From Alan Grant’s first glimpse of that towering brontosaurus to the Tyrannosaurs’ final, victorious roar, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park changed not just the course of Hollywood but of history itself, proving that worlds previously confined to the imagination could be brought to life on the screen. Now Image Engine is part of that illustrious story, turning its hand to the vicious Velociraptors in the fourth Jurassic Park movie.
Fun fact: the original Jurassic Park wasn’t actually going to feature computer-generated dinosaurs – the initial plan was to use a blend of Stan Winston’s animatronic behemoths alongside Phil Tippett’s stop-motion models. However, one moment of insubordination from Industrial Light & Magic’s infamous Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams would change the course of movie history. It was Steve who sneakily angled his monitor, displaying an animated Tyrannosaur walk cycle, towards visiting producer Kathleen Kennedy’s eye line. She was entranced by the computer-generated predator, and it was decided that the then novel CG approach was the best way to bring dinosaurs back from extinction.
The impact of this decision on the course of visual effects, the movie industry, and the world at large is difficult to quantify – it changed everything. So, naturally, Image Engine was more than thrilled to become a part of that rich lineage when asked to offer its skills as a vendor on the fourth entry into the series, Jurassic World.
Image Engine was brought on to work on 280 shots in Jurassic World, comprising environment extensions, FX elements, jungle simulations, and highly detailed matte paintings. But of course, the most impressive and challenging work came in the creation of the dinosaurs themselves, particularly the four ferocious raptors: Blue, Delta, Charlie, and Echo.
Read on to find out how Image Engine dealt with changing shot demands and the complexity of softbody creature work in the latest entry into the Jurassic Park canon. Hold on to your butts…
Welcome to Jurassic World
Jurassic World doesn’t mark the first time Image Engine has worked with the visual effects mavens at ILM. The team had already built up a relationship with the studio during its work on 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well as 2012’s Battleship. That relationship continued to grow on Jurassic World, growing far beyond a simple sharing of pipeline and assets and more towards a truly collaborative post-production approach.
“Jurassic World was truly a collaborative effort – they didn’t treat us like a separate vendor,” begins Justin Gladden, VFX producer on the project. “In some ways, you could say it was like we were standing on the shoulders of giants, as they came before us and made such an iconic movie. But in other ways, we were totally on the same page and speaking the same language: we were like an arm of ILM; an extension.”
Jurassic World saw the two teams feed ideas back and forth throughout the production, evolving each shot as they went. “It was really cool – we would have ideas on our end that we would send back to ILM,” says Martyn Culpitt, VFX supervisor. “For instance, we might add some matte painting disturbance on the ground where there had been a fight. We would send those ideas over and ILM would embrace them.
“It was a really big thing for us that the work wasn’t just restrained to what ILM wanted to do,” he continues. “We could have just done what we were signed up for, but that’s not how we work at Image Engine. We all add to shots – whether it’s animation, lighting, or anything – to find ways to make them better, and I think ILM really loved that.”
The creation of many assets was shared between ILM and Image Engine, with one studio starting the process and the other bringing it to completion. “Some assets were created internally at Image Engine from start to finish, others were somewhat mixed, like the Gallimimus and apatosaurus,” says Rhys Claringbull, CG supervisor. With the apatosaurus, for example, ILM supplied the textures and model, but the team chose to completely redo the look dev. “We had eight shots where the apatosaurus needed battle damage because they’d been attacked by the Indominus rex, so we needed to add scars and flesh wounds and flies – flies being one element we added absolutely everywhere!”
The models and textures for the raptors themselves – four fully grown reptiles flashing with razorsharp claws and teeth – were delivered by ILM, along with a turntable reference of the look dev. “They were in a generic HDR, and there was no shading code, so we had to develop the shaders to match ILM’s look dev, so visually our system would match their rendered images,” says Claringbull. But of course, that was but a small part of the creation of these raptorial reptiles…
180 of Image Engine’s shots were focused on the creation of the film’s four ferocious raptors. These had to be fully believable creatures, capable of selling the audience on the threat and danger that they represent.
“Pretty much all of the raptor shots in the movie, outside of where they interact with another dinosaur, were all worked on by us,” says Claringbull of the creatures. “One of the main shots we worked on, and one of the first, was the introduction of the raptors in the raptor arena. There was a lot of work in that scene – not just in terms of the raptors, but in terms of the sequence and the plates themselves. We had to rebuild the lighting and make them consistent throughout.”
“Overall, that part of the film was a great introduction to the raptors, as it shows a lot of the emotional connection between the animals and Chris Pratt’s character, Owen Grady,” he continues. “They’re like his pack animals and all have their own distinct personalities. The animation team learned a lot about the raptors in that scene and built out their nuances, which they would then go on to build into the rest of their shots.”
Total authenticity was key in selling the raptors as wild creatures, and to achieve that, the animation team needed to look to the natural world. “We gathered a ton of references so we would have some sort of naturalistic motion to use as an anchor,” says Jeremy Mesana, animation lead. “Having everything based on something from the real world really helps to sell the authenticity of it. So, we based the locomotion of the raptors on ostriches; we used alligator references for how they snap; lions for how they leap; and we looked at a lot of birds and how they move, like how they’ll twitch from one position to another. We wanted to get all of those tiny, subtle motions in there. That even extended to the nictitating membrane from the eyes of crocodiles – we would reference anything that had characteristics that were similar to the dinosaurs.”
However, as animalistic as Mesana and his team wanted these Velociraptors to be, there’s more to them than meets the eye. As any fan of the Jurassic Park series knows, these animals are highly intelligent, capable of lateral problem-solving, and even basic communication. In Jurassic World especially, where the creatures’ bond with Grady plays an important role, the raptors needed to exhibit thought processes that far transcended the normal relationship between predator and prey.
Balancing this blend of intelligence and instinct was no easy task. “Trying to get the raptors to look like they were real, thinking animals was a challenge, to say the least,” says Mesana. “When you look at animals in nature they’re acting on instinct, so everything they do looks totally natural – with the raptors we planned every move they make! Also, we had to make the raptors appear like they’re recognizing language, all without being able to speak or emote. That’s really difficult when they don’t have any brow shapes! You can’t show any facial animation besides them opening their mouths and showing their teeth. So that was a real challenge – getting the raptors to look like they’re going from supervicious animals that want to tear everyone apart, to stopping and having a stillness, and having them connect with Grady.”
Despite the need for meaningful movement, the animation rigs themselves were very standard FK/IK setups. “Overall these were better for animation because they allowed us to do what we needed to without getting bogged down by the technical aspects that come with complex rigs,” explains Mesana. “Beyond the animation rig there were generally three rigs for the creature effects and muscle simulations, so they would have a rig to fix penetrations coming through, and then they would have a muscle rig to do the muscle jiggle and a skin rig to do the skin sliding.”
There was some complexity in the rigs with regard to the different levels of detail, however. “There were no separate rigs for different departments: it was a single rig that everybody used, and it was all about keeping that stuff streamlined so animators could animate on a rig that has three or four LODs on it, an entire muscle system and an entire mocap skeleton,” continues Mesana. “All that stuff was inside the rig, but we still managed to keep it at a performance level that was acceptable from an animation standpoint.”
The team also created a new system for visibility templates, meaning the team could view different body parts of the raptors at different LODs – something which streamlined processes throughout the production. “With this system, you could show a hires face, a lores body, and hires hands, for example, all at varying resolutions without loading the entire mesh of the highest LOD or just the lowest,” explains Mesana. “It’s a system we’re going to employ in future shows, especially when we have speaking characters.”
The result of all of this technology, brought together by a hardworking and focused team, are four of the most believable and impressivelooking dinosaurs ever committed to film. “There are these moments where you’re just fully immersed in the shot – you’re not even thinking that these are CG animals,” says Mesana. “They fit so well into the scenes that watching them really is quite spectacular.”
They’re Flocking this Way…
Raptors weren’t the only bipedal dinosaurs Image Engine was called upon to create. The team was also tasked with the recreation of one of Jurassic Park’s most famous sequences. The scene in question sees paleontologist Alan Grant and kids Lex and Tim crest a small hill on a lush green field, only to come face to face with a herd of stampeding Gallimimus. The ensuing scene – with the trio surrounded by the thumping feet of the creatures – had to be recreated with today’s technology, and feel all the more intense for it.
“The Gallimimus shot was probably the biggest of the lot,” says Gladden. “It was the first shot we were working on and pretty much the last were putting finishing touches to.”
The reason for the lengthy production schedule was that the sequence – which, in this instance, sees the Gallimimus stampede around an incamera truck – required multiple revisions.
“We approached that shot thinking that we were only going to have a handful of Gallimimus running,” says Mesana. “So, we began by creating a believable run cycle, and then sticking that into a rough layout of however many dinosaurs they wanted in the scene – and that number just kept growing with every iteration. It jumped from six to eight to ten to 20, to 30 – we ended up with 60 Gallimimus in the shot. We continually had to redo the layout of the entire shot over and over again, which wasn’t easy, considering that it was 400 frames long.”
The length and complexity of the shot didn’t do any favours for the lighting team either, who had to rerender for every new iteration. “Because this is a stereo show, we had to do 55 render passes for each of the 400 frames – that’s 22,000 frames every time we rendered the shot,” says Yuta Shimizu, the Jurassic World lighting lead. “It took us about two days to render the scene each time. We would spend all week getting the shot and all of the elements to work, then use the weekend to render it out. We would then show the client the shot the next week, get feedback, and rerender again. It was quite a challenge.”
It wasn’t just the Gallimimus that required rendering, either. There had to be a real physicality to the scene, and that meant running FX on each individual dinosaur. “We had to create all the grass kickup the dinosaurs were causing and have it fly past the camera,” explains Claringbull. “To make the digital grass blend into the plate we had to have premade patches around where their feet were going to land. In the end, most of the grass was actually CG to allow it to blend into the plate.”
The scene may have required an exhausting amount of reiteration, but the end result was worth it: a recreation worthy of the first film’s seminal sequence. “It’s really such an iconic shot, and you have to play it to what it was originally in the ‘93 movie,” says Gladden. “If we hadn’t choreographed everything with handanimation, and had gone with a crowd simulator or something like that, the shot wouldn’t get the same reaction. But everything in our version is very carefully laid out to create the most realistic sensation of being in the field with these dinosaurs. When you see it, it really feels like a herd of wildebeest on the plains.”
Life Will Find A Way
From the large to the small, Image Engine also worked on some of Jurassic World’s more subtle creatures – namely the genetic experiments that preceded the Indominus rex.
The film’s LA lab sequence introduces a host of mutated creatures, altered by science into new and unfamiliar forms. “Initially we received plates of different animals, and our inhouse concept artist, Rob Jensen, painted ideas onto the plate, like feathers on the iguana or a tail on the salamander,” says Culpitt. “The director, Colin Trevorrow, really loved the concepts, so we went on to create them in 3D. With the iguana, we just tagged on a feather jacket, and with the chameleon, we added an arm that reaches out and grabs a bug as the camera swings past.”
For one creature, however, enhanced plate photography wasn’t going to do the trick. “They had a snake in the plate and we wanted to give it a second head,” explains Culpitt. “We tried using the plate version with a head coming off the side of the snake, but it didn’t quite work.”
The solution? The creation of a fully CG snake – one that felt so real it fooled the director into thinking they had used the plate photography after all.
“Colin’s feedback on that was, ‘I love it; it’s subtle’ – he didn’t realize it was CG,” says Gladden. “I think that’s one of the best things to hear. Yes, we’ve done a lot of crazy visual effects and huge CG creatures, but when we do something and the audience doesn’t even notice it’s an effect, that’s when you really hit the mark. Those shots in the lab work so well because you don’t really think about it as CG. You look at it and think, ‘I wonder how they did that?’”
What Have They Got in There? King Kong?
Image Engine’s remit on the Jurassic World project didn’t end with the creation of soft-body creatures; the team was also asked to create an environment and set augmentations of the areas which they roamed. These shots ranged from the relatively simple, such as extending a shot of a cliffside structure or creating matte paintings of slaughtered apatosaurus, to the much more complex: namely, the creation of a full CG jungle.
And how do you go about building a full CG jungle? “You start throwing plants in!” laughs Claringbull. “Basically, we received various plant elements from ILM which we combined with aspects of our own digital library. We also used various new tools to generate our own new foliage that was customized for this film. From there we published an array of plants to individual assets, which we could then combine in a layout for any given shot.
“When those plants needed to be simulated, FX would replace them with presimulated caches for the frame ranges,” he continues. “So if there was a raptor brushing by a single plant, FX would go to their library of presimulated plants, place it into the scene and detect how far the raptor was from it. It would then react realistically to the movement of the raptor. It worked seamlessly.”
In plate photography of the location, physical jungle, a similar approach was used to cement the CG raptors into the environment. “Wherever there was a jungle and we needed to have added interaction with plants, we’d add a layout in there, and then we would sim where there were interactive plate elements or interactive raptors,” explains Claringbull.
One example of this can be seen when Grady is riding his motorcycle through a jungle environment, with his entourage of trucks and ATVs close behind. Originally the scene was shot on a road, but the client wanted the scene surrounded by thick foliage. “To achieve that we populated the ground with different kinds of plants and then simulated them,” says Claringbull. “A lot of those were night shots, and there was a sense of atmosphere in the fog, with shards of light casting through the trees. To enhance this feeling we added an ambient fog element as well as some interactive fog wherever it was required.”
Rendering this shot presented Shimizu and his team with a fair set of challenges: “We layered the atmosphere and rays of light so we could do different lighting approaches if it was background, middle ground, foreground, raptor, and so on,” he explains. “What was interesting was that, because we had culled a lot of the jungle from behind the camera’s perspective, there was no foliage there catching the light, so we had to think creatively about how to light the scene and make it look like the vehicles were in a jungle, even though there was no actual plant life behind the camera!”
Thankfully, a great deal of R&D had been completed on Image Engine’s rendering processes in the year following Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This played a big part in increasing the efficiency of rendering and streamlining the pipeline for all involved. “We could basically lazy load the environment and the trees in the layout, so the scene was quite efficient in the end, relevant to the amount of foliage you see,” says Claringbull. “We were able to render it all in a reasonable amount of time, as well as giving other departments upstream the ability to review their work in context with the environment. Animation, layout, and even creature FX had full jungle environments in their preview animations.”
Although the on-set photography of these jungle scenes was certainly impressive, they didn’t quite deliver the sense of impact, immediacy, and atmosphere that director Colin Trevorrow was looking for. It was therefore Image Engine’s task to bring the scene to life through a host of subtle alterations and additions.
In the scene, many soldiers are seen patrolling the nighttime jungle with laserattached weapons. “In the plate, you could see the lasers, but they would often be pointing in a totally different direction to the gun, as the laser pointer on the weapon wasn’t set straight. In many cases we had to remove the laser and add a new one,” says Claringbull. “Also, there was the problem that the lasers they had in the plate just weren’t that interesting! We added little particles and breakup to the laser glows to make them more visually interesting. We also added some vines on fire, as the fire on the plates wasn’t quite intense enough. Then we did lots of muzzle flashes and interactive lighting – these were all simple additions, but they totally changed the look of the shots.”
One shot where all of these elements came together featured the raptor pack charging through foliage – a shot that was initially intended to be relatively straightforward but didn’t stay that way for long. “All of a sudden they wanted us to add lasers and muzzle flashes as the soldiers were trying to hit the raptors, so we ended up having to do dust hits and destruction, with bits of trees and vegetation getting hit,” says Claringbull. “It became a critical shot – something that started out really simple, but grew really complex and visually interesting.”
For Gladden, it’s again these smaller, less obvious VFX elements that can really help sell a scene. “Things like lasers add a lot of depth to the image, along with a sense of realism that this stuff is really happening,” he says. “There are shots where we also added graphic treatments like night vision. Additions like that make you feel like what’s happening is real. They really increase the impact of the movie.”
Spared No Expense
Jurassic World was a demanding proposition for the Image Engine team. Not only were they working on one of the world’s most revered franchises, with the world’s most influential visual effects team, but the work had to be truly second to none when it came to believability. Jurassic Parkhas come to be synonymous with groundbreaking computergenerated imagery, so any work produced by the team could be nothing less than world-class.
Thankfully, Image Engine has a world class team. “For Jurassic World, the entire studio took a big, legit step forward in the quality of the work produced,” says Mesana with a smile. “I don’t want to take anything away from any of the projects that we’ve completed in the past, but based on the high-profile nature of the subject matter, we really hit it out of the ballpark on this one. Everyone did such a great job, ILM was really happy, and we didn’t destroy ourselves doing it!”
Culpitt is quick to agree: “On a project of this size, it’s always going to be a bit crazy. It doesn’t matter who the client is; they’re always going to want to push it as far as they can until they can’t push it anymore. But in this case, the quality of the work shows for itself,” he beams. “Sometimes you get to the end of a project and there will be that one shot that didn’t quite attain the level of quality you were looking for, but not in this case. There are honestly no shots that I feel I need to go back to and spend extra time on, and Colin feels the same – we have videos of him looking at the work we sent and he’s just going over the moon. It was so cool to see that response and to pass it on to the team.”
For many at Image Engine, Jurassic Park was more than just a movie – it was an inspiration; the catalyst that compelled them to work harder at their chosen discipline and join the ranks of the VFX elite. Their dedication to the project stems from that passion – working on Jurassic World was like a dream come true.
“Everybody took a step to try and make things better, cooler and more believable than ever before,” concludes Gladden. “Everyone had the same mindset of making this one of the best shows that we’ve ever worked on – and this is what you get when everyone’s focused on the same goal: an unbelievable show, with some of the most exciting visual effects out there.”
“For many of us at Image Engine,” says Shawn Walsh, visual effects executive producer, “Jurassic Park was a key stepping-off point for our personal involvement in animation and visual effects. So, to be able to contribute to such an iconic franchise and in such an integral way with the Raptors… Well, it was awesome and we were just pinching ourselves all along!”