Fon Davis: A Mini-Class in Movie Miniatures

The Robotics Track at Dragon Con welcomed Fon Davis to the Sheraton Sunday afternoon to discuss an often forgotten element of the Star Wars prequel films production: miniatures. The series is famous for its technological innovations, including the development of digital cameras. While it is true that films represent a giant leap forward technologically, it is also the case that the visual effects team created more miniatures for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace than the entire original trilogy of films. Davis, who moved to Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) from Colossal films, had the opportunity to be a part of the team at ILM that transformed the way movies are made.

Davis spent a lot of time discussing the way digital film changed his department and its work. In the days of film, including The Phantom Menace, miniature builders could get away with a lot. Film required huge amounts of light and the cameras often missed minor discrepancies on the models. Digital did just the opposite. Given the depth of detail digital cameras captured, the camera actually required less light. Davis and his team felt a great deal of pressure to make sure their work could stand up on stage. His team had the job of modeling Padme’s apartment in Attack of the Clones. When the model went to the stage and the shots completed, they went and reviewed the take. What they discovered was that the camera, because of its advanced technology, identified spots in the image where it missed a color and inserted a pixel. As a result the model in the shot actually looked better than it did in real life.

He also discussed one of his favorite model effects: explosions. He told the story of his first time on stage for a model detonation. The pyrotechnics supervisor told him there would be three explosions in the front of a vessel that would include fireballs and debris fields. When the explosion occurred, all he heard was a “pop” and all he saw was a whiff of smoke. To capture the shot, the camera operators slowed down the speed of the camera to make the explosion bigger. It worked! On film the explosion looked exactly as it had been described.

The name Davis kept bringing up during his presentation was Doug Chiang, Production Designer on the prequels and now Vice President and Executive Creative Director at Lucasfilm. Chiang is one of the legends of ILM, bringing his remarkable talents as an artist to the entire production process. Davis recounted that Chiang visited their facility every morning on his way to Skywalker Ranch. Those visits usually occurred at 5:00 am, before any of the staff had arrived. Chiang used “Post It” notes to leave his comments on what he saw. Davis joked that he would arrive at work to find his models covered in notes with changes Chiang wanted to see.

Davis owns his own production company (Fonco Studios), and as a result stays on top of the latest changes in his industry. 3D scanners are important production tools that allow all of a production’s divisions (modeling, computer graphics, etc.) to synchronize their work, be synchronized, and 3D printers point toward future transformation as the technology is moving toward eliminating the need for extensive 3D printed model clean up.

The hour raced by as both Star Wars fans as well as those interested in modeling, film, and special effects were captivated by Davis’s stories about his experiences and expertise. It was both an informative and fascinating hour!

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