Why does CG from Jurassic Park still hold up?

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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.

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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…

Update: Read a VFX Artist share his thoughts here.

Audience & The Indie Filmmaker

"Why is nobody buying my movie!?"
“Why is nobody buying my movie!?”

You don’t have to look too hard to see that independent film has changed a lot in the last 10 years.  Digital acquisition has swooped in and changed the game, companies like Redbox thrived and stole a lot of Netflix DVD business which then forced Netflix to dive into the streaming game which has given birth to a huge widespread digital streaming culture.  Redbox has thrived but also been hit by the digital wave (their prices just got their second uptick since they began).  Youtube brought cheap and accessible digital platforms to the masses, and now we have people growing massive fan bases online as they upload frequent content of all sorts and kinds.  Freddie Wong has his huge tech savvy (and young) audience who love his pop-culture aware VFX heavy content, especially gamers.  Lionsgate & Freddie (more specifically his company RocketJump) recently inked a multi-year film, tv, and digital content deal.  Guys like John Green and his brother Hank (vlogbrothers) built a fan base over 7 years on Youtube, then John wrote a book specifically for them (after a few others that were modest successes) which his audience then elevated to the top of the bestseller lists, and then the book was adapted to the screen and made $50 million opening weekend to the shock of Hollywood.

Filmmaker Kevin Smith was always active online, but his fan-base grew significantly when he started podcasting not just tweeting.  His podcast called SMODCAST, which has grown into a large network of different podcasts, has given him a huge platform that was used to turn his recent film Red State into a small but very profitable theatrical success.  He even got the idea for his latest movie Tusk while on the air, batting ideas back and forth, and the response from his audience to the idea, including their creation of the #WalrusYes hashtag (which was their way of saying “yes make this movie!”), pushed Smith into developing the script and eventually shooting the film.  In the faith-based world two brothers, Alex & Stephen Kendrick, release four small independant films from 2002 to 2011 that go on to make $80+ million at the US Box Office, selling millions and millions of DVDs, creating a multi-million dollar franchise that includes movies, NYT best-selling books, t-shirts, and more.  A movie you might’ve heard of this year called God’s Not Dead, made by PureFlix Entertainment (who were primarily known for low-budget direct-to-DVD releases) blew away expectations when it made over $60 million at the US Box Office on a tiny sub-$2 million production budget without piggybacking off a previously successful product like a best-selling book or the marketing draw of a popular true-story.  However, for years they built a fan base of people who loved their exploding catalog of DVD titles, which gave them solid footing in in the retail industry and with fans to build from.  What is happening?

All of these success stories have something in common, the relationship with the audience.  Freddie Wong has one of the most popular channels on Youtube.  He’s cultivated and tilled the soil of that fan base for years, giving them tons of content they want to see in massive quantities and in a medium that is uber-sharable (and the one they WANT!).  This has grown a massive trust between him and his audience.  He’s had multiple successful crowd funding campaigns for his series Video Game High School, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for each.  It doesn’t surprise me at all that Lionsgate saw the writing on the wall and snagged Freddie before someone else did.  What is the real strength of that deal?  Is it merely Freddie’s abilities in After Effects?  Not at all, it’s his brand and the trust he has with his online fan base.  When John Green took cell phone video at the red carpet premiere of The Fault In Our Stars, it was basically a gushing video-selfie saying “Can you believe we’re here?  This is amazing!  I can’t believe we did this.”  He gave his audience ownership over the recognition and success.  Making them feel apart of something was vital.  Kickstarter and the concept of crowd-funding works because it not only lets people accomplish something, but it lets other people take part in that accomplishment and be rewarded for it with the thing they helped make possible.  There’s a draw to that.

The Kendrick Brothers are themselves a brand.  Their names over the course of 4 movies have blanketed the faith space.  Everywhere from TV, Radio, Magazines, Major TV Networks, Mainstream press in Hollywood, etc.  It wasn’t the typical PR craze.  It was a more personal thing. People felt like they got to know the brothers, got to know their heart and the heart in their work, the prayer and care they take with their products which resonates with that core Christian audience.  It helps the buyer feel taken care of and respected, it helps them love their movies even more, and their success helps their brand be legitimized.  The nature of Sherwood Pictures and involvement of their church also gave a certain community feeling to each movie which outsiders looking in appreciated.  The Kendrick Brothers have since moved onto a different model beyond their church, but that community aspect and unity mindset has stayed.

Building a trust with your audience and serving them is important.  Making them feel apart of things is important.  Giving them credit and ownership (even emotional ownership) is important.  They’re not just buying your product, they’re buying you.  This is my personal opinion of course, and there is more than one way to sell something, but I see a trend out there in the digital and marketing realm that is built upon the same old foundation.  Online communities and audiences have thrived where people get a more SOCIAL experience.  I chose a long time ago not to hide behind the logo of a company.  I’m still doing what I can to develop strategies that can put myself out there more, to connect what I do with who I am and make that easier to understand and know.  I’m far more interested in growing a brand with a face than a brand with a logo.  It’s all about finding the proper angle for what you’re doing and knowing who your audience is.

Indie filmmakers need to understand the concept of audience.  It’s not merely about genre or gender or age.  That’s the hole you dig before you start laying brick, or in some cases you find more solid footing along the way as the audience and the data helps inform you about what’s working and what’s not.  Who are these people?  What do they like?  Where do they shop?  What sort of products do they buy?  Why do they like them?  What are their favorite movies?  Do they thrive on mobile?  Are they tech savvy?  These are basic questions you need to ask about who you intend to reach.  The more you know about your audience the better you can help serve them.  Is the faith audience something you care to service?  If not, then who?  A broader demographic?  Homeschool moms?  Liberal democrats?  Moderates?  Atheists?  Who’d they vote for?  Does that play any role in your possible messaging to them?  What about the cost of products they like to consume?

There is a degree to which these things can bury you so much that you never actually create anything.  Don’t let yourself get there!  I’ve been there in my head before (recently) and it’s frustrating and creatively constricting.  A good solid product is always a foundation you can put some stock in, regardless of who it’s for.  It starts there.  It starts with good scripts.  It starts with a solid concept and idea.  Many writers prefer to let the story unfold and the proper theme and “message” birth from there, instead of starting with something to say.  Once you have that concept or that script in hand, then figure out who it’s for, get counsel about it.  Being wrong could severely cripple your film, even if it’s good material.  How big is the audience pool?  Tiny?  Huge?  What about competition?  Making a movie that has a small audience is fine, but depending on what it is don’t go making it for $10 million lol.  I think there are 100,000 stories out there worth telling, but our job as responsible indie filmmakers is to try and make them for the “right price,” which often becomes the only price we can afford lol.  Make a great product, bottom line.  I think it’s been proven many times over that great content on the page can trump shortcomings elsewhere in a film.  It doesn’t erase error, but really solid characters, great dialog, and a story that grabs you will win the day.  The rest of the filmmaking process isn’t necessarily whipped cream, it’s essential, and who a film is for is important, but I like what filmmaker Zak Forsman had to say recently:

Me thinks we need less talk about how to distribute microbudget movies and more about the craft, to make them worthy of an audience.” – @ZakForsman

The people described at the start of this post built an audience for years and years before they really capitalized on it in a big way.  That takes time and work.  We all have to start somewhere!  But, I don’t think enough people want to put the time in anymore.  They just want to make their art and expect people to show up, similar to filmmakers who want to create something, sign a contract, and walk away with lots of money and don’t want to be involved in the marketing.  People don’t just show up.  Very few indie movies get great success and awareness in the mainstream and catapult someone to another level.  Blue Ruin (revenge genre executed very well — READ THIS) or Short Term 12 (heart wrenching drama done right) would be an example, or this years Dear White People (biting and smart satire for an underserved demographic).  Most of us aren’t going to create films with that amount of success (yet), though we might dream about it at night.  Still, those films were worthy of an audience, and they found it.  Start building an online audience today that isn’t just movie-centric, but you-centric.  Figure out a way to start interacting with the people who you connect with, who are the most likely to connect with your art.  Social media has opened the floodgates to new possibilities.  You have to start thinking about building that pool of people who will support you moving forward.  Start in the center with friends and family and work your way out if need be as you make content WORTHY of their attention as Zak said above.  In the ever increasing noise of this world, where 300 hours of content is uploaded to Youtube every minute (up from 100 hours a year or so ago), it’s going to become increasingly difficult to make enough noise to be noticed.  Start carving out an audience for yourself who will follow you to the ends of the earth.  I see it happening, it’s definitely possible…the only question is…do you have what it takes and do you want it enough?