In one of the opening scenes of Wes Anderson’s latest movie, capital letters poke off the top of a mid-rise building advertising a magazine and its office below. The French Dispatch, about the foreign bureau of a New Yorker-ish American publication, is set in a made-up French town, and much of its action takes place within the rooms of this sign-topped building.
But the office of The French Dispatch is actually an architectural illusion. Though a very real motor scooter drives by on the street below and a grizzled editor can be seen looking out one of its third-floor windows, the sign above, wired for lighting and sturdily mounted on a metal frame, is little more than a few yards wide.
The sign is a scaled model that’s been built by a team of miniature model makers and overlaid on film footage of the actual building in a village somewhere in France. The tops of neighboring buildings in the background are models, too, crafted by a team of talented artisans who’ve managed to persevere amid the increasing digitization of special effects and the rise of computer-generated imagery (CGI).
Simon Weisse is the Berlin-based model maker whose studio is the skunkworks behind the delicate, detailed, and undeniably handmade miniatures that are featured in a growing number of Anderson’s films. “Even this you could have done in CGI,” Weisse says of the miniature signs and buildings he built for The French Dispatch. “But Wes wanted models.”
Models have become something of a trademark for Anderson, appearing regularly in both his stop-motion animation films, such as Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, and his primarily live-action films, such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and, now, The French Dispatch, which is being released in the U.S. October 22.
Miniature models are a special effect that the film industry has long relied on. They’re handy for the times a film calls for a building or a spaceship to explode, for example, or for those brief establishing shots where nobody will really notice that the haunted house on a distant hill is actually two feet tall and made of balsa wood. In Anderson’s films, miniature models are part of a highly curated design aesthetic that’s become its own genre.
So when Anderson needs very specific models for his details-rich films, Weisse and his team of eccentric craftspeople build them. They spent months building about 20 models for The French Dispatch, including the office sign, various cityscapes, and a large cargo plane that splits in half to reveal a cross section of the passengers within. Weisse’s Berlin studio is a mad laboratory full of obscure tools, a rainbow spectrum of natural and synthetic materials, and skilled artists who are at once keeping a dying craft alive and pushing it into new and surprisingly relevant directions.
Three courtyards back in the kind of Berlin building that seems to have no end, a garage door is wide open to Weisse’s model shop, where tools and tiny sculptures overflow the apartment-size space like a hardware store that’s been taken over by art students. Inside on this warm summer day, a half dozen people are intently focused on at least as many tiny objects in their hands, and on one large model spreading across the room for a top secret project. Paint and epoxy is in the air. In the rare places where there’s space, models from previous film projects are on display. Practically every surface has something on it, and any nook large enough to fit a cutting mat and a chair has someone on it, cutting, painting, and molding away.
The model makers are an international crew of various ages, backgrounds, and eccentricities, not unlike the ensemble cast of a Wes Anderson film. Some have loose backgrounds in architecture and design, others in carpentry and building. One cut his teeth making fake guts for a television medical drama. Another is so model-obsessed that when he leaves work, he goes home and builds more models. Most have established themselves in this field purely through dexterity and practice.
Like apprentices grinding individual parts for some intricate clockwork, they have all learned to do this work on the job by assisting others, like Simon Weisse.
Compact, calm, and informal, Weisse runs the studio as its nominal head, but everyone working there is a freelancer, accustomed to the intermittent flow of work, based on production schedules decided by people several layers of bureaucracy away. Depending on the film, Weisse may call in 20 or 30 people to make models for months at a time. Other projects may require just his own hands, now more than 60 years old.
Weisse grew up in France. He found himself working on film effects in the late 1980s by the will of an impatient parent. Weisse was in art school, and his father, a still photographer who worked in the film industry, was skeptical of it leading anywhere and reluctantly pulled some strings. “I was always working on stuff with my hands,” Weisse says. “Because I was a lazy student, my father said to me, ‘Maybe I can find you an internship in production.'”
Gigs on a few small German and French productions led to a job on the special effects crew for the 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a fantastical cavalcade of costumes and visual illusions including giant disembodied heads floating in space and a ship carried over a castle wall by a hot air balloon. English crew members took him under their wings and got him even more formative experience making miniature models on the two effects-heavy sequels to The NeverEnding Story in the early 1990s. Weisse worked under Derek Meddings, an eminent British miniature designer who had built models and sets for several James Bond and Superman films, as well as the sci-fi marionette television show Thunderbirds. “He was the godfather of miniature sets,” Weisse says. The exposure showed him the makings of a career building tiny things for the movies. He opened a small studio in Berlin, near Europe’s largest film studio.
Bigger projects followed. In the mid ’90s, Weisse got hired to make models for the big budget Hollywood film Event Horizon, which was released in 1997. It was a break for Weisse, but also had the tint of a high-water mark. Just as he was establishing himself as a go-to miniature model maker, computer-generated effects began replacing the physical effects filmmakers had relied on for decades. A spaceship or castle that might have been built by hand a few years earlier was now being done faster and cheaper with 3D modeling software.
“I said to myself, OK, it’s done,” Weisse recalls.
But the need for physical elements didn’t completely go away. Through his connections with Studio Babelsberg, the large film studio located outside Berlin, Weisse continued to land jobs, mostly designing and fabricating props like the specialized guns and weapons used in action films. Even if everything around an actor is green-screened and added in post-production, the stuff they manipulate in their hands often has to be ready for the final cut.
Some of Weisse’s props ended up in what he considered to be great films, like the sci-fi mind-bender Cloud Atlas. Other projects—the horror film Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, for example—kept the lights on at the studio.
“Sometimes you concentrate on the work, and you don’t think about the rest,” Weisse says.
Weisse’s model making had evolved into prop making. Gun and weapons, after all, are hardly uncommon in the movies. It could have been a stable source of income for the foreseeably violent future. But then Wes Anderson came to town.
It was 2013, and Anderson was planning to shoot his next project, The Grand Budapest Hotel, in the German city of Görlitz, a few hours outside Berlin. Anderson needed several models, including a large exterior model of the fictional hotel itself. Weisse got the call.
The model his team built, based on sketches and concepts from production designer Adam Stockhausen, is ornate and bright pink, mashing up various 17th and 18th century European design details to create a magical mountaintop resort. Shown in wide angles in the film, the hotel model is undoubtedly a model, and charmingly so. With materials ranging from chicken wire and masking tape to 3D printed window details, the model is a tiny piece of handmade architecture.
“I’ve always loved miniatures in general,” Anderson told the New York Times about the model in 2014. “The particular brand of artificiality that I like to use is an old-fashioned one.”
Anderson was unavailable for an interview for this article because he’s currently filming his next project, which will be the fourth of his films to include Weisse’s models.
Weisse’s work doesn’t just look good on camera. It’s museum-quality design and construction, and has been exhibited around the world, including at the premier institution celebrating film miniatures, the Musée Cinéma et Miniature in Lyon, France.
The museum is dedicated to the physical and technical arts that underpin movie magic, and its collections include a hoverboard from Back to the Future, costumes from various superhero movies, and pieces of model buildings that have been exploded in action films. It’s a collection that argues for the physical and, by proxy, against the computerized.
“Computer-generated imagery was a revolution, and many practical effects techniques were then replaced, even if the result was sometimes awful,” says Laurie Courbier, cinema collections and exhibitions manager at the museum. “Digital effects are very good nowadays, but often it looks like a video game. Nothing looks as real as a real thing, even if it’s miniaturized.”
The museum has hosted one previous show on Anderson’s films featuring Weisse’s models from The Grand Budapest Hotel as well as sets and puppets from Fantastic Mr. Fox, which Weisse did not work on. Courbier says the museum is planning an exhibition featuring models from Weisse’s studio that were built for Isle of Dogs, such as the skyline of Megasaki City, the film’s setting, and the imposing purple mountain in its background. She hopes to include models from The French Dispatch, as well.
“Often in the business, models are created ‘just’ for some fast effects. Simon’s work is so impressive that it’s a real part of the set design, not only an effect,” Courbier says. “It’s changing the view on miniature work in general.”
One of Weisse’s keys to visual fidelity is that he always uses a camera to film his models as they’re being built and refined to make sure their dimensions and perspectives come across to the viewer.
“It’s not easy,” he concedes.
That could be part of why so few people specialize in this craft. Seeing these models in a museum surfaces the question of whether this uncommon form of filmmaking is on display because it’s so good, or because it’s becoming history.
Weisse prefers the former, but also knows that the pipeline of talent is limited. “We are not a lot of people doing this in Europe, or even in America,” Weisse says. “Hand-gifted people are not easy to find.”
In the studio, a half dozen people are chipping away at their own small parts of a scene that will one day have a few moments on the big screen.
One is adjusting paint to get just the right look of rust on a tiny ladder. Another is wiring the electronics to connect small flashing light bulbs. A quick “Sorry!” is shouted out before a bandsaw whirrs up and noisily cuts through a rod of metal. In the hands of these model makers, that piece of metal could become almost anything.
At a desk canyoned by cabinets of thin drawers full of materials and gizmos, Peter Mühlenkamp reaches up to pull a bicycle off the wall. It’s an orange road bike, with fenders over the thin rubber tubes, front and tail lights, and a leather case on a rack over the back wheel. It’s also about a foot long. Mühlenkamp built this bicycle from scratch using tiny rods for the frame, bits of plastic and precisely carved pieces of metal, intricately shrinking the dozens of parts of a typical bike down to something a Barbie could ride. The bicycle is one of the 20 or so models made in Weisse’s shop that are featured in The French Dispatch, and its working pedals and wheels are typical of the level of detail put into each one. Mühlenkamp even tucked an extra, likely invisible detail into the tiny notepad mounted on the handlebars. It’s a grocery list, including a German’s idea of French staples: red wine, cigarettes, and a baguette.
Mühlenkamp, who sometimes leads his own prop- and model-making projects, is one of the more senior members of Weisse’s studio. Mühlenkamp is also likely the most qualified of the model makers, on paper at least, with a few years of experience backstage at a theater and training at a three-year program in the U.K. covering technical arts and special effects for film and television. That may be why he’s leading the studio’s embrace of a wider range of technologies to build their physical models. On his computer, he runs 3D modeling software that can provide the specs to have parts of a physical model cut or printed, saving time, and easing the inevitable adjustments that come when it’s put on camera for Weisse to review.
The basement of Weisse’s studio is a mashup of these various tools, old and new. In one corner is a massive lathe used to carve up chunks of wood. In another is a CNC milling machine and laser engraver that can use computer models to rapidly produce minute embellishments like the control-panel buttons for an airplane or the brick that’s been exposed by a crack in a wall’s plaster.
But Weisse also knows that he can’t solely rely on technology like a 3D printer to get a miniature model to look just right. “People think you can do everything with it, but no,” he says. “For us, it’s just another tool.”
Though the digital revolution seemed to threaten its existence, the physical model is not becoming obsolete. In the years since The Grand Budapest Hotel, physical model making is being rediscovered as one approach in a larger set of special effects. As computer imaging and compositing processes improve, there are new ways for physical models to be used in conjunction, blending into scenes that may be part CGI, part set, and part miniature model.
The model makers at Weisse’s studio have adapted along with these changes, finding new ways of making physical models that can augment, or even improve, the effects generated digitally.
“Technology didn’t just stop for us,” says Mühlenkamp. “It’s a co-evolution.”
For The French Dispatch, one of the major models Weisse’s studio created is a 30-foot-long streetscape that forms the backdrop of some of the miniature and stop-motion action in the film. Its main focus is a long block of semi-disheveled building facades, with a distant home-covered hill, and a barren lowlands sprinkled with small shacks. The perspective on all of it is forced, and designed specifically to be captured by a camera and projected dozens of feet high in a movie theatre.
Balancing these scales—the tiny and the huge—is the trick, and much of the reason Weisse is so revered for what he does, according to Tristan Oliver. He’s a cinematographer who, like Weisse, has found his own niche in the micro-world of stop-motion animation. He shot the miniature scenes for The French Dispatch, as well as Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr. Fox, and several stop-motion films featuring the characters Wallace and Gromit.
“It’s finding a scale that works without being too tiny, otherwise it all looks a bit toylike,” Oliver says. “The secret is to make it look vast.”
A lot of what was done on The French Dispatch, Oliver says, is what’s known as a set extension—using a model of a sign superimposed over film of a full-scale building, for example. This technique is actually quite old, with matte paintings used to extend the horizon on western movies or stand in for the infinity of outer space. With the advent of CGI, that approach had mostly disappeared.
“Now people want that more analog, organic feel, so it’s coming back,” Oliver says. “We have embraced modern technology, which has certainly made the process a little easier. But the hands-on nature of it hasn’t changed at all.”
Weisse sees digital technology increasing the ability for these older techniques to be used in conjunction with the new. It’s also leading to more work. Weisse’s crew recently spent several months working on the forthcoming Matrix film, and Anderson’s needs seem to be running steady. It’s enough to keep Weisse’s fleet of freelancers in the fold, particularly when the films are made with such care. For models that may only receive a few seconds of screen time after months of meticulous handicraft, it helps when the final film is actually watchable.
Weisse compares the model makers in his studio to the actors that appear in Anderson’s ensemble-rich films, if only as a brief cameo or a character with just a scene or two. “All my crew prefers to work with Wes. And me,” he says, grinning.
After decades eking out a career in a specialized corner of the fickle movie business, he’s earned a little pride. And though he has no stated plans to retire, his working years may be dwindling, which means passing the torch onto the next generation. Forward-looking model makers like Mühlenkamp seem eager to help the bespoke field evolve. And so could Weisse’s own daughter, Lucy. She’s been working alongside him in the studio for a few years and now has a gradually growing list of credits as a model maker.
“Like my father told me, I told my daughter, ‘Don’t ever work in the film industry,'” Weisse says. Breaking this rule seems to be a family tradition.