‘Jurassic Park’ effects wizard: ‘We were copying Mother Nature’

Oct. 24, 2011 | 3:53 p.m.
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Laura Dern, left, Joseph Mazzello and Sam Neill examine an ailing dinosaur in "Jurassic Park." (Universal Pictures)

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Jeff Goldblum, left, Richard Attenborough, Laura Dern and Sam Neill watch dinosaurs hatch in a scene from "Jurassic Park." (Universal Pictures)

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Ariana Richards, left, Sam Neill and Joseph Mazzello in a scene from "Jurassic Park." (Universal Pictures)

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Sam Neill, left, Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards in a scene from "Jurassic Park." (Universal Pictures)

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Laura Dern, left, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Peck in a scene from "Jurassic Park." (Universal Pictures)

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Joseph Mazzello, left, Laura Dern, Ariana Richards and Sam Neil in a scene from "Jurassic Park." (Universal Pictures)

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A scene from "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the second film in the franchise. (Universal Pictures)

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Jeff Goldblum, left, Vanessa Lee Chester, Vince Vaughn, Julianne Moore and Richard Schiff in a scene from "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the second film in the franchise. (Universal Pictures)

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A scene from "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the second film in the franchise. (Universal Pictures)

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A scene from "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the second film in the franchise. (Universal Pictures)

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A scene from "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the second film in the franchise. (Universal Pictures)

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Jeff Goldblum in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the second film in the franchise. (Universal Pictures)

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Pete Postlethwaite in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the second film in the franchise. (Universal Pictures)

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Steven Spielberg poses for a publicity photo for "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the second film in the franchise. (Universal Pictures)

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Steven Spielberg, Julianne Moore and Jeff Goldblum on the set of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the second film in the franchise. (Universal Pictures)

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Steven Spielberg on the set of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the second film in the franchise. (Universal Pictures)

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Sam Neill faces off with some dinos in a scene from "Jurassic Park III." (Universal Pictures)

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Tea Leoni, left, and William H. Macy in a scene from "Jurassic Park III." (Universal Pictures)

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Trevor Morgan, left, William H. Macy, Sam Neill and Tea Leoni in a scene from "Jurassic Park III." (Universal Pictures)

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"The Lost World" special dinosaur effects supervisor Michael Lantieri, left, animatronics expert Stan Winston and ILM computer graphics leader Dennis Muren. (Los Angeles Times)

More than 18 years after the trademark Tyrannosaurus rex first roared onto the big screen in “Jurassic Park,” the film and its sequels are getting the Blu-ray treatment. On Tuesday, the “Jurassic Park” trilogy boxed set is being released on Blu-ray and DVD, and its bonus features include interviews with cast and crew. Among them is the Industrial Light & Magic visual effects wizard behind the full-motion dinosaurs in the first two “Jurassic Park” films, Dennis Muren. Hero Complex writer Noelene Clark recently chatted with Muren — whose other visual effects credits include “Star Wars,” “Ghostbusters” and “Indiana Jones” titles — about the dinosaur franchise, based on the book by Michael Crichton.

NC: Something surprising about “Jurassic Park” is how well it has aged. The story and the effects still hold up really well. Why is that?

DM: I wondered the same thing. It does hold up, I agree. I always thought when we did it that within five or 10 years it was going to look old-fashioned and obsolete, but it doesn’t. We were just all at the top of our game. And we did a lot of studies of real animals, and then sort of interpreted them on dinosaur shapes. So we were really trying to copy nature. And I think part of what’s happened in films lately is that people have copied movies. There have been copies of “Jurassic Park,” whereas we were copying Mother Nature when we made that film.

NC: I understand these dinosaurs were the first-ever all-digital characters. Was this a learning experience for you and your team?

DM: We learned so much. When we were in dailies doing this movie, and we were doing the effects for six or eight months or so, it was like almost every day, we were looking at something and saying, “Did we do this? Because this has never been done before. I’ve never seen anything like this.” And it was really a very, very exciting period. And it started out with us thinking, “Well, maybe we could do dinosaurs in the distance with computer graphics, and have ‘em running and all, but never get much closer than wide shots.” But as we were doing it, we just tried and got more bold, and got closer on ‘em and closer ’til we ended up doing a close-up on a T. rex with a performance that you’ve never seen before, because you could never get the acting of those animals with animatronics or with rod puppets or Muppets or anything. There was just no way to do it. It was really a real shocker for the audience and ourselves too, when we saw the film and we saw those shots.

NC: Since there aren’t any dinosaurs around to copy, it’s almost like you had to invent a new species.

DM: It could be. It was a lot of figuring out what they really needed to look like. And basing the movements on real animals was just fundamental. And Steven [Spielberg] had always said, “These are not monsters,” and we never wanted to make monsters. So if we looked at an aggressive T. rex, we were studying aggressive animals, not monsters. You know, aggressive lions and aggressive tigers and that sort of stuff. So it was never getting into a realm, as much as you’d think, of our imagination. We were really trying to mirror normality.

NC: How did you feel when you first saw the script? Was it a big “You want me to do what?” moment?

DM: At that time, Phil Tippett was going to do the animation stop-motion, and we were going to add blurs to that to make it look a little more real, and Stan Winston’s guys were doing the dinosaurs and all, so actually, I had a small part in the show at the beginning. But then we started doing these tests, because it just seemed to me that if you’re doing a movie like that, a big film, and we’d done “Terminator 2″ just before that film, it seemed like maybe we could actually do a real animal with the technology we’ve got. It seemed like we should just try it. It’s an opportunity. You don’t get these opportunities very often. You got a big director, you’ve got an audience, so you’re going to be able to see what the people are going to think of it. So we pushed for doing it CG. And the results were much more startling than we ever thought. But it’s not like I looked at the script and thought, “Oh my God, this is impossible.” Because I did imagine what it would look like if it was gonna be done the old-fashioned away. I know I would have been disappointed as a viewer, seeing another movie similar to what I’d kind of seen before as far as the effects go. It just seemed an opportunity to do something different.

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"The Lost World" special dinosaur effects supervisor Michael Lantieri, left, animatronics expert Stan Winston and ILM computer graphics leader Dennis Muren. (Los Angeles Times)

NC: So there’s going to be a “Jurassic Park IV” — are you doing work for that film too?

DM: I haven’t heard anything except what’s been in the press. It’s news to me.

NC: If you do work on the fourth film, is there anything you’d do differently than the previous installments?

DM: It just all starts with what the script is and what the story is. Things have changed a lot, photographically. Things are different, and we can get performances we couldn’t even get in those days. I don’t know what the style would be. It would be depending on who’s going to direct it as to what it is. I don’t think we’d go too different because I think the way of doing that film was the right way to do it. It was a lot of energy and a lot of studying and analyzing the stuff, and no shortcuts, and I think the tendency to do shortcuts is a bad one. There’d be little technical things that would make it look better, but I think the feeling of the film would still take effort. It’s not going to get any easier.

NC: You’ve done a lot of incredible movies — “E.T,” “Star Wars” and more recently “Super 8.” Where does “Jurassic Park” rank for you?

DM: Yeah, it’s right there near the top. I don’t have one favorite, but I’ve got a few of them. I’ve got two or three of them, and that’s definitely up there. Because it was also a fun movie to make. I thought the whole movie came out really well. I do effects, and imagine Steven Spielberg directing my effects and John Williams doing the music for my effects, and these top actors acting in my effects. I think it’s great for somebody like me who just loves doing the effects. I like working collaboratively. It’s a lot of talent, and it’s wonderful when it comes together and it all works.

NC: Do you have anything coming up that you’d like to talk about?

DM: I’ve been working on this book for a while. It’s for computer graphic people, and it’s sort of on observation. The same sort of thing as we did on “Jurassic” — looking at the world around you for inspiration and ideas and how you apply it to fantasy characters in films. And I think that’s something that is not being done nearly enough. So after talking about it with schools and all for years, and nobody listening to me, I just said, “Well, I’d better write a book about it.” I’ve been working on it for a while. Maybe next year, I hope.

– Noelene Clark

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Comments


3 Responses to ‘Jurassic Park’ effects wizard: ‘We were copying Mother Nature’

  1. sfx says:

    The article makes it sound like everything was digital, but I have to point out that in the first 14 still pictures you have here, ALL of the dinosaurs shown are the physical, animatronic ones built by Stan Winston Studio. Its not hard to tell the difference, in part 1. The first digital ones you show are from part 2. People get so hyped about the digital characters that they forget that highly functional, full-size animatronic versions were built of most of these characters- in all 3 of the films. Even by part 3 as the digital technology had improved, there were still full size rubber and fiberglass dinosaurs heavily featured throughout the film, in fight scenes, in close-up shots.

  2. Raymond Douglas says:

    Dennis Muren is a brilliant visual effects artist, but even he has admitted that he wouldn't have considered getting into the film industry without the inspiration he received from visual effects icon Ray Harryhausen's films. Harryhausen's impact on the film industry, particularly the visual effects artists within the industry, is legendary. Dennis was in the audience the night Harryhausen was presented with his Lifetime Achievement Oscar and has frequently appeared with Harryhausen at special events in Harryhausen's honor. His comments about Harryhausen can be found among the special features on the 2005 two-disc DVD, "Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection," produced by Harryhausen's long-time friend and agent, Arnold Kunert.

  3. rincore says:

    I just rewatched jurassic park the other day and im still shocked at how freaking real that trex scene looks especially for it being made nearly 20 years ago. the 2nd and 3rd movies were great, they had cool effects but the dinosaurs all looks obviously digital. I'm guessing they had to use animatronics or something cuz the whole scene with the trex destroying the car looked 100 percent real.

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