Animal Farm
Issue: Volume 38 Issue 4: (Jul/Aug 2015)

Animal Farm

In the film Jurassic World, the fictional owners of the imaginary Jurassic World theme park faced a problem: Attendance at the island locale had declined. The park’s dinosaurs, it seemed, had become too familiar. And indeed, in the film Jurassic World, we see children ride baby dinosaurs in a petting zoo. Park attendees travel inside glass gyroscopes through meadows populated with grazing dinosaurs. And one man (actor Chris Pratt) trains Velociraptors using positive reinforcement methods similar to dolphin trainers. Jurassic World’s owners needed something new. 

The filmmakers had the same challenge. Jurassic World marks the fourth time audiences would see dinosaurs chase humans and fight one another. 

It was a challenge especially felt by the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), and resoundingly met. Directed by Colin Trevorrow, the Universal Pictures release broke box-office records from the start. Jurassic World scored the top opening weekend of all time, the top second weekend of all time, and became the fastest film to achieve $1 billion dollars in box-office revenue – in 13 days. It’s another film for the history books.

The first Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 action-adventure, turned filmmakers on their heels. The artists at ILM, led by VFX Supervisor Dennis Muren, created CG dinosaurs sufficiently believable to cause Phil Tippett’s Go-Motion creations to stand down. It was a milestone in computer graphics and filmmaking history, and both Muren and Tippett received visual effects Oscars. Spielberg followed that film with a second, The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997, and Muren received an Oscar nomination for the film. Joe Johnson directed the third, Jurassic Park III, released in 2001. ILM provided visual effects for all three features and was the main vendor again for Jurassic World. 

“The major challenge was coming up with something new and fresh,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Tim Alexander. “Everyone has seen dinosaur movies over and over again, and the original Jurassic Park is iconic. We needed to figure out how to do something different and better than the original. So, one of the first things we did was to consult with Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett.”

Muren afnd Tippett have become visual effects legends, and both men took an active advisory role for Jurassic World, along with Paleontologist Jack Horner, who also advised the artists back in 1993. 

“We all talked with Dennis and Phil about the original and what we could do with this film,” Alexander says. “Part of the gag of this movie is that the dinosaurs are commonplace and people are bored with them. We wanted dinosaurs there, but not obvious. We wanted them to be like animals out in a field, walking around.”

Cineview, an iPad app developed at ILM, gave filmmakers real-time Previs.

Thus, ironically, the response to the visual effects challenge was to create the fictional theme park owners’ problem; that is, make dinosaurs that looked and acted like animals. 

Alexander and Animation Supervisor Glen McIntosh were both on the project for two years, from pre-production, through design, shot planning, and then eight months of postproduction. For McIntosh, who had worked as a lead animator on Jurassic Park III for the raptors and for the fight between the T. rex and the Spinosaurus, it was a kind of sweet revenge. 

“I had all these plans in Jurassic Park III for T. rex to take a bite out of the Spino­saurus, and for the Spinosaurus to rip off a ­T. rex’s­ arm,” McIntosh says. “But, unfortunately, all the shots that came after had already been done, so I couldn’t do the damage I wanted. I had to do a fight to the death, but they couldn’t injure each other.  And, I had to match the camera’s movement. One of the great advantages on Jurassic World was being involved early enough to plan the choreography and create a game plan for the performance and character of the dinosaurs.”

To help the filmmakers frame the dinosaurs in the real-world locations, ILM developed an iPad application they call Cineview, which gave them real-time previs on location (see “On Location” on this page and “Real-time Previs” on page 10). 

 For a sequence in which a helicopter crashes into a Pteranodon aviary, and the raptors run and hunt in the forest, ILM did more traditional previs. Similarly, Pixel Liberation Front and Halon provided previs for the final fight and other action scenes.

“The production unit gave us storyboards for the rest of the film,” Alexander says. “And Glen McIntosh did storyboards, as well.”

Working from the previs, McIntosh, Tippett, the director, and producers choreographed action scenes using toy-sized dinosaurs on miniature sets (see “Miniature Choreography” on page 12).  

Then, once storyboarded, previs’d, and choreographed, it was up to the animators to create believable performances for the prehistoric animals.

“Phil and Dennis were great points of reference for animalistic behavior,” Alexander says, “especially Phil. And Jack Horner was an interesting voice in that, too. Phil and Glen would ask, ‘Could a Stegosaurus lie on its side?’ ‘What would a raptor do?’ For the raptors, we decided to use motion capture to give them more presence. We showed an early test to Colin [Trevorrow]. He liked the movement; it was something he hadn’t seen before.”


Animators at ILM had experimented with motion capture for the 2001 film Jurassic Park III – in fact, McIntosh had donned a motion-capture suit – but they felt the technology wasn’t quite ready.

“With this film, because Colin wanted to individualize the raptors and we wanted to give them more character, I wanted to experiment with motion capture again to see if we could get the personality of the performer to come across in the dinosaurs,” McIntosh says. “The retargeting we’ve developed since Jurassic Park III allows that.”

McIntosh worked on set with dinosaur stand-ins who wore Velociraptor helmets. The stand-ins served three purposes: They gave the actors something to look at, made it possible for the camera operator to frame a scene with live performers, and provided reference footage for the animators. To help the actors perform the feisty, intelligent, and dangerous dinosaurs, McIntosh sent the stand-ins to “raptor school,” using reference of herons and birds of prey for their movement. Although the stand-ins wore the gray motion-capture suits, the crew didn’t translate any on-set motion capture.

On Location

Main Street in Jurassic World was a massive set built in a New Orleans parking lot. The Hawaiian island of Kauai provided the jungle. ILM artists added mountains to footage shot there and extended a lagoon. The filmmakers also shot footage on other islands in Hawaii and in a Louisiana swamp. T. rex’s paddock started as footage from a redwood forest in California. The Jurassic World gates are a miniature created and shot at 3210 Studios (formerly Kerner) in San Rafael, California, which also handled shots of a (miniature) helicopter blowing up.

“We got as much as we could in-camera,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Tim Alexander. “We shot Super 35 film for this project, Super 35 and 65 mm cameras, using the 65 for establishing shots and Super 35 for everyday shots. The Super 35 gave us a lot of headroom so we could tilt up, change the framing, and add camera shake. Some people say film is a hindrance, but for this feature, it helped a lot. We don’t get that tall aspect ratio with digital. But, it was an aesthetic choice to get the feel of the original. We wanted Jurassic World to look classic and iconic, and felt that film was part of that process.”

Three full-sized raptor heads gave Actor Chris Pratt, who plays a raptor trainer, something physical to interact with, as did an animatronic created at Legacy FX of a dying Apatosaurus.

“When we’re wide, the dinosaur is CG, but when Chris is holding her head, the head and neck is an animatronic,” Alexander says. “The director really wanted an animatronic, and I think this was a great choice. It’s sitting in Chris’s hands and on his lap. We also had a full-sized foot for Indominus. It was 12x12 feet. It took three people to bring it out on set.  Otherwise, the dinosaurs are CG.” 

– Barbara Robertson

“We knew we would want the higher level of fidelity that we could get on the ILM stage with our 44 cameras,” McIntosh says. “The challenge was finding performers to be the dinosaurs and to have these humans move differently, as if they had different anatomy.”

The answer was to cast four animators at ILM as the raptors. 

“Animators have a good sense of timing, and they understand silhouettes,” McIntosh says. “We could have them go down to our stage and do performances in front of the director.” When they did, McIntosh often played the role of the raptor trainer, Pratt’s character in the film.

On ILM’s motion-capture stage, Director Trevorrow could view the animators in their motion-capture suits through a virtual camera. The layout department provided plate photography and camera moves. 

“We did more than 33 individual motion-capture sessions, each lasting three to four hours,” McIntosh says. “We could have all four raptors together in the environment performing and interacting with one another. Rather than blocking out the animation for our dinosaurs, we had the actors do multiple takes based on what Colin wanted. The motion-capture gave us various performances.”

Although the raptor designs closely matched the original, slight adjustments gave each its own character, as did the performances. 

“The performers played to the strengths of the history we wrote for them,” McIntosh says. “One had a more bird-like DNA. Blue, the dominant raptor in the pack, is always at the leading edge, and she barks and bites at the other raptors. The animators became these characters. We had a rough idea of what we wanted the dinosaurs to do, and then they played with the performance to try to get more character out of them. Dennis called it the animation equivalent of jazz.”

Although the standard raptor pose is bent, arms tucked in, toes on the ground, ankles up, the animators didn’t try to imitate that body position.

“We wanted to make sure our animals moved in an athletic way,” McIntosh says. “If we had tried to put the animators on their toes or have them bend over for too long, their legs would shake. So they were flat-footed.”

Animators fixed the foot position with keyframe animation later. Retargeting repositioned the torso.

“We’ve made a big leap forward in technology,” McIntosh says. “Retargeting allowed us to rotate the torso forward globally and adjust the body so it’s parallel to the ground in a way a human would not be able to do very long. It meant the performers could be as athletic as possible and our sessions could go for hours rather than a few minutes. They didn’t have to hold poses that were difficult for humans. We could adjust the performance while maintaining the essence of the performance. Of course, we embellished everything with keyframe animation.”

Real-time Previs

On set during filming for Jurassic World, the director or camera operator could hold an iPad up, and while shooting the scene with the iPad camera, see CG dinosaurs in the setting.

“We would load our models into the program and stick them into the live image,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Tim Alexander. 

ILM developed the program, which they call Cineview. In addition to the real-time compositing, Cineview can also generate basic lighting and shadows. It helped the filmmakers visualize the size of these enormous animals and frame shots on location.

“The director and director of photography could look at a scene through the iPad camera and see where Indominus would be,” Alexander says. “They could see how tall she’d be 20 feet away. They could tell if a tree would be in the way. They’d know if they would need to tilt the camera or move her back farther. It’s a great tool for previs’ing.”

Cineview also helped with location scouting. 

“We could make sure Indominus and other dinosaurs would fit in the locations,” Alexander says. “For almost every setup that would have a dinosaur in it, we’d take a snapshot to show Colin [Trevorrow, director]. I saved all those snapshots so we could pull them up later.”

As a result, ILM didn’t need to do many plate extensions.

“We could use the footage as is,” Alexander says. 

–Barbara Robertson

ILM animators referenced herding animals from the Serengeti for this scene.

When the team showed the first tests with captured motion applied to the raptors to Dennis Muren, they received a surprising reaction. 

“When he saw the emotion in the raptors, he said, ‘I don’t know what I’m looking at,’” McIntosh remembers. “At first, I thought that was a bad thing. But it was a good thing. He was seeing something new, something that didn’t feel choreographed. It felt like a real animal, and that was something we haven’t seen before. People are familiar with CG, how it’s done. Our goal was to never let the audience know how we did it. We wanted to encourage that suspension of disbelief. We wanted to bring something new to the table.”

In addition to the raptors, animators performed big dinosaurs on the motion-capture stage; however, that motion didn’t translate as well. The T. rex and the theme park’s newly created Indominus rex were too big. The motion-capture sessions were useful for blocking and for showing the director pacing, timing, and placement, but animators used keyframe animation for the big animals. They also keyframed running raptors. 

“Motion capture gave us a great foundation for the raptors’ performances,” McIntosh says. “The milling. The looking. The interaction. A lot of their performances relied on one-to-one relationships, so motion capture was a huge win for us. But, raptors can run as fast ostriches. So, when they run, keyframe animation takes over.”

Animal Behavior

All told, approximately 50 animators worked on the film at ILM; other than the raptors, all the dinosaurs were animated with keyframe animation. For reference, McIntosh turned to YouTube videos and clips from National Geographic documentaries. Live-action reference of similar animals helped animators base dinosaur movements in the real world; they tested the performances they created side by side with the reference.

“The whole idea was having visual anchors,” McIntosh says. “When Jack Horner was on set, we’d ask him which animals would best match, and we looked for living animals with similar shapes as the dinosaurs. That way the audience would recognize the movements and mannerisms from animals they’ve seen, and it would feel real. We’d match the dinosaurs and the live-action animals frame by frame.”

For example, the team decided that the quadruped Triceratops’s stocky build and horns corresponded to a rhinoceros. 

“The Triceratops is three times heavier,” McIntosh says. “But we’d try to match the rhinoceros movement with our CG models and see if it would work. When we showed the tests to Colin, he got really excited.”

For raptors, the animators concentrated on birds of prey and a cassowary, an Australian bird. 

“We wanted the focused stare that birds of prey do when looking at a mouse,” McIntosh says. “And, we liked the idea of the neck as a shock absorber. The head can be fixed while the body moves around the head. We asked [Horner] if raptors could jump, and he said they could. So we studied the cassowary, which has huge claws like a raptor’s. The cassowary is the third largest modern bird behind the ostrich and emu, but it is the most dangerous.”

Pelicans provided reference for the flying Pteranodons, but with wing flapping based on golden eagles. An African wading bird, the marabou stork, also helped the animators create the Pteranodons’ believable performance. Johnny Rook hawks, known as the Falkland Islands’ “flying devils,” served as visual reference for the flying reptilian Dimorphodons.

For the enormous Mosasaurus, which leaps out of the water and…well, you have to see it…the animators considered killer whales, but those sea animals weren’t big enough. 

“We used humpback whales,” McIntosh says. “We needed to get a 50-ton animal out of the water.”
For dinosaurs such as the Mosasaurus that had a big screen presence, animators also looked at a crocodile eye’s nictitating membrane and the fierce reptile’s mouthful of teeth. 

“The T. rex has only its upper teeth visible when its mouth is closed,” McIntosh says. “So, we gave the new dinosaur, the Indominus rex, interlocking teeth to create a more sinister look. We always see her teeth.” 

The massive Indominus’s interlocking teeth and sinister mouth curvature combine features from a saltwater crocodile and the classic Jurassic Park raptor designs.

“She’s big and fast,” Alexander says. “She runs 35 miles per hour. No biped that size can move that fast.”

Miniature Choreography

A miniature set populated with two- to three-inch printed models of the 3D dinosaurs helped the creative team block out the characters’ movements and film them using “lipstick” cameras.

“We had previs for the action sequences, so Phil [Tippett], who was our dinosaur consultant, Colin [Trevorrow, the director], the producers, and I would map out the choreography on these miniature sets,” says Animation Supervisor Glen McIntosh. “It’s so funny...sometimes we deal with the most absolutely high tech, but we started with toy dinosaur models on a miniature set. It helped us imagine what we could come up with, and we got great ideas. Two years later we can see on the big screen with fleshed-out visual effects the choreography we filmed with a lipstick camera.”

– Barbara Robertson

Motion-captured data helped animators give the raptors personality.

Large quadrupeds, such as hippos and rhinos, gave animators a sense of movement for the four-legged Stegosaurus and Parasaurolophus. Before the scariest part of the film, two young boys travel in a gyrosphere, a clever glass bubble, through a “dinosaur valley” populated with these peaceable animals.
“Colin wanted to show how wondrous it would be to be in this valley surrounded by these majestic animals,” McIntosh says. “So we referenced herding animals of the Serengeti using groups that would naturally hang out and move together. Colin said, ‘Great, but could you put a [Stegosaurus] in there?’ So we built the choreography based on the dinosaurs he was interested in seeing.”

Dino Might

Although the filmmakers wanted the look of the dinosaurs to harken back to the previous films, they also wanted the creatures “plussed.” New technology and another decade or two of experience gave the artists tools and techniques to do that and much more. 

“Obviously, compared to 20 years ago, things have advanced dramatically,” Alexander says. “And we deployed everything, including a new muscle firing system that we developed at the beginning of this show. Before, we used shapes to build muscles that did what we needed and had a system that dialed between the muscles. Now we use a biomechanical calculation that determines the muscle shape and timing when it fires.”

The animators start the process, and then the new muscle firing system takes over. 

“It took quite a while to build the detail underneath the skin,” Alexander says. “Because we were using the muscles to slide the skin over, we needed to have the right firing. You see the muscles flexing and firing at the right moment. And when the muscle flexes, it maintains volume and protrudes. That’s new for us; we didn’t have volume preservation before.”

To make the dinosaurs look believable, modelers created asymmetrical animals rather than building one side in CG and mirroring the other. 

“We also covered them with scars, nicks, and cuts to give them some history,” McIntosh says. “They had been there for years. They didn’t just show up to be filmed.”

Perhaps remembering the sequence he had animated for the previous film in which he had dinosaurs fight to the death without injury, when McIntosh created concept art for these dinosaurs, he drew them quite injured.

“I may have gone overboard,” McIntosh says. “I finally got to do damage, so I covered them in scars. When I showed the art to Colin, he said this was a scary action-adventure movie, not a horror film, and wanted the kids to enjoy it. So, I had to pull back.”

As the muscles move, the skin slides overtop realistically. That causes the texture maps, heavily scarred or not, to stretch as well. And not always appropriately or aesthetically. A new texture stretching technique was employed and resulted in a paper that the ILM team will present at SIGGRAPH. 
“The technique lets us define areas of the texture that aren’t supposed to stretch on a shot-by-shot basis,” Alexander says. “We re-parameterize the texture space according to the deformation of the 3D mesh. It’s a complicated process.”

For rendering the creatures, the team used Pixar’s RenderMan, with Chaos Group’s V-Ray helping with the glass gyroscope and the Jurassic World environment. Lighting artists used The Foundry’s Katana.
“Ultimately, everyone agreed that we liked our RenderMan look and it was more comfortable,” Alexander says. “Everyone kind of felt that it was better for our organic creatures. Technically, you can make arguments for other renderers, but we have a deep knowledge of RenderMan and like the look.”

Working Relationships

All the visual effects shots went through ILM, with work happening in three of that studio’s four locations. Artists in San Francisco built all the assets and created the environments, the aviary, the final battle, and all the scenes with Indominus rex. Those in Singapore used assets from San Francisco and plate photography to create the gyrosphere sequence. The Pteranodon attack happened in Vancouver. Meanwhile, ILM’s London-based team was on other films.

In addition, Alexander, with the help of Tony Plett, supervised work at Hybride and Image Engine for this film. Hybride created the graphics and did environment work, and Image Engine created scenes with raptors when they weren’t with Indominus.

“We sent raptors that we built and painted in San Francisco to Image Engine, the models and the textures,” Alexander says. “It was amazing how very accurate and similar the turntables they created were to ours. Glen [McIntosh] did all the motion capture at ILM in San Francisco, sent that to Image Engine, and they applied the motion to the raptors. That way, we could keep the look and action consistent.”

Petting Zoo

In the movie, young visitors to the Jurassic World theme park can ride baby Triceratops and Gallimimus dinosaurs in a petting zoo area. To film the sequence, the crew had gray-suited stunt actors playing the baby dinosaurs crawl around on their hands and knees in a warehouse in Hawaii.

“I would meet with the stunt actors and give them reference of baby rhinos,” says Animation Supervisor Glen McIntosh. “Rhino babies are ungainly. Cute and juvenile as opposed to the adults.”

The kids sat on the actors’ backs in English saddles padded with foam and rode around while the actors tried to remember what they had learned in McIntosh’s baby Triceratops school. Later, ILM would replace the actors with the CG dinosaurs.

“The actors really tried to act like cute baby dinosaurs, which was hard to define,” McIntosh points out. “We would adjust the saddles and carve the foam so they could try many different movements. It was a fun time, to be as creative as possible. It probably looked very weird, though.”
–Barbara Robertson

The crew size totaled close to 500 at all the facilities.

“When you look at the number of shots – 1,000 visual effects shots broken down among the facilities – we were pretty efficient,” Alexander says.

The second film Alexander had worked on at ILM was The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the second in the series. For that feature, he had composited several sequences, including one in which the hunters in jeeps attempt to capture dinosaurs, shots of the Pteranadon with the sun behind at the end, the classic shot of Stegosaurus walking through a forest, and the unforgettable shot of a trailer going over the edge of a cliff. 

“It was exciting to supervise this one,” he says. “To figure out how to bring the series into the future, and having all these people at ILM who had been on the original was super cool. Geoff Campbell, for example, modeled the dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park and returned to ILM to supervise the modeling of the dinosaurs for Jurassic World. Dennis would come to dailies. We would look at lighting from the original, and Dennis would explain why they did that. He’d give us suggestions. It was fantastic to have that secondary eye. When he liked something, he’d say, ‘This is awesome. I’ve never seen anything like that before.’”

For McIntosh, it’s hardly surprising that his favorite scene in this movie is the big epic battle at the end. 

“I finally got to do what I had wanted to do in the third film,” McIntosh says. “As good as that one was, I got to make this one even more epic, which was really fun. There’s a scene in this battle where the T. rex crashes through the skeleton of a Spinosaurus. It was Colin’s way of giving the T. rex revenge because the Spinosaurus had beat the T. rex in Jurassic Park III. I asked if I could animate that scene. I love the T. rex. And, I loved getting back at the Spino. I hope the audience cheers and applauds.”

He needn’t have worried. Whether or not people in the audience are fans of the series enough to understand and cheer that particular scene, the rush to the ticket office for this film should gladden the hearts of the filmmakers and, especially, the visual effects artists who worked on this film.