Crashing Models for Movie Thrills (Sep, 1930)

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Crashing Models for Movie Thrills

by Dick Cole

Miniature models, full-size models, working models of all kinds are used by movie makers to reproduce those startling plane crashes and train wrecks which thrill you on the silver screen.

Dick Cole takes you behind the scenes with the thrill makers and shows you some of the miracles.

SO PERFECTED has become the art of movie modeling that few picture patrons can tell when they are seeing a natural set or a miniature. Of course, their logical reasoning tells them that the Zeppelin they see burst into flames and catapult to the earth, is not a real Zeppelin. Yet their eyes alone . can not decide the real from the unreal. The old adage: “Seeing is believing,” is strictly passe in the motion picture production game.

Nothing is beyond the scope of the movie modeler. No doubt when the 200-inch lens telescope is completed on Mt. Wilson, a movie modeler will take a squint at Mars, make some model sets, and we Earthly people will be entertained with Martian pic-lures.

But even at the present time, the use of models in picture production is far greater than the average person believes. Perhaps a director looks over a scenario given him to produce. The villain—curses on him— cuts the main rivets of a bridge. Toot! Toot! The train comes ’round the curve! Onto the bridge! When it reaches the middle of the structure, the massive girders are seen to twist . . . snap! The train, with locomotive belching black smoke and steam, plunges down, crashes through the ice, and disappears in the black water of the river.

Is the director fazed when he reads this? Not at all. He reaches for his telephone.

“Hello! Harry Reynolds? . . . Look, Harry. You gotta put a train through a bridge for us. Winter scene. Lots of snow.

Ice on the river. Train breaks through and disappears completely beneath the water. Not a U. S. train. The set is in Russia before the Czar got bumped off. You know, compartment coaches like ‘Johnnie Bull’s’ trains. . . . Yeah! . . . Yeah! By the fifteenth of next month. . . . Right, oh! See you later.” And in those few words Harry Reynolds gets a $15,000 assignment. Does he fill it? Just leave it to Harry.

Just who is this Harry Reynolds, anyway? Picture patrons never heard of him. i Yet it is his masterful, ingenious touch that has thrilled millions of people. Scarcely a big, spectacular picture has been put out in recent years, to which he has not contributed his art. His name is prominent on the private telephone list of every director in Hollywood. I don’t know just what handle to put on his name, but it seems that “model technician” fits him perfectly, so it is quite fitting that he should be chair- man of the technical board of the American Society of Model Engineers.

After accepting the assignment, what next? Harry has on hand a number of models of North American locomotives and coaches. But the scenario calls for a Russian train. That means research. Telegrams are shot out to various information sources, and in several days airplane mail brings him photographs, detail drawings and specifications. He even learns how far apart the Russian engineers space the telegraph poles; the style of cross-arms and insulators used; the prevalent style of bridge construction.

With all the statistical dope at hand, Harry gets busy. A stock model American type locomotive with three driving wheels on each side is re-designed to the Russian standard. Different funnel, domes, cab, cowcatcher, boiler pumps, etc. On the coach chasses, Russian compartment coach bodies are built. Also a box-like “guard’s van”— in common Yankee words, a baggage car. Automatic couplers are removed and replaced with spring bumpers that look like big collar buttons.

Now for the bridge construction. First a river bed about six feet deep is dug. On the banks of the “river”, the abutments of the bridge are erected. These are made of small blocks of tile to imitate the stone. Even these blocks of tile, as well as every piece and every dimension that enters into the model set, is held fixedly to a scale of one inch equals one foot. So, the model bridge shown in several photographs, which is actually 20 feet long, between abutments, and 4V-J feet above the water, is representative of a bridge 240 feet long and 54 feet high. When every object that makes comparison possible is removed, the diminutiveness of the bridge can not be detected.

One would probably guess, to look at the construction, that the bridge was made of sheet metal stampings. Not so. The girders are cast. Not of iron, or brass, or even of aluminum. But of a low fusing alloy of tin, bismuth and cadmium—practically the same alloy as is used on automatic sprinklers in buildings. This low fusing alloy permits plaster of paris to be used for the mold. Rather than making the usual pattern, as does a founder, the mold is “scratched” out with tools not unlike an engraver’s tools. A little indenture with a prick-punch in the mold shows up as a rivet-head on the casting.

With all the mechanical fixtures complete, the next job is to doll up the physical surroundings. The river bank is formed to look natural, and the man-made river bed is filled with water to the desired level. Ice? How is it formed? Don’t laugh, reader. The ice is melted paraffin poured on the water, where it hardens into a nice crust that exactly imitates real ice. Snow? Fine, sifted, bleached salt and talc. A big blower creates a gale of wind across the set. The “snow” is sifted into the “wind,” and settles down on the set in a natural manner—drifts and bleak, bare spots.

Everything is ready for the camera man. Steam is got up in the locomotive — of course, it is an honest-to-goodness steam engine—and, at a signal, the train starts on its road to doom. Round the curve it comes; drivers lashing, funnel belching black smoke, steam hissing around the piston rods. Toot! Toot! The whistle blows for the approach to the bridge. Onto the bridge! A close-up shot shows the middle girder twisting! It parts! The bridge collapses! The train plunges down! Great cakes of ice literally stand on end as the locomotive crashes through. A cloud of steam arises.

The coaches follow the engine into the black water. And a celluloid record is made.

Not a little credit for the realistic effect is due to the camera man. As long as the movement of the train is horizontal, the picture can be shot at normal rate, about sixteen frames a second. The ratio of the movement of the train is the same as the stale—12 to 1. But when the train falls, the ratio is all upset. The force of gravity will not obligingly accommodate itself to the scale. Obviously, a bridge 54 feet high would take a few seconds in falling. But the model would fall 4V2 feet in a fraction of a second. So the vertical movement is shot with a high speed camera, which reproduces the slow motion pictures—the kind where the steeple-chaser seems to float over the stone wall. This contributes the realistic effect to the falling. The change from the normal movement to the retarded movement can not be made abruptly without detection. So a close-up shot of the twisting girder is interposed between. The girder that breaks is of soft lead of predetermined strength. The moment it parts, the high speed camera takes up the action of the falling structure.

In the months that follow, millions of picture fans gasp in awe as they witness the appalling catastrophe. If every added heartbeat that Harry Reynolds’ art has produced were a foot of string, it would make a loop around Mars and a half-hitch around the moon.

The model set described in the foregoing is from the picture: “The Last Command.”

Perhaps the enterprizing press-agents conveyed the idea that a real train was used— that oodles of money was spent creating the spectacular wreck. Well, a real—model— train was used; plenty of kale was spent; and press-agents have a special writers’ license, anyway.

Other pictures to which Harry Reynolds has contributed his remarkable art are: “Old Ironsides,” “Behind The Front,” “Wings,” “Hell’s Angels,” and many other pictures in the making, but not yet released.

The “huge” army tank shown in “Behind The Front” was a masterpiece of modeling ingenuity. No doubt many readers are surprised to learn that the battlefield they saw in that picture was a miniature, and the tank, a model.

But such a model! Mr. Reynolds held a high commission rank during the war, and was associated with the engineering forces —mostly with the experimental department —and possesses a wealth of knowledge of mechanical devices of which we ordinary people have only an inkling—non-recoil guns, aerial bombs, remote control of torpedoes, and, of course, super-tanks. So it is little wonder that he created a tank and battle-field that held the spectators breath- less. The tank was operated with an electric motor, supplied by an invisible, trailing cable. Conspicuous ingenuity was shown in the firing of the guns. Contained within the tank was a steel cylinder of highly compressed air. Cams, actuated by the movement of the tank, intermittently opened valves at the breech of the guns. Little vibrating hoopers within the tank contained a mixture of aluminum powder and talc. This powder was sprinkled at the breech of the guns, and was blown out the muzzle by the blast of compressed air. This method permitted the firing of hundred of “shots.” And the highlights from the aluminum powder had a better photographic value than an actual burst of flame from a real gun.

Motion picture models are not always diminutive. In “Hell’s Angels,” the huge, spectacular picture on current release, which far out-classes all of its fore-runners in the bigness of its conception and presentation, a giant bombing plane, representative of a German Gotha, plays a salient role. Ingenious camera mounts, attached to various points of this huge plane, record an aerial battle which is breath-taking in its realism.

Ultimately the bomber is shot down in (lames. Obviously the massive bombing plane, not designed for stunt maneuvering, could not be handled to give a realistic falling effect. So Harry Reynolds was called upon to convert a single-motored biplane into an exact replica of the German Gotha. Several photographs show how cleverly this was done. The smaller, easily maneuvered plane, carrying a smoke bomb, and handled by a skillful stunt pilot, falls from out the sky in a series of tail-spins and slips. Since there are no objects near for comparison, the transposition of the planes can not be detected.

Have you ever wondered how close-up shots of an aeroplane in flight are taken? Perhaps a close-up underneath the wings showing the release of an aerial torpedo? Or a close-up in front of the propellers showing machine guns in action? Several photographs reveal the secret. Automatic cameras are mounted on a skeleton framework of duralumin, and can be started and stopped at the will of the operator in cockpit. Mr. Reynolds frequently co-operates with that dare-devil, Dick Grace, the famous “crack-’em-up” technician, who wrote that interesting article of his experiences for Modern Mechanics several months ago. In fact, it’s a common expression in Hollywood, that “Harry makes ’em, Dick breaks em.” However, there are times when only a pilot with a fixed suicidal complex would undertake to bring about some crashes. Then Harry Reynolds’ ingenuity is called forth. He “shoots” a pilotless plane into the air. This is done by running a “prop” plane along a runway. The take-off end of the runway is tilted up and the plane zooms into the air. If the plane is to come down in flames, a flare is set off by a trigger at the end of the runway.

To shoot a pilotless plane into the air, and to have it “crack up” at a predetermined point, requires very fine mathematical precision. But factors beyond the control of the technician—an unexpected side wind, for example—may upset the best laid plans. That happened in the illustration shown. This plane was supposed to “crack up” a little to the left of where it inevitably will crash. You will note that it is bearing down on some trucks—an ammunition train. The scenario called for the troops to continue the advance, but when they saw that roarin’, winged rocket coming at them, they decided, to a man, that absence of body was preferable to presence of mind, and they beat the hastiest retreat on record. It really enhanced the story. The scenario was revised to fit the scene.

The terrific explosions following a bombing, how are they brought about? Visually, they are. powerful enough to shake a whole city and to break every window within a mile radius. Visually, I said. “Expert explosion engineer” is one of Harry Reynolds’ monickers. For picture presentation, an explosion must look big. So a shallow, concrete basin is poured in a hole in the ground at a designated spot. Several sticks of dynamite are put in this and covered with a few hundred pounds of common lamp-black. An illustration shows the result.

In this particular case, an airplane supposedly has dropped a bomb to blow up a temporary military bridge across the river flats. In reality the explosion is the result of the ground charge. The aeroplane is just beyond the dense, black wall of “smoke.” A few minutes later, when the lampblack began to settle, every “extra” from Pittsburgh got homesick.

No one can predict to what heights movie modeling will attain. With “The Lost World” and “The Ten Commandments” still comparatively fresh on our memories, a prediction by the ghost of Jules Verne would not be classed as impossible. Harry Reynolds has given me a tentative outline of a futuristic production suggested by the title: “A. D. 2030.” I wish I could tell you about it, but I can’t betray a confidence. But, oh boy! What a picture it will be under his masterful, technical direction.

  1. jayessell says: June 18, 201010:06 am

    Great article!

    I looked up ‘The Last Command’ (1928) at IMDB and only one commenter mentioned the train wreck.
    The movie costarred William Powell who successfully transitioned into talkies and is best known as ‘The Thin Man’.

    I used to wonder what it was that made movie models look ‘modeley’.
    The toys that shoot at Godzilla were laughable!
    It must have been the camera’s depth of field that gave it away.

    Todays CGI makes models such as these obsolete… but let’s see the producer put those on his mantle!

  2. Firebrand38 says: June 18, 201011:05 am

    jayessell: Actually sometimes in the CGI process a clay model is made and scanned in. http://entertainment.ho…
    That could go on the mantel. And here is one of the guys who does this work…

  3. Firebrand38 says: June 18, 201012:49 pm

    jayessell: Being released on DVD by Criterion

  4. Rick Auricchio says: June 18, 20102:55 pm

    Often the thing that gives away a model is the way smoke looks in miniature. It’s too dense; in life, smoke usually spreads quickly.

    We watched “The Million,” a 1931 French film. The opening scene, shot with a model, is given away by the high intensity of lighting in building windows. Of course, being 1931, they deserve some slack.

  5. Firebrand38 says: June 18, 20104:23 pm

    Rick Auricchio: I see what you mean…

  6. Rick Auricchio says: June 18, 20105:41 pm

    I do admire the film’s opening sequence as it makes a seamless transition from live action to model, then back to live action.

    Of course, there’s all the silly singing and dancing, but in the early talkies they did that stuff to blow people away.

  7. jayessell says: June 18, 20108:06 pm

    Could the ‘AD 2030’ alluded to in the last paragraph be
    that SF Musical Comedy ‘Just Imagine’?

  8. jayessell says: June 18, 20108:23 pm

    No… Just Imagine is set in 1980.

    Buck Rogers? 2430.

    I guess he never did make it.

  9. Firebrand38 says: June 18, 20108:53 pm

    Looks like Harry Reynolds was busy into 1936 and passed away in 1974 at the age of 76.

  10. JMyint says: June 19, 201010:37 am

    I’ve been trying to come up with a science fiction movie made in 1930-31 set in the future but no luck. The only thing I can think of is “Just Imagine” (1930) but like jayessell said that was set in 1980. Maybe he got the date wrong or when “Just Imagine” tanked at the box office this project was canceled.

  11. Firebrand38 says: June 19, 201011:06 am

    JMyint: Just Imagine had plenty of models in it. Don’t forget there were a bunch of movies during the whole silent/talkie transition that got canceled.

  12. Firebrand38 says: June 19, 201011:29 am

    Besides, if he gave a “tentative outline” for a film that’s mentioned in an article published August-September 1930 I doubt if it would have made the release date for Just Imagine of 23 November 1930…

  13. jayessell says: June 19, 201012:03 pm

    JMyint: I have a reference book about SF films 1890s to 1980s.
    I’ll look for 1930s films set in the future.

  14. jayessell says: June 19, 20105:23 pm

    Jmyint, according to ‘The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies’ by
    Phil Hardy, only ‘The Shape of Thing to Come’ was made in the
    1930s and set 100 years in the future. (The last part, anyway).

  15. Firebrand38 says: June 19, 20105:35 pm

    jayessell: I thought of that one, the final segment does take place specifically in 2036 but H.G. Wells was working on the screenplay in 1934 and it wasn’t released until 1936. If it is the same movie, perhaps the delay was because of the advent of sound?

  16. Toronto says: June 19, 20105:59 pm

    Harry’s only credit on is for “Wings”. It’s a pity that the technical staff rarely got credit in the old days of film.

    (said this former set builder/props master/sound guy/lighting tech from amateur theatre.)

  17. JMyint says: June 19, 20109:01 pm

    I was pretty sure it wasn’t “Things to Come” as that was produced in England six years later.

  18. Jabberwocky says: June 20, 20108:02 pm

    Interesting opening for Rene Clair! Another thing that gives it away is a uniformity in value and texture of the buildings. You’d expect a densely-packed town like that to have a greater variety of materials. Although I guess the effect may be from uniform lighting.

  19. Firebrand38 says: June 20, 20108:50 pm

    Here’s a very effective shot but somehow you can still tell that it’s a model…

  20. jayessell says: June 21, 20107:52 am

    I once thought that if I could figure out what made models look ‘modelish’,
    I’d go to Hollywood and become rich!

    Someone who isn’t me should photograph some real objects, then photograph
    models of those objects and see how the photographs differ.

    #18 claims it is the lack of fine details and chaos.

    What? No mention that it is a steam powered model steam engine?
    The TV series ‘How It’s Made’ had an episode of the steam powered
    lawn locomotives being constructed.

  21. Toronto says: June 21, 201011:28 am

    A model in 1:12 scale (1’=1″) has only 1/1728th the mass of the real thing.

    For example, you can build a model of a bank safe that you can lift with a single string that’s 1/10th of an inch across, but you won’t be able to lift the real thing with a 1.2″ rope. And then there’s acceleration – they mention the gravity issue in the article, but it gets worse on long falls or on horizontal acceleration, where resistance gets involved as well.

  22. JMyint says: June 21, 20105:59 pm

    Model making and model shooting for movies has come along way since the 1930’s. Many times in later movies it has been hard to tell that you are being shown a model and the illusion is complete. Movies like Independence Day where they blow up the models it’s obvious, but how about the Harry Potter movies.

  23. jayessell says: June 21, 20106:48 pm

    Speaking of movie models…

    In the motion picture ‘Explorers’, the helicopter flying next to
    the homemade spacecraft used ‘go-motion’.

    The rotor of the model helicopter turned slowly while the camera took long exposures
    every few seconds.
    Shown at 24 frames per second the blades were a blur.

    The camera moved relative to the model by computer control.
    This method was used in several SF movies including ‘Galaxy Quest’.

    This was a bridge between classic stop motion and the CGI we know today.

  24. Charlie says: June 22, 20107:48 am

    Jay: That was an awesome movie. Though I was a pissed that my apple //c didn’t have a little door on the back so it could be run on a 9-volt battery.

  25. Tom says: June 26, 20103:51 pm

    @ Jayessell,

    There’s a new photographic technique I’ve read about on the web in the last year that makes real photos look like miniatures. Sort of the opposite of what you wanted to achieve.

    It’s called miniature faking. Some more info here:…

    and here:…

    Faking it til I’m making it,


  26. jayessell says: June 26, 20106:53 pm

    Depth of Field!

    I saw a commercial or a SNL bumper that used that technique.

    So, unless part of the algorithm, CGI cityscapes have an infinite depth of field, so they look large?

  27. jayessell says: June 26, 20107:35 pm

    On ‘The Science Channel’ 6/27/2010 3:30 am eastern
    (About 5 hours from NOW.)
    ‘How It’s Made’.
    Miniature furniture (A grandfather clock for a dollhouse)
    Garden Steam Engines (They use tiny pieces of coal for fuel)

    Short notice.
    Set your DVR.

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