Stephen: Jurassic Park and Disney

Of all the novels, films and television shows that Michael Crichton was involved in Jurassic Park is probably his most well known, and for good reason. Crichton was able to bring dinosaurs to life in this story through the use of cloning. John Hammond, one of the main characters from the story, uses his fortune to genetically engineer these creatures as the main attractions at a theme park called Jurassic Park. Hammond’s vision and confidence are similar to the traits of Walt Disney, though his endeavor is morally questionable and proves disastrous as he loses control of the park. Both Crichton and Steven Spielberg have described Hammond as “the dark side of Walt Disney”.

This isn’t the first time Crichton played with the concept of a theme park gone awry. Crichton’s “WestWorld” is a fascinating film about a futuristic theme park filled with realistic humanoid robots that visitors interact with in three themed lands. During a visit you could kill an outlaw gunslinger, sword fight with a knight or even have an affair with the queen. The robots that fill WestWorld are a futuristic vision of Disney’s audio animatronic figures, and a seemingly natural progression for that technology.

WestWorld also represents the beginning of an idea that computers could play a part in making movies. It was the first film that used digital image processing for a scene that shows the pixelated point of view of one of the robots. Interestingly enough, WestWorld’s sequel, FutureWorld, raised the bar even further by using 3D computer generated imagery (CGI) for the first time in a feature film. This footage was created by a student named Edwin Catmull. Ed invented the processes that are the standard for all modern CGI. He worked for Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic division, he is a co-founder of Pixar, and is currently the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. The software he helped develop became one of the main tools used to create the special effects for Jurassic Park, and countless other productions to this day.

When Steven Spielberg decided to make a movie out of Crichton’s novel, the challenge of bringing dinosaurs to the screen led him toward two standard solutions. The first was the use of full scale animatronics that allowed the actors to interact with the dinosaurs. For wide and action shots, stop motion techniques would be used.

Animatronics have played an important part in film making. In fact, Disney gained its first experience creating animatronics not for theme parks but for its movies. The film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea featured a giant animatronic squid, a sophisticated puppet that brought an exciting level of realism to the performance. With the experience from figures like these Disney went on to perfect this technique for attractions at the 1964 World’s Fair and its theme parks. Some of these animatronics created for the Fair included dinosaurs for Ford’s Magic Skyway. These figures represented some of the most realistic representations of dinosaurs at the time, and some the vignettes presented by this ride are similar to scenes in Jurassic Park.

Left: concept art from Disney’s Magic Skyway attraction. Right: Brachiosaurus scene from Jurassic Park.

While Disney’s animatronic technology hasn’t advanced much since the 60s, the workshop of Stan Winston had been pushing the limits of animatronics for use in film for decades. The question of how to bring dinosaurs to the screen for Jurassic Park led first to Stan Winston, and his studio delivered amazing designs for the dinosaurs of the film.

Paul Tippet was to stop motion what Stan Winston was to animatronics. At first Spielberg planned to use his proven techniques for the shots that couldn’t be achieved with animatronics. However, other artists on the film were experimenting with computer generated imagery, and the effects they achieved with these new methods were revolutionary. Paul and his team stayed on to aid in animating these digital dinosaurs. Their experience with animating 3D sculptures was translated into the computerized models and gave the dinosaurs incredibly lifelike movement.

Left: animatronic dinosaurs from Disney’s Magic Skyway. Right: Stan Winston’s animatronic T-Rex.

There are several amusing scenes from Jurassic Park that make reference to Disney. One of the first is the visitor’s center attraction that explains how the dinosaurs were created. This “ride” rotates just like the Carousel of Progress as it moves from the film portion, to views of the laboratories where the dinosaurs are created. As the scientists in the laboratory are revealed Gennaro asks Hammond, “Are these characters, auto… erotica?” To which Hammond responds, “No-no, we have no animatronics here.”

At another point in the film Hammond is annoyed by a tropical storm that is bearing down on the island. This draws a parallel to Hammond’s complacency towards the power of nature as he quips, “I should have built in Orlando.”

In an even more direct reference, Hammond and Malcolm discuss the setbacks Jurassic Park is experiencing. Hammond says, “When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked!” To which Malcolm responds, “Yeah, but John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

Jurassic Park has gone on to increase interest in dinosaurs, influence subsequent films and inspire theme park attractions. Even Disney itself seems to have been inspired by it. Their Animal Kingdom park features animal attractions on a large scale just like Jurassic Park did, and it even has a dinosaur themed land. Their first movie to make heavy use of CGI was also about dinosaurs. Jurassic Park represents a shift in visual effects and has forever changed the way movies are made.

Unfortunately in 2008, after struggles with different types of cancer, the untimely deaths of both Stan Winston and Michael Crichton have made this franchise an even more poignant tribute to the storytelling and vision of these men. Jurassic Park will always be fondly remembered for its wonderful combination technology, storytelling and artistry.

2 thoughts on “Stephen: Jurassic Park and Disney

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