Tamil film industry’s model makers move to greener pastures

Model makers, once an integral part of a Tamil film’s art department, have moved away from cinema to greener pastures

The use of scale models to shoot scenes that would otherwise have been difficult or expensive is as old as cinema itself. When combined with high-speed photography, a skilled cinematographer can convince the viewer of effects and images that would have been impossible to replicate in a life-sized setting. But with the advent of sophisticated visual effects technology, the use of miniatures in filmmaking (called the Miniature Effect) has largely been replaced.

With CGI taking over the use of models, the case is pretty much the same in Kollywood too. However, superstar Hollywood directors such as Christopher Nolan (action scenes involving Batman’s ‘Tumbler’ in The Dark Knight were shot using this effect) and Peter Jackson (in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) have kept it alive, choosing practical effects over computer-generated ones.

The same cannot be said about Kollywood. “It’s a dying art form in our industry,” says Abimanna Rajan V, a model maker and a former assistant of art directors Thotta Tharani and Rajeevan. “Even recently, a top director asked me if I could make a model helicopter for his film. Even before I could get started, he stopped me, stating that he’d found a ‘better’ solution in CGI.”

Rajan, whose miniatures have been featured in films such as Kushi, Sivaji andChandramukhi, says a career as a model maker in Kollywood is no longer viable. “Even in Hollywood, directors prefer models to CGI for a particular kind of shot. But in our industry, everyone’s in a hurry. If they’re asking for models, they want it in no time… and often at no cost too.”

He remembers a time when model makers were much in demand. “Even if it wasn’t for a scene, a bigger film would still need models, because a film’s lighting, set design and choreography were all discussed and decided using small models. Films can now use 3D software for that.”

Greener pastures

A graduate of College of Fine Arts, Chennai, Rajan says very few of his classmates work in cinema, having joined the IT industry in jobs such as graphic designer, Maya modeller, 3D Max modeller and more. “It’s because of the IT industry that a lot of the Fine Arts students have found work. Earlier, the only two options we had were to work in films or join an ad agency.”

Rajan, however, has kept his art form alive by finding work wherever he can. Recently, he was commissioned by the Chennai Metro Rail to build models of Metro Rail stations. “I see making detailed, near-perfect miniatures as my calling. That’s why I didn’t want to become an art director, because that involves other types of work which would have distracted me from making models. It’s like the concept of the film Boys, I can only do what I’m passionate about.”

The road ahead

When he’s not busy taking up assignments (his last film assignment was making Karthi’s army general costume in period drama Kaashmora and a model of the hijacked Air India aeroplane for Malayalam film Kandahar), he pursues his lifetime dream. “I want to make a miniature park in Tamil Nadu. A park where the public can view large models of India’s temples and monuments. Such parks have been around in other countries for decades, but we still don’t have one in our country.”

Explaining his dream, he underscores the difference between films and this park. “In art direction, the things we make have a short life span and we use temporary materials to build them. Even when others were using materials like thermocol and foam, I wanted to build using acrylic and fibre because the latter lasts longer. It’s the same with the park as well. I want my art work to last.”