Twenty years ago – an eon in filmmaking years – Jurassic Park was the shiniest new toy on the block. Now it’s getting an anniversary release as a bona-fide classic, having existed for more than the entire lifespan of the teenagers that make up the target audience for splashy popcorn fare. Those twenty years have seen the computer-generated visual effects that were so radical in 1993 become more commonplace and utilitarian than ever seemed plausible back then; we live in an age when even romantic comedies and family dramas have CGI work in them. Summer tentpoles of the Jurassic Park lineage exist only in computers to such a degree that it’s really little more than convention that makes us refer to them as “live-action”.
You’d think, with all that time gone by to refine the technology, that Jurassic Park would look hideously outdated, or at best charmingly quaint. After all, the effects showpiece DragonHeart, released just a couple of years later, more resembles a cartoon now, than anything aiming for photorealism. It took less than a decade for Spider-Man to look a bit flimsy and thin; the later Harry Potter movies already seemed a bit wan when they were still in theaters. But Jurassic Park is as impressive now as it was all the way back then.
With just this one exception:
That, as far as my eyes can tell on a reasonably large TV with DVD-quality resolution, is the only bad CGI in the whole of Jurassic Park, and it’s not the fault of the model or the animation, but almost wholly the lighting (sadly, it’s also the first shot with any CGI in at all). The point is, outside of that one indifferent brachiosaur, the effects work in Jurassic Park holds up as well or better than movies made as recently as two or three years ago and the re-release won’t be nearly the worst-looking thing seen on the big screen in 2013. I’d like to share a few thoughts as to why.
There’s not that much CGI. By the time of this movie’s own unmentionable sequels, CGI had become available enough that huge portions of their VFX were done on computers. If Jurassic Park had been made today, it’s a good bet that not only every frame of a dinosaur, but several of the cars and locations would all be computer models. But in making the first movie, the filmmakers relied as much as was humanly possible on animatronics. CGI was an unknown quantity and potentially ruinous if it went wrong, so it was used solely for creatures that could not conceivably be created on set. This trains us to believe in the creatures because, they are real the first time we see them; thus we’re not hunting for the fake effects, and don’t necessarily spot them. It also means that more attention could be lavished on each individual CGI frame.
The VFX artists knew how to cheat. The T-Rex chasing the jeep in the rain. The T-Rex fighting the raptors in the dusky park headquarters. The brachiosaurs in the distance at sunset. All of them terrifically persuasive effects, and all of them take place in low light. It’s much easier to hide the flaws in technology when you’re keeping the audience from getting a good look, or distracting us with exploding tree branches. The one major effects sequence that takes place in full daylight, the gallimimus stampede, does the same thing using high speed and motion blur. With CGI everything, modern movies have to suck it up and present their work in plain view, ready to be picked apart.
It was really, really important that the CGI be perfect. In 2013, we’re so used to CGI that even when it’s bad, it really just fades into the background. It’s like dodgy rear projection in ‘30s movies: that’s the tool they use to create a certain reality, and if that reality isn’t perfect, oh well, it’s better than nothing. The occasionally weak effects work that crops in The Avengers or The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey aren’t going to cost their sequels a penny. We’re too inured to the limitations of CGI-on-a-tight-schedule to notice a pasted-on Orc or a crummy flying aircraft carrier any more than you’d seriously criticize a movie for the font in the opening credits. But in 1993, there was no such contract of lazy acceptance between artist and audience. Filmgoers were promised amazing dinosaurs, and if they didn’t get them, the whole edifice of Jurassic Park collapsed. So the filmmakers were obliged to invest as much time, energy, and money as it took to get it exactly right, knowing that they’d be under an extraordinary amount of scrutiny.
Most importantly, the effects serve the movie, not the other way around. Think, if you will, of Avatar. Gorgeous movie. Revolutionary movie. A movie that is going to be completely unwatchable at some point, because the solitary point of it was to present the most immersive CGI world ever created. Not to tell a compelling story, not to introduce us to exciting characters. All it takes is one slightly more immersive world, and Avatar is nothing but a historical footnote.
Jurassic Park, though it was every bit as revolutionary as Avatar, was never a movie about using CGI to create dinosaurs. It is a movie about dinosaurs running amok and killing people, and in the interests of making that scenario as tangible as possible, they happen to be realized in CGI. That, more than anything, is what makes the VFX hold up: it’s not supposed to draw our attention in the first place, and if the film is working, we’re too busy attending to the action to stop and notice compositing issues or the like. It’s the same basic sleight-of-hand that Steven Spielberg had previously relied on get through Jaws, 18 years earlier: that rubbery shark looks worse than anything in Jurassic Park, but we’re invested in the movie by the time it shows up that it simply doesn’t matter. So it is with the T-Rex and crew.
That first brachiosaur, and the scene that follows, is the only moment where the CGI is meant to be gawked at it, and it’s by far the weakest effects work in the film. Otherwise, the movie uses CGI to facilitate its thriller narrative, not to replace it. This is, even now, the key to really great effects work: think of Gollum or Life of Pi’s Richard Parker, two of the best creations of the 21st Century. They, too, aren’t there to be stunning and impressive and grand, but to drive a story, and the films make us want to believe in them. It’s a simple, focused approach to blockbuster filmmaking that gets much too frequently ignored in dazzle-driven summer moviemaking; it’s also the reason that films like Jurassic Park are remembered two decades on, when so many blockbusters barely can hang on in the imagination for more than a season or two.
- Are you attending the rerelease?
- Are you excited for Wednesday night's Best Shot episode on this 1993 classic?