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19 June 2023

How Jurassic Park invented the CGI blockbuster

With Jurassic Park, which turns 30 this month, Steven Spielberg proved that imagination did not need to be limited by what was physically possible. 

By Pippa Bailey

Steven Spielberg changed the world of cinema twice. With 1975’s Jaws, the first film to gross $100m at the box office, he created the summer blockbuster. With Jurassic Park, which turns 30 this month, he proved that, with CGI, anything could be conjured on screen: imagination need no longer be limited by what was physically possible.

Computer-generated imagery had already been used in film-making– the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes, the writhing water of The Abyss – but Jurassic Park was a landmark. Before its release in 1993, “audiences were always aware that what they were watching was carefully crafted special effects,” as one journalist wrote at the time. But this felt real; fully transported, you forgot to wonder how they did it. The precedent was set – for Toy Story, Titanic, The Mummy, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, even the Avatar and Marvel franchises. Martin Brody may have said: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” but Jurassic Park said: you’re gonna need a bigger movie.

The film’s main attraction was the same as that of its park – dinosaurs, life-sized, real, in your face. The business magnate John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, looking like Colonel Sanders) has built a theme park on Isla Nublar, off the coast of Costa Rica, having brought the creatures to life in a lab using DNA from blood found in ancient mosquitoes, preserved in amber. An incident at the park involving a velociraptor and a dino handler leads Hammond to invite Alan Grant (Sam Neill), a palaeontologist; Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), a palaeobotanist; and Ian Malcolm (the purring Jeff Goldblum), a mathematician. Hammond’s grandchildren arrive too – just in time for everything to go predictably and spectacularly wrong.

On release, Jurassic Park became the highest-grossing film up to that time, replacing Spielberg’s earlier ET and winning three Oscars for special effects. It contains some of the most memorable shots in cinema history: a slimy lawyer is crunched by a T-Rex while sitting on the toilet; the breath of a velociraptor steams up a porthole window in a door – and yes, they can turn handles; safety text on a wing-mirror warns that “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” as a T-Rex’s gullet is reflected in the glass. Spielberg was inspired to create perhaps the most iconic image – the boom of approaching steps sends rings rippling outwards in a cup of water – when watching how his rear-view mirror shook while he played an Earth, Wind & Fire song particularly loudly in his car. The effect was eventually achieved with a guitar string fed into the cup from below and plucked. Spielberg’s decision to use 1.85:1 aspect ratio rather than wide screen (compare the effect with the recent reboots) gives more vertical space to show off the scale of the beasts – never better than on the tour group’s first glimpse of a brachiosaurus (now fodder for countless memes).

[See also: The enduring cult of The Wicker Man]

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Jurassic Park the CGI spectacle was never supposed to be a CGI spectacle at all. The special effects were to be created physically: animatronics by Stan Winston (The Terminator) and stop-motion by Phil Tippett (Star Wars). George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) was simply brought on to add motion blur. But ILM’s Steve Williams, despite having been told “no” when he suggested they build the lot using CGI instead, started to render a set of T-Rex bones in secret, after hours. Knowing he wouldn’t be allowed to present it officially, he purposefully left it playing on a monitor when the Jurassic Park producers were due to visit the studio, in November 1991.

“Every now and again… something happens and you know that it’s just incredibly ground-breaking and it’s going to change everything,” one producer, Kathleen Kennedy, later said. “And this was one of those moments. Every single one of us jumped to our feet because we couldn’t believe what we were looking at.” On being told by Spielberg of the role CGI would now play in the movie and realising what it might mean for his craft, Tippett is said to have replied: “I think I’m extinct.” Spielberg preserved the line in the script for Jurassic Park: it was the inspiration behind the Ian Malcolm quip: “Don’t you mean extinct?”

Thirty years on, Jurassic Park’s special effects look as good as – even better than – many films that came after it. This is partly because, actually, relatively little of the film uses CGI. Dinosaurs are on screen for just 15 minutes of the film’s more than two-hour run time (Jaws’ great white got only four minutes), nine of which were made with practical effects. Limiting the audience’s exposure to the film’s main attraction was for Spielberg not just a choice based on cost and practical consideration, but on suspense and knowing an audience’s limits.

Jurassic Park marked the beginning of a golden age of CGI: its opportunities seemed innumerable, and cinema had not yet grown lazy. Today, CGI is over-relied upon – 63 visual effects shots were made with CGI in Jurassic Park, for instance, compared with more than 2,200 in 2012’s The Avengers – and its viewers are wearier and less impressed; aware, once more, that what they are watching is carefully crafted effects. Like Hammonds’ dinosaurs, CGI, once created, proved uncontainable. Life, uh, finds a way.

[See also: Remembering Glenda Jackson – the unstarry star of cinema and politics]

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