How We Made The Iconic T-Rex of Jurassic Park

by Shannon Shea

Mike Trcic and Shannon Shea take a break on the Jurassic Park set

Mike Trcic and Shannon Shea take a break on the Jurassic Park set

In the Summer of 1991, at Stan Winston studios, Stan, the man himself, announced that he was bidding on Jurassic Park. To myself, and fellow studio artist, Mike Trcic, this came as no surprise. We already knew about author Michael Crichton’s book since we had both already read his unpublished manuscript that had been leaked to us early. Stan Winston, at the time, was the biggest special makeup effects studio in Hollywood, so why wouldn’t he be in the running to make full-scale mechanical dinosaurs.

“We worked on that movie forever, “ recalls Trcic, “I remember having to hide the Jurassic Park artwork, every time (director) James Cameron came by to visit the studio.” Artist, Crash McCreery, and Trcic had begun preliminary artwork for Jurassic Park during the building of the effects for Cameron’s Terminator 2. I will add that this is absolutely the truth. In fact, after Stan Winston studios wrapped T2, the only employees left in the shop were Mike Trcic and I. We continued to work on the 1/5th scale Tyrannosaurus Rex sculpture while everyone else took a hiatus.

During that time, Stan would drop in and give us notes on the sculpture, which Mike reminded me was originally going to be used as a rod/mechanical puppet similar to the miniature Queen Alien (from Aliens) that had been sculpted at Stan Winston’s but had been finished and mechanized by Doug Beswick’s company.

Mike Trcic in the early stages of the 1/5th scale T-Rex sculpts a T-Rex skull as Shannon Shea, working on Terminator 2 ash bodies looks on in the background.

Mike Trcic in the early stages of the 1/5th scale T-Rex sculpts a T-Rex skull as Shannon Shea, working on Terminator 2 ash bodies looks on in the background.

Trcic's 1/16th scale T-Rex sculpture intended for use as a go-motion puppet.

Trcic’s 1/16th scale T-Rex sculpture intended for use as a go-motion puppet.

Trcic recalls, “I remember seeing dailies of a shot over the full-scale Rex onto Sam Neill holding a flare and thinking that it looked like a miniature puppet just placed close to the camera. There was no sense of scale. I approached (producer) Lata Ryan and said that it looked like a miniature – why didn’t we just make the rod puppet? She answered that the full sized Rex was more impressive for publicity and to attract product placement tie-ins.”

The truth of the matter was that it had to be done. Full-sized mechanical dinosaurs had never been attempted in motion pictures and director Steven Spielberg was promising the public a dinosaur experience like they had never had before. Until Jurassic Park, movies like One Million Years, B.C. and The Valley of Gwangi had been delivered to the screen by the expert hands of stop-motion animator, Ray Harryhausen.

However, in the wake of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Harryhausen’s aesthetic was seen as a novelty and had less impact on the movie going public. Stop-motion animator and Harryhausen protege, Phil Tippett was signed onto Jurassic Park to do shots too complicated to do with the full-sized puppets or the scaled-down rod puppets using a technique he developed at ILM he called “go-motion” which moved an animation model via a stepper-motor during the single frame exposure. The result was that the animation exhibited realistic “motion blurring” rather than the stuttering effect that resulted from projecting a series of still-frames.

Chris Swift assists Shannon Shea and Mike Trcic with the 1/5th scale T-Rex Sculpture.

Chris Swift assists Shannon Shea and Mike Trcic with the 1/5th scale T-Rex Sculpture.

Trcic details the full-scale Rex head.

Trcic details the full-scale Rex head.

Mike Trcic also sculpted a 1/16th scale Tyrannosaurus that was to be used for Phil’s go-motion. Mike says “I had to sculpt the (1/6th scale) model in a neutral position so that Phil (Tippett) could put an armature inside it and animate it, so the legs were splayed out. When Horizon toys released the model kits of the dinosaurs from the original molds, they didn’t fix it, so it looked ridiculous!”

Ironically, what Jurassic Park did was to kick open the door to hyper-realistic computer generated imagery, and the eventual rise in the perception that practical puppets and go-motion are not cost-effective visual effects options.

When I asked Mike how he felt about sculpting what has become the defining image of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, he answers, “Whenever I search Google images for a Tyrannosaurus Rex, most of the art I see is based on the original JP Rex. It’s a shame that people just accept that somehow it IS what a T-Rex looked like. It’s limiting because unless someone can travel back 65 million years, how can anyone be completely sure?”

Mike Trcic is a Southwest sculptor living and working in Sedona, Arizona. Check out his work at www.TrcicStudio.com

Shannon Shea continues to work in motion picture visual effects. Check out his page at www.shannonsheaeffects.com and his new book, “I’m Rubber, You’re Glue.” All photos for this article are courtesy of Shannon Shea.