So I wasn’t sure if I was going to blog about this, given how much I tweeted about it after seeing the Jurassic World teaser today, but after seeing a great post by Teague Chrystie, I wanted to carry the torch a bit farther. Be sure to read that first before continuing if you haven’t already. Everything Teague says is spot on, I just want to go even farther in the discussion. Jurassic Park’s CG still holds up well today and there are many reasons why. Few number of shots worked on for months and months (despite primitive tools), the mixing with animatronics (fantastic ones), and on it goes. We’ve all heard the typical reasons and I think there’s an aspect to this that hasn’t been addressed much. Teague’s post touches on it, and that was my trigger to speak up. THE LOOK. Teague mentions the look that they were after, that they’d “know it when they saw it.” He might’ve meant it in a different context, but how you go about finishing content, grading content, and all the way back to how you shoot content, has so much to do with what will help sell CG. It’s no secret we have the best tools we’ve ever had, and yet many films just end up looking boring, fake, etc. What’s the problem? Did the VFX artists just suck at their job? Was it money? What’s the deal man? There’s no one answer, but I think the look of some films (especially Jurassic World) lend to a much harder fight for realism. I do want to preface all of this by saying YES I know that the shots aren’t done, so none of this is about crapping all over every shot in the Jurassic World teaser or critiquing it to death from a CG point of view. One of the shots in the trailer apparently isn’t even in the film, the one of the gate according to the Director. This post isn’t just about Jurassic World, and it’s not about whether the film is OK or GREAT since it’s clearly too early to call that (though I’m worried). I’m concerned with the approach. Someone on my Facebook mentioned the idea that people want to be impressed with bigger and crazier dinosaurs. Is that really what we want? That’s news to me! Here’s what the Director had to say:
“What if, despite previous disasters, they built a new biological preserve where you could see dinosaurs walk the earth…and what if people were already kind of over it? We imagined a teenager texting his girlfriend with his back to a T-Rex behind protective glass. For us, that image captured the way much of the audience feels about the movies themselves. ‘We’ve seen CG dinosaurs. What else you got?’ Next year, you’ll see our answer.”
If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, watch it first:
Jurassic Park 1 was shot by Dean Cundey, who also shot films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back To The Future, etc. He’s a fantastic DP with a very recognizable style. I’ve always given Cundey a lot of credit for how he shot Jurassic Park because I feel like certain creative choices whether they were his idea or not, made it a lot easier to sell the groundbreaking computer graphics. Spielberg (I believe) was the one who wanted the T-Rex attack to be at night in the rain, much to Stan Winston’s horror, since animatronic components and their functional unity relies heavily on the balancing and fine tuning of weight. The T-Rex’s skin soaked up water on-set, changing the weight of the monster and causing him to shake like he had a cold. They’d need to stop, dry him down, etc. Still, the choice to do things in this sort of environment was genius even if unintended. Shadows to hide things in, the wetness of the environment, the lighting, all lent to things being a bit easier later on. It’s like what Doug Trumbull said to his team while they were creating the VFX for Blade Runner and would run into problems at times. He’d say “flop it, crop it, or add a flare.” The look of Blade Runner brought more reality. Atmospheric haze and smoke, darkness, flaring, etc. Jurassic Park however does have moments with full-size dinosaurs in hard sunlight that hold up well, including the last shot of the T-Rex inside the Visitor Center. Who can forget the amazing shots during the stampede? It’s not a weird 360 shot or some sort of CG swoop around that comes in from the air and somehow lands on the ground. No, it’s a motor vehicle driving through the grass as the actors run, with the camera darting and moving around frantically in an organic handheld sort of way, with tennis balls in the grass that created an in camera grid that could be tracked later on to insert the CG dinos (groundbreaking at the time). The camera never does something in Jurassic Park that cameras can’t do in real life. During the T-Rex attack, they also cut back and forth between the T-Rex animatronic and the CG version, matching the two extremely well so an untrained eye would have a hard time figuring out which was which. This is why so many “remember” more CG in Jurassic Park than their was. There’s a psychology to understand here. You sell something with more than images. You sell it with sound, you sell it with movement, you sell it with camera placement and light, and you even sell it with the pattern of shots.
Before the full CG T-Rex even appears for his big moment in tearing down the fence, we’ve built up the fear and anticipation, we’ve seen his animatronic hand check the fence for electricity, we’ve seen him swallow the lamb, etc. We’ve built up mentally that this thing is there and have given the audience a real version of the dino to see. Finally, the moment comes and out steps the full CG T-Rex in all his glory. Your brain doesn’t give it a second thought. Then we cut to a shot inside the explorer Grant is in, and we see through a perspective you rarely do today, an obscured shot with rain falling down the windows and the T-Rex filling the frame at the top as it continues it’s roar and walks by. It’s an almost messy shot, as if the camera is trying to capture all it can but can’t quite see the whole animal. There is a grounded reality to the way in which the film was shot. Dean didn’t shoot it thinking about all the cool CG moves he could do, he shot it like any DP would shoot a scene as if there was a real animal there and approached it that way. There was no CG camera move they knew they could do in a wide, recreating the environment via camera projection mapping or a fully recreated CG set. It wasn’t in their minds because the technology didn’t exist. After the previously mentioned shot goes by and the whole “based on movement” joke occurs, we cut to the girl freaking out in the other explorer, turning on the flashlight, followed by a shot of an animatronic Rex seen back from inside Grants explorer. This is the robotic T-Rex head which lifts out of frame, and then there’s a handoff where the CG dino walks into frame and moves towards the car. Set them up with something real, pay it off with something CG. The hand off is perfect. Go watch Jurassic Park on Blu-ray, not the 3D Blu-ray but the one that comes in the silver case, the one that isn’t re-mastered and re-timed (which looks awful). The studio did noise reduction on the entire film and the whole thing looks like plastic or a painting. The grit, the softness, the “mistakes” in the original film also helps sell things. If you really look at a lot of shots in Jurassic Park with CG in them, they are pretty soft. The film is detailed and colorful, but it’s not a super pristine image. I’m not getting into an argument of film vs. digital, since Jurassic World was shot on film, but in the post-processing we definitely have a way to end up with a more perfect image today, which again…gives the CG less to hide behind, particularly CG that is portraying organic things like animals. Check out a few of these shots from JP1 and 2: Image 1 Image 2 Image 3 Do you think Jurassic Park’s CG would hold up so well if that image was more pristine and perfect? Not likely. Lets not forget too that there were very few CG shots in Jurassic Park, about 50 or so, and ILM had a long time to work on them. Today companies have very little time to do hundreds or even thousands of shots on a film with less pay than they should receive! They also have to rush certain shots and goof up the entire post-pipeline just to get trailers like the one above “ready” often to their frustration and dissatisfaction.
How about the look of the film itself color wise, and the dinosaurs? Are they purple? Are they super green? Nope. They’re earthy tones and colors that fit in with the scenery and the ground. Does this mean you can’t have more color to a creature and have it look real? Not at all! But, it is good to note how all of these things work together to sell a shot. How about the color grading? Hollywood is obsessed with teal/orange right now or a pink/blue look. The Jurassic World teaser as is but with a different grade would’ve sold a lot better for me. Jurassic Park was Sci-Fi, but it was more of a hard Sci-Fi, it was like The Abyss or some others. It was grounded, it was dramatic reality. Jurassic Park looked like reality taking place today (or in that time 1993) but with dinosaurs somehow. The production design also lent to the tangible feel it had. There were no sweeping CG shots of an environment that your brain tells you probably doesn’t exist. All you ever saw in Jurassic Park were real buildings. There also isn’t anything about the image that is heavily polished. Jurassic Park was before the days of digital grading. It looks like how any film shot on film in those days would look. It looks like it was shot, handled carefully, and not really messed with much in the chemical process. There is something to be said for all of that. It doesn’t mean something can’t be graded and have tons of CG and look real, but in the case of Jurassic Park and what the film ultimately was trying to do, it looked the way it should’ve. Fantasy is a little different. Something like Avatar is mostly CG and colorful in the extreme, and yet you let it slide because the entire world you’re looking at is completely different, unfamiliar, nothing is relatable or recognizable. Jurassic Park feels like it takes place on some island out there in the real world in 1993, and you buy it. Jurassic World on the other hand doesn’t look like it’s taking place in 2014. The park itself that you’re looking at through sweeping CG camera moves feels like something out of the future not the present. Jurassic World feels like it’s in the year 2080 or 2100. It goes from more of a hard Sci-Fi feel to Avatar or Battleship. It’s color graded within an inch of it’s life. Nothing looks like real life does, not even the first scene in the trailer at the airport. We barely look at anything that feels like it would exist. The most realistic thing in the Jurassic World trailer is Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle, people running like crazy through a shopping/restaurant area of the park, etc. That whole fish thing coming out of the water to snatch the great white? Not even close…and no amount of work from ILM is gonna sell it either, not for me. Why did Indiana Jones 4 look horrid compared to the earthy originals? Same problem, different movies.
This isn’t the fault of the CG artists. This is an approach by the studio and filmmakers. It’s a creative choice to use the camera in a certain way, to show certain things a certain way, to portray it with color in a certain way, and to take the story in a certain direction, all of which impacts whether something feels real or feels like CG movie “real.” It’s a concept problem. Way back to what was on the page. The idea of seeing Jurassic Park as a functioning place was interesting, but unfortunately it lent itself to more of the problems I’m describing not less. Seeing all that stuff brand new and shiny as a story concept already set the CG up for a harder sell, before a single model was even built. The shot in the trailer of the train going by as we fly in towards the water park show is a key example of what not to do in a film like this. We fly in looking at what’s a fully CG environment, get really close to the train tracks and WHOOSH there goes a train that we’ve just missed with our CG camera. Wasn’t that close guys? If we did that shot in real life somehow and that park really existed, there’d be expletives shouting from the helicopter pilots mouth! Yes it adds some interest to the shot, but it also immediately takes you out (or at least it does me). Your brain knows that you’d never film that. You accept it in a Star Wars prequel because you’re flying around a planet made entirely of city, and you’re in the Star Wars universe. In the Jurassic Park world, aside from the idea that somehow Dinosaurs can be recreated, it was always grounded in a world that’s ours, that’s “possible.” That’s not what I’m seeing here and it just doesn’t work. ILM with it’s very best work can’t make stuff like this look or feel real, because it’s a faux approach from the very start. The look, the grade, the use of the camera, it all betrays what makes Jurassic Park 1 and 2 work. I don’t think you can blame it merely on the fact that now people are aware of CG. I think there’s a better way to approach a franchise like this in the cinema, a way to really suck people in and surprise them by showing things in a way that isn’t the typical blockbuster. Don’t give us the big sweeping CG environments, we get a lot of that all the time. One of the scariest dinosaur attacks in the Jurassic Park franchise is the first scene of the first film and we don’t even see anything, we merely hear it happening behind a wall while it occurs. The sound and editing is what sells it, and it’s horrifying.
ILM and a ton of VFX artists are trying their best to make Jurassic World look great, I have no doubts. Tons of shots in the trailer (likely all) are not finished shots, and the look probably isn’t even set in stone, but I think the writing is on the wall regarding the approach the filmmakers have taken, and it’s making ILM’s job 10x harder. Come on Hollywood, you can do better. We don’t necessarily just want bigger and “better” or “cooler” dinos. Maybe we want a great story first with great characters? The dinosaurs weren’t the stars going into the first movie. The first movie is about a guy who doesn’t want to have kids with the woman he’s with, then getting stuck with some in a crazy situation, and growing in his fondness for them by the end. It’s about Alan Grant becoming OK with the idea of being a father. That’s the story Jurassic Park ultimately tells. Regardless of all I’ve said, I just hope Jurassic World can succeed on a story and character level and give weight, stakes, and heart to the CG spectacle that surrounds it all. If it does, then it’ll stand the test of time. If not, it’ll be yet another forgotten sequel. I may not sound hopeful, but I am. I want nothing more than to be proven wrong, and I’ll be there opening night to find out. Your move Hollywood…