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Sunday
Aug212011

Inside the Moon Model Shop

During the making of Moon there was a place that I'm sure many people would have loved to visit and so I thought I'd try and give you more of an idea of what it was like there. The place is Bill Pearsons' model shop on the Shepperton Studios lot and depending on your viewpoint it is either a cramped, cold, messy shed that stinks of solvents or a magical cave of tiny science-fiction wonder. 

The photo above is the prototype Moon space-helmet built at one-sixth scale and made here to fit an action-man. We also used this as a prop on the motorized action-man torso that drove the sixth-scale rover but you never really see it in the film. The plastic shapes behind it are early pieces of the helmet fresh out the vac-forming machine. The greenish piece in the background is the front-chest part where the little light was mounted. This was actually one of those lamps that mounts on ones' forehead that makes one look rather foolish. We pressed loads of everyday practical lights into service on Moon as we couldn't afford anything bespoke. The rover miniature headlights were little Maglite torches and the light inside Sams' helmet was a bike light. When the other clone finds him in the crashed rover and his helmet light is flashing it looks like an emergency light but is actually just a setting on the cycle-lamp. You know the ones that flash and are intended to stop cyclists getting their fragile bones smashed to bits by stupid drivers in low light. Those ones.

There were lots of other normal lights all over the place, including our round Ikea eight-quid lights from the lounge. The lamps on the front of Gerty were little florescent tubes that were only six inches long. 

Duncan had one of these on his desk for years because it looked really cute and it actually got used for all sort of things we filmed over the years. At one point I was working on a little commercial for a friend of ours, Aaron Stewart-Ahn. I was dressed like a futuristic ghost-in-the-shell-on-zero-money-in-a-basement type scientist with these big goggles on. The light was inside the goggles making a slit on the front of them glow, and giving the appearance of me being very much from the future. Those lights get around. As we were dressing the set with stuff from home we grabbed it one morning on out way down to Shepperton as we were nearing the end of the model build and just trying to get things looking good for free wherever we could. It ended up just sitting in the production offices for a few days. When we were doing the reccee for the pre-light (walking around the set discussing how and where we were going to install all the lighting), Gary Shaw suggested gluing the light to the front of Gerty to make him stand out a bit. It totally worked so we managed to find another and that’s why Gerty's got those lights on him. You'll notice they weren't in my CG design renders, nor in any pics of the model build. I think it's really important when you're doing things like this to be completely honest with yourself and take good ideas wherever you find them. In my role as designer I could have got all stroppy that somebody was trying to "interfere" with my design, but the Cheesy Loaf was right and I knew it. The lights made it look better on film. Nice job Reverend.

I know this pic isn't in the model shop but it does have one of the models in it and I wanted to introduce you to a few of the faces behind the models. I talk about Bill quite a bit as he was a key figure in the making of Moon and so here he is in all this Glaswegian glory leaning on the edge of our lunar surface miniature set. Bill is a very gregarious and charismatic man and is full of excellent stories about his life and times working on small, forgettable productions such as Alien. Bill's also a DJ and at the time where we were wrapping on Moon he was contemplating shutting up shop and returning to Scotland to his previous career in radio, as nobody wanted models anymore. I remember telling him that we were going to do our best to bring them back and make them cool again as I knew that miniatures that had been fed through a contemporary VFX pipeline could look really good relatively cheaply. He's a busy chap right now.

I think that Bill was pretty cynical when he first met us as we were just a bunch of guys that nobody had ever heard of with zero money trying to do a space film here in Britain and to be honest it's not unreasonable at all of him to expect our ambitions little film to fall flat on its' Moon-shaped face. It took us a while but you could see as we were proceeding that he was starting to come round.

By the end of the project everything was pretty cosy and, speaking for myself, we had a stressful but enjoyable and pretty much controlled miniature shoot. It was quite funny when we started out working together and I mentioned how cool it would be to get in Cinefex magazine. This was more a general (lofty) ambition of mine, the same way I always wanted to get some comic art in 2000AD. Perhaps I should send some samples off to Tharg. Anyhow, Bill totally poo-pahed the mention of the magazine in relation to our film explaining that they only cover "proper" (as in proper budget) films, and we basically had no chance. I couldn't disagree with him really. However, when we got the film finished, Bill called up a couple of people and all of a sudden we've got Cinefex on the phone wanting to talk to us about Moon. Turned out they'd shoved us into an issue at the last minute and moved their other stuff around to fit us in. Apparently we nicked a few pages off Star Trek. Too bad JJ Abrams. Recently we did a Moon Q&A at the BFI on the Southbank in London to mark Moons' first theatrical anniversary. Afterwards we got a bit mobbed (which always takes me by surprise), and somebody asked me to sign their copy of Cinefex. It did occur to me that if I could have travelled back in time to my original conversation with Bill and told him this information he'd have laughed and told me to fuck right off.

In the background is model maker John Lee who's been working on the harvester model. You can see by the missing front-plate on the model that he's been inside it fiddling. The miniature set was really mucky, dust masks and kneepads were pretty standard as there was a lot of cat litter sprinkled around the place and it hurts like a bastard when you go down on one knee onto a stray nodule, it's like some kind of Lego-kneel super-pain. To be avoided. 

Here we see Bill in his workshop working on Gerties' heavy-lifting arm. You might have read in my previous posts about the scary red heater with the exposed element that I was always terrified would set me on fire when I had my back to it. Check out the red glow on this pic. You can almost taste the danger. I secretly suspect that the model team liked having dangerous shit all over the place as it made them look like they were living on the edge all the time whenever anybody came to visit. Bill was one of those guys who tends to have trademark clothes and I don't think I ever saw him were anything apart from Denim. He's sort of like a Scottish cowboy but with massive knowledge of paint and glue. I loved talking to the model guys about their materials as there was so many combinations of glues, plastics and paints that worked differently and if they were put together wrong, who knows, they might give off a poisonous lethal nerve-type gas. I'm not actually joking about this. There's a whole science behind model construction that you won't find in any book and if you get it wrong you may die.

Here we see another of the modelmakers, mr Steve Howarth. Steve was the guy who built the Harvester model and also the main Gerty unit. In this picture we can see Duncan holding up the partially built rover model in the same scale as the harvester model. We built the miniatures at two main scales, one-sixth and one-twelfth.

These scales were really useful as they were immediately recognisable; Action Man and Star Wars figures. We built all three rovers at one-twelfth scale and also the harvester. We then built a single rover at one-sixth scale which had interchangable rear components and ID plates so that it could be dressed as either of the three. We also built a section of the lower side of the harvester so we could do the rover post-crash with the nice sixth-scale rover smashed into the ground. The jamming tower was built complete at one-twelfth so we could crash the harvester into it and a close-up of the base section at one-sixth.

The jamming-tower base had some really nice detail in there that the model team put in and I'm not sure exactly how clear it came across in the film. The structure featured an airlock door identical to the locks inside Sarang, but it was harshly welded shut with a big bar across it to prevent access. You can also see a trashed door-code type box on the left-hand side that has had the face ripped off and has wires hanging out. Nice bits of detail going on here. Nice work lads.

The main Sarang base exterior was built at one-twelfth scale and there were a couple of other bits and pieces that had indeterminate scale as it just wasn't important as they were filmed in isolation and later composited into shots. These were the satellite and Eliza Rig models. Duncan became very attached to the Eliza rig and it disappeared for over a year when we wrapped. All the models got taken and put into storage and when we went to retrieve them it had gone. We searched around for months but couldn't find it. Then, one day, it just turned up in a random box. Perhaps a ghost moved it.
In these images above, you can see the twelfth-scale rovers in various stages of construction. You can see in the last image that the rover has wooden placeholder wheels on. Bit of a tip for any aspiring model builders out there; look at all the stuff lying around on these work-surfaces and take some tips. The rovers didn't have to do too much but they did need to be pulled quite fast over a rough surface over and over again so the wheels and axles needed to be incredibly tough. The twelfth-scale proportions and intended lunar gravity meant that we needed to shoot at 137 frames per-second. Given that film is 24 frames per second, the action would slow down by around five and a half times. So to get the rover speed we needed to pull it across the set at five to six times faster than we actually wanted it to look. So, pretty fast actually. As the lunar surface was maximum 24 feet by 32 feet we ran out of table pretty fast.

I got such a kick out of seeing all these models being built at Star-Wars figure scale. When I was a puppy I used to love my Star Wars figures and ships. There's something just so right about the scale. Seeing these rovers come together so loyal to my CG concepts was amazing and the scale felt so right. I'm not sure if it was becasue I've spent so much of my life mesmerised by Star Wars toys but I used to annoy the shit out of the model builders becasue I couldn't help picking them up and playing with them. Sorry lads, but it's your own fault for doing such an amazing job. Make some shittier models and I'll leave them alone.

The gallery above shows build progress on the single sixth-scale "hero" rover. This is the main model featured in the film as it was the most detailed and we could get closer in when we were shooting.

The lunar landscape was pretty generic and typically filmed at a low angle so we didn't need to do anything with this, we could just swap the models out and go from big to small, as we needed. We also mixed the scales on a few shots too which was a bit naughty but nobody seemed to notice, especially where we see a rover pulling up at the crash site. We'd put the large rover in front of the camera and keep nice and low and we totally got away with it. It looked really stupid from round the side though as the incorrect scales were immediately apparent.

I grew very fond of the sixth-scale rover and I ended up taking it home with me after the shoot. I really need to get round to making a nice case for it so it can sit with all the stuff in my office. The model team were amazing improvisers and Bill had a lot of bits and pieces to hand in his workshop. It would make me cringe a bit inside, as he'd be grabbing stuff from his shelf and snapping things off to hold them against bits of models to show me what they'd look like. He had all sorts of excellent things lying around, some were famous models from shows such as Red Dwarf and others were just as beautiful but from unseen pilots or dead projects and so may never see the light of day. One afternoon Bill said he had something to show me and came out of his back room holding a black bin bag. He pulled out this model from the bag and handed it to me and asked me if I recognised it (which I did immediately). It was the miniature of the Nostromo engine room window from the wide shot of Ripley trying to set the self-destruct sequence from Alien. From my perspective this is pretty much what a churchy person would experience if a vicar said he's got the Ark of the Covenant down in his cellar and do you want to come and have a look? As amazing as this was, I did actually beat this when I got to play with Vasquez' smart gun from Aliens. Close-run thing though.

Part of the external base design was the "return vehicle" clone-incineration unit that was disguised as a rocket. John Lee from the model shop just turned up one morning with this beautiful thing. 

Look at it. How gorgeous is that model? It's not been properly painted and dirtied down yet but look at the form. Scratch built overnight. This is what the exterior of the clone burning room looks like and it pains me a bit that we didn't get more coverage of it in the film as it's absolutely beautiful. The figure in there is a little Doctor Who man that Bill used for scale reference and was always lying around his studio, so technically David Tennant was kind of involved in Moon. At least a little tiny slightly plastic version of him was.

References (1)

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  • Response
    Gavin Rothery - Directing - Concept - VFX - "Making of Moon" Blog - Inside the Moon Model Shop

Reader Comments (1)

RE: Bill Pearson's Clothes.

There's a great interview with Bill discussing his model work on Alien on Dennis Lowe's website here-

http://www.zen171398.zen.co.uk/Alien.html

There's three documentaries, Bill's on the first one at 62:44. All the interviews are beyond great, so thank you Dennis Lowe.I was going to say that they don't make 'em like that anymore, but I've seen Moon and they do.

Satrorial punchline follows- in the interview, Bill is wearing what can only be described as the SAME SHIRT he wears in the photo's above. Case closed?

January 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian McKenna

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