As technology advances, more and more movies continue to go heavy on the digital special effects. But if we’ve learned anything from all-CG renderings of villains — the likes of Justice League’s Steppenwolf, Doomsday in Batman v Superman and even good old Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War — it’s that nothing can replace an actual physical manifestation for actors to interact with. While there’s been a tendency in recent years to go all-out when it comes to CGI, the Jurassic franchise is paving the way for a major return to good old-fashioned practical effects.
Creature Designer on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Neal Scanlan, has years of experience working in creature design and special make-up effects and is convinced that practical effects are here for the long haul. Indeed, he’s more in demand than ever, heading up the creature design team on the new Star Wars trilogy and already locked in to work on the next Jurassic film. During a visit to Pinewood Studios where Fallen Kingdom was filmed, Scanlan tells FANDOM why practical effects are still relevant in the digital age.
Dinosaurs and Talking Kettles
“I think to some extent, and this may seem a little crazy, my feeling is that it’s a little bit like taking a rollercoaster ride,” he says. “I think computer graphics today are so incredible, so able to take you somewhere, that I think as humans we have a feeling that somehow before you take me there, I need to ground myself. And ground myself in something that says to me: ‘Ok, now I’m engaged, now here’s something special’. And I think that there’s a feeling that a practical effect, whatever it may be — whether it’s a talking kettle or whether it’s a dinosaur — is now perceived maybe as a way of engaging the audience into that moment so that cinematically you can take them with you and then CG can take you to a place that practically, and in another way, you can’t go.
“So I think that’s my personal philosophy. There’s this feeling that ‘I’m ready now, I’ve been in the queue for the ride, I’m prepared, I’ve seen people scream, I’m going to get on, here we go’. And without that, you’re lost; taken to the ride so quickly that maybe, and especially for older types like myself, you need a little bit more just to warm into it. So my feeling is that may be why practical effects are being asked for by audiences a little more than maybe they were, say, 10 years ago.”
Cinema as Storyteller
For Scanlan, then, practical effects in live-action cinema today are integral to the effectiveness of whatever digital effects a film may employ. But the question remains whether visual effects and technology will advance to such a point where practical effects are no longer necessary. Scanlan believes this will never happen.
“I think in our heart of hearts, cinema is like theatre. We have an understanding from when we grow up — from a Punch and Judy show to the little [skit] that we put on as children and seeing your first theatre performance — the cinema is just one of those visual mediums, and CG is so capable of sending your imagination to a much larger place.
“But I think that we all feel, at the root of it, it’s great to film at a real location. It’s great when you know that that’s a real tree with real sunlight and if something in the background is an incredible, amazing thing that you know doesn’t exist, somehow the two now feel much more comfortable [together] as a viewer. And I wonder if we’ll ever lose that, it’s just not in our hearts … that’s what cinema is. And if we wish to not engage in that, there are so many virtual worlds and so many virtual technologies in the future where one can engage in a completely imaginary world. But I don’t think that is cinema. Cinema is a narrative, a storyteller and I think it demands, like a good book, that it’s presented to us in a way that we can put our arms around.”
Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should
Interestingly, Visual Effects Supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), David Vickery — who also worked on Fallen Kingdom – agrees.
“I’ll be the first to admit that you can do pretty much anything with visual effects now but it doesn’t mean you should,” he says. “What we tried to do was find the best balance between having something tangible on set that people could emote with [and digital effects]. And you believe those performances. Even though a lot of it is enhanced digitally and some of it’s replaced, you believe those performances because they were real. There were actual dinosaurs represented on set for our actors to feel and touch and react to for our camera to focus on and it gave all of the people on set the ability to interact with often digital creations in a very physical way.”
But using ‘real’ dinosaurs and puppeteers wasn’t only helpful to the on-screen actors — it also benefitted director JA Bayona.
Terrifying the Cast
Scanlan says, “In the moment, I would be on a comm to JA so I could hear, and the actors weren’t. And so he was able to sort of [say]: ‘In a minute when Bryce [Dallas Howard] puts her hand forward, do such and such’. So he was able to direct this entity and give the surprise, or get a reaction from his cast that I suppose would have been very difficult to do if you were looking at an empty space.”
Vickery corroborates: “I saw them jump; he scared them a number of times. He literally terrified Justice [Smith] and Bryce on a number of occasions.”
Scanlan says Bayona tried to provoke real reactions and emotions in other complementary ways, too.
“He would play the soundtrack of the movie and he would also have the roar on his phone so at the right time he’d just say after three and then he’d play the roar,” he reveals. “So for that reason too, [a practical approach] stretched across the entire production; everybody engaged.”
Vickery says that the practical approach didn’t stop at dinosaurs.
“That sort of ethos bled over into all of the techniques we used in the film,” he begins. “We needed to take our actors in a gyrosphere and put them in Hawaii. We built a gyrosphere and we took it to Hawaii and we pulled them down the side of a steep ravine. And we needed them to go off a cliff. We didn’t actually push them off a cliff but Paul Corbould, our special effects [supervisor], built a huge rollercoaster, and we put Bryce into it and we filmed the first take — and the terror on her face is tangible. As an audience member, you stay in the moment; the suspension of disbelief is easy because you believe what’s going on, because it’s real.”
A Shared Base DNA
And if the blend of physical and visual effects in Fallen Kingdom seems seamless, it’s testament to how closely the two teams worked together. Visual Effects Supervisor Alex Wuttke explains the integration of the two seemingly disparate departments.
“We worked very closely with Neal and his creature team in the sense that a lot of the dinosaurs were authored within the art dept at ILM,” he says. “We created digital sculpts for the characters and for the dinosaurs which we then passed to Neal who fabricated them and created animatronics from them. So there’s a sort of a base DNA between the animatronic version of the dinosaur and the digital version of the dinosaur that we’re sharing. And that process was hugely beneficial. It meant that the coupling of when we cut from an animatronic to a digital version of a dinosaur had to be seamless and this really helped in that process.”
Animation Supervisor Jance Rubinchik adds, “There’s a consistency in the supervision for how the practical dinosaurs are moving and how that informs the CG dinosaurs when we pick up and start animating dinosaurs in shots. You want those two to feel like they exist in the same world so you’re not really seeing a huge difference in the way the dinosaurs move between practical and digital.”
With Jurassic World 3 due out in 2021 and the inevitable advances in both visual effects and practical techniques between now and then, we can expect to see even more impressive animatronics and an even smoother integration with the complementary digital effects.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is available now on Blu-Ray in the US and from November 5 in the UK.