Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is more than just a CGI franchise film, it's a game-changer when it comes to animatronics and director J.A. Bayona has Neal Scanlon to thank for that. The British-born creature designer brought his expertise from the rebooted Star Wars franchise to the Jurassic World dinosaurs, and one only has to look each film to see how brilliant his work is.
Scanlon doesn't do it alone, though; he worked with the VFX team at Industrial Light & Magic to ensure symmetry between the animatronics used in real life with actors Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard and the computer animations added on in post-production.
SYFY caught up with Scanlon as well as ILM's VFX supervisors David Vickery and Alex Wuttke and animation supervisor Jance Rubinchik to discuss the magic involved behind the scenes in bringing these monstrous creatures to life on screen.
Every department is involved in the creation of the dinosaurs
The biggest hurdle for a movie like this is bringing the dinosaurs to life, so it has to be a cross-department effort. “There is a very deliberate collaboration with Neal's creatures effects team and my visual effects team to try and come up with the best suite of tools,” Vickery explained.
There are several forms of dinosaurs used in the movie
Some of the dinosaurs you see in Fallen Kingdom are just computer-animated, while others are ridiculously detailed animatronics. There were even a few inflatable versions floating around during the shoot.
“It gave us a fighting chance to sort of make sure that [for] the digital dinosaurs, you believed their performances because there was a real performance as the basis for those characters,” Vickery said.
Having “real” dinosaurs on set better-informed performances of Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and the other actors who had to perform opposite them.
“A lot of people haven't worked with a practical effect before, it's been a while, dare I say, but that's been encouraged,” Neal says. “I refer to the first film and they must have walked onto that set, saw that T-Rex and [be] asked to perform in front of it - that must have been an incredible thing for them to do that because there was this real world T-Rex, with a car, and it was raining.”
“When the actresses and actors walked onto the set, they could fully be engaged in that way that we couldn't have done if we didn't have some form of practical effect or practical reference for them to work with,” Neal adds.
The animators and VFX team spend A LOT of time on set
The team was involved from pre-production to planning through to the actual shoot and they have more of a partnership with Bayona, the DP and production designer in order to reflect the real world variables when they’re designing the visual effects and CG dinosaurs.
“You spend so much time sitting in front of a computer working on this stuff and then to see it for real is super exciting,” Rubinchik said, while Wuttke added that one of the best moments was seeing the T-Rex in action.
“This franchise is unique in the sense that you have the ability to see these kinds of things for real and that’s a real honor to see Neal and his creature team working,” Alex adds. “and to see a full-scale T-Rex thrashing about for real inside a shipping container, it’s quite a sight.”
The actors were petrified by the dinosaurs
“Neal's creatures terrified our actors on a number of occasions,” Vickery said. “They made them jump, made them cry and made them laugh and that brought such a great energy to the process.”
“You see them in the original film, I think [the actors] were genuinely terrified,” Scanlon added. “At some points, they were scared stiff that the T-Rex would suddenly bite their heads off and you can see it in the sequences.”
The design team ignores new aesthetic discoveries about dinosaurs
The design team doesn’t incorporate new finds about the way dinosaurs look because they need to remain aesthetically in-sync with the original movie. That’s why we don’t see raptors or the T-Rex with feathers, despite paleontologists saying so. The films get away with this thanks to the way these man-made dinosaurs were created.
“The conceit in the original film is that they’re not creating a completely accurate idea of what a dinosaur is by modern standards, they are creating what they think a dinosaur should be using bits of DNA that they’ve recovered and mixed with other DNA,” Wuttke explained. “So I think in some respect the technology that appears in the original Jurassic Park films is advanced but there’s still a bit of guesswork involved.”
The puppeteers are acting as hard as the actors
It takes a village to bring these animatronics to life, and SYFY saw firsthand how many it took to get Blue the velociraptor moving, but the performance starts from the beginning for both the animators and director.
“At the beginning where Owen is talking to little Blue we just made very simple toys that ran around on wheels, really more for sight line for Chris to play to and one of our puppeteers had a rod on the head of one of them which enabled them to puppeteer,” Scanlon said. “It was JA observing that, Chris's reaction to that little model which was a really good first indication of the strength being able to participate on or off camera.
“He totally engaged and he was amazing. Chris was almost talking to this other puppet as he was talking to Robin who was performing it and suddenly two actors are working together.”
There aren’t dozens of versions of each dinosaur
There isn't a production line of each dinosaur made; rather, one gets built to be used as a practical effect. However, it doesn’t negate the importance of having them on set.
“I think we have a higher responsibility to look and say as a team of people what are we really trying to achieve here because really is there any reason for me to be here? Probably not,” Scanlon said. “Not from a visual effects perspective but on a filmmaking perspective, suddenly that blend becomes so much more important.
“What you are really doing is trying to enhance and service the director's aspirations, the actors' interactions, the DOP, everybody becomes engaged in the moment when you walk on with a practical effect so its validity starts right there and then."
No one gets to keep them
If you’re wondering if Chris Pratt has a life-sized Blue at home, he does not. No one gets to take any of the animatronics home because they get used again for future installments.
“We need them back because if we do another one we're going to use them again,” Vickery said (though sometimes they do get out and end up on eBay).
“They are acetated at the end of the film, which means they are wrapped up and stored, so sometimes they are lost forever and that's why these things sometimes end up on the, should I say, black market?” Scanlon added.
Nosferatu inspired the Indoraptor
Bayona had a very specific idea for how he wanted the indoraptor to look, and he urged the ILM design team to look at some German cinema for inspiration.
“JA had some specific design ideas for the indoraptor,” Wuttke told us. “This idea that it’s an unfinished product, it’s almost a beta version of this militarised dinosaur.
“He also had a lot of influences that he wanted to bring to bear, a lot of Gothic influences, he would talk about classic German impressionist films like Nosferatu which gave us the ability to give [the indoraptor] these long gangly limbs that were really sinister and creepy.”
Scanlon would love to do a Jurassic World exhibition though
Scanlon told us that he would love to get together his animatronics from his past films like Star Wars, Babe and Jurassic World, and put them on display for fans to see in person.
“Are they just there to be seen on screen or should they be taken somewhere for the public to appreciate?” he asked. “I would certainly say I've been to the Harry Potter museum several times now and have been utterly enthralled by it.
“It's been an incredibly successful display of how much cinema-going audiences want to see not only creatures but all the other things that go into the filmmaking processes. It's a beloved art, isn't it? I'd be immensely delighted.”
They already have ideas for the next film
According to Wuttke, the design team “have an amalgamation of ideas” ready to explore in the next installment. “I have lots I’d like to do,” he added, “[but] we’re not allowed to say. We’d love to say more!”
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital download now in the US. It will be available in the UK from November 5.