Why is the CGI in Jurassic Park so good?
January 4, 2007 4:24 AM   Subscribe

Why is the CGI in Jurassic Park so good? Despite being nearly fifteen years old, it's no worse than that in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, and certainly better than the recent Star Wars movies.

While watching Jurassic Park over Christmas it occurred to me that the CGI is very, very good. (I realise that many of the close-up scenes are animatronics, and I'm not talking about those.) Other people I've spoken to seem to agree, so I don't think it's just me being charitable.

I haven't seen much better CGI in a Hollywood film since. Those that are as good (most of The Lord of the Rings, for instance) certainly aren't consistent with fifteen years of technical progress. Many films are much, much worse (Jar Jar, I'm looking at you).

So what was special about Jurassic Park? Did it have a bigger budget? An unusually talented crew? A particularly easy subject (dinosaurs)? Or am I just seeing things here? Is CGI in modern films better than that in Jurassic Park?
posted by caek to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think that the strength of both JP and LOTR is that they tried, wherever possible, to shoot actual film of actual physical objects, and use CGI to smooth over the rough edges.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:31 AM on January 4, 2007

My guess is that the advances in computing have translated to shoter rendering times, rather than better rendering. In other words, having a better computer won't make a single frame better, but it will make it faster.
posted by monkeymadness at 4:31 AM on January 4, 2007

i've wondered about what you're asking as well.

i think it may have to do with , never actually seeing a dinosaur we have no idea how they would move or look, so any representation thats halfway decent would sell us on it's realism. maybe thats part of it.
posted by nola at 4:35 AM on January 4, 2007

it seems like cgi works best with inanimate objects, or organic objects that we have no personal knowledge of.
posted by nola at 4:37 AM on January 4, 2007

or rather no real life interaction with.
posted by nola at 4:38 AM on January 4, 2007

1. what nola said.
2. what dnab said, in that there's a lot of animatronic work in that movie that doesn't call attention to itself. The result of a little Google work:

When watching any of the Jurassic Park movies, the blending of the animatronic and digital versions is extraordinary. Very few people can distinguish between them on the screen. However, Stan Winston says there is an easy way to tell if a dinosaur is digital or an animatronic: If you can see the entire creature, legs and all, moving across the screen, then it is digital. The majority of other shots, particularly close-ups, probably use the animatronics. Most animatronics [...] do not have legs. The ones that do are generally not capable of completely free movement.
posted by Prospero at 4:49 AM on January 4, 2007

There were a lot of visual cues integrating the synthetic imagery with photographic imagery, like the reflections in the metal cabinets in the kitchen scene.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:50 AM on January 4, 2007

I agree that Jurassic Park looks better. I know nothing about how much computing power was used for any of these things, but I'd attribute it to sheer quantity of CGI elements.

In Jurassic Park, you've got beautiful shots of Hawaii with maybe a dozen dinosaurs added in. In LOTR, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of soldiers in some shots. In Phantom Menace, you've got hundreds of robots marching through totally fake scenery.

Also, the dinosaurs are only CGI some of the time, but Jar Jar is CGI all the time; I think the partial use of animatronics for the dinos might help "sell" their reality.
posted by equalpants at 4:54 AM on January 4, 2007

Also, I don't think any of the CG in JP involves simulated humans or humanoids (which is why much modern CG of fight scenes, etc. often seems unconvincing, due to the uncanny valley).
posted by Prospero at 4:55 AM on January 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Oh, and of course, Jurassic Park just plain looks better than the new Star Wars in general, because Spielberg is a much much better director than the deranged pod-person clone of Lucas which now bears his name. I'll bet that doesn't hurt.
posted by equalpants at 5:00 AM on January 4, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'd say largely because of Spielberg's restraint. ILM's ambitions were commensurate with their abilities: their animators could create convincing scaly creatures, and that's what they did. They could not create convincing CG cities, battlefields, or human faces, and they didn't try.

Additionally, they did a great job of simulating how large, heavy creatures move. LOTR and Star Wars tend to have big monsters flailing their arms and legs as quickly as a 6-foot human would - for example, the troll in the first LOTR movie.

Here's an interesting Jurassic Park stop-motion animation test.
posted by stammer at 5:08 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Don't forget that star-wars is (i think, anyway) supposed to feel almost cartoony — like any space-opera — whereas JP and LOTR require on a strong sense of reality in order to work.
posted by clord at 5:34 AM on January 4, 2007

In Jurassic Park, the effects weren't the focus of the story. They simply used the effects to enhance the "reality" of the story, to make it more real, while telling a morality tale.

Star Wars was ALL about the effects, throwing in stuff seemingly for the heck of it, to make it more otherworldly. Combine that with an oversaturated color palette and absoultely shitty writing, direction and actiong (from fully capable actors!!!) it all becomes clear.

I thought Lord of the Rings had very good effects (with good direction) but sometimes suffered from TOO much effects, where the production didn't have the time and money to do every effect just perfectly. Also, doing the effects required very talented people and not every animator is as talented. Having MORE effects shots means you the top of the line, truly gifted animators are more spread out.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:37 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ultimately, it's a function of craftsmanship. You're citing films where skilled people are doing excellent jobs, and are working within budgets that accommodate great attention to detail.

Improvements in computer technology allow for more CG modeling at a greater scale, but unless the state of the art is used well, the result isn't necessarily worth watching.

Think of it this way: 'Toy Story' is over ten years old, and 'Shark Tale' was released two years ago. Computer technology and 3D rendering technology have both improved by leaps and bounds. But which one would you rather watch?
posted by ardgedee at 5:41 AM on January 4, 2007

It's also value to consider the case of Pixar, which pushes itself technically primarily by choosing subjects that nudge them over the next finish line. The plastic sheen of toys translates directly to the carapace of bugs, but then they added grass and dirt; then, in Monsters, Inc. they mastered air and fur and started working on humans a little; Nemo was water, and a few more humans; then Incredibles, which had very stylized humans but was still clearly built on the previous work; and now Cars is shiny surfaces reflecting a hundred points of neon. They push what they can do exactly as far as they can. Likewise, I think JP's reach was juuust within its grasp, and most of the other blockbusters you mention don't have that modesty and/or don't strain for photographic reality (cf. the Dementors in Harry Potter or Nazgul in LotR).
posted by blueshammer at 5:44 AM on January 4, 2007

Best answer: Oh, you've seen great CG animation. But it was so good you didn't even know it was there.

Go to Industrial Light and Magic's site and click on "Real or ILM" at the top. "Head Spin" is also good.

I saw Pirates of the Carribean 2 and enjoyed it, but it turns out I didn't notice half of the tricky, tricky things they were doing with CG animation in that movie.
posted by springo at 6:03 AM on January 4, 2007

One of the main reasons is the amount of shots. JP only has a few minutes of CGI in the entire movie which could amount to only say 20 shots or so, modern live action CGI movies have shots that number in the 1000's with vaster scales (crowd replication, particle systems, CG environments). Another thing is the "holy grails" of CG are humanoid beings, fire and water, these are some of the hardest things to create digitally (in many cases, these things are shot practically and just composited) which figure largely in modern CG films. I still think the animation in JP was amazing, the star of the movie was the dinosaurs and not the "effects"
posted by phirleh at 6:18 AM on January 4, 2007

Best answer: Just for reference:
                                   Estimated Budget   Inflation Adjusted to 2005 Dollars
Jurassic Park (1993) $63,000,000 $83,000,000
The Phantom Menace (1999) $115,000,000 $131,000,000
he Fellowship of the Ring (2001) $93,000,000 $101,000,000
I agree pretty much with what's been said already -- Jurassic park used very targeted and tight use of CGI, augmented by lots of opticals/animatronics, and limited to certain scenes, whereas the other two felt like practically every scene had some kind of effect. And not having to model anything human or human-like (such as Jar Jar) makes it much easier to achieve something that feels genuine.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:50 AM on January 4, 2007

yeah, check out the ILM link, especially Headspin, where they talk about effects used on Davy Jones and his men. The info on the character Clanker mentions that the tried to give each character something that couldn't be duplicated by makeup or rubbermask. So they were masturbating as opposed to just designing good looking characters.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:55 AM on January 4, 2007

The CGI is JP is very, very good.

But the CGI in the LOTR films is also very, very good. It's just good in a way you don't notice. If you watch the "making of" featurettes on the LOTR DVDs, they go through a few whole scenes where they messed with the lighting, with buildings, with people, with color, added mountains, moved some clouds, added smoke from chimmeys.
It's impressive in its ubiquity, but a lot of it is fairly subtle background stuff.

The other thing to note is that no one alive can tell you exactly how a dinosaur moved, so our suspension of belief is pretty high. I mean, if the movie says that a giant iguana can open doors, who the hell are we to argue? It's not like we're going to notice that T-Rex is holding his front limbs too close to his body.

On the other hand, a lot of the creatures in LOTR are bipedal, two armed humanoid creatures. Bigger and uglier, but still recognizable. And we humans have a _lot_ of experience in recognizing our own kind. If something moves too fast for its size, or jumps too far, then we notice it. Unconsciously perhaps, but we will notice.
I always think of Spiderman(the movie) in this regard. I can't get into it at all, because the physics of the CGI just don't mesh with me. He seems to change direction in midair and make leaps that are simply impossible. A lot of that type of CGI stands out to me. However, though I've never watched a "making of" on Spiderman, I'll bet there is a lot of CGI that I never even noticed in that movie as well.
posted by madajb at 8:13 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Maybe because there's only 6 minutes of it in total? The rest is animatronics (puppets).
posted by blue_beetle at 8:27 AM on January 4, 2007

they go through a few whole scenes where they messed with the lighting, with buildings, with people, with color, added mountains, moved some clouds, added smoke from chimmeys.
It's impressive in its ubiquity, but a lot of it is fairly subtle background stuff.

Which brings up the question first asked when desktop publishing and word processors took off: Just because you can edit to your hearts content, should you?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:35 AM on January 4, 2007

I think its because the range of movement on dinosaurs is only on a few joints. But if you look at the ogre in fellowship of the rings, that thing was fighting a full scale battle and thus had 1000's of points of articulation.

Sort of like action figures.
posted by Blandanomics at 8:56 AM on January 4, 2007

This is great, folks. I agree that sparing and/or subtle use of this technology seems to be the key. Spiderman, the Hulk, etc. were simply ridiculous. Don't get me started on nouvelle Star Wars, yech. Those movies would have been so much better if they went back to building & shooting models like in the original films. Real physical objects cast shadows and obey the forces of nature in subtle ways that help one perceive these objects as "real".

The Gollum CGI was fantastic in LOTR, because it was clearly based on the movements of a real organic creature. Some of the battle scenes did look a bit "thin" - the legions of soldiers were clearly identical in the longer shots, but much better in close-up, when CGI was largely supplanted by old-fashioned latex orc makeup and spirit glue. And then Jackson goes and craps out the ludicrous King Kong. The only time the ape seems convincing is in the "slower" scene when he has the Faye Wray character up on the ridge and is pushing her around, etc. He did do a nice job of making Jack Black look like a person though, so kudos.
posted by Mister_A at 8:57 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and FWIW I really dug the troll in Fellowship of the Ring. Didn't bother me that he seemed fast, just made him scarier.
posted by Mister_A at 8:59 AM on January 4, 2007

If you really want to see some amazing affects, check out The Fountain. It's one of the most beautiful "sci fi" films I've ever seen and it actually contains no CGI (though it does contain digital collage, which in the credits is listed as CGI--but no image in the film was generated with a computer).
posted by dobbs at 9:26 AM on January 4, 2007

I also watched Jurassic Park recently, and if you have an eye for it, the CGI's age is pretty telling -- but not enough to take you out of the story. What makes it work, though, is what a number of people have pointed out: it's used sparingly, and in conjuction with a lot of practical special effects, and no one really knows how dinosaurs looked or moved to begin with. By the time you think, "hey that dino looks pretty real!" it's already off the screen or replaced with an animatronic puppet in the next cut, so you don't really get a lot of time to examine the CGI. And as Prospero points out, the dinos are only ever CG when the use of a puppet was impractical: ie, when the entire animal's body had to be on screen.

The dinos themselves are also pretty light on extraneous detail, (unlike, say King Kong, with all his flowing hair, and extreme close-ups.) so there's far less to get wrong.

The reason it works is because there's so little of it.
posted by Robot Johnny at 10:12 AM on January 4, 2007

I think a lots of the realism can come from the staging and framing of CG shots. It seems to me that when they've blown so much money creating these shots that the suits want to make sure we can see everything they've done as plainly as possible - but you become tuned to the type of all-too-perfect pans and framing and learn to recognise when you're being duped.

The recent War of the Worlds film (specifically the bits where Cruise is running away from the first big walker thingie) and that tracking shot in LOTR where you follow behind Gandalf on horseback as he turns (and the big fake city is in the background) have gotten it right in that they're filmed in a rough way and yet seamlessly incorporate expensive effects. They're filmed naturally, the way you might expect if the director wasn't trying to bring the trickery to your attention.

As for JP, I think a lot of it has to do with good compositing and lighting...the results only looks as good as the directors judgement allows.
posted by 6am at 9:45 AM on January 5, 2007

Ya know, I was thinking about War of the Worlds when I someone mentioned Spielberg’s directing. It seemed to me that he really didn’t put CGI shots in that move JUST for the sake of having a pretty CGI shot. Pretty much any time you saw a tripod, alien, or whatever, it was because it was doing something that you needed to see.
I thought it was pretty well done personally, but then again, I am a consumer whore.
posted by Chickenjack at 11:43 AM on January 5, 2007

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