Blade Runner had mind-bogglingly small miniatures for practical effects

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Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner is a landmark in the history of practical miniatures, matte paintings, and optical effects. Intricate models were used to bring the massive Tyrell pyramids to life, as well as views of future Los Angeles and the iconic flying Spinner vehicles.

In visual effects, miniatures are, of course, small-scale replicas of much larger objects, like buildings or vehicles. But on Blade Runner, a couple of the miniatures that were built were particularly small. Like, really, really small. You might have to squint to see them, but these pint-sized models are there in the film, and here's how they were made.

Interior decorating

The memorable opening of Blade Runner includes a push-in on the enormous Tyrell Pyramid, all the way into the office of Dave Holden running the Voight-Kampff test on the crazed replicant Leon. As the camera gets close to the side of the building, you see into Holden's office, complete with spinning fans, which are a feature of the subsequent interior scenes with the characters.

That exterior view looking into Holden's office was originally intended to be a rear-projection shot in which a live-action scene filmed earlier would actually be projected into a pre-determined space in the pyramid miniature. However, although that scene was filmed, the angle of the real office set did not match up adequately.

Instead, a miniature version of the office interior was built. It was barely nine inches in length but miraculously included actual spinning fans. "They were driven by rubber bands and stepper motors," explains Blade Runner's chief model maker, Mark Stetson. "It was a beautiful little hook-up, and the office was such a nice little replica of the real office that Holden was in."

To make the tiny fans move at the correct speed, effects artists worked out a way to program the stepper motors to match the motion control system that was filming the pyramid model.

A similar approach was employed for a shot that looks into a window of Tyrell's boardroom in the Pyramid, where Deckard (Harrison Ford) carries out the Voight-Kampff test on Rachael (Sean Young). Here a small-scale build of the boardroom, only 6 inches square, was crafted to fit into a model of part of the Pyramid. Look closely and you'll see that the columns, boardroom table and surrounds are instantly recognizable in the tiny miniature.

A miniature of the Tyrell boardroom

Slim Spinners

That same Pyramid model also featured a landing pad area for flying vehicles, including the film's famed Spinners. The landing pad was small in its own right, with minute detail, such as antennas and landing lights. These lights were axial bulbs -- tiny glass cylindrical sleeves with little metal plugs on either ends and a filament that ran through them.

Miniature Spinners, an inch in length, were parked on the landing pad. Slightly larger 3-inch Spinners were used on top of the police precinct station. The miniatures were made from white resin, with enough iconic detail to match the larger-scale versions (two other sizes were also made).

"One of the things we worried about most in all the fine-scale miniatures was the size of the light bulbs and the brightness of the bulbs relative to how big the lighting units would be in real scale," says Stetson. "We were worried about blowing the scale, so we spent a lot of time sourcing smaller and smaller light bulbs, and refining our technique for lensing the ends of the fiber optic strands and working those strands into the detail of the models."

These days, with most visual effects approached digitally, there just aren't as many opportunities for model makers to make their mark in the miniature world, and for audiences to soak up the joy of practical effects. The good news is that miniatures are a part of the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, and that means eagle-eyed viewers might still get a chance to scour the frame for the smallest of model details.

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