Director Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World Dominion has been wowing audiences across the globe for the past month or so. As with the previous five movies in the Jurassic franchise, a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of creating the dinosaurs and making them feel physically real fell upon Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).
Acting as the main VFX Supervisor on Dominion was ILM’s David Vickery, who performed similar duties on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and was nominated for an Oscar for his VFX work on 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
Below the Line jumped on Zoom with Vickery last week to talk about what went into creating some of the new dinosaurs for Dominion, returning the OG dinos from Jurassic Park to their former glory, and also creating scenes involving locusts… lots and lots of locusts.
Below the Line: David, I know you were at DNEG for a while, so how did you end up at ILM? Was there a specific project that brought you there?
David Vickery: It was different sorts of projects, actually, because part of my role in between projects is actually as the acting creative director of the London studio. Ben Morris is our creative director, and I’d met him on Jupiter Ascending, a film that we both worked on together, and then he was due to be supervising the visual effects on Star Wars: Episode VIII, so he knew that he wasn’t gonna have time to be the creative director. He got in touch with me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to come and be the acting creative director whilst I’m working on this feature?’ So now we have a little bit of a sort of tag relationship. When Ben’s on a film, I can hopefully be the creative director; when I’m on a film, Ben’s the creative director, so that works out. They brought me in to do that role, and then I was supposed to do it for 18 months, and within six months, I was working on Jurassic [World: Fallen Kingdom].
BTL: Colin was involved with that one as a writer and producer, so was it a fluid transition for you to remain on as VFX Supe for Dominion?
Vickery: It was very fluid, because I remember Colin started talking to me about it before we’d even finished Fallen Kingdom. He talked about creating a couple of short films, like set pieces, that would start to pave the way towards the idea of dinosaurs being in our world. He had these two plans, and we started talking about Battle at Big Rock, which was the short film that I have storyboards and concept art on the wall behind me. We started bidding and planning that before I’d even finished Fallen Kingdom, so really smooth transition, and obviously, I’d spent a lot of time working with Colin, so I already knew him very well, and we had a great relationship together. I think he auditioned me on Battle at Big Rock, as it were. He wanted to see whether he’d enjoy working with me properly. Clearly, it worked.
BTL: I assume ILM has worked on all the Jurassic movies in some capacity going back to the original Jurassic Park.
Vickery: All the way back to the beginning, but ILM’s always been the key stakeholder, and the main vendor in all of these. Really, other vendors get involved, because ILM brings them on board. On this feature, we had Hybride came in and helped us on a number of shots, and Lola also helped out worked on a number of shots for us. But predominantly, 90% of the work was done between our San Francisco, Vancouver, Singapore and London teams. We had a big global team, all four studios at the time were involved in it.
BTL: I guess it’s the nature of being a VFX Supe that when you have a lot of different houses in different countries and time zones, you need to figure out the right time of day when you can get everyone on Zoom.
Vickery: It works really well. It can be difficult if you get the wrong time zones, but the beauty of my working day in that respect – and I had fantastic supervisors in each of those studios, who I could work with — Alex Wang in Vancouver, Jeff Capogreco in Singapore, and Dan Snape in London. They are doing the day-to-day creative with the teams, so then I would get up, and I would have eight o’clock meetings with the Singapore team, and then I would debrief and have a look at the notes. And then I’d have midday meetings with the London team, and then a five o’clock or six o’clock in the evening, dialing in and talking to the Vancouver team. In between all of that, I’m talking to Colin Trevorrow and Mark Sanger, the editor at Pinewood and looking how the cuts are evolving and where we need to pick up new shots.
BTL: There’s some really amazing stuff introduced in this movie. Besides the locusts, there are all sorts of new dinosaurs. How much paleontology do the artists and animators who work on these movies need to know for how the dinosaurs should look and move? Some of them seem quite involved.
Vickery: There’s a lot of time and energy dedicated to getting the science right. I know Jurassic dinosaurs have a certain aesthetic, which we fit into, but it’s still really important for us that what we’re doing is based on scientific reality. I remember on Fallen Kingdom, one of our texture artists studied paleontology at university, so that was her background. She came to us as a paleontologist, and now she’s working in visual effects. We have people that have studied dinosaur and creature anatomy for their entire career, so all they care and think about is how skeletons bend and move, how muscles attached to skeletons, what happens with the fascia and the layer of fat that sits between the muscles and the skin, and how to simulate that.
And then we have animators, and all they think about is how things actually perform and move and emote. They will reference real animals in those instances, like cassowaries or crocodiles and alligators or elephants. We’ll look to study real things in those instances, and that’s even before you start thinking about… when we go about designing a new creature, the first thing we look at are the holotype specimens and the fossils that are available for us, so we can sort of build them from the inside out.
Kevin Jenkins, our production designer, the first thing he does with the concepts of these new creatures, is employ paleo artists to try to design and depict the creatures. And then we’ve got Steve Brusatte, who is our consultant paleontologist. He sees all these concepts and he says, ‘You know what? Of course, that could be great,’ or ‘This is a bit big or small or actually, the nose of the skull would be a little bit squatter than that.’ So we’re not ignoring science at all, we’re really embracing it, and then trying to see how we can fit that within the Jurassic franchise.
BTL: What’s amazing is that you do all that, and then also give the dinos their own personalities. I’m not sure these movies would work as well as they do, if you didn’t find yourselves rooting for or against certain dinos.
Vickery: Totally. I think that’s somewhat down to the coloration of the creatures and their skin, and so much of that performance. Those dinosaurs are actors, albeit, they can’t speak and emote quite as well as real humans, but we’re trying to get a level of emotional connection with them in the same way that you connect with Chris Pratt or Bryce Dallas Howard on the screen.
That’s all down to the subtlety of emotion, and I think actually one of the good examples I always came to is when you see Blue, you can get inquisitiveness from her with the tiniest cock of their head, like a tiny little movement or twist of the head, you’re like, ‘Oh, she’s inquisitive.’ Because you connect with real things that you’re familiar with, like a dog. If a dog goes [makes a dog noise], you know what it wants. It’s like, what is it thinking, and you can connect that same motion with a dinosaur, and people will go, ‘Oh, I understand what Blue is saying now.’
Then, there are face shapes, which can sort of show distress or anger or emotion. It’s very much about creating character and performing as that character. So we often get the animators running around their bedrooms, recording themselves, trying to block out a scene as if they were Blue or Beta, because they need to really study the subtlety of that performance.
BTL: That’s a great reference, because I have so many friends with small kids, pretty young, and you’d expect them to be scared of the dinos in these movies, but they just love them, and I think it’s because of that comparison to dogs or cats or other animals you mention.
Vickery: Even small kids can connect with it, because it’s something we’re personally exposed to day-in day-out all the time. It’s sort of second nature to us to understand, ‘Oh, that thing feels real, because I can reference something in the real world that I understand and connect with.’
BTL: Two of the dinosaurs I want to focus on are the two feathered dinosaurs. I don’t know their specific names, but there’s the one that Bryce’s character has to hide from and then the other one that chases them on the ice and then dives into the water and swims around Chris Pratt and then comes back out again. I assume for each of these movies, you need to do specific R&D for each new dinosaur.
Vickery: You’ve actually hit the nail on the head, because the feathers were the biggest R&D effort that I can remember in this franchise, certainly in my experience. Feathers are one of the most complex things that you can try and describe in 3D space, because they are so complicated in the way they’re constructed. Often, you’ll take a feather it will be a single polygonal plane, that shows you where the quill of the feather is in the outline of the blade of the feather. You’ll then have to deal with the idea that thousands upon thousands of these polygonal planes are connected to each other, intersecting with each other, and simulating against each other. The challenge then is that you’ve got to introduce water and snow and ice, and that’s all being simulated in a different piece of software by a different artist. What we did on Dominion was [we rewrote] our feather system in order to allow us to bring all of those simulations into the same piece of software. We actually went one step further.
It’s a Houdini-based feather system, and the quill of the feather is defined by a curve and each of the bobules of the side of that quill, like the hundreds upon hundreds of bobules that then, when put together, make up the blade of the feather itself. They were all defined by curves as well, so we’re onto millions upon millions of curves. Our artists then had procedural tools, which would allow them to sculpt the shape and the color and the breaks in the feathers, to make some of them look cleaner and more like primary flight feathers, others to look more like soft downy fluffy belly fathers. We can simulate all of that together with the snow and the ice, the wind and the ruffling the feathers, all in the same piece of software. It was an amazin piece of kit. I actually saw near real-time interactive 3D simulations with all of those curves simulating against each other in the same piece of software, which beforehand, we had not been able to do.
BTL: There is some sort of randomizing or automation that can be done so that you don’t have artists having to go in and draw or animate each feather individually?
Vickery: It was one artist going in… I mean, when I say procedural, there’s only so much that you can do procedurally. There needs to be a creative intervention in that process, so the artists, they wouldn’t have to hand place every single curve to create one feather. They could generate the quill, and it would automatically generate the hundreds of curves they needed to create the finishing. But then, they had creative parameters to allow them to shape the feather, break the feather to create little striations along the length of it. They would then create a library of dozens upon dozens of different types and shapes of feathers, and hand texture them all. And then somebody else can go in and individually place each of those feathers across the surface of that creature. That would start with a procedural layout that would just cover the entire creature, but then they had tools that would allow them to go in and paint and change the lengths and shapes and sizes of each of those feathers along the dinosaur.
BTL: Another thing introduced in Dominion are the locusts, which I definitely feel like they had some animatronic puppets when dealing with them individually where they have to be very physical, but then you have these giant swarms which are clearly visual effects. How did your team work with what they were doing on set?
Vickery: On set, we had a physical prop that Sam Neill could hold when he picked it up out of the cupboard. It had no legs, and it had their wings, but there was a body there that he could hold onto. He would pick this up, and the animatronic piece had moving mouth parts and mandibles. What ILM had to do was add the wings fluttering and all the legs, so it felt like this living thing in his hand. When they’re in the locust lab, obviously all the swarming, crawling creatures that come out around the lab, they were digital, and then, later on, when Dodgson comes back and hits the button to terminate and burn all the locusts, that was a wicked day on set, because we actually physically burned the entire set down on purpose. We’d finished shooting on that location, and Colin and I were talking about how we could shoot elements in order to comp fire elements into the set and make it feel like it was something practical.
Paul Corbould [the movie’s special effects supervisor] put his hand up and said, ‘Why don’t I just burn the set down?’ and he built this huge, great big flaming car wash right that went from one end of the set to the other and just torched the entire set. So we were able to — very safely, obviously — film that with eight or nine different cameras in locked-off positions. And then what ILM did in Vancouver, they very carefully integrated all the burning locusts into that practical fire. Again, it was a great collaboration between those two departments to get the best result. I love the fact that this swarm of locusts was sort of the only thing that could be bigger than a dinosaur in the entire franchise, because a one-foot locust is pretty terrifying but two million in a big swarm is one of the most terrifying things ever.
BTL: Although the technology and computers have changed so much since the first Jurassic Park, are you able to go back and use any of those assets, at least as a starting point for when you bring some of those dinos back for Dominion?
Vickery: We use it as reference. The Dilophosaurus, as you say, that was used as reference by us, but obviously, John Nolan created that one particularly, and he went back into the archives, and we found photographs of Stan Winston and his team, creating that original Dilophosaurus model. ILM did something similar, and it was kind of like a massive digital paleontology project that we went through. Colin wanted to restore the T. Rex to her former glory. Over the years, our model has changed, become more emaciated, the texture has changed a little bit. We wanted to basically see how closely we could match her back to ILM’s original Jurassic Park model and Stan Winston’s animatronic.
We actually found the tape archives, the original software 3D model of the Jurassic Park T. Rex, found a copy of software, so that we can open it and restored that and then compared it to our current high-res digital model. We could see where it was different, clearly where the shape of the line of the jaw had changed, the shape of her brow ridge, the fleshiness of her body, so we were able to match it back, and then we studied all of Winston’s photography, and we could see how the animatronic, the coloration of the skin and the markings on the T. Rex in the original Jurassic Park, most noticeably the eye, it was a lot darker around her eye. We basically matched it back to that. I remember seeing fan reactions to the trailer when they saw the T. Rex drive-in. They were like, ‘This T. Rex looks so good! Looks much better… they’ve matched it back. They’ve done all this stuff,’ and it was really gratifying to see that people had noticed that we’d actually gone to those lengths.
BTL: Are any of the same people or animators who worked on the original Jurassic Park still working at ILM?
Vickery: I think so. I think Jean Bolte worked on the original Jurassic Park as a texture artist. Isn’t that amazing? She textured the Parasaurolophus for us. She’s an amazing artist.
BTL: Before we wrap, I do want to ask about COVID, because Dominion was famously one of the productions that was shut down, a few times I think, and then the movie was delayed for a year until this summer. Normally, that wouldn’t be great, but I assumed it gave your artists and animators more time to work on the movie, remotely, of course?
Vickery: We didn’t really have any more time at the back end. We still delivered the project by July 2021. We finished the movie almost a year before it released. There was a little bit of work that went on into September, tweaking the edit and a couple bits of visual effects work, but we finished in July. The thing that affected us most is… we almost ended up working on it like episodic television, because we spent four or five weeks filming between the beginning of 2020 and March when the lockdown hit. We’d been in Vancouver, British Columbia, and we’d done two weeks photography out there, and then we had two weeks in the UK. We completed the Chris Pratt scene with the Parasaurolophus herd that he’s riding on horseback. We’d done the T. Rex drive-in sequence, and we’d done the Nasutoceratops sequence and the sequence at the beginning of the prologue. We had these four scenes. We went into lockdown, and I think a lot of the film crew essentially went on hiatus.
But Colin and Mark Sanger went into the edit room and they cut the sequences. We turned them over to our post-vis team to proof. We started post-vising those four sequences, and within five weeks, we turned them over to ILM to work on the visual effects. ILM actually got started a bit sooner, but it meant that by August when we got back into principal photography again, Colin and I, and the visual effects team, we were pre-vising sequences, we were post-vising sequences, we were trying to shoot sequences, and we had ILM working on post visual effects sequences as well. Which is why I say it’s almost like episodic television. You’re prepping one, you’re shooting one, you’re posting another all at the same time. So it became very busy. [laughs]
BTL: Right before this, I saw a commercial for Jeep Wrangler. Do you and ILM work on those as well?
Vickery: We just did all of those! We had just done the Jeep commercial with the baby Carnotaurus, which we worked on. We did the Carl’s Jr. commercials — I don’t know if you’ve seen them — but we’ve done a number of commercials. I think we just want to be really good partners with the Jurassic franchise and Universal, and we worked very closely with them on marketing material to them and their toys and the games, as well. We work very closely with all the different divisions of Universal.
Jurassic World Dominion is still playing in theaters nationwide. Click here to read our interview with Trevorrow. All photos provided by Universal and ILM.