For some unexplained reason, most children are fascinated by dinosaurs at some point. I’d be willing to wager that if we were to poll the citizens of the country under 7 years old, paleontologist would be the top answer to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Perhaps it’s the fact that dinosaurs stir the imagination. Maybe it’s the fact that now we would consider them monsters, but once, they were the dominant species on earth. Whatever the reason, dinosaurs have always held a special place in our hearts, due in part to the fact that so many of us were passionate about them when we were young.
With apologies to any movie which featured dinosaurs previously – In 1993 Steven Spielberg brought them to life on the big screen for the first time.
“It was very important to me to be a kid when directing Jurassic park… because I, like most kids, one of my first longest words was triceratops, stegosaurus. My dad would always take me to see the dinosaurs in Philadelphia at the Franklin institute of technology, there was a natural history museum there with dinosaur bones. And so I made that movie really as a youngster, remembering how much fun it was to imagine with such yearning that some day wouldn’t it be great to run into a dinosaur and meet up with one without being eaten by it. And I just remember making the movie with that philosophy. For everybody that had ever wondered and had been fascinated with that whole era of the dinosaur. I wanted to make a movie for all those dinosaur lovers.”
- Steven Spielberg
“Jurassic Park” began as a novel by Michael Crichton (1990). Crichton had often incorporated science elements in his book, and wanted to explore the possibility of bringing dinosaurs back to life via cloning. He wondered, however, who would pay for this super expensive research and technology, as without a commercial application, the science itself wouldn’t justify the cost. What he came up with was the concept of an entertainment attraction / biological preserve… a cross between a zoo and an amusement park.
The novel was an enormous success, and the property was a hot commodity in Hollywood before it even went to press. Crichton was asking $1.5 million up front and a cut of the gross, and still there was no shortage of interested parties. Warner Bros. (Tim Burton), Sony (Richard Donner), and 20th Century Fox (Joe Dante) all made bids, but in May 1990, Crichton sold to Universal Studios, with Steven Spielberg attached to direct.
The scientific aspect of Crichton’s novel fascinated Spielberg – he didn’t want the movie to just be another monster movie. With Crichton onboard as a screenwriter, they attempted to keep the science elements of the film – paleontology, genetic engineering, chaos theory, etc. – present, but accessible for audiences. They found very clever ways of doing so, including integrating an introductory video into the Jurassic Park tour that broke down the cloning process without having it stand out as exposition. It made sense that there would be such a thing, it felt very authentic.
And authenticity – believability – would be crucial to the film, if it was to succeed.
Especially in regards to the dinosaurs.
The biggest challenge of making the movie would be to bring the Dinosaurs to the screen realistically. If audiences didn’t buy into the dinosaurs, they wouldn’t buy into the movie. In retrospect, the movie is now hailed as a watershed moment in the use of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), as the technology was utilized in this film to a degree it never had been previously.
But CGI wasn’t initially the plan.
“Jurassic Park” actually sits at the junction of several types of movie making technologies.
Initially, the plan for the dinosaurs was to do as much shooting as possible via animatronics (fully sized robotic dinosaurs), and then supplement as necessary with stop motion technology (a lineage that dates back pre-”King Kong”). Computer animators from ILM were on board, but were only tasked with assisting the animatronics and stop motion teams in coming up with dinosaur movement and sequences.
Work began with extensive concept drawings, construction of scale models, and eventually proceeding to the fully sized final dinosaurs. The Dilophosaurus, Velociraptors, Brachiosaurus, Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus Rex all had (at least) portions of their sequences created via animatronics. In fact, the only dinosaurs prominently featured in the film which did not have animatronics were the flock of Gallimimus. Stan Winston’s animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex stood 20 feet (6.1 m) tall, weighed 13,000 pounds (5,900 kg), and was 40 feet (12 m) long. It was a complicated piece of machinery. Winston kept his creations moving even when they were still. Breathing, looking, shifting… it enforced the effect that the creatures were alive. The complicated systems necessitated animatronic puppeteers. They actually did rehearsals to sync their performances correctly in order to make the dinosaurs move and react as the scenes called for.
As work proceeded, however, the ILM team placed a call to Spielberg that would change the course of the movie. They were confident they could animate a realistic dinosaur onscreen. A dinosaur the audience would believe in. Tests were put together – with impressive results.
Impressive enough for Spielberg to entrust them with the process
They didn’t lay off the stop motion team, however. Instead they found a way to incorporate them into the development. Due to the prohibitive costs involved in CGI, unpolished stop motion sequences were produced as a sort of animated storyboarding – an intermediate step in order to fully map out the scenes prior to developing them with CGI. Stop motion sequences were done to lay out the most famous scenes in the film, including the T. Rex attack on the jeeps and the Velociraptor attack in the kitchen.
The CGI was created in layers, they created skeletal frames in order to arrange the sequence, and then an unfinished layer of animation in order to get a rough feel of the look. If satisfied, they proceeded with rendering the details. In spite of the impressive test results, the CGI was still a leap of faith for Spielberg and the producers… they had to trust the computer animation would work into the scenes they had already filmed. Shooting had wrapped and Spielberg had already moved on to “Schindler’s List” by the time the visual effects were completed.
Of course, the results turned out to be spectacular. After layering in the sound effects (dolphins and walruses for the Velociraptors, lions and elephants for the T. Rex), “Jurassic Park” had succeeded in creating life-like dinosaurs. Believable creatures. They could have gone to waste, however, if the rest of the movie hadn’t lived up to its end of the bargain.
That’s not an issue with Steven Spielberg at the helm. “Jurassic Park” contains some of the most memorable action sequences ever filmed.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex attack on the tour jeeps is probably the most memorable. With the rain pouring down, the massive monster snaps through its fencing and approaches the two jeeps. Then it proceeds to try to eat the children within. Watching it nudge, stomp, and try to insert its snout into the jeep is a series of cleverly designed “edge of your seat” moments. Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum’s characters are able to momentarily distract the creature (Allowing it to feed – on the lawyer, LOL) but before you know it, it’s right back after the jeep, pushing it over the edge of a steep cliff, and causing Alan Grant and the Hammond grandkids a whole new set of problems.
It’s a scene so engrossing that I swear, it took audiences 10 years to realize, “Hey wait a minute, how come they’re on the edge of a cliff all of a sudden? Wasn’t there just a goat there?”
Of course, that scene isn’t the only memorable action sequence in Jurassic Park. The T. Rex also notably chases the jeep that Ellie and Mr. Muldoon come in to try to rescue everyone. Running after a speeding vehicle, crashing through downed trees… it’s an impressive, adrenaline charged sequence as well.
But there are those that would say that the T. Rex isn’t even the primary “villain” of “Jurassic Park”… that that honor goes to the Velociraptors.
Like most of us, Steven Spielberg hadn’t even heard of Velociraptors prior to reading “Jurassic Park”. Crichton’s research for his novel began their path into the public eye. What they provided were dinosaurs that could be terrifying, yet fit through the halls and doors of the command center. Their hypothesized intellectual advancement gave the film a foil that wasn’t simply a big dumb beast. These were lethal, knowing killers. Hunters. Animal assassins. The kitchen sequence where two of them stalk the Hammond kids is yet another legendary ”Jurassic Park” action sequence.
It’s simply one of the greatest action movies of all time. The intoxicatingly realistic dinosaurs are perfectly complimented by fantastically scripted action set pieces. It’s all accompanied by brilliant sound effects work and yet another memorable, sweeping, majestic John Williams score. The elements all work together in conjunction to give the audience a thrill ride of an experience… at one moment they can be lost in the awe and wonder of dinosaurs once again walking the Earth, the next, completely terrified for the characters as they’re menaced by monsters.
But the movie also features a phenomenal, completely credible story. Even though a lot of the science is actually impossible, audiences are able to buy into it wholeheartedly. Who can’t imagine a greedy corporation rushing to profit from a technology, regardless of the risk? ”Jurassic Park” dabbles in themes of science’s reach exceeding its grasp, and the illusion of order in our world…
Spielberg assembled an extraordinary cast for the film. Child actors Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards were able to deliver everything they were called on to do. Wayne Knight and Samuel L Jackson are perfect supporting characters as the man you love to hate and the man you love to root for. Laura Dern and Sam Neill conveyed the wonder and awe of scientists whose dreams miraculously come true, with Neill having the added role of the reluctant protector whose heart eventually softens. Jeff Goldblum’s “rock star” Chaos-theorist delivers smarm and snark, but also lightens the tone of the film by delivering most of the movie’s comedic lines. And veteran actor Richard Attenborough can break your heart with his portrayal of a man who slowly comes to realize his reach for greatness has actually been a descent into madness.
During its initial theatrical run, “Jurassic Park” grossed $914 million worldwide, becoming the biggest box office hit in history (it would be eclipsed four years later by “Titanic”). It rightfully assumed its place amongst the best Steven Spielberg movies, becoming one of the brightest jewels in his crown. It’s undeniably one of the greatest action movies ever made, but even more than that…
It’s a shining example of how movies can bring the imagination to life.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.