“Jurassic Park” Retrospective

With the temporary closure of Cineworlds around the UK, the future of theatrical exhibition once more hangs in the balance. But just a couple of months ago cinemas were reopening and people were positive that the industry would recover. One of the classic blockbusters that was re-released to plug the gaps in the release schedule ahead of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was a certain quite popular film about dinosaurs. I described my trip to see it recently, but let’s put that hideous experience behind us and concentrate on the film itself.

Thanks in no small part to the excellent “making of” book by Don Shay and Jody Duncan, Jurassic Park was a formative experience for the 13-year-old Neil Oseman, setting me irrevocably on the path to filmmaking as a career. So let me take you back in time and behind the scenes of an iconic piece of popcorn fodder.

 

Man creates dinosaurs

Even before author Michael Crichton delivered the manuscript of his new novel in May 1990, Steven Spielberg had expressed an interest in adapting it. A brief bidding war between studios saw Joe Dante (Gremlins), Tim Burton (Batman) and Richard Donner (Superman) in the frame to direct, but Spielberg and Universal Pictures were the victors.

Storyboards by David Lowery. Lots of the film’s storyboards are reproduced in “The Making of Jurassic Park” by Don Shay and Jody Duncan.

The screenplay went through several drafts, first by Crichton himself, then by Malio Scotch Marmo and finally by David Koepp, who would go on to script Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and Panic Room. Pre-production began long before Koepp finished writing, with Spielberg generating storyboards based directly on scenes from the book so that his team could figure out how they were going to bring the dinosaurs to life.

Inspired by a life-size theme park animatronic of King Kong, Spielberg initially wanted all the dinsoaurs to be full-scale physical creatures throughout. This was quickly recognised as impractical, and instead Stan Winston Studio, creators of the Terminator endoskeleton, the Predator make-up and the fifteen-foot-tall Alien queen, focused on building full-scale hydraulically-actuated dinosaurs that would serve primarily for close-ups and mids.

Stan Winston’s crew with their hydraulic behemoth

Meanwhile, to accomplish the wider shots, Spielberg hired veteran stop-motion animator Phil Tippett, whose prior work included ED-209 in RoboCop, the tauntaun and AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, and perhaps most relevantly, the titular creature from Dragonslayer. After producing some beautiful animatics – to give the crew a clearer previsualisation of the action than storyboards could provide – Tippett shot test footage of the “go-motion” process he intended to employ for the real scenes. Whilst this footage greatly improved on traditional stop-motion by incorporating motion blur, it failed to convince Spielberg.

At this point, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic stepped in. Muren was the visual effects supervisor behind the most significant milestones in computer-generated imagery up to that point: the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1986), the water tendril in The Abyss (1989) and the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). When Spielberg saw his test footage – initially just skeletons running in a black void – the fluidity of the movement immediately grabbed the director’s attention. Further tests, culminating in a fully-skinned tyrannosaur stalking a herd of gallimimuses, had Spielberg completely convinced. On seeing the tests himself, Tippett famously quipped: “I think I’m extinct.”

The first CGI test

Tippett continued to work on Jurassic Park, however, ultimately earning a credit as dinosaur supervisor. Manipulating a custom-built armature named the Dinosaur Input Device, Tippett and his team were able to have their hands-on techniques recorded by computer and used to drive the CG models.

Building on his experiences working with the E.T. puppet, Spielberg pushed for realistic animal behaviours, visible breathing, and bird-like movements reflecting the latest paleontological theories, all of which would lend credibility to the dinosaurs. Effects co-supervisor Mark Dippe stated: “We used to go outdoors and run around and pretend we were gallimisuses or T-Rexes hunting each other, and shoot [reference] film.”

 

Dinosaurs eat man

Stan Winston’s triceratops was the first dinosaur to go before the cameras, and the only one to be filmed on location.

Production began in August 1992 with three weeks on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Filming progressed smoothly until the final day on location, which had to be scrubbed due to Hurrican Iniki (although shots of the storm made it into the finished film). After a brief stint in the Mojave Desert, the crew settled into the stages at Universal Studios and Warner Brothers to record the bulk of the picture.

The most challenging sequence to film would also prove to be the movie’s most memorable: the T-Rex attack on the jeeps containing Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant, Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm, lawyer Gennaro and the children, Lex and Tim. It was the ultimate test for Stan Winston’s full-scale dinosaurs.

The T-Rex mounted on its motion simulator base on Stage 16 at Warner Brothers

The main T-Rex puppet weighed over six tonnes and was mounted on a flight simulator-style platform that had to be anchored into the bedrock under the soundstage. Although its actions were occasionally pre-programmed, the animal was mostly puppeteered live using something similar to the Dinosaur Input Device.

But the torrential rain in which the scene takes place was anathema to the finely tuned mechanics and electronics of the tyrannosaur. “As [the T-Rex] would get rained on,” Winston explained, “his skin would soak up water, his weight would change, and in the middle of the day he would start having the shakes and we would have to dry him down.”

Although hints of this shaking can be detected by an eagle-eyed viewer, the thrilling impact of the overall sequence was clear to Spielberg, who recognised that the T-Rex was the star of his picture. He hastily rewrote the ending to bring the mighty creature back, relying entirely on CGI for the new climax in which it battles raptors in the visitor centre’s rotunda.

The CGI T-Rex in the rewritten finale

 

Woman inherits the earth

After wrapping 12 days ahead of schedule, Jurassic Park hit US cinemas on June 11th, 1993. It became the highest-grossing film of all time, a title which it would hold until Titanic’s release four years later. 1994’s Oscar ceremony saw the prehistoric blockbuster awarded not only Best Visual Effects but also Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Indeed, Gary Rydstrom’s contribution to the film – using everything from a dolphin/walrus combination for the raptors’ calls, to the sound of his own dog playing with a rope toy for the T-Rex – cannot be overstated.

Jurassic Park has spawned four sequels to date (with a fifth on the way), and its impact on visual effects was enormous. For many years afterwards, blockbusters were filled with CGI that was unable to equal, let along surpass, the quality of Jurassic Park’s. Watching it today, the CGI is still impressive if a little plasticky in texture, but I believe that the full-size animatronics which form the lion’s share of the dinosaurs’ screen time are what truly give the creatures their memorable verisimilitude. The film may be 27 years old, but it’s still every bit as entertaining as it was in 1993.

This article first appeared on RedShark News.

Director of photography Dean Cundey, ASC with the brachiosaur head puppet
“Jurassic Park” Retrospective

Planning VFX: Traditional Techniques

Over a month ago I wrote a post about the advantages of computer generated imagery over more traditional ways of creating visual effects. Apologies for the delay, but here at last is the flipside of that coin: the advantages of old-school technqiues.

Here’s an alternate ending from Blade (1998)….

It was ditched after test audiences responded poorly to it. They had invested in the film’s villain throughout the movie and they felt cheated to see him turn into a CGI blobby thing for the final battle. The filmmakers cut the scene and replaced it with a sword duel between Blade and the baddie in human form.

This highlights CGI’s chief difficulty – it’s unreality. There is something disappointing about being served up an image that has been created with ones and zeros. It feels like a cheat. And that can take an audience out of the story.

In contrast to CGI, model shots tend to look more realistic but move less realistically, due to the unavoidable physics involved. But there can often be a charm to this motion that allows us to forgive it. Indeed, I think the best reason to use traditional effects today is when you want things to look unreal in a very appealing way. Take for example Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which used forced perspective and painted backdrops to create a beautiful fantasy world. Or The Life Aquatic’s stop motion marine creatures…. except that the animation was so good they looked real.

Some other advantages of traditional techniques over CGI:

  • Some techniques, like puppetry, can be achieved in camera, giving the actors something real to react to.
  • All the randomness of nature is automatically built in.
  • Effects like fire and water are theoretically easier, though in practice can be difficult to control and to scale correctly.
  • Today’s audiences are used to CGI and can generally recognise it, but model shots are perhaps more likely to fool them.

In writing this post I’ve realised how CGI has advanced even in the few years since I stopped actively developing The Dark Side of the Earth (an ambitious fantasy feature intended to include stop motion, puppetry, miniatures and matte paintings).

Almost no-one today is still shooting miniatures without enhancing them digitally. Savvy filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Duncan Jones and Sam Mendes combine models and CGI to get the best of both worlds. It seems traditional techniques alone can really only be used now as a deliberate stylistic choice. That saddens me. I’d be delighted if anyone can prove me wrong.

If anyone out there is contemplating using miniatures in their indie film, here are some tips…

Planning VFX: Traditional Techniques

Planning VFX: Computer Generated Imagery

Following on from last week’s thoughts on planning VFX shots, I’m now going to look at the issue of CGI vs. miniatures. In this post I’ll cover some of the advantages of choosing computer generated imagery, and next time I’ll look at the advantages of miniatures. As any regular readers will know, I much prefer miniatures, but I aim to be completely impartial in what follows.

To start off with let’s go back 20 years to Jurassic Park, the movie that really started the CGI revolution, and find out why Steven Spielberg chose this emerging technology over traditional techniques. (Skip to 13:12.)

So Spielberg favoured CGI because it produced more realistic motion. In fact, watching Jurassic Park these days I find the CG dinosaurs are easily differentiated from Stan Winston’s full size animatronics by the fact that the former move much more fluidly. Even when miniatures move “live”, i.e. without stop motion animation – vehicles powered by motors or pulled on hidden wires, for example – the motion is often less realistic than a CGI equivalent because the laws of physics dictate a small thing will always move differently from a large thing.

Next up, here’s a clip from Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher, in which I discuss how I arrived at CGI as the best method of creating the spectral umbilical cords the script required. (You can watch the whole of this feature-length documentary at neiloseman.com/soulsearcher.)

So control was the key thing there. There were 80 shots, many with camera moves, and the umbilical cords had to be locked to the characters. Trying to achieve this with string and cables was just not realistic, or would have required so much manipulation in post as to make shooting a real element pointless. CGI can be controlled completely and adjusted quickly, without the need for reshoots.

Here are some other pros of CGI over traditional techniques:

  • No shooting required, so no crew to pay, feed, transport, etc. On a micro-budget where the crew are unpaid, CGI is completely free, whereas any kind of miniature shoot will always have costs.
  • CG elements can be tracked to moving plates without the need for expensive motion control cameras.
  • There are far more talented and experienced CG artists out there than model-makers.
  • You can create anything you can imagine, without any practical or logistical restrictions.

Can you think of any others? Let me know. Next time I’ll look at the advantages of traditional techniques.

Planning VFX: Computer Generated Imagery