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At one point in Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World: Dominion, the hero human characters appear cornered behind an upturned Jeep by a Giganotosaurus. In a move that is perhaps somewhat against the trend in modern-day filmmaking, the actors performed that scene with a life-size practical Giganotosaurus animatronic, built by John Nolan Studio, which had been built and shot with the intention of the head section of the animatronic being retained in the final shot.

Indeed, the visual effects team, led by ILM senior visual effects supervisor David Vickery, would extend the remainder of the Giganotosaurus in several shots, matching their CG creature to the practical build. It was a technique used in many sequences throughout Dominion, as Vickery and creature effects supervisor John Nolan explain to befores & afters in this wide-ranging interview about the mix of practical and digital effects in the film.

Pushing for practical

b&a: David, I think the audience responds so well to having practical creatures here, and clearly, the digital dinos are always brilliant in these films as well. Is there something you can say this time around about the mix of practical and digital?

David Vickery: Definitely. I think our instincts were good on Fallen Kingdom, the previous film, to use animatronics and physical dinosaurs as much as we could. But I don’t think we exploited it enough, and I think that there were a number of scenes in Fallen Kingdom that were written specifically because Colin Trevorrow felt like animatronics would work in that context. What we wanted to try and do here on Dominion was break that mold a little bit, and use them as much as we could, but also make sure that we didn’t replace them. That was the key thing, that we could keep them in the final shots.

So, John and I spent a long time trying to make sure that we were as in sync as possible with creature design development, the rigs, the way they moved, the way we puppeteered them, so that we didn’t replace them in post-production, but that we could extend and enhance them. That was the difference here.

And, you’re right, yeah. There’s an audience connection to animatronics, massively. We’re all of the generation where The Dark Crystal, The Labyrinth, etc., have a very, very firm place in our hearts and we wanted to revisit that. But it’s not just about the audience here. The performers on set, the actors, the director, the DP, you can frame something, you can light for something, you can direct a performance in real-time, you can interact.

In fact, it’s not just the actors on set that can interact with the creatures, but the creatures can interact with them. I said this to someone the other day. If you had two actors on set, you’d never take one of them away and go, ‘Hey, you just perform against the tennis ball, and then we’re going to get the other actor in and we’re going to get them to perform against the tennis ball.’ It’s the same with a dinosaur and a human, they can react with each other. The dinosaurs are the star of this show, let’s not forget that. People go and pay money to see Bryce and Chris, of course, but they go and pay money to see Blue and Beta and a T-Rex, and they’re just as much of a star in this franchise.

b&a: John, do you want to talk about that as well?

John Nolan: I agree. Maybe Colin was also referencing the films from his childhood. And when you look at some of the directors back in the day, of films from the ’80s, maybe they were referencing their childhoods as well. Like Spielberg referencing the ‘50s in his films. And now maybe it’s Colin’s turn. He’s referencing films that he grew up on in the late ’70s and early ’80s, which are obviously full of practical effects. Maybe it’s our turn, and we’re referencing what we were brought up on, which is practical effects.

b&a: What was it like when you first came on board this film, John?

John Nolan: When Colin invited me to Pinewood to have a first meeting with him, it was just in Colin’s office, and it was just so simple. He sat me down and he said, ‘Do you like dinosaurs?’ I don’t think I’ve been asked that since I was a child. And I said, ‘Yes.’ He goes, ‘Cool. Do you want to make some?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He goes, ‘Okay, you got the job.’ That’s it, literally. It was the best interview ever

Then he literally pulled out a list of dinosaurs, and then you could see the ambition and the workload for us as well, because there wasn’t a huge amount of time. Giga (Giganotosaurus) wasn’t on that list at the time, luckily, otherwise I might have walked out. But the list was amazing, and just showed that they really wanted to try as much as they could in-camera, and have that connection, like David said, with the audience.

b&a: Was there much R&D you needed to do in terms of animatronics, hydraulics and skin for the dinos?

John Nolan: We really wanted to push silicon in this film. We use a lot of silicon in the work we do here at the studio. It just gives you that translucency and a different look to foam latex. I love foam latex because it’s nice and light for the performers and, of course, it looks opaque and tough, like crocodile skin or dinosaur skin, but what silicon gives you is that translucency.

You can paint silicon as if it’s opaque, so you can make it look tougher. But then of course, when a wing opens, say, you can actually pass light through, and you can see the blood and the veins. We felt that was something that we wanted to explore with regards to the skin.

We also worked early with the animation team to work out dinosaur movement, that is, bringing movement into our own practical dinosaurs. We were able to connect with visual effects more than ever. We all share the same technology, such as 3D sculpting with ZBrush, for example. We were supplied some walking rigs from visual effects so that we could try and get that into our performance as well. It worked both ways–the puppeteered performance would also feed into the CG dinosaurs.

David Vickery: We really tried to be one department. There was creature effects, special effects, visual effects, and the art department. We were working to the same goal, we were working together, and we were handing these creatures off between each other the whole way through production.

b&a: How did that work in practice? Was ILM, say, building models first, and then handing them off, or did sometimes the model come from creature effects?

David Vickery: Production designer Kevin Jenkins was the first port of call with all of these creature designs. He would create clay sculpts. He worked with paleo artists very early on because, really, we had to start with the science. There’s no point in just trying to make this stuff up.