How to Build a Better Dino

Chuck Crisafulli is a frequent contributor to Calendar

There are monsters in Van Nuys. Behind the deceptively placid facade of one building in an industrial strip near the airport, there lurk vampires, demons, voracious aliens, killer robots and a host of other nightmarish humanoids. There’s also a decidedly nonhuman member of this unfriendly bunch--looming over the rogue’s gallery, looking hungriest and angriest of all, is the massive head of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The T. rex and his smaller cohorts are part of the welcoming committee at Stan Winston Studios. Winston is one of Hollywood’s masters of makeup effects and creature construction, and on closer inspection, the life-size, monster mannequins in his shop’s showroom are very familiar: the vampire is Tom Cruise from “Interview With the Vampire,” the robots are Arnold Schwarzenegger and his molten “Terminator 2" nemesis, the alien is the angry mom from the “Alien” series. And the T. rex, of course, had his star turn in 1993’s “Jurassic Park.”

The Rex has been out of the spotlight for the past four years but, with the help of Winston, he’s about to come back in a big way. The T. rex, along with hyper-aggressive raptors, hulking stegosauruses and a host of other giant lizards, will populate “The Lost World,” the Steven Spielberg-directed follow-up to “Jurassic Park.”

The $74-million feature, loosely based on author Michael Crichton’s sequel to his “Jurassic Park” novel, centers on the actions of two groups of humans who venture upon another island full of genetically resurrected dinosaurs--"Site B” to the island encountered in the first film. The cast of “The Lost World” includes Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore and Richard Attenborough, but “Jurassic” fans will undoubtedly be watching intently for the human cast’s scalier co-stars. The T. rex returns, with a family this time, and in addition to some of the favorite dino characters from the first film are such newcomers as the tiny compsygnathus, which Winston describes as creatures akin to “very angry skinned chickens.” The film opens Memorial Day weekend.

It’s no surprise that a return to a dinosaur island was eagerly anticipated at Universal Studios--"Jurassic Park” has become the highest-grossing picture of all time, with worldwide ticket sales approaching the mind-boggling billion-dollar mark. But the film was made the same year Spielberg achieved his greatest artistic success with “Schindler’s List,” and some in the film community felt the director might not be interested in returning to the escapist thrills of another dino flick. But Spielberg, who’s been away from directing since “Schindler” while he helped establish DreamWorks, did in fact decide to step back behind the camera and bring dinosaurs back to life.


The director may have been swayed more by public demand than the deeper artistic challenge of a “Jurassic Park” sequel, but for his reassembled dinosaur team--Winston, special dinosaur effects supervisor Michael Lantieri, and Dennis Muren, leader of the computer aces at Industrial Light & Magic--"The Lost World” was a tantalizing, T.-rex-sized challenge.

“It wasn’t a question of yes or no in signing on to this film--it was just ‘Of course. When?’ says Winston, kicking back in an office that contains several more of his monster creations and his four special-effects Oscars. “I couldn’t wait to get involved. I wanted to show the world what they didn’t see in ‘Jurassic Park’: more dinosaurs and more dinosaur action. ‘More, bigger, better’ was our motto. Basically we wanted to out-'Jurassic Park’ ‘Jurassic Park.’ ”

Muren says that’s precisely the approach he took at ILM. “A lot of people asked me, ‘Why would you want to do a ‘Jurassic Park’ sequel? You did it so well the first time.’ But whenever I hear that--it’s a challenge I want to take on, because it means that no one else can figure out how to top what you did. You’re going to have to do it yourself.”

Aside from its popular success, the first “Jurassic Park” was a groundbreaking special-effects triumph, seamlessly blending the robotics and animatronics that Winston specializes in with the cutting-edge, hyper-realistic computer-generated images that Muren designed. But in four years, special-effects technology has leaped so far ahead that both Winston and Muren found themselves working with a wide range of new tools.

There’s still something of a low-tech side to Winston’s work--"Lost World” dinosaur designs began as pencil and paper sketches, moved on to 3-D miniatures and then became towering, full-size clay sculptures from which huge plaster casts were taken. Dinosaur skin was replicated by applying meticulous paint jobs to the 330 gallons of foam latex used to cover 44 creatures of nine different species. But by the time Winston’s crew finished their work, underneath that skin were some remarkably sophisticated robots, packed with computer-controlled systems of servos, electronics and hydraulic valves.

On set, teams of up to nine puppeteers were equipped with remote-control devices and telemetric units--electronic devices that enable a robot to shadow a puppeteer’s motions. The end result was that, among his many creations, Winston had a 9-ton T. rex that could not only gnash teeth and devour prey, but could also deliver a stunningly subtle dramatic performance.

And performance was the bottom line for Winston. “We wanted the dinosaurs to be better actors,” he says and laughs. “My studio is all about creating characters for film. We’re not ‘doing’ special effects but ‘using’ special effects. The dinosaurs in ‘Lost World’ didn’t have to be ‘more real’ because they looked real the first time. But we wanted them to be capable of a more dynamic performance. The T. rex is faster and can move more violently, but he can also move with more finesse. And now there’s a mama T. rex and a baby T. rex, so there’s a lot more going on between the dinosaurs. All of that--the range from small moments to wild, violent actions--was made better and more believable through advances in technology.”

At ILM, Muren was also trying to up the performance ante for his computer-generated dinosaurs. While “Jurassic Park” was a breakthrough in creating realistic creatures that could be integrated into filmed scenes, computer animation techniques have been pushed ahead in such films as “Casper,” “Jumanji” and “Dragonheart.” This time around, Muren wanted to push not just the technology, but also the artistry made possible by the technology.

“For a while, our projects were all about ‘Will this work?’ ” he says. “On ‘Terminator 2,’ we were thinking, ‘Is this even possible?’ Now, basically anything’s possible, and anything can work, so the question is, ‘What do you do with it?’ Our answer, like Stan’s, was [to] create a better performance. The tricky part is that dinosaurs are not monsters, they’re animals. You can make a monster act any way you decide it should act, but a real animal has to act in a real way. If you watch any animal for a few seconds, you get a sense of their thought process, and to convey that through dinosaurs in a very subtle way is difficult. You don’t want them looking like a cartoon and you don’t want them looking like they were directed by a human--Steven Spielberg or otherwise. We wanted to create dinosaurs that looked like they were really on the loose.”

Loose dinosaurs tend to wreak havoc, and that’s where Lantieri’s job figured in. From dented jeeps to thoroughly mauled double trailers to the crash of jungle foliage, Lantieri had to make Winston and Muren’s creations look like they were on believable rampages. “Whatever Stan’s creatures came in contact with, and whatever Dennis’ creatures came in contact with, I was in the middle,” the longtime Spielberg associate says with a laugh. “Both of their dinosaurs attack a lot of vehicles--vehicles that my crew custom-built for the film. In Stan’s case, the vehicle had to help the robotic dinosaur destroy it, and in Dennis’s case, the real vehicle had to do whatever it was going to do by itself, in a way that looked like the computer-generated dinosaur was responsible.”

From the smallest footsteps to the biggest acts of destruction, it’s Lantieri’s work that “sells” the idea of real dinosaurs interacting fiercely with whatever is around them. And in several of those bigger scenes, he and his crew had limited opportunities to get things right. “The little stuff really matters--you have to care about detail. You want the footsteps to match the stride, and to give the right impression of a creature’s weight. But you can shoot little stuff again if you need to. When you’ve got dinosaurs destroying things like mobile homes and city buses and trailers--those things are really being destroyed, and there aren’t a lot of ‘take twos.’ ”

Though the cast and crew were never in any actual danger of being eaten by giant reptiles, the sheer size of Winston’s creatures and the effects around them made for a perilous set. “The big T. rex robot can pull two Gs of force when it’s moving from right to left,” says Lantieri. “If you hit someone with that, you’d kill them. So, in a sense, we did treat the dinosaurs as living, dangerous creatures.”

The dinosaurs didn’t go without their perks, however. Production designer Rick Carter had a hand in developing the action in “The Lost World,” chiefly by fabricating for Spielberg models of the locales in which that action would unfold. But when it came time to develop his models into eight full-sized sets for the T. rex sequences, his space on the Universal lot was limited to one stage, mainly because it was so difficult to move Winston’s sizable work from place to place.

“The T. rexes ended up getting a better deal than any star’s ever had,” Carter says. “I told them, ‘OK, you can’t leave the stage, so we’ll bring the sets to you.’ Any time you see a mechanical T. rex in the movie--which is basically a T. rex that isn’t walking--that was all shot on Stage 24 at Universal. Whether it was by a house or in the jungle or with car or part of a trailer--we just built the set around the dinosaurs.”

Colin Wilson, who served as a producer on “Jurassic Park” and on “Lost World,” knew that the effects teams assembled for the sequel was each doing exceptional work on its own, but he says he wasn’t fully convinced of how it would all come together until he saw one early finished sequence.

“I knew we couldn’t just show dinosaurs in this film, and we couldn’t just show more dinosaurs--there had to be something keeping you on the edge of your seat. There’s a roundup sequence early on where some of the humans are out to capture one of each kind of dinosaur. You see herds of them going across a meadow--seven or eight different kinds of dinosaurs in this wild chase, running in all kinds of different directions with all kinds of vehicles chasing them. The camera’s moving, there’s dust in the air, it’s a wilder feel than the first film. ‘Jurassic Park’ had a herd scene, but it was just humans standing still as a herd ran by. This is absolute chaos, and it’s just stunning. I knew we had it then, because I was on the edge of my seat.”

Just as the intensity of dinosaur action in the film should surprise audiences, so it seems the film’s story has some surprises, too. Rumor has it that the dinosaurs do not remain island-bound in “The Lost World,” and though all the dinosaur creators are tight-lipped about the film’s plot developments, industry buzz indicates that a few dinosaur specimens may make it to some mainland by movie’s end.

Lantieri doesn’t want to give anything away, but he does allow that there are some unusual sights in store. “We didn’t want to keep them in the jungle where we could get away with a lot of things by virtue of all the foliage and shadow. We stepped up to the plate and said, ‘OK--let’s set them loose. Let’s take them out on the sidewalk and see how they hold up.’ All I’ll say is--they do pretty well for themselves.”

As Winston prepares for another day of monster-making in Van Nuys, he advises that “The Lost World” should not be judged by its dinosaurs alone. “I’ve heard so many people say that all they liked about ‘Jurassic Park’ was the dinosaurs--well, there were only 15 minutes of dinosaurs in that movie. What people liked was anticipating the dinosaurs, being afraid of them or caring for them. What you enjoyed about ‘Jurassic Park’ was not special effects, but characters made possible by special effects, who happened to be dinosaurs. All that is a credit to Steven Spielberg, because if we made dinosaurs that looked just as real, but they weren’t used as interesting characters and weren’t in an interesting story, you’d have 15 minutes of neat effects, and 15 minutes of neat effects is nothing these days.”

Winston concedes that the dinosaur minutes are up in “The Lost World,” but he says the less audiences notice the work that was put into those minutes, the happier he’ll be:

“You don’t watch De Niro thinking, ‘He’s great--where did he go to school?’ And we don’t want you watching the T. rex thinking, ‘That’s great--how much hydraulic tubing is in there?’ The goal for me is to have people see that baby T. rex on screen and think, ‘Well, I guess they must have found one at a zoo somewhere.’ ”