Why Jurassic Park's CGI Still Looks So Good
Here's why Jurassic Park's groundbreaking CGI still looks so good and holds up almost 30 years after the blockbuster's original release.
Jurassic Park's CGI remains some of the most influential visual effects of recent decades, and there's some unlikely and fascinating reasons why it still looks so good. Back in 1993, cinematic computer graphics were still in their infancy. Even though computer-generated images had appeared in movies since the 1970s, filmmakers were still grappling with how best to use the technology in the early '90s. But when Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park arrived, it brought with it a genuinely groundbreaking use of visual effects that set a standard that's still followed today.
Led by Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) division, and supported by Stan Winston's practical effects team, the visual effects in Spielberg's blockbuster hold up almost 30 years after the film's release. That's an incredible achievement considering how far computer-generated effects have developed in the last few decades. Now, CGI is ubiquitous to the point that it's a rarity to see a new movie released without some form of computer-aided enhancements. When Jurassic World 3 debuts in 2021, it's bound to arrive laden with digital dinos and computer-generated environments. But back in 1993, audiences weren't used to seeing the kind of convincing visual effects Jurassic Park introduced — making the film a truly pioneering blockbuster.
Using a mixture of practical effects and computer-generated imagery, Spielberg, Stan Winston, and ILM managed to craft an iconic film that remains impressive even by today's standards. By not leaning too heavily on computer imagery, mixing real-life animatronic puppets with digital effects, and making careful use of lighting, Jurassic Park has more than stood the test of time.
Jurassic Park Doesn't Actually Use A Lot Of CGI
Spielberg and his effects teams succeeded in creating convincing visual effects because they didn't rely on CGI as their go-to tool. In fact, only four to five minutes of the 14-15 total minutes of dinosaur scenes were entirely computer generated. All the other visual effects were created using Stan Wintson's various physical dinosaur models. The legendary technician, responsible for creating practical models for Predator and Terminator, built everything from animatronic puppets, to to a full-size animatronic T-Rex, and even Velociraptor suits that could be worn by stuntmen. CGI was then used to build on top of what the production team had already created on-set. In other words, Jurassic Park's CGI still looks so good today because there isn't much of it in the film, which makes sense considering the limitations of the technology at the time.
But while CGI was undoubtedly limited back in 1993, Jurassic Park actually represents somewhat of a revolution in the use of computer graphics. Surprisingly enough, in the early stages of production there wasn't any major CGI planned for the film. Spielberg initially hired stop-motion expert Phil Tippett – who'll be working on upcoming seasons of The Mandalorian – to create the main dinosaur scenes, even going as far as having him make stop-motion test sequences for the T-Rex truck attack scene and the Velociraptor kitchen scene. The director was planning on using ILM to add motion blur to Tippett's stop-motion sequences to make them appear more real, but after the effects studio said they could actually render the dinosaurs completely digitally, that the plan was changed and the pioneering computer graphics audiences eventually witnessed were born. The result was a first not just for ILM as a studio but for digital cinematic effects in general. It's no wonder the film won the visual effects award at the 1994 Oscars.
But perhaps even more important than the breakthrough graphics was Spielberg's decision to still keep the CGI to a minimum. According to Dennis Murren, visual effects supervisor at ILM, once the director saw how convincing the digital dinosaurs looked, he actually rewrote the ending of the film to include the now-famous full-body shot of the T-Rex letting out a final roar in the Jurassic Park visitor center rotunda. But despite clearly being impressed by the capabilities of ILM, Spielberg still limited the CGI elements and retained the use of Stan Winston's puppets for much of the memorable dinosaur scenes viewers still love today. In fact, there's said to be a total of just 63 visual effects shots in the whole film, a tiny number compared to Jurassic World's more than 2,000 VFX shots. Limiting the shots in this way allowed a still-nascent technology to remain effective and conceal many of its shortcomings, while the puppets made sure the dinosaurs retained a sense of weight and physicality. That, and rendering a single frame of the CGI T-Rex is said to have taken hours, so unless Spielberg wanted to push the release back a year or so he would have had no choice but to keep the digital effects to a minimum.
Other Tricks Jurassic Park Used To Make Dinosaurs Look Real
Being constrained by having to choose VFX shots selectively actually helped the production team to keep the dinosaurs feeling real throughout Jurassic Park. Recent sequels have been smothered in digital effects shots – with the CGI dinosaurs actually being one of the main things not to like about Jurassic World. Spielberg's original was helped by its limited reliance on computer graphics. Still, for the shots that did use digital dinos, ILM had to use various tricks to ensure the CGI beasts remained convincing. Aside from doing hundreds of hours of research that included studying how elephants, crocodiles, and giraffes move, the team also made specific choices about how to frame and light scenes that required CGI. Perhaps the best example is the scene in which the T-Rex is finally revealed as it terrorises Sam Neill's Alan Grant and his group while they cower in the park's Jeeps.
By setting this scene in the rain at night, ILM made it so they didn't have to worry about accurately rendering huge portions of the T-Rex. The parts of the giant dino that were in shadow were merely black areas, while the rain made it so the team could render realistic-looking highlights relatively easily. On top of that, this whole section of the film is mainly lit with one damaged floodlight. This made sure the effects team didn't have to worry about multiple light sources and how the various rays from those sources would scatter and reflect throughout the scene – making it much easier to light the T-Rex convincingly and also keep large parts of the beast in shadow. What's more, ILM – which got its start creating the VFX for the original Star Wars films – had the perfect reference for how the T-Rex should look on-screen, thanks to the giant animatronic puppet Stan Winston created for many of the shots in this scene. By checking the footage where this model of the T-Rex was used, the effects artists could see plainly how to render a realistic digital version of the same dinosaur, with all the light reflections and shadows in the right places and at the right levels.
Contrast this scene with the moment Neill's Alan Grant and Laura Dern's Ellie Sattler witness real-life Brachiosaurus for the first time and the limitations of the technology become more apparent. This bright scene is still remarkable for its impressive CGI, but the sunlit setting certainly makes some blurry dinosaur skin textures more noticeable. For the most part, Jurassic Park kept its broad daylight CGI scenes to a minimum, and the film is all the better for it. In fact, the film's visual effects hold up so well because of smart decisions such as this. In the early-90s CGI was improving increasingly quickly, but it was Spielberg's tasteful use of the technology, relying on it as a backup tool rather than a basis for the entire movie, that made Jurassic Park's visual effects as impressive as they were then, and still are today.