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Dinosaurs ‘R’ Us: ILM Continues Its ‘Jurassic’ Winning Streak

VFX supervisor David Vickery talks about combining old-school and brand-new techniques in the service of realism and saurian hijinks on Universal’s ‘Jurassic World Dominion,’ now playing in theaters, available from Universal Home Entertainment on 4K, Blu-ray and Digital, and coming to Peacock September 2.

It’s been almost 30 years since the velociraptors and other saurian creatures featured in the original Jurassic Park first terrified audiences in 1993. Hailed for its groundbreaking use of CGI and its unprecedented visual effects, the film went on to win multiple awards, including an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. While the personnel have changed since then, the company primarily responsible for the stunning VFX has not, with Industrial Light & Magic performing the same duties – and scaling similar heights - in the latest iteration of the franchise, Jurassic World Dominion, as they did in the first Jurassic feature (as well as everything in between).

Set four years after the events of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, in which Isla Nublar was destroyed, Dominion takes place in a world where dinosaurs now live - and hunt - alongside humans all over the world. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is still working with the Dinosaur Protection Group investigating illegal dinosaur breeding sites, while her partner, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), works as a wrangler relocating stray dinosaurs. When their 14-year-old charge Maisie and a hatchling velociraptor are captured by agents of the genomics corporation Biosyn, Owen and Claire must embark on a rescue mission, which will turn out to have serious repercussions for the delicate balance between humans and their fellow dino travelers.

The film, which has generated a hair under $1 billion at the global box office, is still playing in theaters. From Universal Home Entertainment it is now available on 4K, Blu-ray and Digital, can be rented on Apple TV+ and Prime Video, and is coming to Peacock September 2.

As an ILM visual effects supervisor, where he’s resided since 2015, David Vickery (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Fast & Furious 6, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) led the VFX studio’s effort on Jurassic World Dominion. We talked with him about their work, at least some of which (spoiler alert) involved feathers.

AWN: Can you start by providing an overview of ILM's work on the film?

David Vickery: The ILM team did around 1,500 visual effects shots in total. It sounds like a lot, but some movies nowadays have well in excess of 2,000 shots.

AWN: So basically you guys were slacking.

DV: Yeah. Actually, I remember talking to Colin Trevorrow early on, after our first pass on the script, and telling him I thought there were 1,500 shots. And he said, “Nope. Jurassic movies are only 1,000 shots.” I was like, “Are you serious?” But that was the sentiment that he brought to the film, which was, we're going to try and get as much of this as we can in camera. We're not going to go down the road that some franchises do, and exist in a greenscreen environment, if we can go to real places and build real sets.

So ILM was the primary vendor on the show, as they have been for the Jurassic franchise from the very beginning, since Jurassic Park. We split the work up between our London studio, which was the hub of the show, and our Vancouver, Singapore, and San Francisco studios. The big challenge for us was seeing these well-established characters – the dinosaurs – in a completely different setting. It's the first time we've really let them out of the park. They're in lumberyards, they're running through the hot streets of Malta, they're crunching through snow and ice and frost, and we had to realize them in those different environments and make it believable.

There's a sequence at the end of the movie where Blue, the velociraptor that Owen (Chris Pratt) raised, and Beta, Blue's baby, are reunited. And Owen and Blue have this quick, but really powerful, interaction. Colin was watching the shot and he said, “You know what? This is like that moment when you see your teacher on the weekend in the real world.” And I got exactly what he meant. Owen was seeing Blue outside of the Jurassic World setting for the first time, in her own skin, and he was shocked that she could be so different and also the same. But that was the challenge, trying to realize these creatures in all these different environments.

We had 17 completely brand new dinosaurs that we'd never seen before. We had established characters that had to be revamped and revitalized and restored to their former glory. We had this huge creation of Biosyn Valley, which was this massive jigsaw puzzle of photogrammetry pieces that we took from different places around the world and pieced back together. It all adds up. So suddenly 1,500 shots are meaning a lot of work for us.

AWN: When you're working with creatures you've used before, is it merely a matter of bringing them into the latest rigging and latest pipeline tools that you're using? Or do you have to do a lot of re-engineering?

DV: That's a really insightful question, because you'd think that we could just open them up and render them again. But the software evolves. The rendering tools that we have, the shading systems that we use, the muscle systems and the rigs, they all change and they all evolve. So you bring Blue in four years after the last movie and you hit render, and nothing works. You're also striving continually to increase the fidelity of the images that you're producing, whether that's because you're rendering at 4K instead of 2K, because you're mastering in HDR, or because you're simply able to handle much more memory in RAM. Your textures can be much higher resolution. So everything has to be done almost from scratch.

Visual effects artists are often thought of as the computers that are making the visual effects. And that's just such a fallacy – these dinosaurs look real because we employ knowledgeable people. On Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, one of our texture artists studied paleontology for four years. And then we have artists in the creature department who have spent their entire careers studying the anatomy of different animals. They understand the biomechanics of bodies and how they move, where muscles attach, how they flex, and what happens to skin when it slides over that fascia of bone, skin, and muscle. And they're continually researching to see how they can make it better and more believable.

We would ask Stephen Brusatte, who was the consultant paleontologist on Jurassic World: Dominion, about the latest scientific thinking on how dinosaurs moved. And he would say, "Well, we don't think theropods actually walked as upright as you are posing that T-Rex. It should be a little more planked out. We know that a lot of the vertebrae and the tail were actually fused together. So the tail should be much less flexible than that.”

And so we're trying to make sure we are staying honest, as much as we can. And you also have to think about how the creative changes from show to show. Different directors have different ideas about how creatures should look, whether that's by introducing more iridescence into the surface of the skin, or whether they're slightly leaner or more muscular, or if it's because they've got feathers.

AWN: Feathers are the new big thing in the world of dinosaurs.

DV: They are. Colin told me that there were going to be feathers, and then I read a line in the script that said, “The Pyroraptor bursts from the ice lake covered in snow, with crystals forming on its feathers.” And I was like, “Oh, my word.” It's such an amazing kind of gauntlet to lay down for a visual effect. We joke about how lines get written almost as throwaways and then they land on a visual effects artist's desk, and it’s like, "How are we going to do that?”

We actually wrote a new Houdini-based procedural feather system, which basically gave the artists control to create the feathers and define the quill of the feather with a curve. And then instead of describing the plane or the blade of the feather with a single piece of polygonal geometry, we actually created individual hairs or barbules along the length of the quill that defined that feather blade, so that each feather was made up of thousands of curves. And the dinosaur itself had thousands upon thousands of feathers on it. Whether they were the long, primary wing feathers or softer, fluffier feathers under its belly, our tool could create all of those different types of feathers. And within Houdini, we were then able to run the simulations for the feathers, with the wind ruffling through them, the snow or water or ice settling on them. All those sims could be run in the same piece of software, and those atmospheric phenomena could then interact with each other in a really convincing way. So that was a really big step for us. And it was a really bold step, writing a new feather system for the project.

AWN: So much is going on within the industry now regarding new virtual production tools. Was there anything you used, either to help plan shots or staging on set while filming, or for integrating cameras and LED walls on a stage, that was a breakthrough for you?

DV: With the exception of the feather system, there was nothing that had to be completely developed from scratch. But I think what we did incredibly effectively on Dominion was to use the right tool for the right job. So we used LED screens for the exterior views outside of a helicopter to get in-camera finals when they're flying from Biosyn Airport into Biosyn Valley. And there's a whole sequence in there that uses video playback on LED screens. But then in the next sequence, we are inside a control room, and the creative in there just dictated that we could do it with a scenic painting, a stretched Roscoe back-lit, and we could get all of our in-camera finals using a much more traditional filmmaking technique. And there's absolutely no loss in quality, which meant that we were putting our money in the right places.

We built a number of animatronic dinosaurs, so there was no need for a digital version of the same thing. But the only reason we were able to do that is because visual effects can step in and paint out the puppeteer and paint out all the rods that are attached to it and clean up. And then we built a number of part-animatronic dinosaurs. The Giganotosaurus is a really good example of that. With the tools we had available, and the evolution and accessibility of 3D software, it wasn't just visual effects that could use the digital dinosaurs. It was the creature department, it was the special effects department. It was the production design team. And we were able to all come together to work as a team to create the animatronic for the Giga.

Eighty percent of that dinosaur is digital. The head and the neck are practical. And, wherever that physical animatronic was on set, however we moved it around, we had to be certain that the dinosaur could extend behind it seamlessly without us having to then replace the dinosaur completely digitally. ILM set about creating this rig and this digital model of the Giganotosaurus, and then our artists built a digital replica of the special effects mechanical rig that would puppeteer it. So then as we did our animation tests in previs and had a proof of concept of where the animatronic needed to get to physically on set, we could see how the digital dinosaur would move around and drive the special effects animatronic rig. We could be completely confident in what the range of motion for the animatronic needed to be, how the mechanism of the animatronic needed to be built, so that it could put the dinosaur in the right place, knowing we could extend it digitally in post and not replace the head.

We also had a VR app that we used on our iPads on set, in which we had all the models of our dinosaurs loaded. So if I'm standing on set next to Colin, and he looks at me and says, "Vickery, where's the Apatosaurus in this scene?" I can actually bring it up on the iPad, match the film lens, and show him in VR exactly where the dinosaur's going to be. Then the DP, John Schwartzman, and his camera operator can line-up and frame and compose the shot. It just gives the filmmakers the ability to commit to creative ideas whilst they're shooting.

Then, on the other end of the technological spectrum, we also used forced-perspective shots with miniature airplanes. You see Bryce running across the tarmac to get into the plane. He’s actually 100 feet away from camera, and the plane is only six feet in front of the lens. So we’re making a film using this wonderful technique that’s 100 years old, and other techniques that have only just been spawned in the last six months.

AWN: Did any other component, either old or new, stand out for you in the course of making the film?

DV: Actually, some of the most fun stuff for me to work on was the stock footage. We had a lot of stock footage in the film. I know, for Colin, it was a way of demonstrating how these dinosaurs that are out in the world are not just being witnessed by a film crew, but they're actually being seen by people in America, people in China, people in the U.K. And we had all these different pieces of stock footage to demonstrate how global the creatures are. There's stock footage in there where we erased one real animal in the plate and replaced it with a mosasaur. Or we see a herd of horses and we've scattered a group of Apatosaurus, or Gallimimus, amongst them. It was such a treat to work on such a variety of images. And every shot was a completely different challenge, because it may have been shot on an iPhone or a GoPro or a Sony VENICE. Often we didn't even know what it was shot on.

AWN: One last question. Apart from the feathers, for which you wrote a whole new system, were there one or more other major challenges your team had to solve?

DV: Biosyn Valley was a massive challenge from a creative and technical perspective. Kevin Jenkins, the production designer, designed it as a protected valley, surrounded by a ring of mountains. And at the center was the headquarters of Biosyn, very much like the Apple headquarters building. And he said, “I’m not sure about these mountains. Some of them look a bit like the Swiss Alps, and this bit down in here, the valley, that's a bit like some places I've seen in Canada.” And I was like, "How are we going to make this, Kevin?"

So, we went off to British Columbia, places around Squamish and near Vancouver, and we scanned large areas of the forest so that we could have references for the trees. We took a helicopter to Switzerland and we flew around a large area of the Swiss Alps and this frozen dam called Grande Dixence Dam. So we're flying helicopters to essentially do photogrammetry and LIDAR scanning. We also went to the Dolomites and did the same thing. And we then built this entire landscape using reconstructed photogrammetry from locations all around the world and piecing them together. And it gave us this faithful, natural, organic landscape. All of the establishing shots and the aerial shots of Biosyn Valley in the film are completely digital. And I think without all of that source material, we would never have been able to get there.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.