Jurassic Park and effective restraint

JP artwork by Sam Wolfe Connelly for  Mondo .

JP artwork by Sam Wolfe Connelly for Mondo.

With Jurassic World fast approaching, the Onion AV Club has looked back at the original film, with an interesting article comparing Jurassic Park the book to Jurassic Park the movie. It argues that the latter succeeded because it shifted the focus from the adults to the kids, both on the screen and in the audience. Basically, fewer spilled intestines. 

One interesting little fact pops up In the piece: of fourteen minutes of dinosaur effects in the film, only four are CGI. For a film that is considered to be a major turning point in computer effects, that's rather astonishing. Just think how pixel-laden big films are these days, barrages of computer effects that just blur into noise. Four minutes. 

At the time of its release, a lot of fuss was made about the film's revolutionary CGI. Given how well they stand up two decades later, it was of course justified, but all of that hype detracted from how Spielberg was using those effects. He wasn't playing with the latest toy just for the sake of it (a bad habit that contemporaries such as Robert Zemeckis, George Lucas and James Cameron have fallen into); he only used CGI when it was absolutely necessary. There's a whole lot of model work, animatronics and puppetry in there too – it's the blending of it all that makes it work. Using the most appropriate effect to get the shot to tell the story, that's all that matters.  

And those shots are used with incredible restraint. Technical difficulties on Jaws taught Spielberg how to be economical with effects and spectacle, and that really pays off in Jurassic Park. It could've just been shot after shot after shot of dinosaurs dinosauring, but it isn't. Rather than show you the great big awesome thing every time, Spielberg points the camera the other way. He's more interested in showing people responding to what's occurring off-screen. It's about combining action with reaction, and keeping the story focussed on the characters rather than the events. 

(This approach pops up in numerous Spielberg films, most notably War of the Worlds. It isn't his greatest film, but it's a masterclass in concealment. There is enormous, terrifying action throughout, but we're not allowed to look it. We hear it, we glance at obscured reflections of it, we see the aftermath of it, we watch as people watch it. The entire film is a call to our horrible, horrible imaginations. Of course, this is all very apt – the invaders ultimately succumb to an unseen enemy.)

To delve deeper into what Spielberg was doing on and off screen, it's well worth tracking down the fantastic The Making of Jurassic Park. I'm surprised it's not back in print – it deserves to be expanded and given the chunky, hardcover treatment of the recent Star Wars making-of books.