Spared No Expense

Jurassic Park was a watershed moment for the movie industry since it was the first movie to have a majority of its special effects be computer-generated.  Now the movie that proved the power of that technology has been re-released in Digital 3-D, and it is as wonderful as it was 20 years ago when it was first released.

The movie began as a “by the way” moment.  In 1990, author Michael Crichton had met with producer/director Steven Spielberg about a project they were considering doing together, which later on became the hit TV show “E.R.”  Crichton mentioned in passing that Spielberg might be interested in the book he was currently writing.  Ever since “The Andromeda Strain” in 1969, Crichton had made a career out of taking current science and pushing it a little farther along, then crafting a thriller around that speculation.  Now he told Spielberg he was working on a story about cloning dinosaurs.

The book became a bestseller, but even before it was released the movie studios were fighting with each other to get the film rights.  James Cameron, Richard Donner (the Lethal Weapon series), and even Tim Burton were in the running to make the movie for different studios, but Universal Pictures, where Spielberg had his Amblin’ production company, won the rights.

At first Spielberg planned to use a combination of models crafted by the legendary Stan Winston as well as stop-motion animation by Paul Tippett (RoboCop).  Stop-motion was the venerable special effects method, used since silent pictures.  It was the technology special effects master Ray Harryhausen used to create his magic in movies such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, It Came From Beneath The Sea, and 20 Million Miles To Earth.  Harryhausen’s final special effects extravaganza was the original Clash of the Titans in 1981.

A few years later digital effects came along, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic.  It was fitting that its first use was in a Spielberg production: 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes, where a knight in a stain glass window comes to life.  James Cameron used digital effects in The Abyss (1989) to create the water tentacle.  That technology was refined and used for the T-1000 liquid metal robot in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).  Still, at that time the common impression of digital effects was that it was what you saw at a video arcade.

Originally, digital effects were planned for one scene, where the T-Rex chases the stampeding Gallimimus (a name that actually means “chicken mimic”). Dennis Muren of ILM, who’d done the T-1000 effects, contacted Spielberg when they had a very rough version of the footage.  When the filmmaker and his production team saw test strip, they were completely blown away by it.  Spielberg decided to gamble on the new technology to replace the stop-motion footage.  Paul Tippett remained on the film as a choreographer of the dinosaurs’ movements, and his efforts helped give the individual dinosaurs personalities.  One other innovation was that this was the first movie to use DTS digital sound.

The screenplay for the film was done by Crichton, who done original screenplays such as Westworld as well as adapting novels like Coma for the screen.  Crichton had also directed both of those movies, among others.  To help Crichton, Spielberg chose screenwriter David Koepp.  Koepp had done the screenplay for Death Becomes Her, and he went on to write Mission: Impossible, War of the Worlds, Spider-man and Angels & Demons.

The casting of the movie is excellent, though Spielberg and casting directors Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson made choices that were unusual at the time.  Sir Richard Attenborough (John Hammond) had begun his career in front of the camera in movies such as Brighton Rock and The Great Escape, but had given that up to direct.  In 1983 he won both Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for Gandhi, which he produced and directed.  He hadn’t appeared in front of the cameras since The Human Factor in 1979.  Laura Dern (Dr. Ellie Sattler) was an indy princess, appearing in off-beat movies like Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart.  Sam Neil (Dr. Alan Grant) had started out in the Australian film industry with roles in films like My Brilliant Career.  He’d survived an early brush with Hollywood (Omen III: The Final Conflict) to do good supporting work in A Cry In The Dark, Dead Calm, and The Hunt for Red October, but he wasn’t someone you’d think of as an action hero.  His other major role in 1993 was as Holy Hunter’s demanding husband in The Piano.

Probably the most logical choice at the time was the idiosyncratic Jeff Goldblum as chaostician Ian Malcolm.  Bob Peck (game warden Robert Muldoon) had mostly worked in England on stage and television.  He did the lead role of Robert Craven in the six-part BBC series Edge of Darkness that was later adapted for the big screen with Mel Gibson in the Craven role.  Sadly, Peck died of cancer in 1999, at the age of 53.  After a decade of small supporting roles, Wayne Knight had graduated to larger roles in Dead Again and Basic Instinct, and he’d just started appearing as Jerry Seinfeld’s nemesis Newman.  With his performance as computer programmer Nedry, he solidified his position as one of the go-to supporting actors of this generation.

Like Knight, Samuel L. Jackson had paid his dues in small roles (with credits like “Gang Member #2” and “Black Guy”).  He’d also begun getting larger roles leading up to Jurassic, such as Jack Ryan’s friend Robby in Patriot Games, though he’d have to wait a year to jump to being a leading man in major pictures with his mesmerizing role as Jules in Pulp Fiction.  Joseph Mazzello, who played Hammond’s grandson Tim, had done a little work before, and had auditioned for a role in Spielberg’s Hook.  He lost that role, but Spielberg promised to get him into another movie, which turned out to be Jurassic Park.  Mazzello has continued acting, recently appearing in this season of “Justified” as a snake-handling preacher, and he’s also in G.I. Joe: Retaliation this summer.  Ariana Richards, as his sister Lex, was well-experienced in film, having done movies such as Prancer and Tremors.  Her audition consisted mainly of screaming.  When Spielberg later reviewed the audition tapes at home, Richards’ scream woke Spielberg’s wife Kate Capshaw from a nap and made her check on their children.

One piece of casting was actually done by Michael Crichton.  In the book, Hammond tells his guests that they hired award-winning actor Richard Kiley to do the narration for the ride.  So for the film version, Spielberg hired Kiley as the narrator.  This has happened one more time in movie history, with the Swedish film version of The Girl Who Played With Fire.  Stieg Larsson had used a real boxer as one of the characters in his novel, and the boxer then portrayed himself in the movie.

The exteriors of the park, including the helicopter approach, were filmed on the island of Kauai.  On the last day of filming reality mirrored fiction, though the reality was much more intense.  In the film a tropical storm hits Jurassic Park while Nedry has disengaged the security fences and headed to the boat.  In the production’s case, Kauai was hit by Hurricane Iniki, a record-setting storm for the Hawaiian Islands.

The production was finished in L.A., including the T-Rex’s attack on the jeeps.  For that sequence, a mix of digital effects and animatronics was used.  Stan Winston’s creature workshop created a T. Rex that was over thirty feet long and almost twenty feet high.  When the T.Rex crashed down on the Plexiglas roof of the jeep holding Tim and Lex, that was Winston’s creation.  Winston also created the sick Triceratops featured early in the film.

Amazingly, considering the north of $200 million budgets of blockbusters these days, Jurassic Park had a budget of under $70 million.  It was released under the old model of a limited number of theaters which then slowly expanded.  In comparison to the $100 million plus openings of major pictures these days, Jurassic Park had an opening weekend box office of $15 million, but that was on fewer screens – and it was playing to sold-out theaters with lines snaking around the block.  In the end, the movie had a worldwide gross within spitting distance of a billion dollars, and was the highest grossing movie until Titanic sailed into theaters four and a half years later.  The 3-D re-release brought in nearly $20 million in its first weekend.  It has a real shot at breaking through the billion dollar level.  The film was also a marketing success with the Jurassic Park logo adorning lunch boxes, backpacks, and all manner of items.  This marketing was gently lampooned in the film, with scenes of the souvenir shop at the headquarters of the park.

The conversion to 3-D actually enhances the film.  Spielberg’s visual narrative made use of 3-D angles, such as when Drs. Grant and Sattler along with Tim and Lex try to escape from the raptors in the ceiling of the main building, only to have the raptors leap at them.  Seeing a raptor flying directly toward the audience was bad enough in 2-D.  In 3-D it’s better than much of what you see in films these days that are shot specifically in the process.  Some of Stan Winston’s work now looks dated, such as the brontosaurus making friends with Grant and the kids (and sneezing on Lex).  But overall the movie is just as intense – and awe-inspiring – as it was when it first played twenty years ago.

These days all of the special effects would have been done digitally.  But it took Jurassic Park to truly open the world of digital film effects and forever change how films are made.   

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