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The evolution of how the 'Jurassic' movies have brought dinosaurs to life, from 'Jurassic Park' to 'Dominion'

A BTS shot on the set of "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" of a puppeteer holding a dinosaur arm and reaching forward
  • We trace the evolution of how the "Jurassic" series has brought its dinosaurs to life.
  • Practical and digital effects wizards from Stan Winston School and ILM explain how they created the franchise's dinosaurs, from the tiny Compys in "The Lost World" to the Giganotosaurus in "Jurassic World: Dominion."
  • The story begins with the visual effects milestone that was "Jurassic Park," a groundbreaking moment for CGI. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: In "Jurassic Park"'s famous kitchen scene, this shot featured a man in a full raptor suit.

While the raptors in this shot were created digitally.

These shots featured raptor puppets and actors wearing raptor boots and gloves.

Matt Winston: You know that great moment where the raptor reaches in, opens the door? That's just a guy wearing a raptor glove and reaching around.

Narrator: The "Jurassic" movies have constantly innovated how dinosaurs appear on-screen, pushing CGI forward while never exclusively relying on digital methods, even in 2022.

We spoke with nine of the minds behind the "Jurassic" creatures to find out how dinosaur effects have evolved over the course of three decades.

Steven Spielberg first envisioned his dinosaurs as entirely stop-motion creations designed by legendary stop-motion animator Phil Tippett.

 Alan Grant: How'd you do this?

John Hamond: I'll show you.

Jon Alexander: They didn't want to initially trust that we could do full-CG T. rexes, because he was the most important critter in there.

Dennis Muren: All the other ones could kind of wander around in the background, but as far as the actors acting to that, that was the big one. So we got the test shot that we showed to Steven, and that's what changed the film.

Narrator: Jean was there for one of these initial tests.

Jean: Suddenly, you went from things that were like a skeleton or the Mercury Man in "T2," you went to something that had color and texture and a sheen to it. You could put anything anywhere on the screen and make it alive.

Narrator: The only problem: It looked like the manpower needed on the computer-animation side would be too high.

So the stop-motion artists at Tippett Studios worked with the VFX team at ILM to develop dinosaur input devices, or DIDs, physical models of the dinosaurs hooked up to computers. The skeletons were covered with sensors that tracked the orientations of their joints and sent that information to the computer, translating the movement into key frames. Traditional stop-motion animators could then work with the computer models without having to master computer-animation software, shifting their skills to the digital realm.

Phil: That was the thing that really melted the glacial divide between traditional stop motion and computer graphics.

Narrator: Thanks to CG, "Jurassic Park"'s T. rex could go from being a background character to a star of the film. Spielberg even rewrote the ending to include this fight between the CG T. rex and two raptors.

The real secret to the dinosaur's believability, though?

Matt: When we first meet the T. Rex, in the paddock sequence, it is a combination of CG and practical effects.

Narrator: Designed by FX pioneer Stan Winston and his team of sculptors, puppeteers, and mechanics.

Matt: That sequence cuts between both methodologies. If you intercut CG with an actual, physical on-set puppet, they're never quite sure what they're looking at. That is the reason that that remains, to this day, one of the more realistic fantasy moments in cinema history.

Narrator: The animatronic dinosaurs had their own advancements.

Matt: The dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park" required a whole rethink on the mold-making process. Traditionally in practical effects, it would be done with various types of stones. These would not be appropriate materials for gigantic molds. So the studio looked to the epoxies that were being used in the aerospace industry and applied those materials for the dinosaurs. It allowed them to create very large, very durable molds that would retain their integrity. They wouldn't warp.

Narrator: Like these raptor puppets seen in the attack on Muldoon.

Matt: I was actually the raptor left-arm puppeteer in most sequences. The arm cable-actuated devices allowed for fantastic expressiveness with their hands.

Narrator: And for the iconic, complex kitchen sequence?

Matt: That sequence involves every possible trick in the book to make you believe raptors are real. CGI raptors, insert puppets that were basically the head and a bit of the neck, lower-body rigs that were just the legs, raptor gloves. It includes men in raptor suits when they first enter the kitchen and one of them rears up and hoots.

[raptor calls]

That's a man in a suit. The men-in-suit approach was great for wider shots like that. But when you're close up, more often than not, it will be a puppet.

Narrator: Ultimately, there were 15 minutes of dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park."

Matt: Nine minutes are practical puppets; six minutes are CGI. Stan was a huge believer that the best way to fool an audience is don't lean too heavily on one technique. Keep them guessing.

Narrator: By the time the second "Jurassic" movie rolled around, practical innovations meant the team could lean even more on animatronics.

Matt: On "JP II," they changed it up. They wanted the skins to move more realistically, and so they created an elaborate network of foam musculature. And on top of those foam muscles that moved and intersected very realistically, they laid a much thinner skin, so that you could actually get a sense of the musculature moving underneath the skin.

Narrator: Plus, Stan Winston's mechanics extended their use of hydraulic motors used on the T. rex in the first movie.

Matt: Even though the Tyrannosaurus rex from "Jurassic Park I" was by far the toughest character to pull off, it actually was the easiest to puppeteer, because it was a hydraulic puppet puppeteered via a telemetry device, so it only took a few people to puppeteer that big T. rex. So that technique was what we used for every dinosaur in "Jurassic Park II," other than the smallest of them.

And thanks to that approach, the raptors, which in the first one took 18 of us at times to operate, only took two or three people to operate in "Jurassic Park II."

Narrator: The smallest dinosaurs still relied on more traditional puppetry, like the Compsognathus, or "compies," chicken-sized dinosaurs that attack in packs, most notably when they team up to kill the hunter.

Dennis: There were so many of them, and so many CG ones had to jump on this actor. And they all had to be performing, and the guy's moving like this and thrashing, and he's pulling them, and all the weights when they jump onto this moving guy had to be right.

Narrator: Stan Winston's team built several types of puppets to perform a range of compy behaviors. One type of puppet attached to the actor via Velcro pads on a hidden suit. Superstrong fishing line rigged the puppet up to an off-screen controller, which a puppeteer could tug on to create a pecking motion. Meanwhile, an airline trigger ran air through the compy's tail, causing it to whip around in a frenzy.

For this shot of Stormare trying to grab and pull the compies off, the team used a puppet with high-powered magnets on its feet. These magnets attached to other magnets sewn into the actor's clothes, making the compy difficult to pull off. The puppeteers could also be as close to the puppets as needed, since they could just be erased in post.

Howie Weed: The length of the puppeteering rods before digital had to be really long. But if you can't get close to the puppets, you can't really do much in terms of controlling it. It's always going to have this kind of bouncing, kind of floaty kind of quality. Now, with digital, you can choke up on that rod. You can be just a couple inches from the puppet, and you can be moving it around really smoothly.

The prime example is the sequence where the little girl and the compy interact there on the beach. The puppeteers were right there. They were within just a foot or two of that compy.

Narrator: In the final shots, the team mixed puppet compies with digital ones, which you can spot based on movement.

Dennis: Mainly the ones that seem to have a lot of pizzazz and a lot of anger, I think, are the ones that we could animate enough to make them look interesting.

Narrator: These mini dinosaurs set the stage for a much larger creature in "Jurassic III," which would demand the heaviest, biggest, and fastest dinosaur robot ever built.

Joe: We wanted a dinosaur that could defeat T. rex. You know, T. rex is everybody's favorite dinosaur.

Narrator: The movie's paleontology consultant, Jack Horner, suggested the Spinosaurus, which was bigger and more vicious, capable of killing the T. rex in the final showdown. The foundation of that final showdown was practical, filmed with two massive animatronics, as demonstrated here in an early hand-puppet test. But filmmakers couldn't have the two puppets really go at it.

Joe: They would've destroyed each other pretty quickly.

Narrator: So they storyboarded a fight that used an animatronic Spinosaurus and a digital T. Rex in some shots, and vice versa in others.

Joe: That, I think, was the first time in "Jurassic Park" movies that they were actually interacting with each other physically.

Narrator: For the animatronics, the crew took one of the T. rexes from the previous movie out of storage and refurbished it for the fight. But the Spinosaurus had to be built from scratch.

Matt: The audience had to believe that this dinosaur could kill a T. rex. So it had to be bigger, it had to be faster. The T. rex had about 200 horsepower driving it. The Spinosaurus had 1,000 horsepower. It was five times more powerful. It was far sturdier than the T. rex as well, which had actually been quite delicate.

Narrator: Once the final Spinosaurus design got a thumbs-up from a consulting paleontologist, the team sculpted an 8-foot-long, one-fifth-scale maquette. Instead of sculpting the animatronic from clay, like they did for the T. rex, the crew went with a more high-tech method. They used a cyberscan of the maquette to create computer-milled foam pieces. And all these pieces had to withstand a very specific element: water.

Director: Cut! Good, good.

Matt: In "Jurassic Park I," the T. rex was rained upon extensively. The foam skins acted like a sponge and absorbed tons of water in every shot, which affected its performance because it was finely tuned to a certain weight, but when all the water was absorbed, it changed all those calculations.

They waterproofed the T. rexes in "Jurassic Park II" with a layer of silicone over the foam skin. And that waterproofing approach reached its pinnacle with the Spinosaurus. Which, the inner mechanical devices were waterproofed in waterproof housings. Aspects of the Spinosaurus' face were actually cast in a solid urethane that would not absorb water.

That, to this day, remains the Guinness Book of World Records largest animatronic ever built for a film.

Narrator: It was so large, it had to be lifted with cranes and driven to Universal Studios on a route that didn't go under bridges. Once on set, the crew mounted it to a motorized cart that ran on tracks, which allowed the animatronic to move forward and backward while it moved up and down on cylinders. And to get those fast movements you see here, the Spinosaurus used state-of-the-art hot-rod hydraulics controlled by an 18-inch telemetry device.

William H. Macy, who played Paul Kirby in the film, said the puppet could turn its head at twice the force of gravity, with the tip of its nose moving at 100 miles per hour. Its strength didn't make it indestructible, though.

Joe: That scene with the airplane, every take, it would lose one of its claws. Every take was a, "All right, go back to the shop."

Narrator: When filming the big fight, the two teams of puppeteers used their telemetry devices to swing the puppets around.

Joe: That took about 12 animatronic operators to do each one of them.

Narrator: Although they tried to keep physical contact between the two puppets to a minimum, the T. rex still got hurt.

Joe: It was actually before the fight started. It was the two animatronic dinosaurs sort of roaring at each other, T. rex sort of started going crazy. The puppet was just sort of vibrating, and it turns out that one of the hydraulic lines had broken inside and hydraulic fluid was going everywhere. And re-skin part of it and try to sew it back together and everything. It was wild. It's on film somewhere.

Narrator: 14 years later, major improvements in performance capture made complex movement like this possible in the second "Jurassic" franchise, a step up from puppets and stop motion. "Jurassic World" sought to bring its velociraptors to a whole new level of realism, giving them an unprecedented complexity of motion. It was difficult for a performance-capture artist to physically stand the way that a raptor is supposed to for a prolonged period of time. And velociraptors do have a unique size and shape compared to human performers.

But ILM was able to retarget the captured performances of the human actors to the raptor bodies without losing the subtlety of the performances. The reward was that the raptors look heavy and lifelike with very intricate movement on-screen. With CG having advanced to this level, the next film could go beyond pure realism to give life to a genetically engineered dinosaur that never actually existed: the Indoraptor.

Unsurprisingly, this massive dinosaur would mainly be a digital creation. But the actors needed something to react to on set.

Neal: There was a lot of physical interaction between the actors and the dinosaurs in "Fallen Kingdom," more so maybe than in the previous films.

Narrator: The solution, for some scenes, came in the form of partial animatronics, like this giant mechanical arm and a moving, breathing head operated by a team of puppeteers, who controlled the tiny movements in the eyes.

Neal: A good deal of the Indoraptor was performed using a real-time animatronic.

Narrator: The crew also built a nonmoving head.

Neal: We created a full-size Indoraptor head and neck and tail that was made from a very lightweight inflatable material, so we actually blew it up like a child's bouncy castle, made a rig for it to allow two performers to wear, one the front end and one the back end. We would use these inflatable versions in any scene where the actors needed an eyeline or visual effects needed a scale representation that wouldn't be in the frame.

Narrator: These various forms of the Indoraptor not only provided the cast with tangible scene partners, they also gave the camera team something physical to work with and the VFX team a reference for the Indo's lighting and movement.

Neal: The movement of the Indoraptor seemed to me to be quite faithfully followed. I'm never really quite sure whether there was a paint overlay or whether or not there is a complete scene substitution for the Indoraptor in the end. I find it very difficult to know where and when the technique begins. It's great.

Narrator: On "Jurassic World: Dominion," decades of innovation made it possible to create hybrid dinosaurs that were part-CG, part-puppet, like the Giganotosaurus, a dinosaur with a head the size of a car.

David Vickery: The head, roughly just above the shoulders, was an animatronic, and the rest of the creature is digital. And if you can see where it's slightly more opaque white around the head and the neck, that's the physical piece of the dinosaur that was going to be made as an animatronic. We needed to be able to keep it and extend the rest of the dinosaur in postproduction. And so it was really important that it moved in the same way as our digital creature.

So this is the range of motion in the physical animatronic sufficient to allow the dinosaur to do what it needs to do. We could actually pass that information back to John Nolan, who was the creature effects supervisor. So when John was making the animatronics, they would be positioned in such a way that matched ILM digital models. So it's kind of digital creatures driving practical animation.

Narrator: To reflect paleontological research, the digital team also developed tools to create feathered dinosaurs.

David: Feathers has been a long-burning desire, I think, for all of the "Jurassic" fans. Feathers are really complicated to simulate and to describe all of that very intricate geometry in 3D. So we actually built a brand-new feather system at ILM in Houdini that we've dubbed internally Quill. So we were able to build this procedural system which gave the artist the control over the groom and the texturing of those feathers that allowed simulation with snow, wind, water, all in the same software package.

Narrator: Even with new feathered creatures, the dinosaurs created by Stan Winston and ILM nearly three decades ago are still seen in today's movies. For "Jurassic World: Dominion," director Colin Trevorrow wanted the VFX creatures to feel as close as possible to its predecessors. So the digital team conducted what they called digital archeology.

David: The T. rex is where this digital archeology comes in. We actually went back into the ILM digital archives from the original "Jurassic Park," and we restored the original 3D Softimage models. So we were able to make sure that the model we're using from "Jurassic World: Dominion" matched as closely as possible. And at the same time, we actually went back to Stan Winston's original physical animatronic. And we have loads of really amazing reference photography of it, and we completely retextured the T. rex to match it.

Narrator: CG has come a long way since then.

Jon: ILM only had 60 shots in "Jurassic." Now we'll do several thousand shots in a movie.

David: We are aware that these walked the face of the Earth. And for that, they have a very, very special place. And it also makes it that much more exciting, because you're kind of, you know, "Wow, I'm bringing something to life, a real thing to life."

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