When Jurassic World stomped into multiplexes earlier this summer, its visual effects were inevitably compared to its predecessor – 1993’s Jurassic Park. At a time when CGI was in its relative infancy, Steven Spielberg’s movie set a new standard in visual effects. For those two-or-so hours, an entire generation believed that dinosaurs were once again walking the earth.
In fact, Jurassic Park’s effects are so good that it still stands up more than 20 years later – and, as many other writers have already pointed out, its dinosaurs are hardly less convincing than the ones that charged across the screen in this summer’s Jurassic World.
Another ’90s film commonly held up for the quality of its visual effects is Starship Troopers. Directed by Paul Verhoeven and released in 1997, it wasn’t a hit of Jurassic Park’s magnitude, but its anarchic humour and superbly-wrought planet of giant, bloodthirsty bugs has earned it a cult following. So why do the effects seen in Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers still look so good today?
This very subject came up when we spoke to Fon Davis, a longstanding miniature maker and production designer who worked on Starship Troopers in 1997. He points out that, whileJurassic Park, Starship Troopers, and the Star Wars prequels (the first of which also came out in 1999) were all praised for their groundbreaking use of CGI, a great percentage of their effects were achieved practically.
“Jurassic Park had a lot of Stan Winston creatures in it,” Davis says. “There are the close-ups for the feet and the heads, and we had a lot of beautiful, beautiful animatronics in that movie. Those things always integrate with the lighting in the scenes perfectly because they’re actually there. They glisten, they do all the things your brain expects an object to do, or a dinosaur to do. So I think those are the best visual effects, probably, that have ever been done.”
Starship Troopers was created with a similar mix of miniature effects, animatronics and CGI, with each technique carefully chosen to suit its particular sequence.
“[Starship Troopers] is a good example of hybrid moviemaking,” Davis tells us. “We had a lot of miniatures, a lot of really spectacular CGI from Phil Tippet’s studio for the bugs. We had prosthetics and they had all the physical effects artists in that movie. The movie holds up a lot better than movies that have come out since.”
The reason for this? Davis refers to a theory put forward by Dennis Muren, the Oscar-winning special effects artist who worked on the Star Wars movies: practical effects give CG artists a physical, real-world basis for their own work.
“Dennis Muren is always saying that CG artists copying photographs makes it easier for them to make the CG look real too,” Davis explains. “So you have a bunch of real objects, a bunch of miniature objects, and then there’s CG to bind all those things. The miniature things based on reality raise the bar for CG, and CG raises the bar for the whole thing. So you have a benchmark you have to hit. It’s too easy to get lazy and think you’ve nailed it when you’re not copying some sort of reality, you’re creating reality completely from scratch. It’s so easy to get it wrong, because the physics engines and rendering packages on computers don’t always get it right.”
For Davis, the balance between established practical effects techniques and CGI was one of the main reasons why the visuals in Jurassic Park and Starship Trooperslook so good. But there’s also another reason: those movies arrived at the beginning of a visual effects boom; compared to the movies of the 21st century, the number of effects shots in Jurassic Park was relatively tiny, as Davis explains:
“It’s interesting, because I think CG came in right about the time movies also started to amp up the number of visual effects. It’s like the birth of the rollercoaster ride visual effects movie, right? So this all happened while we were still at ILM. You used to get movies that would come in and there would be like a hundred shots, and we’d be like, ‘Wow, a hundred VFX shots. Jurassic Park only had 65.’ But then we’d hit 200, and then 300, and we’d be saying, ‘Woah! 300 effects shots in a movie!’ Then the next thing you know we’re doing 900, then a thousand. By the time we’d finished the third Star Wars prequel it was over 2,000 shots and we stopped counting!”
With increasing workloads like that, it’s little surprise that the effects shots in some modern movies can look variable at times – technology may have evolved, but the pressure on VFX artists and designers to get 100s of shots done on time and on budget has also escalated.
Working within the constraints of time and budget, effects artists are continuously trying find new, effective ways of making audiences believe that what they’re seeing on the screen is real. For Davis, the best way to create those effects is with the same hybrid approach we saw in Jurassic Park or Starship Troopers – and if we look at some of the movies with the best visual effects over the past five years, almost all of them have mixed the physical with the digital to create their illusions.
In Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium, a mix of CGI and miniature effects was used to create its futuristic landscape. For one sequence, Davis and his team built a 12-foot long scale model of the Raven – the ship belonging to Sharlto Copley’s villainous character – and crashed it into an 80-foot long set. Terrifyingly, budget and time constraints meant that they only had one chance to get the shot right.
“We only had one shot to crash the ship, have it laying on the ground, spin on its side, its wings break off, flames shoot out, and it has to come to a stop at a very specific location,” Davis tells us. “Seven cameras on it, one take, and we did not have a second version of the set or the ship. That was definitely one of the most stressful moments of my career. It was seven months of work leading up to a couple of seconds of shooting.”
Stress aside, this is a modern example of multiple disciplines coming together in one shot to create a realistic whole. The scale model effects (or “bigiatures” as they’re sometimes dubbed) were later augmented with CGI, while a full-scale version of the crashed Raven was created from the model for the live-action scenes which came after it.
Davis cites Christopher Nolan as another director who’s using the same hybrid approach as Jurassic Parkand Starship Troopers. For 2014’s Interstellar, Nolan used a blend of model spacecraft – some spanning as much as 50 feet in length – physical sets and CGI to fill in the gaps.
The resulting effects shots – some 900 of them – create the illusion of real craft flying through space precisely because so much of what we see was physically built; as Davis puts it, “You don’t have to fight it – you don’t have to try to make it look real. In so much of computer graphics, you have to go to a huge effort to really do that.”
So while CGI has become a hugely powerful filmmaking tool, it’s when the digital and the physical are combined that the most effective sequences arise. It was true in the days of Jurassic Park andStarship Troopers, and it’s still the case in movies like Elysium, Interstellar and this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road, with its stunning mix practical stunts augmented with CG.
Whether it’s bringing dinosaurs back from extinction, scaring up hordes of giant bugs or sending spaceships to the other side of the universe, the visual effects artist’s job remains the same as it ever was: using technology to tell a story. As Fon Davis puts it, “You don’t want people to think about visual effects. You want people to care about the characters. So if we’re doing our jobs right, we go completely unnoticed.”