Kerner Optical : The ex-ILM Model Shop

This week we take an in-depth look at miniatures and the ways digital works alongside large scale miniatures at one of the worlds leading shops, Kerner Optical. After decades of award winning work, the company’s results are the gold standard by which all others are judged. The company certainly has a respected history, but you might be surprised at just how forward-looking the company is.

Just one year ago, Kerner Optical split from ILM to form the new standalone company. Still very much professional and personal friends of ILM – Kerner is now free to also work with other companies. And they are much more than just models and miniatures.

We spoke to Mark Anderson, President of Kerner Optical about some of the areas that the company is expanding into. “We are trying to be a company that is all things 3D…from delivering state of the art 3D camera rigs and also developing display solutions from projection and in television. We feel 3D will be like the difference from when television went from black and white to colour” Since the company did a management buyout from the Lucasfilm family of companies just one year ago it has moved into a host of new areas and is truly expanding.

The 3D move is not only for specialist applications or special event theaters. Kerner is developing this technology for the consumer market. In addition, they are developing their own 3D feature film projects. On the early days of ILM the model team built Vista vision cameras so building precision cameras is not new to Kerner. What is new is the move to extend their R&D to the consumer market. Until now there has only been really a market for 3D films at theatrical release level as the home viewer really could not see proper 3D films.

Kerner is “in development with television manufacturer to actually make a 3D enabled television that you can actually take home and plug in and it will take 3D movies and play them. And it does some interesting stuff with Video gaming such as converging in real time,” says Anderson. The home viewer would still wear the same passive glasses, as they would in a cinema, but they are not shutter glasses type – they are the more simple “sunglasses” style glasses. With these on the home viewer can then experience 3D at home.

In terms of production schedule, Kerner is finishing up prototypes now and are in a testing stage. The 3D cameras should move into production by the end of November. The consumer television sets are scheduled to be in stores for mid-2008, but prior to that Kerner will have sets and a “large presence” at both the Consumer Electronics Show and the NAB (each hosted in Las Vegas), comments Anderson.

The iced ferris wheel set in AI

Kerner is also reopening up its commercials division. It has actually had the Energizer Bunny campaign for over 15 years but for some time that was the only TVC work done by the ILM/Kerner company. On the day we spoke with Anderson, the company had a commercial shooting in their stages and he welcomes once again having a strong role in the production of TVC work. Kerner is not acting as a production company itself and will have no in-house directors. The company will instead work with local and national production companies who can now have Kerner miniatures and model shots in their TVCs. This is a very exciting development for the general commercials community as the exceptional award winning quality of the model shop has not been freely able to be booked for years. “We are there basically there as a service provider, facilitating their needs for stages, the artists and all the model shop capabilities that they may need,” says Anderson

While Kerner is opening up to work with other companies, it has no way walked away from its relationship with ILM and the link remains strong. “Most of our feature film is still coming though Industrial Light and Magic, and in a sense nothing has changed there. We used to internally bid projects and do the work through ILM…we now do basically the same thing. We bid projects to them, we work with the same visual effects supervisors and the same crew,” explains Anderson. “ILM is such a powerhouse in the industry they are such talented folks and they get the big blockbuster movies….having that relationship with them is great…they can count on us just as much as we can count on them.” explains Anderson.

Kerner still remains at its heart the old “ILM model shop” and in this week’s podcast we talk to longtime Kerner Optical DOP Marty Rosenberg. Rosenberg walks through the various issues that make Miniatures work so well and some of the ways they film them to sell the shot.

The Blue fairy Models
The final shot was filmed Dry for Wet

“Like any other component of a movie, the purpose of a miniature is to serve the film’s story. To that end, some times we build small miniatures that look big and mysterious, like this iced ferris wheel set in A.I.” says Rosenberg. In this set of images from the film AI we see the elements and then the final shot that happens near the end of the film. The sequence was an underwater shot, done “dry for wet”, which perfectly shows Kerner’s strengths.

The models were very large and beautifully detailed, they were then photographed with stunning lighting, and combined with CG water particles drifting by to sell the shot. Unlike some sequences almost only the miniatures are carrying this scene. The emotion climax in the film in many ways, all of the emotional force comes from the beautiful underwater reveal of the Blue Fairy. “lighting equals mood” comments Marty Rosenberg.

There are many tricks the Kerner’s artists deploy to make shots work, and these range from the faux aging here below on the form statues. While the paint trick may seem simple, they reflect years of artistry to know just how water collects, how it rusts and ages and how to make objects seem real. The skills in not only producing the paints and various colours, but also know how they will work when filmed is truly an art form.


The second scale model
The final shot from the film A.I.

As seen in the imagery, the statues were made at a completely different scale to the main building. When composited together in the final shot, the effect is both real and the water scaling down – makes the back building sell as being a much larger miniature than it really was. For the 20 story Manhattan building they used this a foot high facade.

The art of knowing how to film the basic elements is central to miniature work. Kerner specializes in the basic fire, water, earth and wind components. When any of these are needed, miniatures is an option that is likely to excel. While Kerner produces things that are either impossible to shoot or too expensive to build they come into their own when working on large scale miniatures that deal with these elements. In the quest for greater and greater realism Kerner has been making miniatures progressively larger. They can also now use wires and rigs as they didn’t before, knowing these can be easily removed in post. “Today, more so than ever, visual effects seems to be a collage of disparate elements. Live action photography, CG, and miniatures come together to create mind-blowing images.” comments Marty Rosenberg.

The ground plate is prepared
Note the designing in of stepping stones

From the final Star Wars Shot

Kerner does not dislike CGI. Far from it, they are at the cutting edge of how to use it to extend and expand their miniatures. In some areas such as model space ships or rigid body hard surfaces there has been a move CGI, but interestingly miniatures can often times be cheaper and faster to make than elaborate CGI. Moreover, once built the models can be used in multiple shots without additional “rendering” costs. Even on big CG shows like Star Wars, a huge amount of the environments were models or partly models.

In the shot to the right, the massive ground plane was made as a miniature and filmed at Kerner and then multiple layers of CGI were added on top. Special dust and fine grains were used to scale the ground plane. Note how the rocks were placed so as to allow the artists to move across the set without leaving marks in the sand. It may be surprising that this ground plane was built but having just one major real element in shot can sell so much of the rest of the shot. Plus the natural lighting and look from direct sunlight helps direct the animators and gives them a starting point for lighting and framing.

Kerner not only does models, but also makeup as in here from <em>Star Wars</em>

It also does special effects makeup and props as in these from the <em>Pirates</em> trilogy

It is easy to talk of Kerner as the old ILM model shop, but really this does not fairly cover the huge range of capabilities offered. The company has a vast array of sound stages and the famous exterior Slab, plus very complex and detailed prop and special effects makeup. The makeup work is just as much a part of what Kerner does as the models, and over the years their designs and special effects make up have brought to life some of films most interesting and memorable characters.

Kerner also make props and rigs
Kerners Sound stages are available for rental as well as the model and makeup effects work

While ILM started with Star Wars and it remains a favourite of so many, Kerner Optical has worked on many Oscar winning films over the years, from Back to the Future to ET to the modern day Pirates. One of the overlooked aspects of the ‘intellectual property’ of the company is the sheer organizational and logistical management. The company is very good at managing large projects with a huge number of artists who have worked with the company for many many years.

This ‘standing start’ allows them to approach the largest projects — the biggest blockbusters — and deliver on time and on budget. In effect, they do not need to reinvent a lot nor do they need to build up a team from scratch. Of course, projects do scale, but the infrastructure is there to move forward with an experienced team which has all worked together for years. This allows projects to move through Kerner at an amazing pace and of course manages the costs and budgets of these huge projects.

Scale of projects, like the scale of their miniatures, is something an outsider can take for granted. However, the company has invested heavily to allow it to work quickly and one example of this is computer aided design. To build the complex ships for Pirates, the company used CAD and computer milling machines to be able to produce very complex curved surfaces that would fit together and do it on mass in a very short amount of time. While some models are hand carved, many others are all computer designed and then just hand assembled and textured.

Models from Episode 2 of Star wars
The shots were heavily designed for compositing

Many layers of live action and CG were required for the Clone city

The final shot with live action actors

“For Pearl Harbor, the size of the battleship was picked so the smoke that needed to pour from the bombed decks would look believable”says Marty Rosenberg, “Ultimately, a 28’ ship was built, complete with a hand laid, wood-planked, deck”.

Detail is one of the key aspects to Kerners success note the stain glass windows and the individual timbers in the walls
High speed photography has always played a key role as in these shots from Pearl Harbor

The detail in this large scale model is immense each wooden deck plank is individually modeled

The scale was worked out to help the smoke scale correctly

With the transition of the company into a much broader effects and 3D company, Kerner is moving into unknown areas. It should be noted that doing things first and pioneering techniques are almost exclusively what the team has been doing at Kerner for 30 years. The team has huge challenges with technology and 3D consumer expansion, but the history of the company is exactly that of matching dreams and delivering original technology, solutions and innovative approaches. The culture of Kerner is pre-built to tackle these problems.

Shooting in Natural sunlight helps realism greatly
The final shot from Star Wars

For the broader production community, the ability to have “ILM Model Shop” contributions to their next TVC, music video or major feature film is incredibility exciting. As the company expands it will continue to work with ILM and service the model and production work from the now exclusively digital ILM. But it is also free to produce its own productions and become more of a studio and less of a ‘gun for hire’ – even if it is the coolest gun for hire in the world – or perhaps galaxy.