The Magic of Practical Effects: An Open Letter to the Makers of Jurassic World 2

[Important Update: It seems the “news” of no new animatronic dinosaurs in the Jurassic films was based on reactions that misinterpreted what the director had said, so I have deleted the paragraph that linked to the news sites. However, I will keep this post up mainly because its point is still an important one in this age of CGI. And I guess I can still leave most of it as an open letter to ask for more than one robotic dinosaur in the upcoming movies.]

It’s no secret that dinosaurs and Jurassic Park are a huge part of my life. I have always loved the movies for so convincingly bringing to life these “leviathans of ancient history” (in the words of Steven Spielberg), on a level that no other movie has matched. Suspension of disbelief came all the easier when you could believe the dinosaurs were there. Rather than merely watching a dinosaur chase a character around, you felt as if you were truly face-to-face with creatures both beautiful and terrifying.

One of the most powerful ways the makers of Jurassic Park accomplished such a task was to painstakingly build animatronic dinosaurs that could move and blink, and actually be there on-set, so the actors’ performances would be all the more convincing. They had more to act with than a green screen or tennis ball. CGI was generally reserved for shots that couldn’t be obtained with a robot or puppet. And it forced the CGI crew to make their contributions photorealistic, because they had a life-sized reference on the set to guide their creative process.

As a direct result of this marriage between computers and physical effects, the Jurassic Park series has given us some of the most magical and thrilling moments in movie history. The T. rex’s escape and the ailing Triceratops in the first movie, Sarah Harding petting a baby Stegosaurus in The Lost World, the Pteranodon attack in Jurassic Park III.

As much as I loved Jurassic World, one of my only issues was the relative dearth of animatronic dinosaurs on the screen. But there was this one moment…(mild spoiler ahead)

For those of you who have seen Jurassic World: didn’t the scene with the dying Apatosaurus get to you on some level the other scenes didn’t? I admit, I shed tears during that scene, and still get choked up watching it. I believe that scene so much more than the CGI Velociraptors (which are admittedly quite well done). You actually feel something for this gentle giant, mauled to death by the Indominus Rex.

As the success of this scene and Mad Max: Fury Road proved this year (to say nothing of the crazy excitement for practical effects in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), audiences still have an obvious passion for practical effects, if only the movie’s creators and company allow them to be used. Someone in Hollywood has to finally be taking notice that we’re getting tired of the over-reliance on computers that lessened the impact and suspension of disbelief in Avengers and the Hobbit Trilogy.

So I write this post as a plea to those who can make the decisions for the next Jurassic sequels. I ask of you, please keep the magic alive. Help us, as an audience, suspend disbelief. Please keep practical effects, for more than one scene or one dinosaur. The effects crews – and audiences the world over – will thank you, and you’ll give us more of those cinematic moments we’ll never forget.

Kindest regards,

John K. Patterson

Copyright belongs to Universal. Collected from http://jurassicpark.wikia.com/wiki/Apatosaurus

Copyright belongs to Universal. Collected from http://jurassicpark.wikia.com/wiki/Apatosaurus

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A Brighter Day for Paleontology? Switek Steps Down

Edit: June 05, 2013

Evidently, reacting to a link I stumbled across on another paleontologist’s site and then having something critical to say about it is clear proof of “trolling” in Mr. Switek’s mind, just because I’ve criticized him in the past, and I must be someone who’s obsessed and out to “get” him.

Or maybe I saw him doing something I cannot stand (condescending to others if they don’t see the world like he does, and making mountains out of paleontological mole hills), and tried multiple times to call him out for it. Either way, I neither threaten him nor trawl his account for excuses to snipe at him, nor do I call him names. Nothing that I can remember, in any case. If I think he says something that insults my intelligence, I’ll say so. But his best excuse is “go away and shut up.” Which of course doesn’t go over well with me, since I see a problem in his treatment of other people that’s still not getting solved.

Is that “trolling,” or being an annoying busybody? Either way, it’s not laudable. I apologize for sometimes being frustrated. I confess I should have let it go long ago, something I already admitted. For honesty’s sake, I’d just love to see him treat others with more respect and more open-mindedness. But fine. I’ll gladly stop paying him attention. He already gets far too much as it is.

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After four years, Brian Switek is leaving his “Dinosaur Tracking” Blog for the Smithsonian and moving on to what I hope are bigger and better things. Though I wish him the best of luck (honest, I do), I confess that I’m glad about it. Sorry, fellow paleo-nerds.

Here’s the thing: I wanted to love Switek’s blog. I really did. There are many informative posts, I admire and envy his depth and breadth of knowledge, and his devotion to scientific accuracy is quite laudable.

Here’s the problem: His concern for scientific accuracy was rarely expressed in a constructive light. Most of the time it was excessive griping about how movies and TV shows don’t portray dinosaurs quite as accurately as museums and the peer-reviewed literature, or bemoaning all the “inexcusable” mistakes the public at large was making about dinosaurs. At one point he even asked the media to “leave dinosaurs alone” because he couldn’t stand the inaccuracies.

But that’s like asking science fiction movies to “leave space alone” because they rarely get their astrophysics right. I don’t recall Neil DeGrasse Tyson stating that we should stop making space operas. And for all their inaccuracies, Star Wars and Star Trek somehow inspired a whole generation of scientists, engineers, and astronauts.

Wait, inaccurate movies inspiring people toward science and education?! No. Freaking. Way. Imagine that! Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for Jurassic Park to keep inspiring kids to become paleontologists, even with its featherless Velociraptors and poisonous Dilophosaurs.

Not that science isn’t important — of course it is! And I am not saying entertainers have license to throw accuracy to the wind — they should make an effort, most of the time. But entertainment has purposes besides educating people about all the minutiae of scientific accuracy. Sometimes you just get a better story by fudging a couple of details. And if it is somehow a flaw or a mistake, it’s not the end of the world (today’s date notwithstanding). It’s best to shrug it off and let it go, rather than hop onto a Smithsonian blog and sniffle at all those uneducated masses, as they make errors so tremendous and damaging, they’d be better off just leaving dinosaurs to the professionals.

I’ll listen gladly to other paleontologists, thank you, namely those who allow people to imagine and exercise a little artistic license.

Characters Need to Feel the Burn

…whether by real fire, a horrible boss who’s always on his case, or a gallon of coffee in his lap.

One of the lessons I’ve been learning and applying recently in fiction writing is that characters (especially main characters) should suffer in some way, throughout the story. They cannot only have fun as the tale goes through its motions, and they cannot be given everything they want, certainly not at the moment they want it — where’s the drama in ordering a cup of coffee and getting it without incident?

And they can’t always shrug it off when they aren’t getting their way. If nothing is important to them, why would the reader think it important? Protagonists need to be hit where it hurts, because then the reader is more invested in their story. Pain breeds empathy, and the more your reader can connect with your character, the better.

To demonstrate, I will link to a hysterically funny clip from the Robot Chicken Star Wars parody, about Emperor Palpatine’s visit to the second Death Star. All copyrights and such belong to Adult Swim, Robot Chicken, Cartoon Network, etc. Go check it out.

Are you back? All right. That should start to give you a general idea of what happens to characters worth reading about: throughout the story, things keep happening that get in their way. Whether it’s from external conflict or their inner flaws and fears, characters’ journeys should not be easy.

Keep the pressure on your character by having new tortures thrown at them, or else one half of the novel will rivet your eyes to the page, and the other half will drag you, bored, through cold and dull mud. Readers want to read about people triumphing over adversity, not going for a pleasant stroll in the countryside without drama or danger.

Of course, there are many ways to make someone suffer, and different people should encounter adversity in various ways. Depending on the effect and the kind of story you’re telling, your character doesn’t need to be in constant pain or terror. It seems less than honest when the character (and reader) gets no chance at all to breathe and gather their thoughts. It varies, and you might have to trust your instinct a little. Tristan Thorn got to relax, smile, and take in the scenery quite a bit in Stardust, and Buttercup and Westley had many tender moments together in The Princess Bride, with episodes of adventure and peril in between. On the other hand, Arya Stark hardly ever catches a breather from trauma and tragedy in Game of Thrones, and Kvothe in Name of the Wind similarly has a devil of a time navigating a city or a magical academy on his own initiative.

Even if they win in the end, your beloved characters should get a rough ride. Now for the real challenge: to try applying that in my own work….