Stan Winston Studio - Jurassic Park: Not All Digital
Though the digital dinosaurs were a significant part of the appeal of the original Jurassic Park as that level of realism had never before been reached in cinema, many of the shots to feature dinosaurs were actually full-scale practical robotic creations, conceived and produced at Stan Winston Studio.
Two key artists at Stan Winston’s side from the early 1980s until his death in 2008 are Shane Mahan and John Rosengrant. Now, the pair of craftspeople is together in a new company called Legacy Effects, but 20 years ago, they were ready to release their most ambitious film to that point – Jurassic Park.
The team at Stan Winston Studio spent a year building all of the practical dinosaurs which would shoot live on the set of the film, directed by Steven Spielberg and photographed by Dean Cundey. After production wrapped, Industrial Light and Magic matched their computer-generated dinosaurs to SWS’ designs and emulated their movements which were all achieved during principal photography. In this exclusive interview with each man, they discuss how they created the dinosaurs and reflect on the project which is now being released in a new 3D version for the film’s 20th anniversary.
How did you first hear about Jurassic Park when you were working as an artistic director at Stan Winston Studios?
Mahan: “Jurassic Park” was first a weird term that didn’t mean what it means today. There was a galley of a Michael Crichton book that was unpublished. Someone had read and known about the book that was coming out. It was described as Westworld meets dinosaurs – robot replicas. Then, we got deeper into the process. An early draft of the book was submitted by someone to Stan. There was excitement about the potential development of this property. When we found out that it was an island with a mad genius who recreates flesh and blood dinosaurs from fossils, it became very exciting. Stan became aware and started to pursue it heavily. At the time, there wasn’t a huge digital component. There were rudimentary beginnings of CG, and stop/go-motion, and practical. Because we had done a large creature with the queen alien [from Aliens], Spielberg’s people came to us. Stan had missed the E.T. mark at some point in his career. We had done the Amazing Stories television show; Stan had always wanted to do something with [Spielberg]. It was a personal calling to Stan to fill what he didn’t get to be a part of – E.T. We pursued hard with Crash McCreery’s concept drawings, and we did some fifth scale sculptures just to prove what we could do. This was before there was an award of the show. Everything kind of fell into place.
Was Stan Winston Studio given the show based on the drawings and sculptures right away or did it take time?
SM: Stan was eventually awarded the full show. We had no idea in the world how to do it. But it’s key to be given the opportunity to figure it out. It had never been done to that scale til then. We studied everything possible that could be done – The Land that Time Forgot, Godzilla. John Rosengrant and Crash were in raptor costumes for some of the effects. The script wasn’t complete, but Steven knew exactly what dinosaurs in which sequence would be shot: the spitter, Brachiosaur, Gallimimus, etc. We were able to start doing designs and maquettes back and forth.
Did you build the dinosaurs well in advance because they were full-scale?
SM: We were building certain dinosaurs before the script was complete. The sequences would get fleshed out and we had storyboard meetings over what was real and what was animation. Phil Tippett was going to do go-motion animation. Phil was going to do his animation tests. The fifth scale rex was going to be a large size for certain shots. It was about that time that Dennis Muren at ILM did a walking test of a T-Rex that blew everybody away. Once the commitment was made to do the animation in that style, we decided which shots would be real, a physical shot, with a stationary dinosaur with the illusion of movement. The only dinosaur that didn’t have a digital component was the spitter. No animation on that one; sick triceratops was also just lying there, done purely with animatronics. The baby raptors that come out of the eggs were purely puppets.
Did ILM design any dinosaurs or did your studio originate their artistic appearance?
SM: We developed all the sculptures and physical looks of the dinosaurs. Stan Winston Studios created every species look. They were replicated by ILM. From Crash’s early work to the end of the work there is a transformation. It was a real backbreaker of large-scale things which are really phenomenal. The T-Rex development set the tone of what Crash would ultimately sketch. He was doing pencil sketches. No one was using Photoshop or ZBrush. Computer modeling programs – a whole global industry was created by Jurassic Park. It just sprung – pierced the veil of everything and the world changed after that film.
How long of a period did you have to create everything at SWS?
SM: It was a two-year process of construction and shooting. Avatar was the only other film that’s been longer. That’s been rare. Two years was luxurious. It still didn’t feel like enough time. Nothing had ever been done to that size and sophistication – hydraulic engineers and motion bases – and that was 20 years ago. There were people that we met that were specialists from the theme park arena – they had an understanding of physics and hydraulics. You couldn’t move something of that size without hydraulics. There was a large component of big rigs. Everything was built in-house. You outsource materials.
Were their different groups of people at SWS to create the various dinosaurs?
SM: At that point, we had divided up teams who worked on an aspect from start to finish. We supervised the teams. It was like the guys here at Legacy: myself, John, Alan Scott and Lindsay McGowan. I was in charge of the spitter and I went onto the T-Rex body portion artistically with Richard Landon and the mechanical team. Chris Swift was doing the raptors with Greg Figiel. Andy Schoneberg was doing the Brachiosaur on the art side. Shannon Shea was doing a baby triceratops. Joey Orosco did the sick triceratops. We were on our own course and those teams were on set to operate them. I was supposed to go on set for the T-Rex, but I missed out on operation and went back to finish the spitter – one of the last things to shoot. It was towards the end of the movie. I was in the studio sending it to set. There were repairs to do at night. I spent more time on set on the second film.
Where did you shoot the spitter towards the end of production?
SM: At Universal on Stage 27 in the water tank stage for eight days of shooting for the spitter. Spielberg cut a bunch of stuff just to end it – the end of a long grueling show. He was ready to go to Poland to do Schindler’s List. Sequences were cut out.
Was there a sense that you were breaking new ground by mixing your animatronic characters with the computer-generated animation?
SM: There was no contingency to fail. Everybody worked really hard to get the animation correct. It was a new application for what [ILM] were doing. A lot of care went into the movement they way things were animated.
How do you feel about the mixing of those techniques now, 20 years later?
SM: People will be really shocked at how visceral both techniques work together onscreen. I was pleasantly surprised at how great and alive the animatronic dinosaurs feel. The digital sequences were groundbreaking. The T-Rex attack scene is one of the best things done as a whole scene – it’s scary and I could watch that over and over again. I hope it’s well received 20 years later and that 3D adds an element.
In the end, isn’t it true that the dinosaurs are not ultimately on screen very much for how big of a statement that film made?
SM: If you were to add up all the dinosaur shots – there are only 14 minutes of dinosaurs in the movie. The proportion of live action to animation was 70-30. Today it would be sadly enough 97% animation and a mere 3% of animatronics. Steven was very well prepared and knew how to shoot things, and shot the shots and it was done. The budget was $65 million for the whole movie. Back then, it seemed huge. Now, that’s a medium-level film. It was one of Stan’s proudest moments. It never got any better for him.