The Work of Master Model Builder Greg Jein

By David Konow

We chat with modelmaker Greg Jein about his work on Closer Encounters, 1941, and Star Trek.

Back in the early eighties, a number of magazines dedicated to special effects brought the work of artists into the spotlight. Publications like Cinefex and Cinefantastique helped a number of effects mavens became stars in their own right, like Rick Baker, Dick Smith, and Tom Savini, to name a few. But it wasn't just make-up artists that became well known among film geeks. Greg Jein became a legend in the model building world, thanks to his work on Close Encounters, 1941, The Hunt For Red October, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and more. Jein is still working steadily as a master model builder in the age of CGI--he was working on the show Black Sails when we reached out to him to talk about his career and current work.

When Rick Baker started creating monsters out of latex, there wasn't the huge effects industry there is today. Jein didn't think of going into the movie industry as a model builder at first, "I just sort of blundered into the business," he told us with a laugh. "I used to watch a lot of war movies as a kid growing up," Jein said. "I still like airplanes. I used to go to a lot of airshows, and I started making some models. What actually got me started was I never had a major in college, so I finally took an art major."

Through friends, Jein heard that Sea World needed some fiberglass props, and he eventually hooked up with an effects company called Cascade. "A lot of this stemmed from the Cascade guys, and the hi-tech commercials like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, the Green Giant…a lot of the Star Wars guys came from that."

Jein then broke into making models for low budget films like Flesh Gordon, and John Carpenter's Dark Star. On Gordon, Jein was getting paid $75 a week, and there were times he didn't get paid at all, but he still had fun working on it, and his work on Dark Star soon brought him to the attention of Douglas Trumbull (2001, Silent Running).

"I always considered Doug one of my mentors," Jein says. "He was the one who hired me for my first big jobs, and I always saw him developing things. Doug's imagination was boundless, and he was always encouraging me. He'd say, 'We don't have any hard drawings, do something you like here.'"

Jein and Trumbull worked together on Close Encounters, which like Star Wars was considered the effects movie of its time. According to a report in Jade magazine, the mothership in Close Encounters was six feet in diameter, and weighed several hundred pounds. It was made of plexiglass, fiberglass, steel, and plywood, and it took two months to build. Thousands of holes had to be drilled into the ship to set up the wiring for the lights, and many people, including Steven Spielberg, took turns drilling holes.

"It took a number of guys to move it around," Jein said. "There were lots of little lights, and big banks of neon in there too." As far as everyone taking turns drilling holes, "We were strapped for time, and even the secretaries, when they had time, could drill holes on the ship."

In Joseph McBride's biography of Steven Spielberg, the director recalled the idea for the mothership was inspired by a trip to Bombay, where he saw an oil refinery with thousands of lights shining in the night. Then one night he was up on Mulholland Drive, "and I got on my head on the hood of my car and looked out at all the lights from the San Fernando Valley upside down. I thought that would be incredible as the underbelly of this oil refinery from Bombay."

It was on Close Encounters that Jein became known for his incredible attention to detail, adding lots of teeny little pieces to his work that looked extraordinary on the big screen. "I think that kind of detailing appeared in the sixties," Jein says. "People would add different things to flying saucers, you weren't used to those kinds of details. All the little details were added on because nobody stopped me! I didn't want to see any blank spaces with open planes. 'Put something here…a (tiny) mailbox, or a Volkswagen. They won't know it's there unless they zoom in on it.'"

While Star Wars and Close Encounters were major breakthroughs for effects technology, Jein says, "It never dawned on me that these were real milestone breakthroughs. I just thought it was the way that things should be advancing. I think technology builds on itself, everyone tries to one up the last thing."

When Jein first started creating models, he worked in fiberglass, modeling paste, and different varieties of foam. "We'd learn how to utilize the weaknesses and strengths of the foam. We'd vacuform a smooth surface over it, which I learned how to use from Doug Trumbull. I prefer something harder that I can sand on, at first I was leery about working with foam, but I've gotten used to it now. It's fast and light, and you can do things a lot faster with it."

After Close Encounters, Spielberg hired Jein for the World War II comedy 1941, which broke even more ground for modern model building. Bob Gale, who co-wrote the movie with Bob Zemeckis, thought 1941 had "the best miniature stuff ever filmed," and 1941 would be the hardest, as well as the most rewarding, movie Jein ever worked on.

"1941, and Star Trek the Motion Picture, which I also worked on, were the ones that really tested everybody's strength and endurance," he says. "Sometimes we didn't leave the lot for three days."

One of the reasons 1941 had so much miniature footage is because Spielberg got tired of waiting for the opticals to come back on Close Encounters, and he wanted to do the effects in camera as much as possible.

One of the reasons 1941 had so much miniature footage is because Spielberg got tired of waiting for the opticals to come back on Close Encounters, and he wanted to do the effects in camera as much as possible. There were also cost considerations on 1941, even though the movie's budget eventually went way out of control. "They (obviously) couldn't cordon off or rebuild Hollywood Boulevard," Jein says.

Jein's recreations of Hollywood Boulevard and Ocean Park are indeed remarkable, to the point where he rebuilt Ocean Park from the blue prints because it didn't exist anymore. The model buildings of Hollywood Boulevard were twenty-five feet high, and he had the streets lined up with tiny Christmas street ornaments.

As Jein told a reporter, "All the arcades have little games in them. The delicatessen has sausages, and the refrigerators are full of food." Not to mention there were miniature newspapers strewn in the street, and tiny covers of Time and Life on the newsstands.

For many years on the Universal Studios Tour, the ferris wheel from 1941 was displayed for fans to show how miniature models really work. There's a scene in the film where the ferris wheel comes loose, rolls off a pier, and falls into the ocean. The scene required a second take that wasn't in the budget.

"We shot in the morning," Jein says. "As it goes down the pier, it's supposed to pick up a debris trail and rip up the pier. Steven said, 'I want to shoot this again, but I want to make sure that when the ferris wheel goes into he water, I want there to be a bigger explosion, and I want all the lights to stay on as it goes into the water.' We had to quickly repair it, waterproof it, and we had to rebuild the pier. It took seven, eight hours to set it up for another shot."

Working in television, Jein found that schedules can be even rougher. "There's less money in TV. On Star Trek, sometimes we had only three weeks to build something." In the case of Black Sails, Jein similarly had three and a half weeks to build a six-foot schooner.

While working in miniatures can certainly be very time consuming, Jein considers it a kind of therapy. "It's like basket weaving. You're focusing on the task, not worrying about the pets, or the family, or whatever. I almost find it a necessity. I don't want to be distracted by anything, I just want to focus on what I need to get done."

Greg Jein inside the Dyson Sphere miniature used in Star Trek: The Next Generation

Even with the effects advances of the last forty years, Jein's model work still looks great, and he subscribes to the Lucas "used universe" theory. "On the old Gerry Anderson models, they'd use tape to break up the surface and do a lot of aging," Jein says. "It made it look like the ships have been kicked around, and it seemed to add more credibility to the model instead of it being a shiny spaceship."

Many filmmakers today are huge fans of practical effects, which is thankfully keeping Jein in business. "Christopher Nolan is a big model fan, Wes Anderson loves them too. So there's still a big soft spot in many people's hearts for miniatures."

On Interstellar, Jein told me the space station was created with 3D printing, which created more accurate parts to piece together, and of course it was a faster technology to work with. In the case of 3D printing, it's not a case of a new technology trying to replace the old, "It's more about trying to meet the schedule," Jein says. "I'd like to learn (more) about 3D printing so I can make my own toys!"

While it is indeed harder to get work as a model builder, Jein doesn't think the need for models will disappear any time soon. "It may happen, but it probably won't happen in my lifetime," he says. "It's like in the days where you'd hire an artist to paint a portrait of a family. That eventually got replaced by photography, but there are still people who paint portraits. So I don't think it's going to quite die off. When you go to a museum, you can see a photo in a kiosk, or you could see a real dinosaur skeleton. I'd choose the big dinosaur skeleton!"