Rivendell – Miniature or CG ?


I’m sure most of you have seen both the “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy and the first Episode of the new one “the Hobbit : an unexpected journey”. Some of the action happens in Rivendell, where the big boss of the Elves, Elrond, lives a happy and long life with his very old friends and family. Rivendell is supposed to be a very peaceful place, with nice elvish architectures, precious materials, a permanent golden hour light during the day, waterfalls, trees, and birds.
For the first movie, Weta decided to build Rivendell as a Miniature. The work on this model was amazing. There was a lot of details everywhere, nice painting, and I must say, I’m a big fan of it. Here is how it looked like.


The big advantage of using a miniature like this one is for the lighting. You can have a very natural sense of light by reproducing the lighting from the set at the scale of the miniature and using real lighting sources. All the lights and shadows will be real, and the way the different materials and colours will react to these lights will assure the best realism you could hope. Of course, it might need a bit of additional painting work here and there to fix small issues, or add few more details. But it’s a pretty solid base to have, and I’m convinced that most of the time, it probably gives more realism to the shot than using a Full 3D approach.

Here are 3 exemple of DMP made by Dylan Cole for LOTR, based on the miniature. Roll over to see the original photo. The lighting on the miniature drives the rest of the environment.

Rivendell 1
Rivendell 2
Rivendell 3

At the end, I personally think that Rivendell works very well in the shots. It feels natural to me. The most important on this kind of environment is to have the lighting correct on the building. For the rest of the DMP, mountains and trees, it’s easier to make it work. We don’t need to be “that” precise. That’s why we can keep a DMP approach.
Here are some examples of Rivendell views from Lord of the Ring.

Of course, on the other hand, you have loads of limitations using miniatures. First, and probably the most important, once it’s built, you can’t move anything around any more, and it term of flexibility it’s a nightmare. You want to be able to move this tower a bit on the right, or rotate this house of 15 degrees. On the top of that, you may have to break some part of it, or make them move, which is almost impossible to do right if we use a miniature. We still can use miniatures for explosions for example, like the White House shot in ID4, but it means you can do it just one time and it’s finished. We never would do it today, as we want to be able to control everything, and be able to tweak all the parameters, smoke, fire, debris, etc.

In the Hobbit, Rivendell has been build full CG, with a lot of different assets textured, lookdeved, and put together in the scene. Then, you can place your lighting and a TD can control everything, layout, lighting, textures, to render the most beautiful image and directly pass it to comp, or give it to a DMP/Env Artist who will do a bit of paint over.
It’s quite good as a method, except that this time, everything is based on the look dev and the lighting.

Let’s be clear, it still gives very good results, and in term of flexibility it’s perfect, as you can do pretty much everything you want. Let’s have a look at the full CG Rivendell of the Hobbit.

It still look very nice !
So the question is : is it better to use a miniature and real reaction of a real light onto a painted model, even if you don’t have as many controls as you’d like, or is it better to go for a full 3D build, and recreate the reality by tweaking shaders, textures, and lights ? It’s an open question I think. If I perfectly understand that production wise, it’s better to be able to change everything until the end, artistic wise, it may be interesting to think about it.

The answer could eventually be to do both. If we 3D scan a miniature like Rivendell and use this scan as the base of the 3D model, we still can develop a 3D asset, fully textured and lookdeved. Then for a shot, you can put some light around your miniature, and use it as a reference for the lighting TD to match as close as he can the real photography of the Environment. Of course it cost a bit more, but at the end, we may have the final result faster.

Feel free to share your thoughts about this, I’d be glad to discuss it with you.