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`IT'S A LITTLE HARD TO HIDE A MINIATURE SET THAT'S SO BIG ...'.

Byline: P.J. Huffstutter Daily News Staff Writer

Visual effects supervisor Pat McClung tried to hide his miniature mountain. Really, McClung insists, he tried to keep competing studio staff and Valley residents from spotting it.

After all, visitors to the ``Dante's Peak'' set at Van Nuys Airport had to sneak past the security guards, past the airplane hangers filled with extra scaffolding, past the grove of fake and real Christmas trees. They needed to scamper up three ladders, over dozens of pipes and around the hundreds of tinkering crew members.

But McClung found it impossible to disguise the mountain set, one of the largest miniatures sets ever created - and subsequently destroyed - in Hollywood history. The huge structure piqued the curiosity of many Valley commuters who could spot it on their way to work.

``It's sort of an anachronism,'' said McClung, who heads the model shop at the Venice-based visual effects house Digital Domain. ``It's a little hard to hide a miniature set that's so big, the crew has to use rock-climbing gear to rappel down each side.''

The largest of the many mini sets at the airport was divided into two separate sections. On the right, a 30-foot-long bridge allowed toylike cars to cross a churning river. Off to the left, a 25-foot-tall dam blocked the river's path.

Perched above both sets was an expansive water tank filled with milky, murky water. On the opposite side of these sets, nearly 500 feet away, a larger tank sat empty. It waited, ready for the flood.

The water team was responsible for moving 780,000 gallons from the top of each set to the opposite side in only five minutes.

``We had to move about 140,000 gallons per minute. That's more water than all the water rides in California pumping at once,'' said Dean Miller, a special-effects supervisor who handled all the water work and engineering for the film.

But the water, you see, couldn't just spill over the dam or float gently under the bridge. It had to churn passionately, an angry destructive force funneled down a specific path.

Picture this: A mountain explodes, and small rocks and heavy dust rain down on the town. A pyroclastic flow, a mixture of hot gas and rock and debris, flies down the mountain at 100 miles per hour. Everything - trees, houses, cars - crumbles from the force and clogs the river with debris.

The destructive cloud also melts the snow, which floods the river. The dam breaks under the load, sending a deadly force of water and debris down the valley and into the cozy mountain town.

The crew started working on this scene back in July, when location scouts secured several acres of the Van Nuys Airport. Within days, construction began on the tarmac.

Now, it was the first week of January. Executives at Universal Pictures expected the film to be completed and on their desks in 13 days. And one of the film's most spectacular scenes, the destruction of the town dam, still hadn't been shot.

Jan. 9 was the dam's day of doom. Crew members, feeling the time crunch, scurried around the set. Some fixed the tiny trees, their branches drooping in the late afternoon light. Others tinkered with the fog machines that - at the precise moment - must spew smoke and ash, darken the daylight and shroud the mammoth set with unnatural gloom.

By late afternoon, the crew prepared to release the water and roll all 12 cameras perched at different angles. The over-the-falls shot. The above-the-dam shot. The inside-the-river-basin shot.

A lifeguard stood off to the side of the set, ready to dive into the water to save a crew member. Bored, he kicked at the layer of dust and ash that litters the ground.

``I got to go in and rescue a camera last week,'' he said, fiddling with the sleeves of his wetsuit. ``The excitement is overwhelming.''

A loudspeaker announced that cameras were rolling. The tank doors unlocked and slowly opened. Water slowly spilled over the dam, turning the light-toned blocks a murky gray.

Suddenly, the weakened sections of the dam collapsed. The full weight of the water and debris hit the floor, rocking the entire set with a force equivalent to a 3.0 earthquake.

Gotta love what you can do with a $55 million-plus special-effects budget, said director Roger Donaldson, as the staff members congratulate him and one another afterward. You've gotta love blowing stuff up.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 9, 1997
Words:741
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