“One of the main issues facing filmmakers who use Computer Generated Images (CGI) is ‘how to combine photographic and digital imaging to create a coherent and seamless filmic world’ (Allen, 825).” In 1993 CGI techniques were limited, especially when compared to today’s world where the only live-action parts of some movies are the actor’s faces. Stephen Spielberg used CGI to turn imaginary dinosaurs to life when adapting Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park to film in 1993. Jurassic Park’s CGI exceeded audience expectations upon release and holds up so well today because of the decision to limit it to few spaced-out, well-done shots.
Audience expectations are a huge part of good CGI. Good and bad CGI are relative, owing to the competitive nature of the industry, there’s a pressure to make effects more realistic. When the 1933 King Kong came out, its special effects were praised and revolutionary, but are choppy and waxen to the modern eye. There’s nothing wrong with King Kong’s failure to age, modern audiences know about the technical limitations of the time, and accept the film, because of their expectation of poor realism. What really offends the audience’s eye is seeing realism below the standard of the day of release. Take for example the scene in the 2005 version of King Kong in which Kong battles the airplanes. The up-and-down and side-to-side bobbing of the planes through the air and the static opaque glass on the Empire state building gives the whole scene a cartoonish feel. It’s unrealistic for audiences compared to the environment and vehicle CGI in I, Robot from 2004. Jurassic Park holds the position of being ahead of it’s time in terms of special effects, because its dinosaurs exceeded audience expectations.
Though much of the discussion of CGI has to do with realism, realism isn’t the only contributing factor for popular CGI. The measure of realism ranks digital animation and stop-motion animation poorly, when they are often highly regarded. The Walace and Gromit films are acclaimed by audiences and critics, Isle of Dogs (2018) succeeded, and animated TV cartoons are still globally popular with people of all ages. Immersion captures the the notion better than realism. Well-done CGI or animation creates a suspension of disbelief in the audience. After all, if you really ask audiences if the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are real, they know that they aren’t, but that doesn’t prevent them from enjoying seeing them on-screen. The CGI in Jurassic Park works because it’s real-enough to audiences of the day to create that suspension of disbelief, in other words, its immersive. Effective special effects at minimum must not distract from the story. Of course, some artists subvert this rule, consider the live-action scenes in Spongebob, the animated scenes in Kill Bill, or Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan side-by-side in Space Jam. These examples work not because they are realistic, but because they don’t try to be. Audiences don’t expect realism from Bugs Bunny, and therefore aren’t offended when he isn’t real. This balance of expectations allows these examples to create immersion in the story. To audiences, non-realism when they’re expecting realism is insulting and jarring, but non-realism when they expect non-realism is just immersive art.
Jurassic Park needs realistic CGI, because that’s the expectation that the movie was sold on. Imagine Tim, Lex, and Alan running away from a dimmly-lit rain-drenched Looney Tunes Tyrannosaurus-Rex. Though it might be a fun movie, it wouldn’t have the same suspense as the one audiences got. Bordwell and Staider write that “Synthetic computer-generated imagery is not an inferior representation of our reality, but a realistic representation of a different reality” (791). This idea is crucial to the success of all films with obvious CGI, including Jurassic Park. It’s important that the movie was sold as a not-too-distant-future in which dinosaurs have been genetically engineered by a theme park. There’s a subtle distinction between our world and the slightly different world of the story that is important for the believability of the tale. Fundamentally, the film has to convince viewers that “it is not digital, but it is photographic” (Allen, 825). There’s no exact formula for success, but we can examine Jurassic Park’s success story to get some clues.
Jurassic Park doesn’t completely re-invent CGI. It typifies 1990’s CGI in certain ways. Primarily, it doesn’t use it too much. Unlike more modern movies where everything is CGI – see The Avengers (2012) where all of NYC is CGI, Jurassic Park uses CGI sparingly, sets are real, props are real, even some dinosaurs were real animatronic contraptions. CGI was only used for some of the dinos and stunt-double face replacement (Jones). Though it may seem like a result of technical limitations of the time, the careful way that the filmmakers used CGI resulted in a film that’s hard to critique on its CGI. After all, there’s not very much of it. It’s a testament to the script, direction, and entire production that audiences can love the dinosaurs in a 127 minute long movie in which the dinosaurs only get 15 minutes of screen time (Susman). This is achieved with another traditional technique of early CGI, the shot length of reaction shots. The idea is that seconds of film of animated CGI dinos are very difficult and expensive, but that seconds of shots of actors reacting in awe, fascination, or terror are relatively cheap and easy to make. Consider the scene in which Tim, Lex, and Allen wake up in the tree with a Brachiosaurus munching away in front of them. The first shot is five seconds of the Brachiosarus entering the frame and biting off some leaves, which is immediately followed by nine seconds of Allen, Lex, then Tim waking up to see it. In this case, the dino head was animatronic, so each second wasn’t too expensive, but each second that the dinosaur is on screen is another second that audience’s can notice the imperfections in it’s appearance and movement. In the T-Rex breakout scene, the camera spends time implying the dino breaking through the cable fence by showing the cables snapping and posts bending before actually showing the creature stepping through. Notice that the scene is shot at night in the rain. These features not only set the mood of the story, but help to obscure the view of the camera, making it harder to see imperfections. The T-Rex isn’t all CGI, the shots of it in full, especially walking or making big movements are CGI, and the closer-up shots are of an animatronic version. Overall, the production’s choice to not go all-in on the CGI pays off well, because the shots that are CGI came out well. In fact, Jurassic Park helped push the Hollywood CGI technology forward. This was the first major film to shoot CGI characters from a shaky camera. The camera runs with the main characters when they are being chased by the herd of Gallimimus. But CGI tech required a static camera just a few years earlier for the sea-monster in The Abyss (1989). In addition, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) created “Dino Input Devices” that were little sensor-infused dino skeletons so that animators could work as if they were doing stop-motion but input the movements into the computer. Of course, Jurassic Park is also famous for its sound effects. Sound designers mixed many different animal noises to create fictional dinosaur noises and won the 1994 Oscars for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing for their work.
Computer Generated Images and special effects have continued to evolve in the competitive Hollywood film industry. Using them as a film-making tool gets easier and cheaper every year, but using them effectively requires skill, time, and money. Jurassic Park used CGI in conjunction with practical special effects and animatronics to bring dinosaurs big and small to life on the screen. The film is a landmark in the use of this technology, having introduced new techniques like input devices for animators and the ability to shoot digital creatures from a moving camera, and utilizing old techniques such as shot length, animatronics, and obscuring the view of the camera, all to great effectiveness. The work resulted in an immersive – if not realistic – movie that exceeded audience expectations upon release. Jurassic Park won many awards and was the highest grossing film of all time until five years later when The Titanic (1997) came out. Like always, we look to the future, waiting for new technologies to improve the CGI and increase the immersion of digital films.
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