Fon Davis interview: greebles, miniatures, Star Wars and more

Visual effects designer Fon Davis chats to us about his work on the Star Wars movies, Elysium, Starship Troopers and more...

Since his career began as a model maker at ILM in the mid-1990s, effects designer Fon Davis has built up a fearsome body of credits. He’s worked on some of the biggest films of the last 25 years, from the special version re-releases of the Star Wars Original Trilogy, via the Star Wars prequels, all leading up to such movies as Guardians Of The Galaxy and Interstellar in more recent years.

We caught up with Davis via Skype to talk to him about the subject of greebles – the tiny plastic details that make miniatures like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars look like working, flying space craft. But our conversation roamed much further than greebling, and the results were so fascinating that we had to share the full interview with you.

So here’s Davis to tell us about model making, why a hybrid of CG and practical effects is the best approach, working on Interstellar, and why Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium was one of his most intense experiences on a movie so far.

Greebles. Greeblies. I’m not quite sure what the correct term is!

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As far as I can date back, greebles started with the original Industrial Light & Magic group here in Southern California. They would call things greebles, and then they moved up to northern California, and the rest of the Los Angeles model shops were calling it Nurnies. But since they moved Industrial Light & Magic up to northern California, it brought up a NorCal, SoCal difference, so they would call those same detail bits nurnies in northern California, and in southern California it was greebles. Then some people said it wrong and that’s where greeblies came from! So greebles, greeblies and nurnies are much the same thing.

I did read somewhere that it might be George Lucas that came up with the term. Is that right, or is it an urban myth?

It’s possible. It came out of his group – it was the Industrial Light & Magic model makers that started calling them greebles. The legends of the model making world – that would be Steve Gawley, Lorne Peterson, Paul Huston, all those guys. They’re probably the most well known model makers in the world.

What do you think of the history of greebling pre-Star Wars? Star Wars revived effects techniques forgotten by Hollywood, but 2001: A Space Odyssey was a pioneer. I’ve even read somewhere that When Worlds Collide might have had a bit of greebling in it.

Oh yeah, yeah. 2001: A Space Odyssey was probably the first huge milestone in terms of the greeble details. What it comes from is very practical. There’s always budgets and schedules, right? So the need for greebles has more to do with budgets and schedules than anything else. You want to put all your creative energies into making really unique designs and shapes, and spend less time on all the greebly details. But you need that rich detail to make science fiction or mechanical things look like they do something. 

I was reading about 2001‘s use of model kits, breaking them apart for the details.

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That’s referred to as kit-bashing.

Right, yeah. 

It’s basically using parts in ways you’re not supposed to use them. So again, it’s about speeding up the process of making a model. The main difference between a professional and hobby model maker is, a hobby model maker takes pride in the year they spent on making a model. Whereas a professional takes pride in the day or week they spent on making a model. So it’s about making it look as though you’ve spent a long time without actually spending a long time. 

I wonder if there’s a psychological aspect to using the kits as well, your brain processing those parts as looking familiar even though you’re seeing them in a different context.

Yeah, exactly. That’s what you want to do with them. That’s the goal. A lot people really underestimate how much attention is paid when doing this. It’s not a random collection of pieces – you’re actually trying to connect hoses to boxes to fans to vents to things that look like they’re serving a purpose. So you don’t just stick a bunch of random shapes on, and you also don’t just stick on single objects. You try to find sets of things and maybe have a row of shapes followed by a box and a tube. In your head, you build this imaginary system that does something; it’s not always specific, like, this is an air conditioning unit – it’s never that specific. But it’s like, “Oh, maybe this moves fuel. Maybe this moves electricity. Maybe this is a central hub for a bunch of electrical connections.” You put that thought process into it.

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So part of it is making it look mechanical and functional. The other part of it is to make it look aesthetically pleasing, so one of the biggest mistakes you’ll see on relatively a low-budget movie made by people who are not professional model makers, you can spot that they don’t put that thought into it. They also try to fill entire areas. And Star Wars brought up the [art] of greebling, which is leaving large volumes of space empty, with maybe just some panel lines and some minor break-up, followed by pockets or little clusters of detail.

Right, like the Star Destroyer.

Yes. So you get the tranches on the side filled with greeble detail, then you’ve got the large volumes on the top. The Millennium Falcon is actually a really good example as well, because it’s got these great little pockets filled with greebles, and then see tubes coming out and going across the space craft to another pocket, and that pocket’s filled with details. And then you have the trademark details like the trench on the side and back as well that’s filled with detail. And that comes from a practical aspect.

When you’re building things physically – and this is why CG models sometimes don’t have the grounding in reality that physical models do – we have to think about how we’re going to access the inside of the model. We have to work with the lighting and some of the details we put inside the model: we have to paint all that, we have to light it, we have to put electronics in it, we have umbilical cords coming out of it running to the power. So the way you do that is, you have two shells of the space craft that are body panels, and you can separate them. If you can take the whole top off, then you can get to the inside of the space craft.

So the best way to do that is to have a seam that is really noisy and filled with detail, so you can’t tell there’s a break. That’s part of what drives where we put the details. We want it to be aesthetically pleasing, but we have to balance that with functionality. 

I know that ILM, when they still had their model building department, they had lots of model kits. But I read that there was one model kit in particular, I think it might have been a flak cannon, that they used an awful lot.

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It was a rail gun. 

It was a World War II Tamiya model kit, maybe?

Yeah, what was it called? They used it a lot, right up to the time I worked there. It was the… I’ll look it up. It’s become a real hobby for people [discovering which kits were used to make the models]. 

I think it’s great!

The Leopold, that’s what it is. It’s the Leopold German rail cannon. Each model maker had their own favourites. We had a room that had on one side had all Evergreen products, which were also very popular with model makers, and then on the other side of the room just a shelf of model kits. So what we usually did is the same thing. Price, schedule, we had set budgets for all these models, so we would try to find model kits that cost the least amount of money but had the most useful parts. That’s why we had re-occurring parts.

The greebles themselves kind of had lives of their own – we always marvelled that, after the movies were released, because we would take these random shapes and create this detail on the back and side of a space craft, and then that would be photographed to be in the movie, and then they’d make toys. So on the toys they’d take these same details, and as the quality became higher, they’ have these same greebles that we had on the original models! [Laughs] You’d see the same random pieces you’d selected from your tray of greebles at a bunch of different scales, because it would be on the toy product.

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There were times on live action in a movie would copy our miniature, so we would actually make a miniature first and they would have to make it. We always felt kind of bad for them, because we’d just grab these kit-bashing parts and make the models, and they’d have to replicate that same part full-scale. So we would have little greebles that were, say, maybe an few eighths of an inch tall, that we would see in photographs for live action that are, like two feet tall! It’s crazy. It’s funny to see the life of a greeble after we’ve finished the models and handed them all off. 

I seem to remember reading that the tips of the Millennium Falcon are from a pair of V8 engine tops or something like that.

Yeah. And on the very back of the Millennium Falcon, there are the engine panels. Those are all bulldozer shovels. [Laughs]

Like I say, you accept it when you see it as a whole set of shapes.

That’s why the layout is very, very important. You want to lay it out in a way so no one will recognise what its original form was, and you give it a new form by how you lay  it out on the model. Like, those bulldozer shovels, if you’d have just put a single one on there, you’d probably have said, “Well, what’s that?” But someone did a kind of array pattern with them and put some little gun parts, little things that looked like pistons next to each one, and suddenly it now looks like some kind of aileron or some kind of vector thrusting thing. That’s always the goal – to make it look like it does something, and not make it recognisable. 

In quality science fiction models, you don’t see a whole lot of transmission for parts. But for some reason, in low budget movies you see lots of transmission for parts. Car model kits, as it turns out, don’t have a lot of great greeble details, even in the motor. Because it’s too recognisable as pieces from an automobile. I know veterans from the military can spot some of the greebles that we have, but outside of that, not a lot of people can, because we’re using military kits. That’s very intentional. If you use a military kit, it’s less recognisable to the general public. But if you use something like an automobile part, you can see coilovers, or air filters, or fan belts.

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What do you think the first film was that did this kind of kit-bashing approach? Was it 2001: A Space Odyssey?

The first one I know of was 2001. It was so far ahead of its time. And greebling, to be fair, has probably come from the same place as architectural design, I guess, at a certain level. Because let’s say a Victorian house – you have your guys come in to do stucco and drywall, then they leave and the designers come in and make that look good by putting pieces on, lots of pieces of detail, and that’s what makes the room feel good. Its basis is in design and aesthetics. But specifically, greebling – using model kits and kit-bashing – I don’t remember a movie that used it before 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There were other movies like Silent Running, but Star Wars was the movie that blew up the whole kit-bashing world, or created it really. That was one of the first movies to come out that also included a lot of behind-the-scenes promotion. People wanted to see how the movie was made, how the miniatures were made. We didn’t get a whole lot of that with movies predating Star Wars. The documentaries were more about actors. It wasn’t so much about the visual effects. 

Douglas Trumbull – do you think he might have helped kickstart Kit-bashing?

It’s possible, yes. The people who worked with him possibly know. I have not had the pleasure of working with him.

You started in the mid-90s at ILM, just before the Star Wars Original Trilogy was re-issued.

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Yeah, I joined in 1995.

The thing even some Star Wars fans might not realise is how much model work went into the reissues but also the prequels.

Yeah. We actually did more miniatures for the prequels than were done on the original series. A lot of people don’t know that. But when the original Star Wars came out, nobody had seen compositing, nobody had really seen motion-control cameras, and the miniatures being utilised in the way they had. That world George Lucas created was one where things looked used – that was the style for the movie, everything had to look used, old, dirty. Like, the landspeeder had panels missing from it, like an old, beat-up car. That was all part of his vision for what that world looked like. 

There were model effects in the prequels, but people assumed they were CG. So model effects are still really prevalent.

Yeah, it really is. I hear it all the time, people are like, “Don’t you ever miss it?” And I’m like, “What are you talk about? I never stopped working!” [Laughs]

It’s interesting, because I think CG came in right about the time movies also started to amp up the number of visual effects. It’s like the birth of the rollercoaster ride visual effects movie, right? So this all happened while we were still at ILM. You used to get movies that would come in and there would be like a hundred shots, and we’d be like, “Wow, a hundred VFX shots. Jurassic Park only had 65.” But then we’d hit 200, and then 300, and we’d be saying, “Woah! 300 effects shots in a movie!” Then the next thing you know we’re doing 900, then a thousand. By the time we’d finished the third Star Wars prequel it was over 2,000 shots and we stopped counting! [Laughs]

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I think what happened is, as visual effects grew, CG definitely grew faster and much bigger than miniature VFX, but we’re still doing miniature VFX. It’s just overshadowed by CG. CG definitely dominates the majority of the effects being done in movies, but it was a time when that came out that nobody had seen anything like it. It enabled us to do things in movies that we could never do before with miniatures or creature costumes and things like that. 

What do you think the future holds for kit-bashing and greebling, because now you don’t necessarily have to buy model kits – you have 3D printers. 

Yeah. You can see one behind me. We have three printers in our department alone. It’s definitely a game-changer. We do pretty much 3D print 24 hours a day for all the projects we’re working on. But we still have a hallway in the model shop filled with model kits. Any time you can get something off the shelf, it’s going to be less expensive and take less time. If you save a bunch of time and money on a model in the areas you can that really don’t matter as much as the overall feel of the model, you can spend the time and money on making really unique portions of that model. We always want to give the directors and the production designers the most bang for their buck. We design with that in mind, and we end up with a much better end result. 

Models are still used a lot in planning movies, too – that’s something you don’t see talked about very much. We’ll do a lot of kit-bashing on prototype models and in concept models, because we need to realise it visually very quickly. We don’t want to get fixated on details that are going to take a long time because we’ve got a lot of things to design. We do a lot of kit-bashing in the design process as well. 

That’s interesting. So is it the case, then, that it’s more time-efficient to physically build something as a mock-up than to build it in a 3D program?

Yeah, yeah. If you’re familiar with the techniques of model-making, it is often faster. What we’ll do is create some of the broad strokes on the computer or on a piece of paper with a sketch. We want some kind of a rough idea of what the model’s going to be, and then once we start wanting to refine that, we want to spin it around and see it in an environment. If it is in the computer we’ll 3D print it so we can see it in its environment. 

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In the 90s, there was a lot of talk of computers taking over from practical effects entirely, so it must be exciting to have a film like Interstellar, say, where there’s still a great emphasis on miniature effects. That there still directors who are really keen to put that technique front-and-centre.

Christopher Nolan’s got a really great approach, actually, to miniatures. He wants everything in camera – he wants the models to be there physically, and he understands that that’s always going to look the most real. You don’t have to fight it – you don’t have to try to make it look real. In so much of computer graphics, you have to go to a huge effort to really do that. 

So he likes to do everything full size that he can with the actors. Then he’ll resort to miniatures, but he’ll make those miniatures as large as physically possible, then maybe after that he’ll use CG to fill in the blanks. That’s great, because CG artists – Dennis Muren talks about this a lot, and he’s got more Academy Awards than any living person! – he’s always saying that CG artists copying photographs makes it easier for them to make the CG look real too.

So you have a bunch of real objects, a bunch of miniature objects, and then there’s CG to bind all those things, the miniature things based on reality raise the bar for CG, and CG raises the bar for the whole thing. So you have a benchmark you have to hit. It’s too easy to get lazy and think you’ve nailed it when you’re not copying some sort of reality, you’re creating reality completely from scratch. It’s so easy to get it wrong, because the physics engines and rendering packages on computers don’t always get it right. 

There’s that sense of handmade-ness, the sense that human hands have physically built something, which people respond to. I think the brain picks that up.

Yeah. The human brain is something we struggle with all the time in visual effects. It’s really difficult to trick, because the brain doesn’t want to be tricked – the root of human survival has always been to recognise really minor features on someone’s facial expression. Really minor details in their environment. And if there’s something wrong, alarms go off in our brain at a subconscious level and tell us that it’s wrong. So that’s a visual effects artist’s challenge – you’re trying to trick the brain. And the more reality you can put into an effect, the more it can fool the brain. That’s why the uncanny valley exists with performance capture or trying to do CG humans. Or even miniature humans – that’s really tough. We love it they’re wearing a helmet or something, or they’re just really small in the frame, because it’s really difficult to copy a human in a realistic way. 

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One of the things we can offer in the physical world, that’s difficult to achieve in the computer, is that randomness, that handmade feel. If you’re making a beat-up space ship or a beat-up car, and you drop the model or someone hits it with a hammer while you’re in the shop, maybe in a fit of rage, if something happens to it, you’ll sometimes look at it and go, “Oh. I didn’t mean to spill that paint that way, or I didn’t mean to scrape it like that”, but it looks good. It’s a happy accident, it’s something that looks good that you wouldn’t have arrived at if you’d done it in a computer, because computers want to do everything perfectly. You have to build in imperfection in computers. 

That’s why in some movies, they’ll build a physical model and then photograph it, then use those textures from the physical model to make a CG one. It’s how the pod racers were done in The Phantom Menace. The pod racers we built for that movie didn’t get shot on camera, but they did get shot on camera to turn into textures for the computer models. So the models have many different purposes now. Performance capture movies will do the miniature environments not just for design, but also take them to the green screen stage or performance capture stage, when you’re talking to Jim Carrey or whoever’s on set, they don’t know where they’re at. It’s just a giant room with a giant green screen and a bunch of motion capture cameras. So it helps them to see the miniature environment, to know what the scene’s about. What can they tap into as actors in that environment? Models serve a lot of different purposes these days.

If models are still an important part of movie making, it must be important to make sure you’re training up the next generation of model makers and artists.

It’s become more important than ever. One of the reasons I got into education is that I run a studio and there are times where I find it really difficult to find the model makers I need. Because there’s a perception that nobody really does model making anymore, a lot of people wanting to do visual effects are studying computer graphics. One of my lead guys here studied computer graphics because he thought he thought he probably couldn’t get into miniatures, now he gets to do both. Education’s been huge. The Stan Winston school  has been incredible. I definitely have some more DVDs planned. We’re all doing what we can to educate people to do the work because we need them. A lot of people think we don’t do it anymore, so that’s the added challenge not only of teaching the next generation, but letting them know we’re still doing it.

Researching this article, it’s been an education for me, because it was some sort of dying art form myself. It’s amazing to learn that it’s far bigger than you realise.

A lot of the model makers who you see in Cinefex magazine are still hard at work. None of us actually want to leave, it’s kind of addictive. It’s so gratifying, even if you’re working with a computer, to have that physical object in front of you. The schedules and budgets are really intense, but we always say if you took those two factors away, you could just call it play.

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Of the films you’ve worked on, which do you think has been the most challenging technically?

Oh boy. Every single project has its own challenges. One of my favourite things about the business is the fact that every new project is different from anything you’ve done ever done before. The challenge is more to do with getting people together to work as a group. 

In terms of blowing things up, Elysium was the hardest in terms of stress. Because we built a 12-foot-long, 12-foot-wide Raven, which was the name of the space craft in the movie, and we built an 80 foot-long set, with buildings, the whole thing. We only had one shot to crash the ship, have it laying on the ground, spin on its side, its wings break off, flames shoot out, and it has to come to a stop at a very specific location. We only had one take. Seven cameras on it, one take, and we did not have a second version of the set  or the ship. That was definitely one of the most stressful moments of my career. It was seven months of work leading up to a couple of seconds of shooting. 

That’s terrifying.

It was really intense, and it was myself and [practical effects supervisor] Geoff Heron were in charge of that, so it’s basically the two of us to blame if anything went wrong!

Blowing things up didn’t used to be as stressful because we used to get three takes for everything. So we would blow things up three times and take the best one out of those three shots. But because budgets are tight and we’re trying to squeeze so much into these movies, thousands of shots, you really only get one chance at it. They’re these big, elaborate things.

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Miniatures also aren’t as small as people expect them to be. Often we’ll refer to them as bigiatures. You can’t call them miniatures when they’re 35 feet long! 

Elysium‘s another one where you wouldn’t necessarily realise that it even has miniature effects in it. So in a way, if you can blend all the elements together that well, you’re doing the job right.

That’s the ultimate goal for any visual effects artist, is to go unnoticed. You’re driving a story, and that’s the great thing about Interstellar too – it’s really driven by story, it’s not driven by visual effects. It wasn’t one of those big, rollercoaster-ride movies. It had a lot of depth and emotion. Those are the more challenging movies too, because you don’t want people to think about visual effects. You want people to care about the characters. So if we’re doing our jobs right, we go completely unnoticed!

You’ve worked on some of my favourite films. I’m looking at your CV and thinking, oh my God, these films are amazing. You have Galaxy Quest and Starship Troopers on there. 

Starship Troopers! That would be one of my favourite movies even if I hadn’t worked on it. I love that movie. To work on it was so incredible. That’s a good example of hybrid moviemaking; we had a lot of miniatures, a lot of really spectacular CGI from Phil Tippet’s studio for the bugs. We had prosthetics and they had all the physical effects artists in that movie. The movie holds up a lot better than movies that have come out since.

Oh yeah. If you watch it now, it still looks fantastic.

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It looks great. And I think that hybrid movie-making… there are some directors out there who are pushing back to that direction. Christopher Nolan… I’m not allowed to talk about any of the others! [Laughs] But it’s great to see, because a movie like Starship Troopers is one you walk away from feeling very, very proud. Fifteen years later, and it looks better than some movies made two years ago. 

Why do you think that is? People still hold up Starship Troopers and Jurassic Park as still looking great today. Is it the hybrid quality you talked about?

It is. Jurassic Park had a lot of Stan Winston creatures in it. There are the close-ups for the feet and the heads, and we had a lot of beautiful, beautiful animatronics in that movie. Those things always integrate with the lighting in the scenes perfectly because they’re actually there. They glisten, they do all the things your brain expects an object to do, or a dinosaur to do. So I think those are the best visual effects, probably, that have ever been done. That’s why it’s exciting to see what they’re doing with these Star Wars movies. I think Star Wars will again be a big game-changer, I think people will start looking at how they did those shots and want to do it [the same way].

Fon Davis, thank you very much.