When Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) was released, critics and audiences heaped praise on it for its “realistic” depiction of its star subjects: dinosaurs. Janet Maslin of The New York Times characterized them as “Amazingly graceful and convincing, they set a sky-high new standard for computer generated special effects.” Likewise, Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times noted that “six kinds of dinosaurs come to life with a verisimilitude that is humbling.”
Jurassic Park represents one of the turning-point moments in contemporary effects, with the digitally created dinosaurs exemplifying an elaborate blending of 3-D computer animation and live action into a seamless onscreen world.
Since then, such blends of 3-D computer animation and live action have become so commonplace as to become banal. In fact, as special effects scholar Julie A. Turnock notes in her book Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Technology, and the Emergence of 1970s Blockbuster Aesthetics, “In today’s mainstream Hollywood, there is virtually no such thing as a film untouched by a significant amount of special effects work…” This includes story-focused dramas and comedies, not just big-budget action flicks.
We’re at a point where many audiences feel nostalgic for effects of days past. This includes, perhaps ironically, Peter Jackson, director of the computer-saturated behemoth from 2005, King Kong. In a 2011 documentary about stop motion icon Ray Harryhausen, Jackson posits, “There comes a point where people will reject digital effects and want movies where we actually did something in real space, and real time.”
The idea that stop motion feels more real because it involves photographic puppets in 3-dimensional space is both true and a construction of filmic nostalgia. The stop motion puppets of films past project a kinetic energy that has persisted over the years, sometimes overshadowing contemporary films. This is certainly the case for 1933’s King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) and that film’s iconic special effects work, crafted by Willis O’Brien. It persists in public memory as subsequent remakes splash onto the scene, only to recede quickly from audience’s minds.
But the realism of the 1933 King Kong is imperfect, both to modern and 1933 audiences. Though generally lauded at the time, critics nonetheless remarked that, “Some of the views of the chief monster are a bit unrealistic” (Variety) and “The ape seems rather phony in the first sequences, the jerkiness of his movements increasing the effect of unreality” (Billboard). O’Brien’s puppets possess the ontological realness of a thing in space, but sometimes lacked realness of movement.
For fans of stop motion, the realness of the thing in space trumps the realness of smooth movement (movement which may have even been captured by a real actor – Andy Serkis, for example).
This is exactly what Ethan Gilsdorf argues in a 2013 article, “Why Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects were more real than CGI.” He writes: “To me, the issue is realism vs. gravity. How real can these pixels feel?” Later he adds, “To my eye, no matter how lifelike it may become, CG still has an eerie, weightless, plastic quality. The better these special effects get, the weirder they look.”
Dinosaurs make excellent subjects for stop motion nostalgia, because dinosaurs themselves are figures of nostalgia in the U.S. cultural imagination. They make frequent appearances in U.S. cinema, from Gertie the Dinosaur (Windsor McCay, 1914) to The Lost World (Harry O. Hoyt, 1925) to One Million B.C. (Hal Roach, 1940) to its 1966 remake One Million Years B.C. (Don Chaffey) and on and on to the present day with the continuing Jurassic World franchise.
Svetlana Boym posits in her book The Future of Nostalgia that, “Dinosaurs are ideal animals for the nostalgia industry because nobody remembers them.” They can simultaneously be scientific and fantastic. Both aggressively commercial and romantically pastoral. Our knowledge of them stems from technical advancement, but their very existence reminds us of a time before human history.
The fact that we have artifacts, but don’t really know what they look like enhances their potential for filmic representation. Their realness onscreen, no matter if rendered through practical or digital effects, is always a construct. More and more evidence emerges that many dinosaurs had feathers, and yet cinematic dinosaur design continues to mimic the scaly creatures from 1925’s The Lost World because that’s what feels real to audiences who have grown up with such pop culture representations of dinosaurs.
Moreover, in her book, Boym comments that, “In Hollywood cinema the creatures of special effects sometimes appear more believable and ‘realistic’ than humans.” She argues that in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are rendered in loving detail, while the human characters are drawn from archetypes living out culturally traditional narratives.
Such an attitude marks the critical reception of many dinosaur films. Reviewers repeatedly remark on the astounding realism of the fantastical creatures and the flatness of the human characters. This is especially true of the B-movie cycle of dinosaur films in the 1960s and 1970s (ones where Harryhausen crafted the creatures’ performances), but it also typified the critical response to 1933’s King Kong and 1993’s Jurassic Park. The Variety review of the 1933 King Kong panned Fay Wray’s performance: “It’s a 96-minute screaming session for her, too much for any actress and any audience.” The Los Angeles Times review of Jurassic Park called the characters “blander and less interesting” than their dinosaur counterparts.
Despite the nostalgia for effects of a bygone era, those effects aren’t completely bygone. Jurassic Park included animatronic dinosaurs and even actors dressed in dinosaur suits, and a spate of recent films have taken pride in their use of practical effects (Fury Road, The Dark Knight series, The Force Awakens) alongside computer-generated effects. We will likely never go back to the intensive optical compositing that characterized pre-Jurassic Park dinosaur films, but filmmakers are getting the message that audiences take pleasure in the ingenuity and textural qualities of practical effects.
At the end of the day, it’s not a battle of “analog” vs. “digital,” but a continuing realization of our fascination with dinosaurs, creatures that beg for cinematic representation through special effects because of their own status as both real (creatures that once existed) and fantasy (but that exist no more).
This semester, the IU Cinema is featuring dinosaurs on film in the series Jurassically Yours: Extinct but Not Forgotten. The next screening in the series is The Valley of Gwangi on Friday, October 5 at 5:00 pm.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.