The digital dinosaurs were a significant part of the appeal of Jurassic Park. That level of realism had never before been reached in cinema, and many of the shots featuring dinosaurs actually used full-scale practical robotic creations, conceived and produced at Stan Winston Studio. Two key artists at Stan Winston’s side from the early 1980s until his death in 2008 were Shane Mahan and John Rosengrant. Now, they are together in a new company called Legacy Effects, but 20 years ago, they were ready to release their most ambitious film yet – Jurassic Park. The team at Stan Winston Studios spent a year building all of the practical dinosaurs which would be shot live on the set of the film, directed by Steven Spielberg and photographed by Dean Cundey. After production wrapped, Industrial Light and Magic matched its computer-generated dinosaurs to SWS’ designs and emulated their movements, which were all achieved during principal photography.
In these exclusive interviews with Mahan and Rosengrant, they discuss how they created the dinosaurs and reflect on the project, which is now being released in 3D version for the film’s 20th anniversary.
Below the Line: How did you first hear about Jurassic Park when you were working as an artistic director at Stan Winston Studios?
Shane Mahan: Jurassic Park was first a weird term that didn’t mean what it means today. There was a galley of a Michael Crichton book that was unpublished. Someone had read and known about the book that was coming out. It was described as Westworld meets dinosaurs – robot replicas. Then, we got deeper into the process. An early draft of the book was submitted by someone to Stan. There was excitement about the potential development of this property. When we found out that it was an island with a mad genius who recreates flesh and blood dinosaurs from fossils, it became very exciting. Stan became aware and started to pursue it heavily. At the time, there wasn’t a huge digital component. There were rudimentary beginnings of CG, and stop/go-motion, and practical.
Because we had done a large creature with the queen alien [from Aliens], Spielberg’s people came to us. Stan had missed the E.T. mark at some point in his career. We had done the Amazing Stories television show; Stan had always wanted to do something with [Spielberg]. It was a personal calling to Stan to fill what he didn’t get to be a part of – E.T.
We pursued hard with Crash McCreery’s concept drawings, and we did some fifth scale sculptures just to prove what we could do. This was before there was an award of the show. Everything kind of fell into place.
BTL: Was Stan Winston Studio given the show based on the drawings and sculptures right away or did it take time?
Mahan: Stan was eventually awarded the full show. We had no idea in the world how to do it. But it’s key to be given the opportunity to figure it out. It had never been done to that scale until then. We studied everything possible that could be done – The Land that Time Forgot, Godzilla. John Rosengrant and Crash were in raptor costumes for some of the effects. The script wasn’t complete, but Steven knew exactly what dinosaurs in which sequence would be shot: the spitter, Brachiosaur, Gallimimus, etc. We were able to start doing designs and maquettes back and forth.
BTL: Did you build the dinosaurs well in advance because they were full-scale?
Mahan: We were building certain dinosaurs before the script was complete. The sequences would get fleshed out and we had storyboard meetings over what was real and what was animation. Phil Tippett was going to do go-motion animation. Phil was going to do his animation tests. The fifth scale rex was going to be a large size for certain shots. It was about that time that Dennis Muren at ILM did a walking test of a T-Rex that blew everybody away. Once the commitment was made to do the animation in that style, we decided which shots would be real, a physical shot, with a stationary dinosaur with the illusion of movement. The only dinosaur that didn’t have a digital component was the spitter. No animation on that one; sick triceratops was also just lying there, done purely with animatronics. The baby raptors that come out of the eggs were purely puppets.
BTL: Did ILM design any dinosaurs or did your studio originate their artistic appearance?
Mahan: We developed all the sculptures and physical looks of the dinosaurs. Stan Winston Studios created every species look. They were replicated by ILM. From Crash’s early work to the end of the work there is a transformation. It was a real backbreaker of large-scale things which are really phenomenal. The T-Rex development set the tone of what Crash would ultimately sketch. He was doing pencil sketches. No one was using Photoshop or ZBrush. Computer modeling programs – a whole global industry was created by Jurassic Park. It just sprung – pierced the veil of everything and the world changed after that film.
BTL: How long did you have to create everything at SWS?
Mahan: It was a two-year process of construction and shooting. Avatar was the only other film that’s been longer. That’s been rare. Two years was luxurious. It still didn’t feel like enough time. Nothing had ever been done to that size and sophistication – hydraulic engineers and motion bases – and that was 20 years ago. There were people that we met that were specialists from the theme park arena – they had an understanding of physics and hydraulics. You couldn’t move something of that size without hydraulics. There was a large component of big rigs. Everything was built in-house. You outsource materials.
BTL: Were there different groups of people at SWS to create the various dinosaurs?
Mahan: At that point, we had divided up teams who worked on an aspect from start to finish. We supervised the teams. It was like the guys here at Legacy: myself, John, Alan Scott and Lindsay McGowan. I was in charge of the spitter and I went onto the T-Rex body portion artistically with Richard Landon and the mechanical team. Chris Swift was doing the raptors with Greg Figiel. Andy Schoneberg was doing the Brachiosaur on the art side. Shannon Shea was doing a baby triceratops. Joey Orosco did the sick triceratops. We were on our own course and those teams were on set to operate them. I was supposed to go on set for the T-Rex, but I missed out on operation and went back to finish the spitter – one of the last things to shoot. It was towards the end of the movie. I was in the studio sending it to set. There were repairs to do at night. I spent more time on set on the second film.
BTL: Where did you shoot the spitter towards the end of production?
Mahan: At Universal on Stage 27 in the water tank stage for eight days of shooting for the spitter. Spielberg cut a bunch of stuff just to end it – the end of a long grueling show. He was ready to go to Poland to do Schindler’s List. Sequences were cut out.
BTL: Was there a sense that you were breaking new ground by mixing your animatronic characters with the computer-generated animation?
Mahan: There was no contingency to fail. Everybody worked really hard to get the animation correct. It was a new application for what [ILM] were doing. A lot of care went into the movement they way things were animated.
BTL: How do you feel about the mixing of those techniques now, 20 years later?
Mahan: People will be really shocked at how visceral both techniques work together onscreen. I was pleasantly surprised at how great and alive the animatronic dinosaurs feel. The digital sequences were groundbreaking. The T-Rex attack scene is one of the best things done as a whole scene – it’s scary and I could watch that over and over again. I hope it’s well received 20 years later and that 3D adds an element.
BTL: In the end, isn’t it true that the dinosaurs are not ultimately on screen very much for how big of a statement that film made?
Mahan: If you were to add up all the dinosaur shots – there are only 14 minutes of dinosaurs in the movie. The proportion of live action to animation was 70-30. Today it would, be sadly, enough 97 percent animation and a mere three percent of animatronics. Steven was very well prepared and knew how to shoot things, and shot the shots and it was done. The budget was $65 million for the whole movie. Back then, it seemed huge. Now, that’s a medium-level film. It was one of Stan’s proudest moments. It never got any better for him.
Below the Line: How did you first come into the project, as you were one of Stan’s key operatives at the time?
John Rosengrant: I was running point. It was exciting when Stan came down and gathered the key guys and told us that we were starting to work on Jurassic Park. As kids, we were huge dinosaur fans. It was super exciting. Everybody wanted to get involved on every level. I helped oversee all of them, but my involvement became heavy in the raptors as I wore a raptor suit. I didn’t have much to do with the spitter character – Shane was that guy.
BTL: Did you feel as though you had adequate prep time to create those characters?
Rosengrant: We had a year to build everything. Now, we’re lucky to get four months. Back then, it was quite the prep. All of that prep made it such a groundbreaking movie. It was planned well. It was an amazing experience. What we were doing animatronic-wise was quite amazing. Stan got called into the part because of the queen alien who was pretty large, but it didn’t really prepare us for the bigger characters. A whole new method had to be created.
BTL: How did you develop the size and movement of these huge characters?
Rosengrant: The T-Rex can go from zero to 60 in a millisecond and stop on a dime. When you are creating big animatronic characters, that’s a problem. It comes to a stop and shakes or misses it’s mark – it’s not precise. We had to write programs in the computer-control system of these hydraulic dinosaurs to stop on a dime and not wiggle. It was a 36-foot long T-Rex 18-feet tall on a motion base. We had to raise the roof because he was too tall. It was a 20-foot ceiling so it ended up going up quite a few more feet to have space when we sculpted him in clay. Today, what we would do and what we did on Jurassic Park III when we created the Spinosaur, we would sculpt it digitally, mill it out in a big foam, and put it together on blocks of foam and detail it. The technology has gotten much better.
BTL: How did that motion base give the T-Rex all of his movement capabilities?
Rosengrant: We repurposed an aircraft motion base to fit our needs. We built a telemetry device to control the T-Rex. It was a mechanical bone structure representation in 1/5 scale. He was still almost six-feet long. One person was in control of the tail, another the midsection and hips and another guy in the head-neck area. Someone was wearing a telemetry suit to control the T-Rex arms with his own arms. This information is being translated to this hydraulically-controlled T-Rex in real time. We really had a very organic control over this puppet – this giant puppet.
BTL: Did every bit of dinosaur work occur in the SWS building on Valjean in Van Nuys?
Rosengrant: It was all done in the Valjean and Hart Street building which piggybacked into the Valjean building – it all felt like one – every inch of that place was covered in some type of dinosaur – sick triceratops, spitter, raptor, a section of the Brachiosaur and other models in various scales that were going to be scanned in by ILM which would serve as the prototype. They would be scanned in and tuned up. The technology has come a long way but is the foundation for the way things are done today. The CG stuff was a gigantic game changer. Even the way we were making molds: we cured parts in the oven that couldn’t warp. We tried different molding materials and epoxies with syntactic backing so that they could be lightweight. Fiberglass molds can warp and there are inherent dangers there.
BTL: Of all the characters, was the T-Rex the clear “hero” dinosaur for the show?
Rosengrant: The T-Rex had a huge influence. A year before we were designing, that was the marching order – to be the most realistic dinosaurs that had ever been onscreen and incorporate the paleontology information. The T-Rex wasn’t upright and dragging his tail. We didn’t want to stray from what science is. The raptor is based on a velociraptor. Those animals were smaller than the ones we were putting in the movie. Oddly enough, life imitates art, but they found right before or during Jurassic Park that was dubbed the Utah raptor which was the same size as the one in Jurassic Park. We tried to make them as real as possible. The dilophosaur was a bigger animal than what we actually made but his anatomy was true to what it really was. It was based on what the real thing was. Like any of these animals, they could be any size. The T-Rex was a moderate size one.
BTL: How do you feel about your work on the film now, 20 years onward?
Rosengrant: I was very proud and it holds up. I have no worries that it will look sharp in 3D. I did the press day a year ago when it came out on Blu-ray. I watched it again and relived the experience. I’m very proud of that work. It holds up and is one of the amazing things that I’ve been involved with. My son was born and one of the nurses found out and was flooding me with questions. That was all you hear people talking about around you. It was a game-changer in pop culture.