How 'Jurassic Park' Revolutionized Visual Effects, Inspiring 'Jurassic World'

Dennis Muren Jurassic Park - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

Dennis Muren Jurassic Park - H 2015

Legendary visual effects magician Dennis Muren admitted that two decades ago while supervising the full-motion dinosaurs on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park — a film that would become a defining work in the history of visual effects — he “wasn’t aware of how much of a game-changer it was going to be.”

But George Lucas knew. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Muren recalled that while working on Jurassic Park at Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic VFX house, "George came by, and I said I was hoping that [someday] we could do something like 2001: A Space Odyssey. George said, 'you don’t know it, but you’re working on it.'"

That same year, Tim Alexander started his first industry job at Disney’s former Buena Vista Visual Effects, and a group from the team went to see Jurassic Park. "We were blown away; we weren’t doing anything remotely like what ILM was doing," said Alexander, who 20 years later would find himself at ILM as VFX supervisor on Jurassic World. "Jurassic Park was a huge leap forward, everyone recognized it. It was a milestone in the switch over to the computer realm."

"When I started [at Buena Vista] there were only six people in digital, and most came over from optical [effects]. Digital was the future," Alexander said. "Within a year we were up to 35 people in the digital department. Jurassic Park was the turning point.”

Muren — who recently celebrated 40 years at ILM — is the most honored artist in his field, having won a remarkable nine Oscars in VFX for such seminal films as The Empire Strikes Back, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and, of course, Jurassic Park.

The latter brought to the screen the most realistic dinosaurs audiences had ever seen at that time, a combination of animatronics and fully computer-generated creatures. The CG work was difficult, and during production even Muren had moments of doubt. "I had never seen CG skin that looked real, other than some university research. [Before Jurassic Park] we did T2, and that was complicated. We did a lot of tests to see if we could make the dinosaurs work. It was a lot of algorithms, [for instance] to see if we keep the creatures’ skin from tearing. We had the fallback of stop motion."

Some of the advances were further extensions of CG research and development that was used on their prior film T2. "But I don't think Hollywood saw the potential [of digital] with T2," Muren admitted. "I think Hollywood didn’t know what they were looking at."

For Jurassic World,  which looks poised to break box office records this weekend with a North American debut between $181-$200 million, director Colin Trevorrow went back to ILM, this time with VFX led by Alexander, who won a BAFTA Award for the VFX on The Perfect Storm and earned an Oscar nomination for The Lone Ranger. The director also assembled some of the key members of the original team as consultants, including Muren, Phil Tippett (credited as ‘dinosaur supervisor’ in the first film and also received a VFX Oscar), Rick Carter (production designer) and Gary Rydstrom (who received Oscars for best sound and best sound effects editing on the first film).

"A lot of that came from Colin; he wanted to honor he original while still making something new," Alexander said, adding that it was “fantastic" to have MurrenTippett [and others from the original team that are still at ILM] to offer advice on the VFX. And they had fun. Alexander recalled a day when they were planning a scene during which "we had miniatures and toy dinosaurs and Phil was jumping up on a table."

"It’s a dinosaur movie at heart, and we’ve been doing creatures for years," he said of Jurassic World. "We had to do something to make this different, but also has the pressure to live up to what ILM did previously."

Jurassic World’s dinosaurs are mostly CG, with just a few animatronic creatures. Alexander explained that one of the big changes on this film was that they used motion capture to create the raptors' performances. "They were a good size — human size. We had tryouts and we cast people from ILM as each dinosaur. We gave them a tail and did motion capture."

With 20 years of research and development, the skin and muscle movement of the dinosaurs is, of course, far more complex than prior films. For Jurassic World, the team even used a newly developed muscle firing system to fire and squeeze the muscles at the right points.

Jurassic World also introduces a new dinosaur, Indominus Rex, which in the story is hybrid created using the DNA of multiple species. The “D-rex” — it’s nickname at ILM before the dinosaur was named — is nearly 50 feet long, weighs a few tons, can run at about 35 miles an hour, and has long arms and a tail that’s armored with spikes. To develop the look, movement and animal behavior, ILM artists referenced animals including rhinos, hippos, elephants and ostriches.

Muren related that part of the advice he offered the VFX team was to keep it earth-bound to make it feel real. "They are not monsters, but animals. So we have to get the right weight and gravity." He added, "Also there were little things we did on the first film to make them scarier, such as adding a little light in the mouth so you can really see their teeth."

"I thought the guys did a great job," he said. "They look amazingly big and have an incredible sense of power and weight. The motion is more animalistic than anything before."

And as to the story in the Jurassic films, Muren noted the cautionary tales might be even more relevant today. "This could be going on right now with genetic engineering," he said. "I don't see that not happening. There are people doing things they probably shouldn’t."