Cover Story

REX 'N EFFECTS

Talk about a comeback! Dinosaurs supposedly bit the dust 65 million years ago, yet they appear destined to rule movie theaters this summer, thanks to the evolutionary leap in special effects taken by Jurassic Park. When Steven Spielberg began planning his prehistoric trompe l'oeil, he expected to depend on conventional visual effects, especially full-size robotic dinosaurs that would be built by Oscar winner Stan Winston (Aliens, Terminator 2). Industrial Light & Magic's Dennis Muren (The Abyss, T2) sold him on a trickier approach. After generating a stampeding herd of ostrichlike Gallimimus on his computer, Muren convinced a wowed Spielberg that computer graphics could handle some of Jurassic's biggest scenes. So the model-makers and the computer animators worked in tandem. Winston's craftsmen made their monsters from the outside in, first creating detailed drawings of the dinosaurs, then modeling them in clay, then building hydraulic skeletons operated by remote control, and finally covering the full-scale, movable skeletons in latex skins. Muren's team worked from the inside out: They built skeletons on their computer screens, then animated them and ''painted on'' flesh and bone to match Winston's models. Of Winston's full-size creations, only one sickly triceratops was shipped to Kauai. The others-a 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex, a grazing brachiosaur, a spitting dilophosaur, and the ferocious velociraptors-did their jobs on Universal Studios' soundstages. The T. rex, mounted on flight simulator platforms, was actually controlled by a one-fifth-scale model, whose movements were electronically transmitted to the full-scale dino. Raptor shots were divided between a man in a raptor suit and models operated by up to 14 puppeteers. Meanwhile, Muren's team concentrated on the brachiosaurs lolling by a lake, a sequence in which a brachiosaur lunches on a tree, the Gallimimus stampede, a T. rex chasing a jeep, and a battle between T. rex and the raptors. ''It was 10 times as hard as T2, because the chrome T-1000 wasn't a living thing,'' Muren says. ''We had to get them to look photo-real, with believable- looking skin moving over muscles, and we had to get a performance, an attitude, so you could look into their eyes and see a soul there.'' Muren's animations had to be seamlessly intercut with the models. For example, when the T. rex breaks through an electrified fence, it's a computer- animated shot. When the dinosaur attacks a car, Winston's mechanical monster takes over. And when the T. rex spins the car around, it's again ILM's painstaking pixel-painting. For the climactic kitchen sequence, ILM's artists generated velociraptors bumping into one another, jumping onto a counter, sniffing a spoon, and charging a freezer door. And in one of Jurassic's most astounding shots, the T. rex grabs a man in its jaws and swings him aloft. The shot begins with an actor; he is replaced with ILM's computer-created double as he disappears into the monster's maw. Although computer-designed shots account for only six minutes of Jurassic Park, they are so convincing that many in the industry wonder whether models have a future. But Muren believes the two technological species can coexist peacefully. ''If you've got close-ups, like the dinosaur's snout pushing the kids in the car, that stuff should be done exactly the way (Stan Winston did it),'' the computer wizard says. ''But if it's large-scale effects, our way will save time and money.'' Winston, for all his facility with models, is nonetheless hedging his bets. He recently joined IBM and director James Cameron to form Digital Domain, a company that will allow him to stake out his own turf in computer effects. ''I realized in the middle of Jurassic Park that we have this wonderful new tool (in computer graphics),'' he admits. ''And if I didn't get involved, I was going to become the dinosaur.'' *

Originally posted Jun 18, 1993 Published in issue #175 Jun 18, 1993 Order article reprints