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Visual Effects Artist’s Miniature Sets, Dioramas Enhance ‘Hereditary’

In addition to creating prosthetics for “Hereditary,” multidisciplinary Toronto-based visual effects artist Steve Newburn designed and built the miniature house and dioramas that are key to the storytelling in writer-director Ari Aster’s supernatural horror film, now in theaters.

“To be able to get in on the miniature side, which in this day and age of computer effects is not something that’s really done as much anymore, was a lot of fun,” says Newburn, whose credits include “The Mummy,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception.” “If I could spend the next 10 years doing projects like this with the miniature work featured so prominently, it would be a nice 10 years.”

Miniatures are seen throughout “Hereditary” because the film’s main character, Annie Graham (Toni Collette), specializes in that art form, drawing inspiration from her family’s everyday life, which takes a dark turn after her mother dies. “The miniatures tell you about her state of mind,” says Newburn, who crafted several dioramas depicting various settings for the disquieting film, including a preschool, an art gallery and a hospice.

While “Hereditary” was shot at Park City Film Studios in Heber City, Utah, Newburn and a crew of 10 built the film’s miniatures at his shop in Toronto and shipped them across the border. “Everything was built to be modular, with flyaway walls, like you would do with a full-size set,” Newburn says.

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Meticulously crafted, the structures were built in traditional carpentry fashion but out of lightweight materials such as basswood and balsa wood. “It’s a lot of math making things smaller but building them properly,” Newburn says, pointing out that the diorama of a funeral home had walls that were built to code.

Newburn and his crew also created the furnishings inside each miniature. Some of the more ornate pieces, including a piano, were made by hand. Other items, including the chairs in the preschool and the computers, telephones and light fixtures in the hospice, were 3D-printed. “To make a chair like the ones in the preschool by hand would take a couple of hours. We made 30 of them in about an hour with the 3D printer,” Newburn says. “Once the file is drawn — and you can draw it in 20 or 30 minutes — you send it to the printer and it just spits them out. It’s far more efficient.”

“If I could spend the next 10 years doing projects like this with the miniature work featured so prominently, it would be a nice 10 years.”
Steve Newburn

The largest, most complex miniature seen in the movie is a replica of the Graham family’s Craftsman-style house, measuring nine feet across by four and a half feet deep. Newburn worked closely with Grace Yun, the film’s production designer, to ensure every detail in the smaller Graham home corresponded to the life-size sets she created.

The replica of the Graham house is featured in the opening shot of “Hereditary,” which finds the camera zooming into a bedroom in the dollhouse only to reveal people — Annie’s son, Peter (Alex Wolff), and her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) — in the room.

“Ari wanted to do these visual mind tricks where you don’t really understand where you are or what’s going on,” says Newburn, who was delighted by the director’s inventiveness. “You just don’t expect to see somebody walk into the miniature.”

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