65 Million Years in the Making

Chris Jackson revisits the Steven Spielberg blockbuster that changed the face of special effects and 'event' movies forever (originally printed in Film Review Special #59, July 2005).

Cast your mind back to the early nineties and a time when popular cinema was enduring one of it perpetual periods of self-analysis brought on by falling box office returns. The epic blockbuster adventures of Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker had seemingly reached their respective ends and film icons Schwarzenegger and Stallone, the macho action heroes who had set the eighties alight, were enjoying the sunset of their heyday with crowd-pleasers like Cliffhanger and Terminator 2. James Bond was in hibernation and Hollywood in limbo, waiting for the next big thing to happen, feeling sorry for itself and clutching at past glories for inspiration.

Amidst all this, one upcoming film, above all others, began to take on extra significance. Bestowed the tantalising tagline ‘65 million years in the making’, it was a film many had certainly been eagerly awaiting for some time. The prospects were mouthwatering; a subject matter that had fascinated moviemakers and moviegoers alike for decades, a director who had helped reinvigorate cinema in the seventies and someone the audience could trust to deliver, and new fangled effects which were being lauded as both spectacular and hyper-realistic.

The film was of course Jurassic Park, the director Steven Spielberg, and the special effects courtesy of robotics, animatronics and something called computer generated imaging. The end result was a landmark film that, in resurrecting semi-mythical creatures from the beginning of time, proved it was possible to bring to the screen much more than ever imagined before. Its legacy lives on to this day. In an era when there are few stories left to tell, Jurassic Park showed it was possible to broach fantastical subjects from a new angle and add a fresh twist to proceedings. Its influence resuscitated genres, revolutionised filming methods and reduced production costs. It had the effect of elevating spectacle above narrative, much to the dismay of traditionalists, but more importantly, it set a benchmark for films wishing to harness new technology to enhance a story.

By the early nineties, films about dinosaurs were solely the domain of animation – a sign that live-action producers were in a quandary as to how to depict them accurately to a new generation of highly discerning, historically savvy moviegoers without losing credibility. Dinosaurs were still etched into the consciousness of every schoolchild and big kid alike as palaeontologists made groundbreaking discoveries every day, but the question was could anyone produce a film that would do these huge leviathans justice?

Unfortunately, that had not been the case before. Prehistoric monster movies had been proliferating the industry since the pre-talkie era when the first, and most successful, adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World hit the big screen. The second adaptation of the story, in 1960, was directed by Irwin Allen and sported the bizarre and slightly disturbing sight of two lizards, green plates strapped to their backs to create the illusion of being triceratops, fighting each other at the edge of a cliff. In the sixties and seventies, Britain got in on the act. Hammer employed the services of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen for the silly but nonetheless hugely enjoyable One Million Years BC, whilst Amicus later utilised a range of mechanical monsters in The Land That Time Forgot and The People That Time Forgot. There were mutated versions of dinosaurs in Gorgo and Godzilla as well, but once again believability was at a premium and the films were patronisingly relegated to the status of childish romps.

It was a sign of how little matters had progressed that, at the start of pre-production for Jurassic Park in 1990, Spielberg still intended using a combination of robotics and stop-motion (albeit state-of-the-art stop-motion) techniques to fulfil the task. It was only when the computer guru at Industrial Light and Magic, Dennis Muren, offered to show him a demo of skeletal gallimimuses stampeding out of a museum that Spielberg’s attention began to shift to the possibilities of CGI.

Like the ripples created in the drinking water at the back of the Jurassic Park jeep, which indicated the presence of a rather miffed T-Rex, there had been noticeable but precious few pieces of evidence to convince anyone CGI could bring to life and sustain the illusion of rampaging dinosaurs. Young Sherlock Holmes, a Spielberg produced film from 1985, utilised CGI to create a sword wielding ghost but it wasn’t until the inclusion of a marauding pseudopod in The Abyss that there were portents of what would come. Terminator 2: Judgement Day again bolstered the case for CGI with a morphing, shape shifting T1000 but it was still considered a step too far to bridge the gap between stylised alien entities and photorealistic organic beings.

Industrial Light and Magic took huge risks to bridge that gap whilst getting perilously close to the end of pre-production on Jurassic Park. They pioneered brand new 3D rendering technology, learnt how to move their creations like animals and made full use of something called a dinosaur input device. It wasn’t just about the computers though; experts were consulted, ILM employees dispatched on courses to learn how to move and think like dinosaurs and Stan Winston’s robotics team asked to showcase their models to inspire other crew members. Everyone was going the extra mile to achieve authenticity – and the results received gratification on the screen.

From the moment the first brachiosaurus is revealed to the final clash between the T-Rex and the velociraptors, the CGI dinosaurs are simply stunning. Microscopic detail gives each one textured, scaly skin that breathes and ripples with every movement. Their eyes dart around with intelligence and cunning, their limbs with purpose and their heads with restrained menace. Unlike the results from stop-motion techniques, the creatures have real depth, creating motion blur and going in and out of focus as they shift across the landscape. And crucially, unlike previous CGI creatures, they look like part of the natural environment, blending into the landscape with chameleon ease.

The first T-Rex chase, as Malcolm, Sattler and Muldoon speed away in their jeep, is a remarkable achievement that had no precedent. Dinosaur experts hadn’t a clue how a seven tonne bipedal creature would move at such pace so the designers were working on conjecture alone. Yet the final sequence somehow looks just right, with the T-rex combining grace with incredible power and dexterity as it sets off in pursuit of its prey.

During the gallimimus stampede CGI was also responsible for instilling each individual dinosaur with unique physical tics and running paths, its own personality almost. The resulting spontaneity and seemingly random procession imbues the scene with a feeling of having been captured on the hoof, like a David Attenborough wildlife programme (there is some irony in the fact that Jurassic Park inspired the BBC’s natural history series Walking with Dinosaurs). Many other films since, including Forrest Gump and Gladiator, have taken the process to its natural conclusion – using it to fill the screen with huge crowds of people. The advantages are obvious – it is hugely expensive to employ the requisite number of extras and a logistical nightmare to direct them.

A delicate balance between narrative and spectacle is crucial to make a truly great blockbuster and Jurassic Park manages to maintain it throughout. Most importantly, the story consistently implores us to care for the plight of the characters rather than occupy ourselves solely with the dinosaurs. Spielberg backs this up by very rarely indulging in gratuitous, lingering shots of the dinosaurs. The only time he does so is during Grant and Sattler’s initial encounter with the Brachiosaurus. However, he merely gives us a fleeting moment to enjoy the spectacle before dragging us back to the plot in hand. From then on every time we view these creatures it is in a moment of great tension, drama or suspense. The T-Rex attack, for instance, almost entirely consists of shots with the central characters at the edge of the frame, defining the dinosaur not just as a marvel to behold but as a major threat to human life as well.

The danger of using wholly unrealistic camera shots to boost the magnificence and splendour of the subject is evident in more recent films. In Troy, the impossibly steady aerial shot of a fleet of galleons sailing effortlessly across the ocean is almost too symmetrical and too flawless to be real. Likewise, breathtaking sweeping shots of the titular ship in Titanic trod a treacherous line between showing off its wonderful CGI and deflecting focus from the plight of the two central protagonists.

Jurassic Park never takes that risk, keeping at its core a story that boasts tension, adventure, layers of irony (Grant is a luddite who hates computers for wrecking his job) and taps into the zeitgeist – DNA and genetic engineering. Spielberg’s stroke of genius was in promoting the pseudo-scientific justification of the plot to such an extent that the first act plays, at times, like a Channel 4 schools programme. Again it adds to the reality and horror of the story by building it on top of a foundation of truth and intelligent speculation. The Day after Tomorrow tried to do the same but without the requisite conviction.

Ultimately, Hollywood relies solely on commercial success to convince it of a job well done though and, leaving aside its technological wonders for a moment, the box office receipts proved the film industry was onto a winner. The evidence speaks for itself. Jurassic Park took over 46 million pounds in the UK alone, more than three times its nearest rival that year The Bodyguard. The industry took notice and CGI films subsequently rolled off the production line with unerring frequency as producers sought to replicate Jurassic Park’s achievements.

There were successes (The Matrix trilogy, The Mummy) and failures (Dragonheart) but to fans of most genres Jurassic Park precipitated only good news. Without it, it is doubtful many of the logistically difficult action/fantasy films being produced today would have progressed beyond the planning stage, particularly Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Star Wars prequels. Indeed, George Lucas has been quoted as saying that it was not until he saw his pal Spielberg’s film that he realised the effects were in place for him to revisit his franchise.

Now, in 2005, the story of Jurassic Park comes full circle, as a new version of King Kong, the film that inspired Spielberg to tackle dinosaurs in the first place, nears completion. If the Dolby surround sound in the cinema causes your coke to vibrate as the CGI ape lumbers into view, be reminded of the film that made it all possible.

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