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Jurassic World: I met a fearsome cutting-edge dinosaur

Effects wizards at the legendary Pinewood studios show how CG breathes new life into old-fashioned puppets.

Giles Keyte

You have to touch the dinosaur to know it isn't real. The skin looks scaly and hard, painted with such skill you only realise it's a puppet when your finger sinks into its soft foam latex side.

And when the creature lunges at you, eyes flash and fanged jaws snap.

Yeah, I jumped. And you would too.

I'm at the legendary Pinewood studios outside London where portions of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom were filmed. I'm here to meet not only the effects wizards who worked on the movie -- around 1,200 of the film's 1,800 shots contain some kind of computer-generated effects -- but also one of the film's stars: the velociraptor known as Blue that's currently snapping at my fingers. Blue is going to teach me how, instead of killing traditional puppetry, modern digital effects are giving old-school animatronics a new lease of life.

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The movie features plenty of scenes in which huge dinosaurs rampage across the screen. But this particular skillfully-painted latex puppet was created for a scene on a more human scale. Midway through the movie, human actors Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard tend to the injured dinosaur in a scene that echoes the very first Jurassic Park

"Reading through the script together, we could see that there were unprecedented levels of intimacy and contact between humans and dinosaurs," says David Vickery, visual effects supervisor at effects company ILM. "We used every trick in the book to allow our actors, our cameraman and our director to interact with these often digital creations."

That meant giving the actors and crew a physical puppet to play with. Enter the foam latex models, created by creature designer Neal Scanlan. Scanlan has pioneered animatronics in movies from Little Shop of Horrors and Return to Oz to the latest Star Wars films. 

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Creature designer Neal Scanlan with the animatronic puppet of the velociraptor Blue. The secret is the team of puppeteers hidden under the table.

Richard Trenholm/CNET

"Blue is actually very simple," explains Scanlan. "The secret is that each rod is connected to a performer who can bring their own personality and choreographed performance." And after instinctively shying away from the Blue's writhing tail, chomping jaws and twitching claws, I look under the table to find six puppeteers crowded around a monitor, each of them operating different rods and levers moving different parts of Blue's head, arms and tail. One puppeteer even pumps a bulb blowing air into the puppet to simulate breathing. 

The effect is incredibly lifelike. Even after we've met the hidden puppeteers, I still find myself reacting to the movements of the dinosaur as if it were a real creature. It's easy to see why filmmakers want real, physical puppets and props on set for the actors to interact with. Unlike the tennis ball on a stick often used as a placeholder for digital creatures, it doesn't require a lot of imagination to act scared when a very real and very bite-y dinosaur pounces on you.

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Fallen Kingdom star Chris Pratt and director JA Bayona get their hands on the animatronic Blue.

Giles Keyte

Once these genuine and natural acting performances are in the can, Vickery's digital effects team apply the finishing touches. That might involve adding or improving small details like heavier breathing or a twitching muscle in Blue's throat. "Other times we would replace a claw or sometimes a tail or an eye," he says. "That blend of never relying solely on a physical technique or a digital technique kept the audience guessing. You could never tell what you're looking at."

And the puppets didn't just help the actors get realistic results. The footage also provides a guide to the CG animators so their enhancements match the lighting and movement of the real thing. "Having something real on set on the day is perfect reference for what we're doing," explains Jance Rubinchik, the animation supervisor who led the artists digitally painting over the puppet.

The real models are also a good reminder not to make CG enhancements too perfect. Rubinchik regularly reminds his animators to "sloppy it up", making their dinosaurs walk in uneven, off-kilter strides -- just like a real animal.

You might think with all the computer power at their fingertips, the old-school puppet might always be replaced by fancy digital additions. But in fact, Vickery reveals, for at least one shot in the movie they opted to ditch the CG-enhanced shot and just use the puppet.

Various puppets and even puppeteers running around wearing painted dinosaur heads were used on set to elicit genuine reactions from the cast, before being painted over with CG animation for the finished film.

Universal Studios

Animatronic attraction

Access to CG enhancements doesn't just mean animatronic puppets can be enhanced afterwards. It also means the puppets themselves can be massively simplified. In this scene, Blue is lying down so the puppeteers can hide under a table. But for other sequences, instead of building a hugely complicated puppet with all its workings hidden, the puppeteers could actually be seen by the camera safe in the knowledge they'd be digitally removed afterwards.

For a scene in which Chris Pratt plays with four baby velociraptors, the dinosaurs were played on set by basic puppets on wheels, steered by puppeteers with long rods as they darted about Pratt's feet. The digital team then painted out the rods and their operators, and painted the fully rendered CG dinos over the simple 3D-printed plastic models.

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Creature designer Neal Scanlan looks back to the pre-CG pinnacle of the animatronic era, when operators and workings had to be completely hidden from the camera. "When you had these models with 500 servos inside, they were too complicated to operate," he says. "It was like playing the drums and the piano at the same time."

In fact, while high-tech visual effects advance at a dizzying rate, animatronics can be stripped back to basics. As well as returning to simpler puppeteering over complex machine-like models, Scanlan explains that contemporary materials like silicon can't beat good old-fashioned foam latex, which has been used by the film industry since the 1930s.

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Neil Scanlan handles a piece of the foam latex "skin" that covers many animatronic puppets.

Richard Trenholm/CNET

Some puppets seen in Fallen Kingdom were made of different materials, however. For action scenes involving larger dinosaurs like the vicious Indoraptor, a puppeteer chased the actor while wearing an inflatable dinosaur head. It might have looked ridiculous until the CG was added, but it gave Pratt and Howard and their co-stars that crucial physical presence to interact with.

Another scene sees an armour-headed Stygimoloch charge through a wall. The team sculpted the dino head in concrete -- and actually bashed it through some brickwork.

The old school charm of physical puppets is attracting a new generation of filmmakers raised with CG, like Fallen Kingdom director JA Bayona and Star Wars supremo JJ Abrams, to return to physical props. Scanlan had actually left the film industry when Abrams tempted him back to create new creatures for the revived Star Wars movies.

The original Jurassic Park, a milestone in both computer effects and animatronics back in 1993, had a huge impact on the Fallen Kingdom filmmakers. "A lot of what we're doing is trying to recreate that feeling that you got when you first saw a dinosaur in Jurassic Park 25 years ago," says Vickery. 

"I was 12 or 13 when the first Jurassic Park came out," remembers Rubinchik, "so that was mind-blowing for me. That really played a huge part in what I do today. I think we probably wouldn't have a career without that film."

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is available on Blu-ray and digital format in the US now, and comes to Blu-ray in the UK from 5 November. 

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