Pencil Dan Perez, Writer & Editor

Making the Dinosaurs Move
by Dan Perez

Note: this article is copyrighted material, and may not be reproduced elsewhere on the web.

Red line

You might not immediately recognize their names, but odds are you've seen more than a few examples of their visual effects work. From the animated chess game in Star Wars to the "liquid- metal" T-1000 android in Terminator 2, Phil Tippett, Stan Winston and Dennis Muren have consistently provided some of the screen's most impressive and innovative special effects to date. Now they've combined their expertise to create the cloned dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, based on the bestselling novel by Michael Crichton.

Dinosaur effects for the movies are, of course, nothing new. A generation of filmmakers has been fascinated by the terrible lizards since the days of Willis O'Brien, whose stop-motion creatures thrilled audiences in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). The challenge now is essentially the same as it was then: use the technology at hand to create living dinosaurs on the screen.

Jurassic Park ups the ante with an entire cast of dinosaur characters, including a pack of deadly Velociraptors, an ailing Triceratops and the tyrant king himself, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Tippett, Winston and Muren, working with a combined staff of nearly 200 people, have used a variety of time-honored techniques and state-of-the-art technology to bring the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park to life.

TippettPhil Tippett (left) and Dennis Muren discuss a scene with Steven Spielberg via satellite feed

The first step in creating the dinosaurs was to capture the look of the dinosaurs in the form of clay models. To this end, the effects supervisors worked closely with Spielberg in tracking the latest paleontological research from experts such as Jack Horner. "We're playing up the hot-blooded dinosaur angle," said Phil Tippett. Spielberg and company also examined modern dinosaur illustrations by artists such as Mark Hallett and John Gurche. Stan Winston, whose studio designed the look of the dinosaurs and sculpted the clay prototypes, said, "I look at Gurche's work and I see the dramatics, the dynamics and the reality that he has put into his rendition of dinosaurs. As artists in this studio, we would say 'this is the kind of quality, the kind of dynamics, the kind of reality we hope to achieve, and possibly, because with the film aspect we are able to actually bring these things to life, even surpass.'"

From the prototypes, 1/5 scale articulated models of the various dinosaurs were built for an intermediate step. Phil Tippett and his staff worked with Spielberg to choreograph the key dinosaur sequences using stop-motion animation. These "animatics," shot against rudimentary sets constructed of cardboard and foamcore, served as a "dinosaur bible," cataloguing movement, behavior, and even personalities for both the full-scale animatronic and computer animation sequences to follow. In addition, Tippett noted, "I'm working in conjunction with [Industrial Light and Magic], and my own shop is contributing animations that we developed ourselves using different kinds of top-secret input devices to help generate the computer graphics."

Tippett, whose dinosaur choreography was critical in creating seamless transitions between the full-scale animatronic and computer animation shots, went on to describe the interrelationship as representing "a significant crossover. We have been very influenced by the ILM computer animators and I think we've been an influence on them with my style of animating.

"At least at my shop, we're developing this parallel evolution with what ILM's evolving with their computer graphics department. We're off on another tangent in developing these different kinds of input devices, making use of stop-motion, go-motion and we're trying to apply that knowledge to the graphics."

Technical challenges abound, he admitted. "Every single minute, there's something else. All the work that ILM is doing is cutting edge kind of work, so they're right in the forefront, with new ideas and new techniques to make the characters integrate better into the shots. For me, at least, coming from a completely different discipline, it's very difficult but at the same time it's real rewarding."

Stan Winston utilized an array of mechanical and electronic technologies to create his full-scale, "live-action" animatronic dinosaurs, including a 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus Rex. "In bringing these dinosaurs to life onscreen, we have incorporated not only the state of the art of every technology available for this type of thing, but we have crossed over beyond what anyone has seen the area of robotics and animatronics. We used every aspect of animatronic automation to create completely organic movement with these animals--ranging from hydraulics to direct cable-actuated controls to servo motors to computer console activation.

StanStan Winston and his full scale T-rex

The full-scale dinosaurs, Winston asserts, "have a life, created mechanically, beyond any artificially created life you've ever seen. They were created so that they could, in fact, respond through their operators, to the direction from Steven Spielberg. So that they could respond as actors. Through the use of all the up-to-date technology, we were able to create this movement with strength, with speed and fluidity that has never been seen before. A great deal of our life movement also comes from Phil Tippett's understanding and feeling of dramatic dinosaur movement. Phil's like a living lizard!"

Winston stressed the film's commitment to scientific accuracy. "We have, I feel, for this movie, been able to create the most real and dynamic dinosaurs ever, historically. There's a reality to that beyond what anyone has seen in a museum. When John Gurche does a drawing, painting, or sculpture, that's one thing, but it's a static image. Once you get beyond a static becomes a financial impossibility by the scope of the work for a museum to recreate. We have the ability, by virtue of the big movie machine to have the access, financially, to create what's never been created before in a very historic and educational manner.

"We did take a little bit of artistic license with the Velociraptors from a design standpoint. Velociraptor is in the same family as Deinonychus. Deinonychus' head, as opposed to a Velociraptor, is a bit blunter, a little bit stronger. We pushed to the Deinonychus side of the design for our 'raptor-esque' animals."

Dennis Muren supervised the computerized graphic images of the dinosaurs at Industrial Light and Magic, using Pixar's Renderman and other sophisticated graphics packages. "What I'd like to stress," he said, "is that the equipment a year ago was sort of up to speed, and that's really not the difference that's going on these days. It's really the talent of the people doing it. We've finally been able to get to the point where the people are reasonably comfortable with the tools. The difference now is in the artist's hands--not in how fast your gigabytes are or how much RAM you have in your machine.

"It's been just an amazing show because we're pushing the technology to see how 'real is real,' and we literally look back at work we did a month ago and it's obsolete already. It's really just because we've learned the tools better. It's ten times harder than what we did on T2, even, which was ten times harder than The Abyss was before that. We're just getting better and better at it."

Muren generated skin texture maps, so that the computer-generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park would closely match Winston's full-sized creatures. "They naturally have to look photo-real," Muren stated. "You can't tell the difference and think 'oh, that's a computer character.' That's been a major challenge because I hadn't ever seen anything done before where you see the skin moving successfully over the muscle and bone structure of an animal. That was the stuff we're trying to get.

"Equally as difficult is [to get the animal] to perform. That's where computer graphics comes in over everything else, in that you can sort of work over and over again on a performance, because you always pick it up where you left it. You save your file and start over again the next day and tweak this part and that part until you get it right. You're never starting over from the beginning like you are with any other technique pretty much.

"So we've got shots in the show that are twenty-five seconds long which I would call a sustained performance of an animal--not just standing there but performing like an actor. That's incredibly difficult. That's where Phil Tippett--he was directing most of that stuff--was really very valuable to the show because he's got a good background in animal behavior and dinosaurs and stuff."

Muren admitted that he wasn't sure what level of close-up realism his computer graphics team could accomplish initially. "In the beginning phases of it, we just tried doing a shot of a herd running by off in the distance. That worked real successfully. Then we got a little bolder and did a full shot of the Tyrannosaurus in broad daylight, and did a walk-by of the camera so you saw it from the hips up. That worked, and we got even closer--from the neck up--a head shot. That's what's in the show. We have shots that close."

The completed sequences will consist of a series of cuts between the full-scale animatronic and computer animated shots, each technology working to mimic the other, aided by Phil Tippett's choreography. As Winston summed it up, "We've put everything together artistically and technically, and it's created a new world, dramatically and visually, for Jurassic Park."


Copyright 1993 Sovereign Media Co., Inc. &1996 by Dan Perez. All rights reserved.

Red line

Main PageEmail Dan

Red line