Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Hindenberg Flies Again

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Hindenberg Flies Again

Article excerpt

To reincarnate the Hindenburg and make it fly again, a complex 25-foot miniature was constructed in such fine detail that it could do many of the same things as its full-size, real-life "Big Brother"

The miniature of the dirigible that plays the title role in "THE HINDENBURG" may not seem very "miniature" in view of the fact that it was 25 feet long, but that turns out to be a rather small scale when one considers that the real Hindenburg was 800 feet long. It was a beautiful miniature, however, and large enough to enable us to get a wide variety of effects. Glen Robinson was in charge of its construction and he's an extremely talented man in this field - an expert engineer, a very creative person and one of the finest men I've ever worked with.

The miniature was built with attention to the smallest details and was suspended by wires from overhead tracks on the largest stage at Universal City Studios, so that it could travel a distance of 200 feet. We had several excellent backgrounds of appropriate length against which to move the miniature.

We also had "cloud machines" to create the effect of clouds required in many of the scenes. Managing those clouds always takes a bit of doing, because you've got to cover the floor with dry ice in order to keep the temperature very low on the stage. On a hot day this is always more of a problem because the vapors tend to rise. All in all, however, cooling off the stage with dry ice held the clouds beautifully and they look very realistic on the screen.

There was one sequence that gave us something of a problem. In it the airship moves out of a very heavy storm and, as we travel with it across the stage, it goes out of dense clouds into more of a clear area. In the storm area we wanted lightning, so way up at the top of the stage we had to clear a space to put the "scissors" for the lightning effect. I was gambling. I wasn't sure the effect would come off, and it was a lot of work getting it up there, but everything went along very well.

We had a control board on the floor of the stage which was connected to an overhead carriage by means of cables which travelled with this carriage, but were out of the picture, and this arrangement could control the movement of the miniature at any speed we wanted. It even made possible remote control of the dirigible's elevators and rudder. In actual practice, however, we never made use of that facility because the movement of the elevators on the real ship would be so slight that it would be practically imperceptible.

The miniature was very complete. It had two little motors on each side and lights inside the gondola and other areas of the ship that could be remotely controlled. Some very talented people worked with Glen Robinson in building these facilities into the model and they had to be almost like watchmakers in order to make all of the little details work.

Ordinarily, moving miniatures have to be photographed at several times normal speed in order to create realistic action, and the frame rate is directly proportional to the scale of the miniature. In this case, however, we found that the dirigible moved so smoothly when suspended from the overhead tracks that we could turn the camera at only two times normal speed; we didn't have to go up to real high speeds. Actually, the only reason for overcranking at all was to control the movement of the clouds. You put the clouds in and try to shoot when the formations look good, but they are usually moving a little too fast. After making tests we found that a speed of 48 frames per second was just right for controlling the cloud movements.

Lighting the miniature presented some initial problems. We made some preliminary tests using an improvised backing (which wasn't used in the picture). I used sky-pans so the entire area was illuminated by no direct source - just what appeared to be sky reflection. We couldn't put any lights on the floor of the stage because that was covered with dry ice and there was a lower cloud layer lying three or four feet above the floor. …

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