*Dusts of /wp-admin; coughs*
Alright, so Teague Chrystie posted a thing, and then Kyle Prohaska posted another thing to piggyback on Teague’s thing. So I’m piggybacking on their things, and I’m a little tipsy, so let’s get that out of the way.
The trailer for Jurassic World came out today. It’s shiny. It says “Jurassic.” It’s blue. It’s the logical progression from “park” to “world” much like Disney’s grand opening in Orlando (and seriously, John, why didn’t you build there?). Teague and Kyle both wrote great posts: Teague, simply from a VFX artist’s standpoint, a position I understand with great intimacy, and Kyle from a director’s standpoint with enough VFX knowledge to be dangerous—and a position I understand somewhat, although my directorial forays tend to be glorified VFX Supervisor positions.
As Teague discussed in his post, the main reason why the VFX of Jurassic World’s trailer don’t seem to compare to those of Jurassic Park, made 21 years ago, is due to the nature of how trailers are released these days. We can almost put money on the fact that nothing in that trailer has been finaled. When I worked on Captain America, we were given a list of trailer shots that took priority, and since we were doing stereo conversion, we were only given those frames. As such, the 3D version of that trailer was a little wonky when it was attached to Thor (which we also worked on). But when we were officially assigned those full shots for the film, we just trashed most of our existing projects and started over, doing it right from the get-go. So as a general principle, I won’t judge a film’s VFX based solely on a trailer; much less a teaser.
The other thing that makes the VFX hold up so well in Jurassic Park is that you’re actually not looking at as many CG shots as you think. Seriously, we’re talking around 50 or so digital shots… vs the usual 1,500 in today’s blockbusters. They really weren’t very confident in the technology at the time, so they did as much practical work as possible. This is an approach I seriously wish more filmmakers would take these days (interestingly, you’ll never find a group more in favor of practical effects than a room full of digital effects artists). Also take into account the continually shrinking timetables given to VFX, and you start to get a sense that comparing Jurassic Park to Jurassic World is nigh apples to oranges.
The approach in the earlier Jurassic Park films (hell, even the third) was ingenious. Pop in the Lord of the Rings Appendices some time and check out how they did the scaled work with the hobbits and dwarves in Fellowship. The trick is never using the same trick for too long. Just when the audience thinks they have it figured out, you switch to a different technique. In the case of LOTR, they’d switch between forced perspective, blue screen, and elaborate sets that allowed forced perspective to work with moving cameras. The result is a tapestry of effects shots that each hold up for their duration on screen, but are not oversaturated by the same effect over and over for an entire sequence. Digital effects get a chance to breathe and work alongside practical shots, which embed a sense of believability in the audience’s mind that they carry into the next digital shot, buying that, and so on. Filmmaking, particularly effects-laden filmmaking, is a grand charade of slight of hand. If you can fool the audience just long enough, you’ve got them.
This is what was going on in Jurassic Park all those years ago. The real trick, which unfortunately Jurassic World will never be able to take advantage of, is that no one had ever seen such imagery before. If they had played all the dinosaurs in close-up, people would’ve easily called it as clever editing and animatronics. Big deal? But when that t-rex breaks through the fence and steps out onto the road in all its glory, in the pouring rain, or 40 minutes earlier when Grant points up and hangs a lantern on the fact that “it’s a dinosaur,” what then Mr. Fancy Audience Member? Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!
And therein lies what I think makes Jurassic Park stand the test of time. There are in fact digital shots that don’t hold up at all. The “it’s a dinosaur” shot in particular has about as much detail as a PlayStation 2 could render in-game by the turn of the century; particularly viewed now. But that’s the only shot I can really point out. One of the things the first movie had going for it was not only were the characters amazed by what they were seeing; but so were audiences. 21 years later, we’re all a little jaded, aren’t we? And that is what I’m most intrigued by with Jurassic World, as the director indicated six months ago:
“What if, despite previous disasters, they built a new biological preserve where you could see dinosaurs walk the earth…and what if people were already kind of over it? We imagined a teenager texting his girlfriend with his back to a T-Rex behind protective glass. For us, that image captured the way much of the audience feels about the movies themselves. ‘We’ve seen CG dinosaurs. What else you got?’ Next year, you’ll see our answer.”
Now, obviously, the trailer seemed to just give us more CG dinosaurs. Hoo-fucking-ray. But trailers aren’t necessarily the brain child of the director. Sometimes trailers and marketing in general aren’t even controlled by the people making the movie. Maybe they have some sweet stuff up their sleeve, like massive video translights, and a perfect mix of practical and digital effects to achieve the dinosaurs. But obviously the marketing people want to show us those small handful of establishing shots that, yes, were all CG and unfinished because trailer deadlines.
Ultimately, while it’s quite a complicated issue as Teague laid out, the issue can be pretty well boiled down to “Jurassic Park had 50 shots and 3 years, while Jurassic World will have 2,000 shots and 1 year.” But while we definitely know a great deal more about what we’re doing now compared to 1993, the expectations have grown along with our abilities. It’s been observed within the industry that while processing power and software become more powerful, expectations at the box office grow and timetables shrink. So at the end of the day, VFX artists are trying to create better effects, requiring more powerful computers, in less time, and under shittier working conditions than ever before.
So take a moment today and hug a VFX artist.