I it had a ”wanna see” quotient that its competition could only envy. After all, who wasn’t dying to see a movie about killer dinosaurs from the guy who directed Jaws? Sure enough, Jurassic Park opened huge on June 11, 1993, stampeding to an eventual domestic take of more than $350 million. But this monster of a monster movie wasn’t just another summer blockbuster. It reestablished Steven Spielberg (coming off the lightweight Always and Hook) as the action director, turned T. rex and raptor into household words, and heralded a new era of computer-generated special effects that has changed the way Hollywood makes movies.
Having acquired the rights to Michael Crichton’s best-seller six months before it even hit shelves, Spielberg originally envisioned a dino epic that would utilize the latest advances in stop-motion animation and full-scale animatronics. Then he saw what George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic could conjure on its computers. Initially asked to do some relatively minor effects, ILM’s Dennis Muren and his team – who’d won an Oscar for the groundbreaking CGI in 1991’s Terminator 2 – took on the challenge of creating lifelike dinos, working from designs by creature wizard Stan Winston (Aliens, Predator). The results exceeded their own wildest dreams. ”We were looking at our dailies and saying ‘Did we do this?”’ Muren remembers.
ILM’s computer graphics seamlessly combined on screen with Winston’s life-size dinosaurs – including a 20-foot-tall, 4 1/2-ton T. rex. At the same time, Winston’s creations fulfilled Spielberg’s mandate that the actors – Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum – play scenes with dinos they could reach out and touch. ”Fifty percent of acting is reacting,” Winston notes. ”When that T. rex was smashing through the roof of that car and those kids were under there, they didn’t have to act afraid. They were afraid.”
The $60 million-plus Jurassic Park went on to win an Oscar for its effects (Winston and Muren shared the award with chief collaborators Phil Tippett and Michael Lantieri) and inspire two sequels, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park and 2001’s Jurassic Park III. (A JP IV is still in the no-comment stage). Meanwhile, CGI technology has popped up everywhere from Pearl Harbor to just about every frame of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
Yet Winston isn’t worried that his live-action creatures are doomed to extinction. ”Never will robotics or animatronics be replaced by animation, any more than we will replace human actors with digital actors,” he promises. ”Technology does not replace art.”