There are fully practical effects in the film, fully CG ones, and everything in between (and, yep, there’s even miniatures).
At one point in Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World: Dominion, the hero human characters appear cornered behind an upturned Jeep by a Giganotosaurus. In a move that is perhaps somewhat against the trend in modern-day filmmaking, the actors performed that scene with a life-size practical Giganotosaurus animatronic, built by John Nolan Studio, which had been built and shot with the intention of the head section of the animatronic being retained in the final shot.
Indeed, the visual effects team, led by ILM senior visual effects supervisor David Vickery, would extend the remainder of the Giganotosaurus in several shots, matching their CG creature to the practical build. It was a technique used in many sequences throughout Dominion, as Vickery and creature effects supervisor John Nolan explain to befores & afters in this wide-ranging interview about the mix of practical and digital effects in the film.
Pushing for practical
b&a: David, I think the audience responds so well to having practical creatures here, and clearly, the digital dinos are always brilliant in these films as well. Is there something you can say this time around about the mix of practical and digital?
David Vickery: Definitely. I think our instincts were good on Fallen Kingdom, the previous film, to use animatronics and physical dinosaurs as much as we could. But I don’t think we exploited it enough, and I think that there were a number of scenes in Fallen Kingdom that were written specifically because Colin Trevorrow felt like animatronics would work in that context. What we wanted to try and do here on Dominion was break that mold a little bit, and use them as much as we could, but also make sure that we didn’t replace them. That was the key thing, that we could keep them in the final shots.
So, John and I spent a long time trying to make sure that we were as in sync as possible with creature design development, the rigs, the way they moved, the way we puppeteered them, so that we didn’t replace them in post-production, but that we could extend and enhance them. That was the difference here.
And, you’re right, yeah. There’s an audience connection to animatronics, massively. We’re all of the generation where The Dark Crystal, The Labyrinth, etc., have a very, very firm place in our hearts and we wanted to revisit that. But it’s not just about the audience here. The performers on set, the actors, the director, the DP, you can frame something, you can light for something, you can direct a performance in real-time, you can interact.
In fact, it’s not just the actors on set that can interact with the creatures, but the creatures can interact with them. I said this to someone the other day. If you had two actors on set, you’d never take one of them away and go, ‘Hey, you just perform against the tennis ball, and then we’re going to get the other actor in and we’re going to get them to perform against the tennis ball.’ It’s the same with a dinosaur and a human, they can react with each other. The dinosaurs are the star of this show, let’s not forget that. People go and pay money to see Bryce and Chris, of course, but they go and pay money to see Blue and Beta and a T-Rex, and they’re just as much of a star in this franchise.
b&a: John, do you want to talk about that as well?
John Nolan: I agree. Maybe Colin was also referencing the films from his childhood. And when you look at some of the directors back in the day, of films from the ’80s, maybe they were referencing their childhoods as well. Like Spielberg referencing the ‘50s in his films. And now maybe it’s Colin’s turn. He’s referencing films that he grew up on in the late ’70s and early ’80s, which are obviously full of practical effects. Maybe it’s our turn, and we’re referencing what we were brought up on, which is practical effects.
b&a: What was it like when you first came on board this film, John?
John Nolan: When Colin invited me to Pinewood to have a first meeting with him, it was just in Colin’s office, and it was just so simple. He sat me down and he said, ‘Do you like dinosaurs?’ I don’t think I’ve been asked that since I was a child. And I said, ‘Yes.’ He goes, ‘Cool. Do you want to make some?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He goes, ‘Okay, you got the job.’ That’s it, literally. It was the best interview ever.
Then he literally pulled out a list of dinosaurs, and then you could see the ambition and the workload for us as well, because there wasn’t a huge amount of time. Giga (Giganotosaurus) wasn’t on that list at the time, luckily, otherwise I might have walked out. But the list was amazing, and just showed that they really wanted to try as much as they could in-camera, and have that connection, like David said, with the audience.
b&a: Was there much R&D you needed to do in terms of animatronics, hydraulics and skin for the dinos?
John Nolan: We really wanted to push silicone in this film. We use a lot of silicone in the work we do here at the studio. It just gives you that translucency and a different look to foam latex. I love foam latex because it’s nice and light for the performers and, of course, it looks opaque and tough, like crocodile skin or dinosaur skin, but what silicone gives you is that translucency.
You can paint silicone as if it’s opaque, so you can make it look tougher. But then of course, when a wing opens, say, you can actually pass light through, and you can see the blood and the veins. We felt that was something that we wanted to explore with regards to the skin.
We also worked early with the animation team to work out dinosaur movement, that is, bringing movement into our own practical dinosaurs. We were able to connect with visual effects more than ever. We all share the same technology, such as 3D sculpting with ZBrush, for example. We were supplied some walking rigs from visual effects so that we could try and get that into our performance as well. It worked both ways–the puppeteered performance would also feed into the CG dinosaurs.
David Vickery: We really tried to be one department. There was creature effects, special effects, visual effects, and the art department. We were working to the same goal, we were working together, and we were handing these creatures off between each other the whole way through production.
b&a: How did that work in practice? Was ILM, say, building models first, and then handing them off, or did sometimes the model come from creature effects?
David Vickery: Production designer Kevin Jenkins was the first port of call with all of these creature designs. He would create clay sculpts. He worked with paleo artists very early on because, really, we had to start with the science. There’s no point in just trying to make this stuff up.
John Nolan: It’s probably important to say that the team that Kevin got in to sculpt these maquettes were often people who also worked in our creatures department to sculpt dinosaurs or other creatures.
David Vickery: And some of them actually then went on to do character work for you?
John Nolan: Exactly.
David Vickery: Right, so we would LiDAR scan all of the maquettes made by the art department and then pass them over to ILM. The people in Kevin’s team could also bring them into ZBrush and add another layer of detail on top, and then ILM would fit rigs inside the creatures. It was a way of working out, where do the hips go, where do the knees bend, are the legs too long, how will it actually run? So we’d have somebody at ILM put a skeleton inside the maquettes, and that would actually inform any small joint position changes.
We could pass all that data, including the rig, back to John and his team, and he could then say, ‘Okay, cool, if I’m going to build a physical version of this, that’s where the mechanisms inside the creature need to sit.’
John Nolan: We would do things in several ways. It might be a 3D print that we were given that we then transferred into clay and would add more detail to it. Sometimes these were actually just used for visual effects on set, as well.
Keeping it real (literally)
David Vickery: One of the biggest creatures that we had to deal with was the Giga. Now, one thing we didn’t want to do was always have to replace all of the practical Giga in post. We just didn’t want to remove all of that beautiful work. We wanted to be able to directly extend it. So, we came up with a way to plan how the physical special effects rig would be puppeteered and how it would be moved around on set.
It was built in such a way that had the same range of motion, the same pivot points as the CG version of the Giga. We did some tests with special effects supervisor Paul Corbould and John so that we knew we could physically move it around, and where we would need to extend it. So, for example, in the scene where they are hiding behind the car while the Giga stalks them at the outpost, the head is completely practical. And then it was extended digitally.
b&a: It’s very interesting to hear that the plan going in was to keep as much practical as possible, but that’s something that is often said and doesn’t always happen. However, I can see in that Giga sequence [ILM showed me the before/after] that having that practical head in there really adds to the verisimilitude of it all, doesn’t it?
David Vickery: A hundred percent. That’s exactly it, but you know what? ILM have incredibly talented artists and incredibly talented camera operators and incredibly talented lighters and creature effects artists. But we don’t have a camera operator who’s got 20 years of experience and has spent their entire life just operating the camera. Or, a DP who understands how to light something on a set. So, by allowing the animatronics to be part of that creative process on set, you’re engaging all of these other people in the filmmaking process on the day.
You’re also making people make creative decisions during the moment. If you do that in post-production, suddenly you’ve got a much smaller brain trust to work with. Not that ILM couldn’t do it–and certainly there are so many incredible CG dinosaurs in the film–but why wouldn’t you engage all those people during the course of the filmmaking process to be part of that?
John Nolan: The first dinosaur we shot was the rescue scene with the Nasutoceratops. We brought it on set and everyone, at that moment, said that was the first day they felt like they were working on a Jurassic film. Even the DOP John Schwartzman, who’s done everything, you could see the excitement in his face lighting it. It was an honor to bring them out on set and get the cheer.
David Vickery: It’s on a scale between, everything’s on a bluescreen versus, ‘Hey, we’ve got a dinosaur on set.’ There’s a big difference in the creative engagement that you get with the shooting crew from one end of that scale to the other.
And, because you have the practical creature on set on the day, you can cut from the shot where it’s completely practical to a shot that is completely digital, completely seamlessly, in my opinion. Some of that’s also just about the way you use the animatronic on set. It imposes a certain set of rules onto what it can do, how fast it can move, and that has to follow through in the digital work.
b&a: Yes, I was going to say that there’s a thing that maybe was even established in the first film in ’93, which is that a big dino will roar in a certain way because that’s what the practical dino could do. Which means, in CG, you kind of have to keep the limitations there.
David Vickery: Yeah. I see this a lot–and it’s a difficult argument to make–but when you’re shooting car greenscreens versus practical shots in a car, on a road, with real people and a camera, when you’re on a road with a car, you can hard-mount to it. You can get a Russian Arm and you can follow, but you can’t get that close. You can’t go through the window. You can’t slowly drift near the passenger side of the car.
But when you’re on a greenscreen, all those rules seem to go out the window and you suddenly start doing these things. That’s a massive immediate telegraphing of, ‘We’re on a greenscreen’. It’s a fake shot and there’s a tendency, or there’s a danger, that if you try and do things with too much digital intervention, you get the same process. You get the same effect. People understand it’s CG because you’re doing something that’s a little bit impossible. What I mean is, animatronics, or physical things on set, can keep you honest.
Deeper on the Dilophosaurus
b&a: How did this approach go with something like the spitting dinosaur, the Dilophosaurus?
John Nolan: That was hard for us because, obviously, it’s a fan favorite, bringing that one back. I think we see it in the previous film as a digital hologram, but other than that, it hasn’t been made practically since the original Jurassic Park.
Technology has moved on and it allows us to produce something that’s a lot more advanced, if you like, almost to the point where you could potentially change the character and make it better, if you wanted to. What I mean is, new sculpting techniques allow us to be even more detailed, or new animatronics and computer controlled machines let us cut out all the components to create slightly better animatronics that might be stronger and smaller, so you can put more facial expressions into the heads. But, there’s a fine line between creating something that everyone knows and making it too advanced. So with the Dilo, you could go absolutely to town on it, and then it almost looks too real or too good, or too slick.
David Vickery: I hear what you’re saying. The Dilophosaurus is an established character that lives in the franchise and you’ve got to respect that and you have to recreate it. You can’t replace Chris Pratt with another actor and say, ‘It’s Chris Pratt.’ It’s not.
John Nolan: Yeah, exactly. Even if it was built 35 years ago, that’s the thing, you still have to keep the charm and keep the character that everyone remembers. What I loved about the original film, too, is that they did attempt to make it walk, but it actually failed because someone was wearing it and it was too heavy. So, in Jurassic Park, you don’t see it move, which lends itself to the character, really. You see it there, they cut away, and then it’s slightly closer in the next cut. Which makes it scarier. It couldn’t walk and that’s just the genius of Spielberg, I guess, to make it work in the film.
b&a: What challenges did you have in making the Dilo in terms of sculpting it and even making it walk this time around?
John Nolan: Well, the original brief was that Colin wanted to have it stalking around, and we did achieve a walk with animatronics and a whole bunch of puppeteers underneath it. Ultimately, they just had to shoot it so fast, and the logistics of making it walk meant we never really see it on screen in the end. But it just works for the character anyway.
Crafting a performance on set
b&a: You mention the puppeteers, John, and I wondered if you could both talk about the role of pupeteering on this film?
John Nolan: Because we had such a long list of characters, we didn’t want to puppeteer them all in the same way. So there were so many different puppeteering techniques, whether it was through hydraulics and control systems that were controlled by visual effects, or rodded puppets from above.
For example, we had the Lystrosaurus, where there were people inside a box underneath the floor. Or the Stygimoloch, the ramming dino. We looked at anti-ramming cages and animals that are put in anti-ramming cages, alpacas and stuff, so we actually created a cage that the dinosaur could go into that using a harness that allowed us to have a puppeteer hiding behind the backs with their hand up it backside and flashing it forward to headbutt the character.
David Vickery: For me, some of the most successful things we did on the film were the rod puppeteered creatures, which I’ve always felt are very successful because there is a direct connection between the human and the puppet. It’s muscle to muscle, and there isn’t any mechanical intervention in-between the two. With the smaller creatures, like Beta, John’s team were able to do that. We would look at tests and look at what they did on set, and you just forget the rods and the people. You just look at the creature, you start to make that magical leap to, ‘That’s a real thing going on there.’
We used the puppeteering process with Beta throughout the film. There are dozens of practical shots of Beta in the movie. We’d intercut between practical Beta, digital Beta, practical Beta, digital Beta, all the way through the film. It was just really amazing to be able to do that, and for us, at ILM, it gave us this superb lighting reference.
Plus, it gave us a ‘different’ kind of movement. There were some scenes where it was almost like the puppeteer hadn’t quite had enough coffee in the morning and there’s just a little shake. But it actually lends this absolute honesty of motion to the creature. We’d end up tracking that back into our CG version. We actually physically tracked animation takes from the puppet in 3D and used that as a guide and reference to lay all of that fine, tiny, tiny motion back onto the digital creature.
The other thing I’ve found is that you can put a puppet in the frame and it can not move an inch and it looks completely real and you completely believe it. If you do that with CG, it doesn’t look real at all! Because in a live-action plates, maybe there’s 1% of motion and movement. There’s something there. It’s still alive. We learned a lot from John’s team and his ‘animation’ and the way they move the puppet.
John Nolan: Part of what you’re talking about there, David, is human error. The puppet gets heavy and the guys are having to shake off a limb to get the blood back into their hands or whatever, and you get happy accidents. I think that’s something that you and animation supervisor Jance Rubinchik were interested in capturing, so you could find out what those were and try to add those into the CG model.
b&a: What other kind of puppeteering did you have to do on the show?
John Nolan: Well, there were also the Dimetrodons. I don’t know if you did this at school, where you grab the legs of someone in the playground and then they’d walk on their hands, like a wheelbarrow.
John Nolan: We did something like that for the Dimetrodons. Originally, we were supposed to just do a head on a stick. Then the sculptors got carried away and they did the front half and then they did the back legs and basically made almost the whole thing apart from the tail. Colin was loving it.
We didn’t have much time, and we had to find a way of creating this thing as quickly as possible. We came up with this idea of putting someone inside it, someone who was walking on their hands while we’re holding their legs off the ground. We managed to get someone inside where they hold the front legs and actually walk with their legs on almost like a diving board, which was on wheels. Then we had people behind it.
I actually have a sketch that we did, which is the first sketch to share the idea between everyone on the production. It’s just stick figures and it’s the most ridiculous thing ever. I actually can’t believe that it’s this blueprint to one of our creatures that we’re actually going to put someone inside.
David Vickery: It’s brilliant. In the final film, I think the Dimetrodon was 90% practical overall. In some shots it was completely practical. I think what this kind of thing brought us was a freedom and flexibility of having all these puppets in there. Visual effects can step in and paint out rigs, or extend tails, or enhance. But it meant we could shoot an incomplete animatronic full-frame and go, ‘Well it’s okay, because we can add the tail and we can paint out the guy’s arms.’ In Jurassic Park, they were able to use animatronics, but there was a limitation to the way they could use it, because they didn’t have the ability to paint people out just yet. It was just too expensive.
But we can go in and paint out entire trains of people and would rather do that than try and create it fully digitally. The truth is, all the way through prep, I’m trying to look for ways not to do visual effects. My job is to try and help the filmmakers make a film for real. To find interesting and clever ways to shoot practical photography, and there will be plenty of visual effects work for us later. I know that. So I’m trying to avoid it initially and find more interesting and clever ways to create the visual effects in the film.
John Nolan: And like you touched on earlier, we want the same goal. They’re characters. It’s not a process of technology. They’re characters. We’re all trying to reach the same goal, which is creating something that’s believable, whether it’s one discipline or the next.
A practical Pyroraptor
b&a: We’ve talked a lot about the practical animatronics used here, but what about any builds that were ultimately used very much for just reference? Maybe the Pyroraptor, which also has feathers?
David Vickery: Feathers in water and snow and ice: that’s one of the scarier things to make, both for John and ILM. John’s team built us a full Pyroraptor head, and they individually hand-dyed thousands and thousands of feathers and stuck them into this sculpt they’d created. We had it on set, we could see how the wind moved through them, we could see what the snow looked like on them. We could see the specular sheen and roll-off. It was one of the most complex lighting references that we had.
John Nolan: Each feather was dyed and woven into a net that stretched over the silicone skin. I remember it was quite windy that day, so some of the feathers actually twisted round because the wind caught them, but that’s something that would probably happen in real life, so again it was great for reference and texture and color.
Miniatures make a return
b&a: Were there other practical effects techniques you employed?
David Vickery: Yes, we used some forced perspective miniatures for the plane.
David Vickery: Yes, when it’s on the runway in Malta. The miniature was shot five feet from the lens and Bryce and DeWanda are about 200 feet away. The model is on a tabletop that the camera’s on, with the ground dressed up to a certain point.
b&a: Did you just have the custom team do it?
David Vickery: Kevin Jenkins found an airplane enthusiast in the US who had one and they bought it and then they repainted it and matched it to the aesthetic they wanted.
I think it’s all part of us saying, ‘Well, what is the right way to shoot everything?’ So, for example, we used LED screens for some shots, not because we wanted to say we did virtual production, but because we could get some in-camera finals when they were flying in the chopper and we had the footage. We used scenic backings in other scenes because it was the right way to achieve the results, such as in the control room at Biosyn. It’s a massive Rosco and all of those environments are shot in-camera. And that’s why we used miniatures of an airplane, because it’s a really great way to get some really good shots in-camera.
I think, ultimately, as soon as you get the audience on-side, by creating something practically, then you can start to intersperse digital versions amongst it, and people will just go along for the journey.
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Terrific article, so detailed and informative. Thank you.
Good article, but I believe it should be silicone, not silicon when they are discussing the dinosaur skin material.
Ah yes, thank you for finding that typo.