I made a deliberate attempt to spot the little garden spade on screen. I didn't see it at all.

Psychlo Sportsters

Bill Pearson was building a new Psychlo land-vehicle to be used in the battle scenes. This model, which was referred to as a tank or truck, I later dubbed the Psychlo SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle!). It turned out to be one of my favourites. He made it by heavily modifying a casting of the cockpit section of the small Mark-II and added struts, axles and wheels in and oddly shaped triangular pattern. He had me make the wheel coamings and the replaceable pods on the sides. I made two sets of side pods, one set similar to the cages seen on the Mark-II, and another set used as troop carriers. The troop carriers had guns on them which Bill made. The model was painted by Bill, and weathered by Celine Turcotte and Chris Trice. In my opinion, it was one of the most interesting looking sci-fi land vehicles ever made!

The vehicle was mounted to a table equipped with a worm gear to move it along and shot on the stage in a smoky environment for atmospheric depth, but was seen in the film for only a few quick cuts. Not nearly enough screen time was spent on it as far as I was concerned.

The last model I got to work on was the Psychlo Recon Drone. This was a device the Psychlos use to keep an eye on their human slaves while they mine gold. I was given one side profile sketch and  a very crude rear and front view of the drone. From this, I made a top and bottom set of  foam plugs which would allow the main body of the vehicle to be vacuum formed from styrene sheet. Figuring that the model would be filmed on a motion control stand, I made three mounting points, one on the bottom and one on each side. The domed "ears" on the side were made removable, exposing the mounting holes, as was a tiny plug under the tail. The model was detailed with some more "wiggets" and a tiny moveable "camera" was built for the model by Luc Doyon. Roger Bourgouin built the tail and finished the model, as my period of time working on the film was over before I could complete it. By this time, about four months after I had started, I was quite homesick and was glad to return home to my family. Bill Pearson and Chris Trice had left just before my own time was up. The Recon Drone model was barely seen in the final film.

"That's A Wrap!"

Overall, my experience working on Battlefield Earth was a thrill and a very important step in my model building career. I learned a lot doing this job, and it was a tremendous opportunity to work for some of the best model makers in the world. I give profound thanks to Chris Trice for recommending me for the film, and a very special thanks to Bill Pearson. It was an honour to work for such a legend in the world of model making for film, and I am very grateful to the tips and tricks these two fine gentlemen taught me while I served under their tutelage. I hope that some day I get a chance to work with them again.

All photographs and text copyright 1999/2000  by E. James Small except where noted. No images linked from, text contained, or any other content from the document on this page may be reproduced in any way or posted elsewhere without permission from the copyright holder.

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