Friday 14 October 2011

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea 1954

Won oscar for best Special Effects (1955).

Probably the most recognised submarine shape ever, fictional or otherwise, was the Nautilus designed for Disney's 20 000 Under the Sea by Harper Goff. One of the first models built for the film was a "squeezed" Nautilus model which had its length shortened by about half proportionally to match the squeeze ratio of the Cinemascope anamorphic lens. When the film started production there was only one of these lenses in existence, so to enable the model work to progress this shortened model was filmed with a normal spherical lens. When the footage was projected through the anamorphic projection lens, the image would be stretched out to the correct proportions. When more of these lenses became available this model was no longer needed. It appears only in very few scenes in the movie traveling underwater.

 The plans of the Nautilus

An 11 foot model, properly proportioned, was constructed out of 3mm thick iron plates with detailing in brass. The power to the propellers and internal lighting was provided by 5 car batteries. It weighed more than 1000 pounds (454 kg).

 Detail of the saw tooth protuberances.

For underwater sequences this model was shot both wet ( in a tank) and dry for wet ( in a smoky environment in the studio) hanging from a so called Lydecker rig, named for its designers and builders Howard and Theodore Lydecker, famous for the miniature work in all the Republic serials. The rig consisted of a raised suspended trolley that ran along tracks with 4 main wires supporting the model below. The trolley could travel along the tracks and the wires could be raised and lowered to make the model travel and rise and fall. 6 other wires operated other functions on the model.

 The 11 foot Nautilus on the Lydecker Rig at the Disney tank.

 Shots of the Nitrate ship being holed by the Nautilus's saw blade like protrusions, were filmed dry for wet upside down at high speed. When the damaged timbers of the ships hull fell down in the collision, on screen with the footage now printed upside down, they appeared to float up to the surface. Subsequent shots of the submarine going past the disabled ship were shot in the tank. Other tricks included attaching the tentacles of a squid puppet to the model in the tank and pulling it away on wires. The film was then reversed and it appears like the squid grabs the Nautilus.
Other dry for wet shots appear in the traveling through the Vulcania tunnel sequence.
Exterior model scenes were shot at the "Sersen Lake" at Fox studios. The tank was named after Fred Sersen who was one of Fox studios most accomplished effects supervisors. It was the typical wedge shape 300 feet long, 190 feet at the widest point, back where the water spilled over the edge into a collecting trough to be returned via a pump, thus creating the water horizon effect. 30 feet behind this was a giant screen 73 feet high and 224 feet wide on which was painted the sky and clouds. The tank was 3 feet deep with a 20 foot deep well section in the middle.
A 22 foot long partial model, attached to a  weighted underwater wheeled trolley, was used for the scenes of the mysterious glowing beast running just under the surface. It was rigged with a ring of lights to produce the phosphorescent glow and strong jets of water pumped out of nozzles aimed up and back at the front to produce the bow waves. There was also compressed air hoses added to this mix to produce the foam. It was pulled through the water by a hefty cable attached to a truck.

Nautilus upper section miniature mounted on trolley ringed by lightbulbs to produce eerie underwater glow.

 A lot of seaweed dressing can be seen on the model which was subsequently not used.

Note scenic painter working on the sky backing at the back of the tank.

Three other models were used in the production. The largest, the Abraham Lincoln, was built around 30 feet in length and highly detailed. It was rigged with similar jets of water for the Bow wave and had other practical effects such as the cannon fire, black smoke from the smokestack and internal lighting. The other two ships were already existing models sourced from previous productions at Fox studios. The Golden Arrow, sunk at the start of the film was a sailing ship to which the Disney model crew added working paddle wheels. The other unnamed nitrate ship originally appeared in Rulers of the Sea (1939) and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). All these models were floating and towed by an underwater cable.

The Abraham Lincoln model features on this German Lobby Card.

The Abraham Lincoln model on its cradle awaiting filming in the tank behind.

Golden Arrow miniature.
Technicians preparing the Nitrate Ship model.

There was also an abondoned sequence shot which was set in the Antarctic in which the Nautilus appears with large prop icebergs in the Fox tank.

Deleted scene of the Nautilus and icebergs. The edge of the backing screen can be seen at the right hand side of the picture.
 The final destruction of both the Nautilus and the Island was also done in the Sersen Lake. A very large amount of flash powder was used to give an atomic mushroom cloud like explosion. It is so bright that for a frame or two you can see the shadow of the cutout painting of the island cast a shadow on the sky backing. Two weighted trolleys were pulled by the usual truck and cables to generate the tidal wave that travels from the back to the front of the tank. The first take had the truck driver get over enthusiastic putting pedal to the metal which caused the wall of water to go right over the front of the tank inundating the camera and operators. Timed to the passing of the tidal wave, the cable attached to the Nautilus model was first left loose to alow it to be buffeted by the wave and then pulled tight and down by a weight so the submarine sunk under water in the deeper section of the tank.

This film represents one of the landmarks of model ship cinema. There is a real sense of quality with the miniature work in this film. The lighting is both moody and realistic. The underwater scenes have a real sense of scale, the water is effectively dense with particulate matter and not so clear that you can see the tank sides like so many submarine films up to this point.

I have recently come across an excellent documentary in 6 parts on youtube about Peter Ellenshaw the legendary matte painter. He describes his work on 20,000 Leagues and in particular the fact that he was responsible for the moody lighting in the model work. He was rather disappointed with the original miniature shots and did a few sketches of what he thought it should look like, these were discovered by Walt Disney who then made Ralph Hammeras work with Peter Ellenshaw in getting the look of the miniatures right. This explains a lot. The miniature work never seemed to me to belong to Ralph Hammeras' style. This becomes more apparent when only 3 years later Ralph Hammeras contributed to the laughably lamentable, though none the less amusing, visual effects for "The Giant Claw" which has one of the silliest looking monsters in 50's B movie cinema. It is clear that it was Peter Ellenshaw that made the difference to the quality of the shots and made it one of the pinnacles of "model ships in the cinema" movies.

Shadow of the island cutout is cast on the painted sky backing by the intense light of the flash powder blast.


Source; Cinefantastique magazine May 1984 feature Article by Joel Frazier & Harry Hathorne.


  1. Hi, I enjoyed your site very much. I can't see too many photos of the Nautilus.

    Currently I'm working on my own model of the Nautilus [7 ft. long], a 12 year project, &
    since I'm building the complete interior as well it has taken that long. I've had to modify nearly everything since Disney was only building movie sets & these cabins have to fit inside
    that actual hull shape [cones at each end], but I have managed to fit it all in & keep the
    Disney/Goff "look". That redesign was one of the most difficult to accomplish.
    It's not yet complete, but hopefully it will be within the next year. At least I hope so!
    Lots of work, lots of problems, but also lots of fun. I've been taking progression pix. of the
    project, not yet ready to share those however, but they are good. Not too many people have seen my model, just family & friends. Hope to get Disney interested when it's finished.

  2. 12 Year project...Exterior and Interior, that is dedication. I have a RC Sci Fi vehicle project that I have just resumed working on that is over 10 years old, but I hadn't worked on it for at least 5 years.

  3. Beg to excuse, but I must inform you, that the three-masted paddle wheeler "Golden Arrow" wasn't destroyed by the explosion! It's just a very simple optical movie fake! In fact, the model is still alive and complete, with all of his masts an rigging, exactly as it was in 1956 and it's now hanging on the ceiling of a Disney movie prop storehouse in Orlando/Florida. Unfortunately I don't know what's happened with the miniature of screw sloop USS Abraham Lincoln. She was a true beauty on screen. :(

  4. As Swashbuckler mentioned, the Golden Arrow was a three-masted ship. The nitrate ship out of Rorapandi, on the other hand, was two-masted. The image with the caption, "Technicians preparing the Golden Arrow model...", therefore is incorrectly labeled. The ship model they're working on is the nitrate ship. This ship was also seen briefly in "Anna and the King of Siam" (1946).

  5. Thanks for the corrections I have finally updated the caption. I will have to have a look at "Anna and the King of Siam". It wasn't a movie I had considered to have any model ships in, it's now on my radar.

  6. That still of the un-used footage of the sub in the ice, that icebeg looks just like the one that appears in the beginning of Fox's 53 Titanic!

  7. Could easily have been the same one as that was Fox's tank they shot the sequence in and they probably could have rented the iceberg prop out of the prop store while they at it.

  8. The dual-masted "nitrate ship" miniature also appeared in "Reap the Wild Wind" (1942), even earlier than "Anna and the King of Siam" (1946). "Reap" may have been its original screen appearance, as it had considerably more screen time.

  9. Above, Swashbuckler stated that the three-masted paddle wheeler "Golden Arrow" was not destroyed but hanging in a movie prop storehouse. Point of fact the article does state the following, the "Golden Arrow, destroyed (in the movie, not in actuality) at the start of the film was a sailing ship to which the Disney model crew added working paddle wheels."
    Swashbuckler has very keen eyes and is more knowledgeable about the current location of the "Golden Arrow". I just wanted to clear up a tiny discrepancy. Thank you all very much for all of the info for my favorite book and movie. I was presented with a small Nautilus, though very detailed, by someone who said it was a prototype for a larger sub which will have all the bells and whistles. I still don't know which one he was referring to but it's very cool to have this one. I'm trying to find a model of, or plans for the USS Abraham Lincoln. Does anyone know where to find either one or even both. I'd like a ship from the movie to go with my sub. The Nautilus' dimensions are 16.5" L, 5.25" H (with stand) and 3" W
    If anyone could help that'd be great. Thanks for any help ahead of time,

  10. Almost!

    You changed the caption to, "Technicians preparing the Nitrate Ship model, attacked and sunk at the start of the movie." The ship sunk at the start of the movie was the Golden Arrow, as stated in the article. The nitrate (two-masted) ship, however was sunk later in the movie as it left the island of Rorapandi.

  11. Kudos on a brilliant site. What ever happened to the Abraham Lincoln and the other 2 ship models used in the film. I believe they were used in the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at Disneyland. But, after that I have no idea

  12. I would like to know that myself. My guess is that they were either eventually sold off in some of the auctions the studios held, or just scrapped.

    Of the three ship miniatures used in the film, the only one I ever saw in the Disneyland exhibit was the Golden Arrow three-masted paddle wheeler, the miniature with the least screen time.


  13. One of my favourite films, and I agree some of the classiest ship and submarine vfx. I love the stories of the anamorphic model. For the longest time I couldn't figure out why they would need to do this..... I thought it was something to do f stops and depth of field on the miniatures. But I love that it was because there were not enough CinemaScope lenses in Hollywood. I know this site is just about 'miniatures' but I wanted to make a mention of the terrific full scale giant squid puppet created for the fight on the surface. While it has some flaws I just love that whether it is completely authentic as a squid or not, it is a truly formidable beast and a terrific sequence.

  14. My take on the stories of the squeezed anamorphic Nautilus miniature is that they're heavily infused with legend. We do have the studio blueprints for the squeezed version, as well as photos of a model built from them, however they represent an earlier stage of the Nautilus design. For example, they show a "periscope" and flag mast, no dorsal fin, no lower saw teeth, juxtaposed dive hatch and salon viewport relative positions, a different shape tail, and several other distinct differences.

    There are no records (photos or blueprints) extant of a squeezed miniature of the final Nautilus design and no shots of the Nautilus in the movie characteristic of the use of such a miniature. This leads me to believe that only the intermediate version of the Nautilus design was ever built and tested in a squeezed aspect ratio, then abandoned.


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