The Jurassic Age
Issue: Volume 41 Issue 3: (Edition 3 2018)

The Jurassic Age

It's the 25th anniversary of Universal Pictures' Jurassic film franchise, and Computer Graphics World is celebrating. On the following pages, you'll find reprints of the articles we published about the visual effects work in all four of the previous films, and following those, a new article about the fifth, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which released in June. Altogether, the franchise has earned $4.69 billion at the worldwide box office, with the fifth film still adding to the total at press time. Industrial Light & Magic was the sole or lead vendor for all five films.

Jurassic Park

The 1993 film Jurassic Park, directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the Michael Crichton novel, stunned audiences with its realistic depiction of dinosaurs. We quoted visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren in our September 1993 article saying, "I think it's something primal. You kind of grew up with this animal, but you've never seen this shape moving. And now it's moving like a real animal."

Jurassic Park was a CG and filmmaking milestone. It moved computer graphics for visual effects beyond hard-surface models, and it convinced Hollywood that movies with digital creatures could be cost-effective and box-office hits. The film earned a billion dollars at the box office.

Why were these first CG dinosaurs so good? Muren credits the animators and the emphasis at ILM on realism: the realistic motion of the animals and the lighting on the skin.

In a recent statement, he said, "In order to test ILM's ability to make photoreal CG dinosaurs, Steve Williams built a T. rex that Stefen Fangmeier and Steven Rosenbaum (then technical directors) skinned and lit. A test shot was shown to Steven [Spielberg], and he loved the results. Then Eric Armstrong built a skeleton of the Gallimimus and animated 10 of them running from the T. rex, and again it was pretty amazing."

The results were so good that Phil Tippett's work was reassigned to ILM, and rather than using Go-Motion for stop-motion dinosaurs, Tippett helped ILM animators with character movement for CG dinosaurs. Tippett also had animators in his studio puppet dinosaurs in 15 shots with a "dinosaur input device."

But, "by the end of the show, I think our animators were doing as good a job as his," we quoted Muren saying in the 1993 article. "I don't think we'll need to build the dinosaur input device anymore because the problem [with computer graphics], in fact, wasn't the software. The problem was really the animators having to learn how to use the software the way we were asking for it to be used."

All told, the ILM animators and artists created seven species of dinosaurs for 52 shots with computer graphics and worked on another 10 or 11 fix-its. They used Alias software for modeling, Softimage for animation, and Colorburst (which became Matador Paint) to paint textures. RenderMan handled rendering, as it would for the next four films. And, a reported 150 pieces of proprietary software extended the functionality of those programs and linked them together. The software ran on 75 Silicon Graphics workstations. Cyberware 3D scans of Stan Winston's models provided a template for the CG model of the T. rex; modelers sculpted the others from scratch.

Muren, Winston, Michael Lantieri (special effects), and Tippett received visual effects Oscars and BAFTA awards for that film.

"We were breaking ground then, putting detail into reptilian skin textures, creating realistic animation, faking how skin reacts to the way bones move," said Jim Mitchell, looking back in the 2001 Jurassic Park III article. (Mitchell was a technical director on the first film and visual effects supervisor for the third.)

And, they would continue doing so on all the future films.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Four years later, Universal released The Lost World: Jurassic Park, again with Spielberg directing. ILM's Muren supervised the visual effects work and received a visual effects Oscar nomination. There were 190 longer and more complicated effects shots, of which approximately 85 included CG dinosaurs. Nine species of dinosaurs made it into this film thanks to 25 animators and 30 technical directors.

After the first film, the artists at ILM had animated a variety of CG animals for Jumanji, a large digital dragon co-star for Dragonheart, and a CG star for Casper.

"With Jurassic Park, we built the instrument," Muren said in CGW's 1997 article. "Now we're learning how to play it, and we're discovering what we can do with it all the time." He added, "If you can get these shots where a creature looks totally real and it's actually leaping on a person, that's something pretty striking because you haven't see anything like it."

In Jurassic Park, the T. rex pulls a lawyer out of an outhouse, holds him between his teeth, and then swallows him. In Lost World, dinosaurs grab people, shake them, and rip them in two.

This film also pushed the environmental and character effects. Said Curt Miyashiro, a technical director at ILM, "We have day, night, rain, smoke, jungle, city environments, dinosaurs out of the mist. We have drooling, sweating, injured dinosaurs."

Integrating dinosaurs into plates in these pre-Lidar days was a challenge for the matchmovers. We quoted Terry Chostner, matchmover: "This show was difficult because of the amount of interaction with the environment. We need measurements from the camera to objects within the field and dimensions of those objects. It was hard to get good measurements."

Jurassic Park III

Another four years passed before Universal revisited the Jurassic world, this time with the 2001 feature film Jurassic Park III. Joe Johnston directed, and ILM's Jim Mitchell was visual effects supervisor. The film had 406 visual effects shots.

Those four years had seen a renaissance in the use of computer graphics for visual effects. ILM's credits included: Mighty Joe Young, Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the Indiana Jones television series, Galaxy Quest, Mission to Mars, The Perfect Storm, Pearl Harbor, and A. I. Artificial Intelligence. Soon, there would hardly be a blockbuster without tons of digital visual effects.

Now, ILM's artists could put CG dinosaurs and animatronics in the same scenes, even nose to nose. And, two techniques raised the CG bar further: a volumetric simulator that moved the digital dinosaur skin across muscles and bones more realistically, and a rendering technique called ambient occlusion developed at ILM for Pearl Harbor and extended to handle motion blur and displacement.

"We could run the reflection map and the ambient map on every frame from the plate and get the flickering lights and flames on the spino automatically," said CG supervisor Christophe Hery in the Jurassic Park III article. "It was a major breakthrough."

The artists also replaced plants in the plates to create dinosaur interaction with the environment and created fully digital environments, notably a 14-minute sequence in a 100-acre canyon with 300-foot walls.

Jurassic World

Fast forward 14 years to the 2015 Jurassic World. Directed by Colin Trevorrow, the film revitalized the franchise to the tune of $1.67 billion at the box office. ILM's Tim Alexander was the visual effects supervisor. By now, ILM had grown to four studios, and animators and artists in three locations - Singapore, London, and San Francisco - worked on the film, along with subcontractors Image Engine, Hybride, Virtuos, Ghost VFX, and Base FX.

"Obviously, compared to 20 years ago, things have advanced dramatically," said Alexander in CGW's 2015 article. "The major challenge was coming up with something new and fresh. Everyone has seen dinosaur movies over and over again, and the original Jurassic Park is iconic. So, one of the first things we did was to consult with Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett."

The gag in the film is that the dinosaurs are commonplace and people are bored with them. So, one goal was to give the dinosaurs - the raptors, in particular - more character. Drawing on advances in retargeting motion-capture data, animation supervisor Glen McIntosh gave the 50 animators on the film a starting point by capturing performers playing dinosaurs. Later, to perfect the dinosaurs' realistic motion, animators would view live-action footage of animals similar to the dinosaurs side by side with the CG creatures.

A new muscle firing system used a biomechanical calculation that determined muscle shapes and timing, and a new texture stretching technique that let the artists define areas, on a shot-by-shot basis, that are not supposed to stretch.

Also new: "On Jurassic Park III, we fit dinosaurs into existing photography, but the camera was behind the action," says McIntosh. "But on Jurassic World, we wanted the fight to motivate the action. We could find camera angles based on the fight."

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

In this issue of Computer Graphics World, we interview the artists at ILM about their visual effects work for the fifth film, the 2018 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Directed by J.A. Bayona, the June release had topped $1 billion worldwide at press time. David Vickery was overall visual effects supervisor, working out of ILM's London studio.

One difference with this film is the increased use of animatronics, as well as an increased number of CG dinosaurs. But this time, although texture artists again referenced details in the physical models, those physical models were built - printed - using data from the CG models. Another difference is the use of RenderMan RIS, a path tracer, for rendering, and Nuke for texture painting.

Technology has advanced, animators have become more proficient at using the tools, artists have become more facile at integrating dinosaurs into the environments, but the reason for the success of the dinosaurs remains the same: the attention to realism - the realistic motion of the animals and the lighting on the skin.

Says ILM's Alex Wuttke, a visual effects supervisor on the film: "It's a dream job, especially for people within our industry. The first Jurassic Park film was such a groundbreaking moment. It spawned everything that came to pass."

Barbara Robertson ( is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for CGW.