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The Historic Tech Of 'Jurassic Park', 30 Years On

The entrance to Jurassic Park
Image courtesy of HarshLight via Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

As Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) reaches its 30th anniversary, I revisited the classic blockbuster to understand exactly why the picture has stood the test of time as well as it has. When two palaeontologists (Sam Neill and Laura Dern) are invited to visit John Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough) new theme park of genetically modified and manufactured dinosaurs, they are left in pure astonishment, only for it to be abruptly turned on its head as the predators begin to break free and terrorise the park’s inhabitants, splitting the group up. Not only has the film reignited the world’s love of and interest in dinosaurs and palaeontology in the subsequent years, it also trailblazed the use of Computer-Generated-Imagery and effects in cinema and set a precedent for the use of CGI in nearly every film in modern cinema.

Jurassic Park was the first time that computer-generated characters interacted with actors in cinema. From here on, a new filmmaking process had begun, expanding the future creative possibilities of on-screen storytelling. Think about pictures such as Star Wars: Rouge One (2016): entire scenes and plotlines are filled with fully computer-generated humans, other creatures and actors interacting, such as Peter Cushing’s Tarkin, long after Cushing’s death, yet essentially bringing him back using CGI. Whilst Jurassic Park only included around six minutes of these scenes, the ground-breaking addition of CGI gave audiences a completely new experience of seeing realistic extinct creatures, immersing them in a new cinematic world where escapism could thrive. There are less than 60 shots with fully CG’d dinosaurs in the film, but these shots remain some of what makes the film so memorable. For example, the scenes where Alan (Sam Neill) and Ellie (Laura Dern) first see a dinosaur walking on the open fields and calmly eating the tops of trees, the theme song blasts, and the magic of the film begins. The mixture of these computer-generated yet very realistic dinosaurs with animatronics, puppets and physical models created a new and exciting sense of realism; a chance to see creatures never seen in such detail before. The combination of these filmmaking tactics was obviously due to technical limitations at the time, however, having this mixture of old and new would have helped audiences ease into this new type of cinema and is therefore perhaps one of the reasons it was so well received and accepted as the new norm. Dinosaurs had of course been on screen before (in King Kong in 1933, for example), but neither in such modern detail nor via this form of CGI.

Partial transition from solely puppets, animatronics, stop-motion, and physical models into the inclusion of computer-generated graphics was very new in 1993, hence the lack of a complete transition. Of course, some films today do still use stop motion, like Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018) or Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), the Wallace and Gromit films and the educational short Save Ralph (2021). However, these are stylistic choices as opposed to practical ones. Clearly, audiences still love this form of filmmaking, perhaps for the nostalgic and original aesthetic they portray. However, since Jurassic Park, it is certainly not the norm. Not only is the graphic better with these CG features, but it prevents practical filmmaking mistakes. This reminds us of one of the humorous moments in a classic like Jurassic Park, where the limitations of puppetry were exposed in a scene with the Raptors, where a puppeteer’s arm sneaks into shot to push open a door for the dinosaur.

The CGI used is said to have ‘revolutionised the film industry’, a view shared by many within and outside of the industry, leading us into a time where nearly every film includes some form of CGI, be it characters, world building or explosions. Despite the incredible CGI we have in cinema today, the CGI in Jurassic Parkhas generally withstood the test of 30 years, especially when looking at some of the more questionable graphics in later films, such as the shark in Deep Blue Sea (1999). Perhaps its success lies in its combination of CGI and animatronics, as it creates more of a ‘there-at-the-time’ effect; CGI was just added on top of models to enhance the realism, after clever use of models and strategic lighting. Whilst the creatures aren’t in pristine detail, they suit the look of the film, and the quality of camera used in 1993. Audiences today watch it and feel nostalgic, not only from reminiscing on their first watch, but they get to revisit a time when CGI was at its initiation and animatronics was on its ways out.

Obviously, there were major limitations on CGI at the time, but everything it was used for looks so real. It raises the question of whether this is the type of filmmaking we should be returning to. Whilst the new capabilities of CGI are incredibly developed and make for some otherwise impossible pictures such as Avatar (2009), perhaps we should avoid overly using CGI when there is a more practical option that can simply be enhanced by generated graphic, as in Jurassic Park. Christopher Nolan notoriously takes the success of this to the limit, often rejecting CGI almost completely. But other films such as Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) have most of their characters physically transformed and just touched up with computer imagery. The result is a beautifully visual picture with very realistic graphics and a very successful reputation. The addition of some form of CGI as opposed to purely practical effects simply opens possibilities and creates new options that can better the audiences experience watching the film. For example, the Harry Potter series (2001-2011), without the fairy dust-like effects or the magical creatures with life-like personas, wouldn’t quite be the same visceral experience with stiff, unenhanced puppets and props. Moreover, using CGI is much cheaper for studios as opposed to creating physical scenes from scratch, for example, a computer-generated explosion compared to a physical explosion of a real object, building or place. This gives them larger financial leeway to further enhance the film, be it through graphics, cast, marketing etc.

As mentioned, Jurassic Park marked one jump into the world of CG characters interacting with humans, a never-before-seen phenomenon in the industry. Another jump has emerged into the controversial world of AI-made films. However, there are some stark differences to how these jumps have been received today, as opposed to in 1993. Jurassic Park was the highest-grossing film ever made at the time of its release, people were excited about the technological developments, compared to today when people are striking against the developments in AI being implemented into film and TV, as it's taking jobs instead of creating them and expanding creative possibilities. Perhaps technological change has reached a peak where audiences and creatives no longer want it implemented into the industry. Others argue that AI is a new creative and technological outlet, however, personally, I believe AI in film is essentially eradicating the success of the developments in CGI and the work of talented creatives and animators that work effortlessly to create some of the most realistic and detailed effects in cinema, not to mention the brilliantly innovative writers. Whole films can be made with AI now, even with its early stages of developments, perhaps a further jump will be made in the future where CGI is no longer used at all—what a dreary day that will be. AI can also feel very disturbing, particularly when concerns are raised about the social and economic implications of these developments, comparing it then to the agricultural revolution and other enormous world-changing events. Perhaps it’s something people outside of the industry need to be more concerned with, as well as within it. However, evidently, the future is uncertain; maybe there is a possibility that AI will soon be well received, just like CGI was in the 1990’s, or perhaps restrictions and regulations will be implemented to find a balance where CGI, AI and practical filmmaking must all work together.

Not only has Jurassic Park spurred this mammoth change in filmmaking technology and style but it stands as a true representation of the power that cinema can have on culture and society. For example, it spurred a new resurrection of interest in palaeontology, perhaps saving the dying field, and ignited a new childhood love and interest in dinosaurs—be it study, play or anything in between. Public awareness and interest in dinosaurs also boomed after the film’s release: museums displayed more dinosaur fossils and bones, a new generation of children were inspired to become palaeontologists, more people wrote about dinosaurs and more people learned about them. However, studies found that after the film’s release, there was also an increase in legal and illegal purchase of dinosaur bones, prices skyrocketed and there became this myth that all dinosaurs were from the Jurassic period, so perhaps some historical inaccuracy in teaching resulted also. Nevertheless, it’s incredible to see the positive societal impact films such as Jurassic Park can make. Whilst Jaws (1975) may have created a widespread fear of sharks, Jurassic Park created a love not only for the creatures themselves, but for this new and exciting form of filmmaking. George Lucas summed up the impact of the film, stating that “it was like one of those moments in history, like the invention of the light bulb or the first telephone call … a major gap had been crossed and things were never going to be the same.” 30 years later, we still look back with the same sentiment.


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor