How Did “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” Use Miniatures?

Before Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) revolutionized CGI in Jurassic Park (1993), they were figuring out how to create amazing special effects with puppets, models, and miniatures. So when Steven Spielberg called, asking for help with a little project called Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the special effects wizards at ILM were forced to draw on all their powers to meet Spielberg’s vision for the second Indiana Jones flick.

Regardless of whether you loved or hated the film, you’ve got to admit, the special effects are pretty impressive, especially the famous mineshaft scene. While Spielberg actually filmed his three stars careening around a circular set, there were a few shots that were just too risky for Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, and Jonathan Ke Quan. And that’s where SFX artist Dennis Muren and the ILM crew came in.

The ILM team built a miniature mineshaft, complete with tiny tools, pint-sized barrels, and a string of scaled-down lightbulbs for perspective. The tunnel itself was made of crumpled-up aluminum foil, painted brown so it would look like rocks. Several ten-inch puppets, injected with flexible foam, were placed inside mini-mine carts, only Indy’s puppet was so big they were forced to remove its legs.

However, the diminutive tunnel posed a problem. The inside was so small that ILM couldn’t use a normal-size camera. Thinking on his feet, Muren rigged up a Nikon still camera with a magazine that held fifty feet of film. After attaching the camera to a pan and tilt mechanism, he was able to capture some pretty incredible scenes. Remember the tug-of-war between Indy and the Thugees, with Short Round as the rope? Quite a few of those shots were done in miniature and brilliantly blended with the live-action footage.

Only things took another tricky turn when it came time for the villainous Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) to dump a tower full of water into the tunnel in an attempt to drown our heroes. The ILM crew was dealing with 11,000 pounds of water so they built a quarter-size replica of the actual mineshaft set in a nearby parking lot, reinforcing the walls and floor with waterproof roofing materials, urethane foam, sand, and concrete pillars. And when it came time to release the water, that’s when Dennis Muren brought in the air cannons. Why? Well, check the video below to hear it straight from Canadian visual effects artist Lorne Peterson.

Of course, the ILM artists weren’t the only ones using miniatures on Temple of Doom. Associate producer Robert Watts brought production designer Elliott Smith on board, and the Englishman got busy working before filming began.

While preparing for his action extravaganza, Spielberg used extensive storyboards to plan his shots. (He even brought the storyboards to the set.) However, the director went one step further by having Smith build elaborate models of key set pieces like the rock crusher, the mineshaft, and the quarry. Thanks to these miniatures, Spielberg was able to visualize how the scenes would unfold, using little paper characters to stage the action.

Miniatures were also used to create the Bangkok palace and some impressive scenes involving an airplane. During one sequence when Indiana Jones travels to India by air, we see a shot of the plane flying over the Great Wall of China. As it turns out, both the plane and the Wall are miniatures, built by ILM and filmed by the folks at Dream Quest Images. And moments later, when the plane skims over the Himalayas, it’s really a model maneuvering over a fake mountain sculpted out of coal, coated with baking soda and micro balloons, safely resting on the rooftop of ILM headquarters.