Interview: Glen McIntosh, animation director for ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’
Image credit: Concept Artist: Glen McIntosh © 2015 Industrial Light & Magic. Used with Permission.
Glen McIntosh has led an army of animators on three Jurassic films at visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic. Ahead of the release of ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’, he spoke to E&T about motion capture dinosaurs, why the raptors still don’t have their feathers, and the scientific sacrifices made for the sake of cinematic appeal.
What is the starting point for the animators on the Jurassic films?
What we try to do is create visual anchors that are rooted in the modern natural world. If we find animals of a similar shape and roughly the same size, we use that to our advantage. If we don’t count birds – which we should – no-one’s ever seen a living dinosaur, but we’ve all been to the zoo, we’ve all watched the [David] Attenborough documentaries, and we all know what an elephant and rhino look like. So by imbuing the mannerisms and movements of an elephant or rhino onto an Apatosaurus or Triceratops, it feels real to the audience […] they almost don’t know why it feels real, but it’s because we’ve assigned the naturalistic movements of modern animals.
If it’s a biped, especially for raptors, we look at ostriches and emus because ostriches are the fastest two-legged animals currently on planet Earth […] so that’s a great frame of reference for us to start with. The animators go online and find a little clip of an ostrich or an emu and they’ll copy the movements, and by doing that they’re getting used to the naturalistic movements that are the hallmark of the Jurassic films, as opposed to something a bit more rooted in fantasy like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.
How have advances in technology changed how the dinosaurs are animated?
What was really fun on Jurassic World was incorporating motion capture. Initially it seems like something you could want to avoid because human beings and [creatures which are] essentially ostriches are shaped very differently; a dinosaur is parallel to the ground, whereas a human sits right on its hips. So it’s like: okay, how do we translate that movement and make it feels like a dinosaur?
What we found was that when the [motion capture] performers were trying to get into the pose of a dinosaur, we could actually pick up their legs shaking because they’re trying to hold a pose that’s completely unnatural for a human. So we came up with a retargeting system [which] created what we call our “default raptor pose” […] we were able to witness their performances in real time, and that was a real breakthrough. Instead of doing key frame animation you can block in the action very quickly, and if you don’t like it that’s no different to a director working with actors. You can experiment because you’re automatically getting a pose that is nonhuman and dinosaur-like.
There was always going to be key frame embellishment on top of that [to add blinking and other small movements] but not too much; a lot of the shots were right out of the can. And we got so confident with it we were not only doing motion capture for the raptors but we were able to do it for the T. Rex and the Indominus Rex.
Have animatronic models continued to play a major role in the Jurassic films?
For Fallen Kingdom there’s been more of an emphasis on animatronics actually, and a lot of that is the personal taste of the director. It also depends on the script; the action sequences that we were doing for Jurassic World didn’t really call for it.
Animatronics are fantastic for scenes where the dinosaur is coming right up to camera […] There’s a great deal of beautiful animatronic work that has been done and what was really fun was being on set at Pinewood Studios and collaborating with Neil Scanlan’s team of puppeteers […] We’re at a point now where you can have a [computer generated dinosaur] right next to the actor, but I’ve always emphasised having something there. A lot of times when I was working with Chris [Pratt], I had a Styrofoam raptor head; when playing the raptor I don’t want him to know what I’m going to do next, which forces him to react [naturally] to something, then when we get back to the animation, we’re taking cues off his reactions. To have something there for him to work from is invaluable, and I know the actors really appreciate it.
When is it appropriate to take creative liberties with the dinosaurs’ appearances and behaviours?
I can give you an example. In Jurassic World we have a Mosasaur; that’s the big water marine reptile that leaps out of the water and grabs the shark […] we know that they had forked tongues because there’s a notch in the roof of the mouth of these fossils similar to what you see on modern day snakes and lizards. One of the hallmarks of the Jurassic films is that we always try to make them a little bigger than they were […] the Mosasaur originally started out as like 60ft long and when it came out of the water it just didn’t look imposing. So we would start scaling it up… Ultimately the Mosasaur came in at about 110-120ft long, twice as long as it should have been and about the size of a blue whale.
Now that we’ve sized up the mosasaur so it’s twice its [real] size, do we give it a forked tongue? The resolution was we can’t do that because then it’ll feel like a creature of fantasy. If we’d kept it at the original size maybe people would believe it, but it started to feel more like a dragon in Game of Thrones. If most of the audience saw this giant animal with a forked tongue they’d roll their eyes and that’s the last thing we want […] it was an aesthetic choice based on what most people are going to believe.
What common complaints do you get regarding scientific accuracy?
So many palaeontologists want to see feathers on the raptors. Who knows: maybe in the future Jurassic movies? I think there are opportunities to get [feathered dinosaurs] that still look menacing. I think people are afraid that if you put feathers on them it’s like: what’s going to be scary about a giant chicken? But it can be done.
In a sense it’s more of an aesthetic call based on how to make something really dramatic as opposed to being absolutely scientifically accurate […] they were trying to stay true to the look that Stephen Spielberg had set up with the original Jurassic films. Then Colin [Trevorrow, director of Jurassic World] was very smart by including the line where Dr Wu [the fictional geneticist] says “the real dinosaurs wouldn’t have looked anything like this, we’re making the dinosaurs we want to see, not what they would have really been”. I thought that was a great line.
Have the Jurassic films contributed anything to palaeontology?
They’re a really nice amalgamation of art and science because it seems – to me anyway – that the Jurassic films are beheld to a higher standard as far as trying to make them feel like real animals. Compared with a fantasy movie, they’ve always been kind of rooted in science.
The goal is first and foremost to entertain and to give the audience something thrilling to watch. But I think there’s always the opportunity to educate while you entertain. It’s an opportunity to get this material out to as wide an audience as possible. Jack Horner said that when he started out there weren’t many palaeontologists, then Jurassic Park came out…! What’s exciting is to hear that you’ve inspired someone to want to learn more about the real animals, then maybe they learn something that informs us for the next film.