WHEN: 6:15pm EST, September 14th, 2013
WHERE: In my apartment in Portland, ME
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 47″ LCD HDTV
COMPANY: Friend of the site Phil
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Had just watched The Making of Jurassic Park hosted by James Earl Jones.
Ugh. Look at that skin texturing! What is this, 1993?
Despite the rest of the movie looking pretty damn good to this day, it’s hard to deny that Jurassic Park’s resident sauropod isn’t holding up. But it’s been twenty years since Jurassic Park first awed theatergoers with its lifelike prehistoric behemoths, and though some shots are starting to lose their original luster, it’s truly amazing how well most of the film is holding up. The work of Steven Spielberg, Phil Tippet, Stan Winston, and many others melded puppetry and groundbreaking CGI to form a visual masterpiece that still looks great two decades later.
So, why is it that the Brachiosaur looks lousy, while other CGI-heavy scenes still look stellar? I think the key lies in the use of animatronics. How so? The answer’s below.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK WITH ANIMATRONICS:
After that questionable long-neck, the next two dinosaurs we see are a baby Raptor and a sick Triceratops. These two dinosaurs, while not overly exciting, are very important, for a couple of reasons: they give us a close-up look at the animals, and allow for believable human-dinosaur interaction.
These scenes are essential in that they make the dinosaurs palpable. We are, thanks to Stan Winston’s meticulously sculpted animatronics, able to see Grant and friends feel the texture of the Triceratops’ skin and gently hold in their hands the fragile body of an infant Velociraptor.
Sculptures were made, from which molds were created, from which the skin for the animatronics was pulled. The result is a tremendously detailed skin that rises and falls with each breath of the injured beast.
These gentle, slow scenes allow our minds to register that these are living breathing animals that can be approached. They’re not a distant animation. To steal Hammond’s words, the detailed textures have created “something that was real; something that they could see, and touch,” instead of unrelatable animations “devoid of merit.”
FOLLOWING UP WITH CG:
Now that the dinosaurs have been established in our minds as actual creatures that exist and can interact with humans, we are primed for something bigger. In the next scene, the Tyrannosaur attack, we get to see a large independently moving dinosaur, yet even here we are first shown a puppet before we see a fully CG creation.
The first shot, where we see the animatronic puppet.
And, the next where we see a fully CG rex.
The first shot lingers on the head of the animatronic, giving us time to soak in the texture and detail of the model. Then, once our minds have registered it as a real object, we are shown the smooth moving CGI rex busting through a fence. Note the difference in texture between the above screen shots. It’s clear that the first is more detailed, but when we’re watching the complete scene, it appears seamless. Unless you’re actively looking for it, it doesn’t seem like they are two different methods being used. Boom. Disbelief suspended.
AS THE MOVIE CONTINUES:
Now we have been fully engaged by these dinosaurs. We’ve seen the rex kill, and we buy the idea of dinosaurs being real, dangerous animals. At this stage we are ready to see and accept fully CG creations like the Gallimimus. They don’t stand up as well to close inspection as the rex, but at this point the audience is invested enough not to notice.
And in broad daylight, no less.
The illusion is furthered by Spielberg’s constantly moving shots. We don’t just see them run by, we see them run alongside our protagonists. Using painstaking effort to follow the movements of the camera and the actors, the groundbreaking effect of adding the dinosaurs to a handheld shot was achieved.
Despite the lack of detail and texture on the Gallimimus herd, their speed combined with the fact that the audience already has an idea of dinosaur skin texture in their minds allows for the scene’s success.
GETTING BACK TO THE BRACHIOSAUR:
I believe that much of the success of Jurassic Park‘s CGI can be attributed to the following analogy which the audience is subconsciously tricked with:
Puppets are dinosaurs.
CGI images are dinosaurs.
Puppets have texture.
Therefore CGI images must also have texture.
If this is the case, it’s clear why the Brachiosaur looks so terrible. They trotted the computer graphics too early in the movie. We haven’t had a chance to acclimate ourselves and accept the reality of the images we are being shown. Perhaps, if it had appeared later in the film, it would have looked better.
Or maybe not.