PRINT September 2012


Steven Spielberg, Jurassic Park, 1993, 35 mm, color, 127 minutes.

IT’S NOT EVERY DAY that the world’s most famous paleontologist sits in judgment on technologies of visual representation. But when Stephen Jay Gould saw Jurassic Park, his concerns about stereotypical characterizations and the scientific infeasibility of the plot were offset by something close to awe:

The dinosaur scenes are spectacular. Intellectuals too often either pay no attention to such technical wizardry or, even worse, actually disdain special effects with such dismissive epithets as “merely mechanical.” I find such small-minded parochialism outrageous. . . . The use of technology to render accurate and believable animals [is] one of the greatest all-time challenges to human ingenuity. The field has a long and honorable history of continually improving techniques—and who would dare deny this story a place in the annals of human intellectual achievement[?] (“Dinomania,” New York Review of Books, August 12, 1993)

Gould’s praise is all the odder in that he’s talking about what was (until Titanic came along in 1997) the biggest box-office hit in history. Entering the annals of human intellectual achievement was not a top priority for Jurassic Park’s creators. The $56 million movie was planned as a global cash cow, to be launched in a distribution and merchandising blitzkrieg. It cracked open the difficult markets of Eastern Europe, Asia, and India. Plastered on McDonald’s snacks, Kenner toys, and a hundred other companies’ wares, the tyrannosaurus-skeleton logo yielded more than a billion dollars in ancillary revenues within a year of the film’s release, even before it hit home video. Jurassic Park furnished the template for marketing every big-budget summer movie that followed. Yet Gould is right: Jurassic Park also deserves a place in the history of representational technologies.

Credit must go to Steven Spielberg, a team of special-effects experts, and the ubiquitous George Lucas. Spielberg had bought Michael Crichton’s novel before publication and spent three years in production. (He made Schindler’s List at the same time.) When full-size robot dinosaurs proved unworkable, the team embarked on a variation of traditional model-and-mechanics effects, including puppets. Lucas entered the picture when his company Industrial Light & Magic was commissioned to provide computer graphics.

After some testing, it became clear that in many cases digital video could replace traditional physical devices and special effects. A maquette of a gallimimus could be scanned, endowed with movement, and multiplied into a vast herd. A T. rex could be built up, bone by digital bone, from a scanned-in skeleton. Spielberg abandoned the idea of traditional stop-motion when he saw that keyboard wizards could stretch skin across muscles, corrugate and tint surface textures, and create heaving chest cavities. Puppets and mechanical body parts were used for many shots, but some of the movie’s most vivid moments centered on creatures spawned at workstations. The future promised even faster processing speeds and more skilled operators; it was only a matter of time before an entire film would be populated by digital beings.

When Spielberg hired the firm, the technicians of ILM had already demonstrated vivid digital effects, notably the molten T-1000 robot in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). And a series of shorts from Pixar, at one time a Lucas subsidiary, had showcased the possibilities of computer animation. Jurassic Park extended those possibilities to organic-looking bodies and movements. Digital technology had finally reached a level that could sustain the genres that had been at the top of Hollywood’s menu since the 1970s: fantasy, horror, science fiction, and comic-book adaptations. Soon it would enhance traditionally shot live-action in any genre. Wires would be erased, traffic signs rewritten, actors’ faces replaced, and stunts accelerated and embellished. Green-screen backgrounds would become part of any production’s standard equipment. Now a movie could become cartoonish without looking like a cartoon.

The Jurassic enterprise opened a new branch of what has amounted to Hollywood’s ongoing experiments in perceptual psychology. The spasmodic look of stop-motion filming—a technique that had advanced little since the making of King Kong in 1933—was replaced by something far smoother; the ILM animators even added motion blur to the gallimimus stampede. Thanks to Pixar’s rendering programs, surfaces could be given hypertactility. From the mid-1990s onward, the goal became, in the industry phrase, “photorealism,” with digital programs offering rippling water, the sheen of metal, bristly whiskers, or fragments of an explosion spinning toward us.

In animated films as such, like the Pixar and DreamWorks products, the result was a strange blend of spherical and cylindrical human figures and eerily exact renditions of texture and weather. For “live-action” movies, a film negative could be scanned to files and manipulated in the digital-intermediate process. The result was crisp edges, precisely controlled color, and deep penetration of shadows.

Steven Spielberg, Jurassic Park, 1993, 35 mm, color, 127 minutes. Tim Murphy (Joseph Mazzello).

Returning to a film print of Jurassic Park today, you can see how the soft contours of the costumes and faces compete with the sharper edges of the rex and the raptors (although this ultimately profits the visceral contrast between predator and prey). Over the past dozen years, digital cameras have made many enhancements previously accomplished in postproduction directly available to the process of filming. Today, faces and figures are as precisely etched as in a Burne-Jones or a Frank Frazetta, only to be dirtied up with imported shadow, smoke, fog, haze, rain, and snow. David Fincher shot last year’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Sweden not to capture full-frame atmosphere but to gather scraps of landscape, architecture, and weather that could later be pasted into bits of each shot.

Photorealism soon became a problematic goal, however, because film-based cinema was already fairly good at presenting the way things look and behave. Even motion blur, which might seem a photographic artifact, is true to our visual system. (Watch what happens when you wave your hand in front of your face.) As in the history of European painting, with each conquest of appearances, new problems emerged. Digital cinema, for example, allowed the revival of 3-D, which tried for greater volume. But even using new digital projectors, the 3-D image grew dim. So some directors advocated faster frame-capture rates to increase the number of light bursts. But faster frame rates eliminated blur and made movement seem brittle and hard-edged. Now the urge to fully detail space spawned an urge to master time; each microsecond of a movement deserved its own snapshot.

Working on Jurassic Park, Lucas says, convinced him that he could revisit the Star Wars universe in a new trilogy. That project led to wholly digital shooting and to a campaign for digital projection that would eventually turn the world’s movie theaters away from 35-mm film forever. Jurassic Park likewise showed the young Peter Jackson that CGI could do justice to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga (2001–2003), which in turn pushed him to high-resolution filming for The Hobbit (forthcoming). Through such cascades of innovation, films became files. A medium—traditional cinema—became a platform, like Windows, subject to perpetual tweaks, patches, and updates.

From the moment of the film medium’s birth, photography and painting have jockeyed for influence over cinema; with the ascendency of Lucas and his successors, painting has gained ground. In digital filmmaking, every image starts not as a slice of time and space but as a primal sketch, raw material to be reworked (recolored, relit, recomposed, or simply “sweetened”). The filmmaker can erase eyeblinks, or snip an eyeball from one face and paste it onto another.

Digital information processing, the defining technology of the twenty-first century, unexpectedly took cinema back to its prephotographic origins. We might recall, for example, Charles-Émile Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique, an apparatus for projecting in quick succession hundreds of painted glass plates, bound together into a ribbon of images by wire and strips of leather, onto a screen. “By an ingenious method,” proclaimed Le Figaro on the occasion of the mechanism’s unveiling in 1892, “M. Reynaud created characters with expressions and movements so perfect that they give the complete illusion of life.” Like Gould a hundred years later, viewers were impressed.

David Bordwell is Jacques Ledoux professor of film studies emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the author, most recently, of Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies (Irvington Way Institute, 2012).