“Life finds a way.”
The year is 1990. Director Steven Spielberg has just finished working on his adaptation of Peter Pan, Hook, and is actively looking for his next big project in the film industry. Simultaneously, author Michael Chrichton has been hard at work on a novel about the cloning of dinosaurs and eventually, this idea became the basis for one of his finest works, Jurassic Park.
Before the book was published, Crichton demanded a non-negotiable fee of $1.5 million as well as a substantial percentage of the gross, should the book be adapted for the screen. Warner Bros. and Tim Burton, Columbia Pictures and Richard Donner, and 20th Century Fox and Joe Dante bid for the rights, but Universal Studios eventually acquired them in May 1990 for Spielberg. After completing Hook, Spielberg wanted to film Schindler’s List, a passion project for him. Music Corporation of America (then Universal Pictures’s parent company) president Sid Sheinberg gave a green light to the film on the condition that Spielberg made Jurassic Park first. The director later declared that by choosing a creature-driven thriller, “I was really just trying to make a good sequel to Jaws, on land.
Released 25 years ago today in 1993, Jurassic Park marked Spielberg’s return to the blockbuster genre. Along with Schindler’s List, this was the year that Spielberg ruled the industry after a couple of off years by the director’s standards. Following his breakthrough success with blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, Spielberg moved into more dramatic territory with his 1985 adaptation of The Color Purple. The filmmaker then released two great films, Empire of the Sun and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but his films prior to Jurassic Park, Always and Hook, usually tend to be near the bottom of Spielberg film rankings. 1993 marked a return to form as he established himself as a jack of all trades when it comes to film. Jurassic Park saw the director return to his roots and the film went on to be one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed blockbusters ever released.
While other directors would have most likely ignored the scientific aspect of the feature (James Cameron himself said that if he got his hands on the film, it would have been a darker, more violent adaptation), Spielberg was attracted to the idea that science was the main backdrop of the film. The dinosaurs play a big role in the film but its mainly through characters discussing the schematics of dinosaur evolution, the behaviour of the formerly extinct predators and the logic behind chaos theory. The screenplay, by Crichton and later reworked by David Koepp, seems driven by the logic that a scare’s even more effective if the audience understands what is scaring them and why. When we encounter velociraptors in the film’s climax, we are more terrified than ever because we know the destruction the beast will cause.
For such an ambitious project, production on the film was not an easy ride. Weather troubles and set issues plagued the film but none more so than how the crew was actually going to put dinosaurs in the film. Remember, 1993 did not have the same CGI technology we have become accustomed to today. In the beginning, Spielberg brought in Stan Winston to create practical effects and Phil Tippett, the wonderful stop-motion effects wizard whose creations include Robocop‘s fearful ED-209 and the moving chess pieces in Star Wars. This however, is when Spielberg realized that practical and stop motion would no longer be enough to service the story. It was time for a technological advancement.
Computer Generated Imagery had been somewhat used throughout the new wave era of filmmaking, with films like the Star Wars and Terminator making good use of them. But Jurassic Park pushed the boundaries of what a computer creation could be. It was an incredible sight to see dinosaurs that look and feel so real, as if they are really on the island of Isla Nublar. That was the task, to make Alan Grant (Sam Neil), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) look so incredibly shocked at their first sight of brachiosauruses gazing peacefully in a field. It was considered almost impossible; but not for Spielberg.
The bet paid off. More than that, it was considering a phenomenal achievement and a quarter century and many several generations of FX advances later, Jurassic Park‘s creatures don’t look like CGI creations at all. They look like dinosaurs that once ruled the earth.
The dinosaurs were created with ground-breaking computer-generated imagery by Industrial Light & Magic and with life-sized animatronic dinosaurs built by Stan Winston’s team. To showcase the film’s sound design, which included a mixture of various animal noises for the dinosaur roars, Spielberg invested in the creation of DTS, a company specializing in digital surround sound formats. Winning three Academy Awards for its technical achievements in visual effects and sound design, Jurassic Park is considered a landmark in the development of CGI and animatronic visual effects by film critics and historians.
That being said, if Jurassic Park was simply known for its visual effects, it would not have endured the long lasting legacy it has earned over the past 25 years. Rather, it how Spielberg executes the VFX along with the story that sets this film a part from other blockbusters of the time. Spielberg chooses for a “less is more” method, with the dinosaurs only appearing in 15 minutes of actual screen time in the film. By doing this, Spielberg builds up the audiences anticipation, with characters discussing aspects of the dinosaurs and how violent they can be, only for them to finally appear on screen and wreak havoc in the most jaw-dropping and exciting way. There are two scenes in particular that showcase this tool perfectly.
First, we have the opening sequence of the film. We fade into a scene where dinosaur handlers are working quickly to move an “asset” to its enclosure. The work quickly turns deadly as one of the employees is bitten and held onto a mysterious dinosaur in its cage. We never actually see this dinosaur, except for quick shots of its eyes but we soon realize that it is a velociraptor that causes the mayhem. Building anticipation, we finally get a real look at the famed creature much later in the film, when Ellie attempts to turn the power of the park back on. The creature is unleashed as it tries to eat Ellie while she attempts to escape. However, the creature is still not the focus as it always looms in the background of the humans escaping its grasp. This again happens during the sequence featuring the hiding of the children while two raptors stalk them in the kitchen (one of the tensest moments in film), as well as the final sequence where the raptors close in the group of survivors.
Spielberg utilized this filming technique in Jaws when had to limit his plans to show the shark due to technical difficulties. He learned from that experience. The dinosaurs got people into the theaters, but he knew they could not be the only element moviegoers remembered on their way home.
The second moment comes from the middle of the film. The fearsome, most famous dinosaur, the T. Rex, finally makes its debut in the film, but only after a long, tense buildup that will make the hairs on your stand up. After being promised to see the creature, the group is saddened that no tyrannosaurus appeared on the original tour. Then, as night falls and the rain becomes stronger, we get our first hints. Some far-off sounds lead to ripples in a glass of water. The giant stomps get louder and louder, always focusing on the fear building from the characters facial expressions. When the T. Rex finally arrives, it is the payoff to a lot of build-up and she lets out a massive roar, moving slowly around the cars filled with unfortunate pedestrians.
Jurassic Park is a film that holds a special place in my heart. It was the first film my dad ever showed me as a kid (it’s his favourite movie) and since that day, it has become my favourite film. I remember watching it and being in awe at the sight of these creatures walking alongside the group of scientists. It is a film that not only expertly propelled technology into a new age, but examines real themes such the relationship between man and the natural world. Dr. Malcolm laments that the notion behind Jurassic Park is wrong and that the life will find a way to correct InGen’s attempts to play god. The film is a story of people who wrongly believe they can create and control a natural world. They clone dinosaurs, place them in an unknown setting, and set control mechanisms to prevent the animals from breeding or escaping. The nature they create may be artificial, but it still retaliates and proves too strong to control. In Jurassic Park, the natural world is stronger than man, even when man creates the natural world. 25 years later and the film still holds up as one of the most iconic blockbusters ever, even if the films that followed it haven’t been the most well-received. It is one that laid the groundwork for VFX work to come in films and will forever be a true movie milestone, presenting awe-inspiring sights never before seen on the screen. Welcome, to Jurassic Park.