Summer Movies: 'Jurassic World'
Issue: July 1, 2015

Summer Movies: 'Jurassic World'

At the Jurassic World theme park, the main attraction — the dinosaurs — became, well, too common and failed to elicit the excitement they once did. The Jurassic World filmmakers had the same challenge. Jurassic World marks the fourth time audiences would see dinosaurs chase humans and fight on another screen under the Jurassic moniker. 

It was a challenge especially felt by the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), and resoundingly met. 

“The major challenge was coming up with something new and fresh,” says visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander. “Everyone has seen dinosaur movies over and over again, and the original Jurassic Park is iconic. We needed to figure out how to do something different and better than the original. So, one of the first things we did was to consult with Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett.”

Muren created the CG dinosaurs for the original film and Tippett generated the Go-Motion creations. Both men have become visual effects legends, and both took an active advisory role for Jurassic World, along with paleontologist Jack Horner, who also advised the artists back in 1993. 

Alexander says, “Part of the gag of this movie is that the dinosaurs are commonplace and people are bored with them. We wanted dinosaurs there, but not obvious. We wanted them to be like animals out in a field, walking around.”

Thus, ironically, the response to the visual effects challenge was to create the fictional theme park owners’ problem; that is, make dinosaurs that looked and acted like animals.  

Main Street in Jurassic World was a massive set built in a New Orleans parking lot. The Hawaiian island of Kauai provided the jungle. ILM artists added mountains to footage shot there and extended a lagoon. The filmmakers also shot footage on other islands in Hawaii and in a Louisiana swamp. T. rex’s paddock started as footage from a redwood forest in California. The Jurassic World gates are a miniature created and shot at 3210 Studios (formerly Kerner) in San Rafael, CA, which also handled shots of a (miniature) helicopter blowing up.

“We got as much as we could in-camera,” says Alexander. “We shot Super 35 film for this project. The Super 35 gave us a lot of headroom so we could tilt up, change the framing, and add camera shake. We wanted Jurassic World to look classic and iconic, and felt that film was part of that process.”

Three full-sized raptor heads gave actor Chris Pratt, who plays a raptor trainer, something physical to interact with, as did an animatronic, created at Legacy FX, of a dying Apatosaurus.   

“When we’re wide, the dinosaur is CG, but when Chris is holding her head, the head and neck is an animatronic,” Alexander says. We also had a full-sized foot for Indominus. It was 12 feet by 12 feet. It took three people to bring it out on-set. Otherwise, the dinosaurs are CG.” 

ILM moved the dinosaurs using keyframe animation, with the exception of the raptors, which used a combination of keyframing (when they were running) and motion capture (when they are interacting), accomplished with a Vicon system and Vicon’s Blade and proprietary software for realtime retargeting and display. For rendering the creatures, the team used Pixar’s RenderMan, with Chaos Group’s V-Ray helping with the Jurassic World environment. Lighting artists used The Foundry’s Katana.

To help the filmmakers frame the dinosaurs in the real-world locations, ILM developed an iPad application they call Cineview, which gave them realtime previs on location. 

So on-set during filming, the director or camera operator could hold an iPad up, and while shooting the scene with the iPad camera, see CG dinosaurs in the setting.

“We would load our models into the program and stick them into the live image,” says Alexander. 

In addition to the realtime compositing, Cineview can also generate basic lighting and shadows. It helped the filmmakers visualize the size of these enormous animals and frame shots on-location.

“The director and director of photography could look at a scene through the iPad camera and see where Indominus would be,” Alexander says. “They could see how tall she’d be 20 feet away. They could tell if a tree would be in the way. They’d know if they’d need to tilt the camera or move her back farther. It’s a great tool for previs’ing.”

Cineview also helped with location scouting. “We could make sure Indominus and other dinosaurs would fit in the locations,” Alexander says. “For almost every setup that would have a dinosaur in it, we’d take a snapshot to show Colin [Trevorrow, director]. I saved all those snapshots so we could pull them up later.”

However, for a sequence in which a helicopter crashes into a Pteranodon aviary, ILM did more traditional previs. Similarly, Pixel Liberation Front and Halon provided previs for the final fight and other action sequences.

Working from the previs, animation supervisor Glen McIntosh, Tippett, the director, and producers choreographed action scenes using toy-sized dinosaurs on miniature sets. Then, once storyboarded, previs’d, and choreographed, it was up to the animators to create believable performances for the prehistoric animals.

A miniature set populated with two to three-inch printed models of the 3D dinosaurs helped the creative team block out the characters’ movements and film them using lipstick cameras.

“We had previs for the action sequences, so Phil, who was our dinosaur consultant, Colin, the producers, and I would map out the choreography on these miniature sets,” says McIntosh. “It’s so funny... sometimes we deal with the most absolutely high tech, but we started with toy dinosaur models on a miniature set.”

Although the filmmakers wanted the look of the dinosaurs to harken back to the previous films, they also wanted the creatures “plussed.” New technology and another decade or two of experience gave the artists tools and techniques to do that and much more. For instance, to help make the dinosaurs look believable, modelers created asymmetrical animals rather than building one side in CG and mirroring the other. 

“We also covered them with scars, nicks, and cuts to give them some history,” McIntosh says. “They had been there for years. They didn’t just show up to be filmed.”

Indeed, historic is an accurate description of the work on the film — and the result at the box office.