How 'Jurassic Park' Changed the DNA of Blockbusters
With the sequel, <i>Jurassic World</i>, just hitting the theaters, we take a look back at the franchise's debut to survey its impact on everything from CGI effects to an increased national interest in paleontology.
All film stills courtesy of Universal Pictures
Normally, touting a film as being "65 million years in the making" would be a sign of bad business. But in 1993, that tagline was plastered against a stark black background, with that now omnipresent logo—a T-rex skeleton in profile—hanging above it. Jurassic Park wasn't just a movie: It was the movie. If Jaws served as the archetype for the summer blockbuster, and Star Wars helped define the idea of a successful film franchise, Jurassic Park reshaped entire industries. Its then-cutting edge effects and computer graphics (CG) work helped push the relatively new technology to the forefront of Hollywood. Its merchandise helped solidify the 1990s as the last era of sincere cultural branding. And more than anything else, the story of Jurassic Park sparked larger conversations about the insidious nature of science playing God.
But what makes Jurassic Park most interesting is the strange interplay between what's happening on the screen and what's happening around it. If you were to describe Jurassic Park—a group of experts work to create the most lifelike dinosaurs mankind has bared witness to, all in an effort to entertain them through a mix of both science and spectacle—it would be hard to tell whether you're discussing the film's plot or Spielberg's production. The modern blockbuster's DNA has since been fundamentally altered, with more emphasis than ever on branding merchandise, broad appeal, global returns, and special effects.
Yet here we are, with a new chapter in the series to pore over, and if you've been paying attention to Hollywood's penchant for rebooting anything people once gave a shit about, this shouldn't surprise you. Jurassic World hit theaters yesterday, the fourth film in what is shaping up to be a resurrected cash cow. Yet, it's still the original that stands tallest, roars loudest, and spews the most acid in Newman's face. Somehow, 1993's Jurassic Park manages to look less dated than its own 2001 sequel. The original did something right.
"The original Jurassic Park was the perfect example of how you could combine two radically different technologies effectively," said Gustav Hoegen, an animatronic designer from the legendary Pinewood Studios, in an interview with VICE. "It's still the industry standard today, both in how it blended the two, and in how the animatronics and CG looked in general. I still think it's some of the best CG ever done, even by today's standards."
Hoegen has worked on a number of high profile films, including Ridley Scott's Prometheus and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Over the course of Hoegen's prolific career, most of the films he's worked on have used the same blend of practical and digital effects that Jurassic Park helped spearhead.
One of the key players in Jurassic Park's legendary melding of mediums was Phil Tippett. Tippett, who also worked on the first two Star Wars films, was the visual effects supervisor on Jurassic Park. To hear him talk about the production of Jurassic Park is like hearing somebody describe an arduous trip in a foreign country.
Dinosaurs are tightly woven into the symbolic fabric of childhood. Velociraptors are always relevant.
"We just did our best. We knew what things should look like, but we didn't know exactly how to get there," Tippett says. "Everything we thought we could do was empirically dictated by the processes we used, and at that time there just weren't a lot of computer graphics animators that had done this type of thing."
Initially, Tippett and the team mounted techniques that had been used since the early 1930s, combining computer controlled stop-motion puppets with on-set miniatures. Up until the early 1990s, CG-specific companies like ILM were largely using the technology to capture surreal or hallucinogenic effects (think the liquid metal T-1000 in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day). So when Tippett arrived on set, he imagined a much more conventional shoot.
"We thought we'd use [computer imagery] for a couple wide shots so that we could have some long-distance looks at the dinosaurs," he says. "But as the production continued—and the more the computer graphic began to read well—it eventually became clear that this was the direction the film was going in."
Though the technology would allow Spielberg to disengage from the physical world and indulge almost completely in his imagination, his vision of Jurassic Park was still one in which science ruled supreme. In order to ground his film in reality, he enlisted the help of Jack Horner, famed American paleontologist who has served as technical scientific advisor on every film in the series. Horner hadn't read Michael Crichton's original book, but when Steven Spielberg called him up on the phone, he didn't hesitate to come onboard.
"I didn't really know what he was talking about," Horner confesses with a laugh. Still, "It sounded like fun, so I agreed to do it. I probably spent six weeks total in Hollywood, and three weeks of that was on-set with the dinosaurs."
Horner was involved in the film's pre-production, and advised with the script and storyboards to help the film lean towards accuracy as much as possible (though whether blood could be extracted from a pre-historic mosquito remains to be confirmed). Additionally, he worked with model makers in order to ensure that the animals looked as accurate as possible. This meant working closely with the legendary late Stan Winston, as well as with the puppeteers on set. "But mostly," Horner told VICE, "I just sat next to Steven Spielberg and answered questions."
One of his most important on-set collaborations may have been his advising all scenes with animatronic dinosaurs. As Hoegen explains, animatronics are a difficult breed of effects work because they have one fundamental roadblock: Fluidity is not organic to machinery.
When Jurassic Park was released in 1993, you would think a dinosaur had just become President.
"The human or animal body is such a beautifully designed machine," he says. "All the joints are loose, they're hanging off tendons, and nothing is really hinged like a machine is. So how do you make [a machine] lifelike?"
Traditionally, animatronic experts begin by closely inspecting species that most closely resemble their fantasy creatures, assessing everything from muscle structure, broad characteristics, and the way they generally move. This same analysis factors into computer generated designs as well. For instance, the design of the Gallimius, which feature promptly in the film's famous stampede scene, was largely based on the movement and bird-like qualities of the ostrich.
Of course, much like in the film itself, mankind's advances didn't come without a price. When Tippett was brought on set to help design the T-Rex, he assumed it would be for his skillset in stop-motion and practical effects. Instead, he was asked to assist in the production of technology that could, in effect, replace him entirely.
"I thought it was all over for me at the time," Tippett remembers. "I had no value in the process, because I didn't have any knowledge of computers." But once production got underway, and the computer animation came to the forefront of the film's aesthetic, Tipppett found himself troubleshooting entirely new issues.
"When you have to work around the reality of a shoot, there is a whole new subset of things you have to do," he says. "Because these are actors that are playing in real spaces during real times of day, so you're on locations with specific natural lighting that bounces off of the tangible world."
The surprise wasn't that Jurassic Park tantalized children, but rather that it did the same to adults.
When Jurassic Park was released in 1993, you would think a dinosaur had just become President. The hysteria was otherworldly. The film became the highest grossing movie of all time, beating out another Spielberg classic, 1982's E.T., which had itself beat out the first Star Wars. Jurassic Park maintained its historic domestic record for an additional four years until it was surpassed by, of course, the 1997 Star Wars re-release. If for a while there it seemed like Spielberg and Lucas were the only living filmmakers on the planet, it's probably because the world acted like they were.
The full breadth of the film's influence has wormed its way into surprising spheres. In a Reddit AMA, Matthew Carrano, curator of Dinosauria at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, stated, "Every major museum has now renovated their dinosaur exhibits. They've all re-hired dinosaur paleontologists. For many decades, most US museums didn't have any dinosaur paleontologists on staff, but now they all do. So I can, in part, thank Jurassic Park for the fact that I have a job."
The hype was not without its detractors. Horner—who is himself using chickens to retro-engineer dinosaurs in real life (yes, seriously)—remembers that even with the film's emphasis on relative scientific accuracy, the public had other plans.
"When we premiered Jurassic Park in Washington, D.C. back in 1993, there were protestors outside the theater, protesting genetic engineering," he recalls. "People at the time didn't even understand what cloning was. The two have nothing to do with each other."
Still, for all its contributions to both filmmaking and the zeitgeist, Jurassic Park remains a surprisingly polarizing text. It may be Spielberg's most famous work, but it's hard to argue that it's one of his best. For starters, Spielberg's attention was more than just elsewhere: it was in Auschwitz, since he was editing Jurassic Park during the emotionally trying shoot for Schindler's List. As film critic Tom Shone notes, it shows.
"I think that [Schindler] was where his heart was at that point," Shone told VICE. "It doesn't feel like it has all his enthusiasm, all his energies. As miraculous as some of it still is, it feels a tiny bit like he's directing it with his left hand."
Yet what really endures is the film's larger ripple effect in the industry at large, the most pronounced of which was the ubiquity of the film's merchandise. Every element of the film's world was quantified and categorized into a series of ancillary products. From video games and theme park attractions, to clothing and memorabilia (which has since become a niche collector's market), and, of course, the toys.
Hollywood, like most industries, is now dependent on foreign markets to accrue big budgets, and you largely have a T.Rex to thank for that.
"Obviously, the film works on this kind of meta level, where it's about a theme park that changes dinosaurs into toys," says Shone. "And we see the park's gift shop and merchandise, emblazoned with the same logo. So there was already this kind of corporate in-joke going on, yet the merchandise boom of the film was obviously incredibly successful."
After all, dinosaurs are tightly woven into the symbolic fabric of childhood. As a result, velociraptors are always relevant. The surprise wasn't that Jurassic Park tantalized children, but rather that it did the same to adults.
Shone would know. He wrote the book on Spielberg, literally. Blockbuster: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer chronicles the evolution of the Hollywood blockbuster, from happy accident to new world order. As he notes, this was Spielberg's first and only real triumph in the merchandise market.
"There is this immense gray area of films that feel like they might lend themselves to merchandising, but don't, and a notable failure was E.T. The film was over-merchandised at a time when people were still genuinely touched by the film and the character, and they didn't want him to be turned into a toy. It was considered kind of sacrilege."
More than anything else, Jurassic Park crafted an entirely new model of American Blockbuster, which is one inherently less interested in America. As a 1993 article in the Los Angeles Times declared, Jurassic Park's most noticeable box office gross didn't come domestically, but overseas, most notably Japan. According to Shone, 1993 would become the first year in history where the international grosses of films began to outstrip the domestic tally. When you see The Avengers swooping through skyscrapers in Hong Kong, or the Transformers barreling through Beijing, you can bet its because Hollywood has gotten wise to the fact that the biggest audience for American films aren't, in fact, American. Hollywood, like most industries, is dependent on foreign markets to accrue big budgets, and you largely have a T. Rex to thank for that.
Jurassic Park serves as a kind of self-reflexive story, one that centers on the exciting development of new technology and its tendency to get out of hand—first with dinosaurs, then with Hollywood. The stakes are lower, of course, the scope shrunk down to human size, but the long term implications are similarly both thrilling and lowkey horrifying. It's hard to remember what Hollywood was like in the days before Jurassic Park re-configured its DNA. Old models of distribution feel almost entirely fossilized, and if Hollywood has any say, the top priority now is to make everything feel bigger. There is a lesson here, but it seems we've evolved past it.
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