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In a world that’s becoming increasingly more literal by the year, it’s intoxicating to realize that your eyes have betrayed you.

For many fans of genre filmmaking, that feeling is what initially pulled our tastes towards the bizarre and dream-like. It’s a realm containing stories that give us permission to discard the rational portions of our brains for a couple of hours and embrace the possibilities of the imagination. Coupled with this escape is the promise of sights that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world but are somehow made flesh. These visual achievements elicit the same sense of childlike excitement you experience when encountering a particularly convincing magician: you know you’ve been fooled but, almost giddily, have no idea how.

When we think of special effects, what usually comes to mind are the times when monsters from our nightmares have been pulled into reality – classics like An American Werewolf in London [1981] or The Fly [1986] immediately spring to mind – or illusions showcasing impossible feats have evaporated our disbelief; 1978’s Superman promised “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly” and damned if that wasn’t the case for this reviewer when he was a child. But there’s also something to be said for the cinematic wizardry that goes into creating effects that replicate the common place as well as the fantastic.

Miniatures have been used in film for as long as people have been making movies – Georges Méliès’1902 silent wonder A Trip to the Moon is one early example – but while I love pint-sized starships, monsters, and alien terrains, I’ve always found miniatures of earthly entities and locations more fascinating simply for the fact that they have the ability to deceive our well-educated eyes in a way the whimsical variety can’t. And in my mind, one of the greatest instances of this is found in John Carpenter’s ground-breaking action-thriller, Escape from New York (1981).

When the effects team over at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures was hired to work on the film, they were faced with the problem of how best to depict the title city. In the film, Manhattan Island has been evacuated and turned into a maximum-security prison where criminals from all over the country are sent to rot. Security walls have been erected on the shores of the area surrounding the island, bridges and tunnels have been collapsed or fitted with landmines, and electricity for the entire penal colony has been shut off. The majority of the film’s action (ex-military war hero turned bank robber Snake Plissken must save the President of the United States after is hijacked and Air Force One crashes) takes place in Manhattan, but the early scenes where we see the shadow-cloaked island from the outside were absolutely essential in setting the scene for Escape’s dystopian premise.

As brothers Dennis and Robert Skotak (Director of Photography of Special VFX and Unit Supervisor/Matte Artist respectively) relate in the making-of mini-documentary Big Trouble in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York, the challenges their team encountered were daunting. Flanked on either side by time and budgetary restraints (they had promised to work fast and cheap in order to secure the job from other VFX crews), they first had to figure out whether shooting the real-life Manhattan island was possible.

For fairly obvious reasons, night filming of the location simply couldn’t work. Even if the production could afford to block off vehicle and pedestrian traffic on the streets, lights in the surrounding office buildings couldn’t be extinguished and would stick out like thousands of blazing sore thumbs. Day-for-night shooting (the technique where film shot during the day is darkened to simulate evening) was also kicked around, but this was thankfully given the boot. Finally, the miniature method was settled upon which opened up a whole new can of worms.

Replicating a location as dense as Manhattan would involve an incredible attention to detail. Scale clearly comes into play here but it’s proportion to objects that would later be inserted into certain key shots (like the scenes where we see helicopters flying across the Hudson River towards the island) would need to match up in order to maintain the realism they were striving for. Coupled with this were the challenges of maintaining accuracy in terms of both the location of the buildings on the island as well as their mirroring of their real-world counterparts.

If this were being done today, a quick visit to Google would have provided them with all the reference points they’d need in a matter of minutes. It being the age of analog, however, meant that the crew had to get creative. A street map of the island was photographed, and its negative was projected onto a wall. They then proceeded to outline with black tape the map’s details across a ten-foot by ten-foot grid, ensuring that every structure and street that graced Manhattan was accounted for. This would serve as the base of the eventual miniature city.

With the island’s layout plotted, they now needed to find as many photographs of Manhattan as possible to use as reference points for the myriad of buildings they needed to construct. They painstakingly replicated the structures out of cardboard using a tourism pamphlet for the area. Any aspect of a building that was visible in the pictures was recreated, with the crew going as far as counting each individual floor so that their models would sport the same number of stories seen in real life.

As the famous skyline took shape, the question of how best to fabricate the surrounding Hudson River came next. Once again, a simple but incredibly effective solution was discovered. The team noticed that the concrete ground of the studio they were working in displayed a series of ripples that had hardened into place when the floor was being laid. When the ground got wet, and if seen under the lighting that was being used to simulate a moonlit Manhattan, it looked remarkably like the glistening surface of a body of water, complete with tiny waves. The uncanny effect was so deceptively simple that they actually tried to keep John Carpenter away from the studio so that he wouldn’t see how it was achieved in fear that he might not believe it would work on camera.

The end product of all these moments of MacGyver-like resourcefulness is a miniature city that is the epitome of movie magic. As a teenager I rented this film over and over again from our local video store, and it never occurred to me during those many viewings that what I was seeing on our television screen wasn’t the real Manhattan. When I found out that it was one massive model (I must sheepishly admit that this realization only happened recently when I purchased Scream Factory’s fantastic special edition of Escape) I was absolutely floored and weirdly delighted. Even with today’s brilliant 4K releases, the shots featuring the island from afar still look incredibly real. Part of this is due to the script requiring the city be shrouded in shadow, which certainly worked to the crew’s advantage, but the real credit goes to the special effects masters who worked on the film and their meticulous attention to detail.

There are modern examples of miniatures in some of the blockbusters of recent years – Casino Royale [2006], Inception [2010], and Blade Runner 2049 [2017] are just a few – but the craft is used less and less thanks to the advent of CGI. So it goes. Many other forms of in-camera effects have also gone the way of the dodo, but no matter what side of the fence you find yourself in the great “Digital vs Practical” debate that continues to rage on, we can all agree on the fact that films like Escape from New York stand as a testament to human ingenuity, and, maybe more importantly, serve to remind us of the strange joy that comes with being duped by cinema.

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