The Unnerving Presence of a Full-Size Velociraptor at Stan Winston Studios (Photo courtesy of TyRuben Ellingson)
Avatar. Spawn. Twister. Hellboy. Elysium. TyRuben Ellingson’s career in visualizing the fantastic has taken him behind the scenes on some of the greatest visual effects milestones of the past 20 years.
As Jurassic World stampedes across more than 4,000 North American movie screens this week, Ellingson shares remembrances of the effort that went into bringing Spielberg’s landmark thrill ride to life 22 years ago.
Ellingson – the visual effects art director for the original Jurassic Park – literally shed blood, sweat and tears to make movie magic. Read on for Ellingson’s insider perspective on the past, present and future of Hollywood VFX:
Tell me a bit about how you got your start at Industrial Light & Magic.
This is one of those questions that’s quite difficult to be concise about. If I had to boil it down, the avenue which opened up and allowed for me to move from drawing in my father’s studio as a kid to a desk at ILM was created, in large part, by a process I still make use of and share with my students today. The process (or perhaps practice would be a better word) is centered on the development of a strategic belief system with three parts:
I’m sure many of your readers will be familiar with this practice. It’s been around forever because when put into use – very focused, very committed, very dynamic use – it produces results.
At some point after seeing Star Wars, perhaps midway through my undergraduate art program, but for sure by the time I finished graduate school, I got very serious about finding a way to work at Industrial Light & Magic. By the time my university degree was finished, I was on an unstoppable mission, I made up my mind to “just do it” (in the words of Shia LaBeouf), and though I was living in Dallas at the time, I went about reaching out to everyone I knew – everyone I could introduce myself to, everyone who did anything at all related to film making – and I would express to them in no uncertain terms, “I need to get to ILM, can you please assist me?” And over time, the path opened. Intention matters.
To be clear, I was always a motivated creative, and as such, my portfolio was in good condition. So, when I became aware that a friend of a friend of a friend had contacts inside of Lucasfilm, I was prepared to ask him for an introduction – which he provided. From there, I was able to arrange an interview, for which I flew out to San Francisco in the summer of 1989. That interview evolved into a job opportunity, so I packed up my pickup truck and moved. I was in. (Later in life, I used this same practice to arrive on Avatar, but that’s a story for another time).
Tell me a bit about your role while you were working on Jurassic Park.
ILM established a core production team for each project comprised of three individuals: the effects supervisor, effects producer and effects art director (which, in the case of Jurassic Park, was me).
This core team of people mirrored the larger production of the film in that the effects supervisor acted like a director – the person responsible for actually overseeing the creation of the effects. The effects producer, like the film’s producer, was responsible for scheduling and budgeting the effects shots. And the effects art director, like the art director on the overall film, was available to provide creative assistance and production support.
Creative work was always the most exciting for me (and all other VFX art directors, I’m sure) as it has a direct impact on what makes it onto screen. On Jurassic Park, for example, I did several small study drawings of what the shots establishing the dinosaurs in the park might look like: how they might be framed and staged, etc.
On the production support side, I painted digital maps used for placing color on the brontosaurus and parasaurolophus (the latter only glimpsed in the final film) and a great number of storyboards.
Because much of the production’s use of CGI was so new, everyone was challenged to be nimble and flexible. Everyone was excited; it was a really amazing time.
From my perspective, even as someone who worked on the picture and witnessed the creation of Jurassic Park step-by-step, I don’t think anyone was prepared for what the movie actually contained – that being the unexpected arrival of real living dinosaurs – and it simply blew audience’s minds.
Storyboard Courtesy of TyRuben Ellingson
I’ve heard your hilarious story about the way you added a memorable flourish to the Gallimimus stampede scene in Jurassic Park. Would you mind retelling it?
Yeah, the un-athletic Gallimimus tumble … On the ILM side of Jurassic Park production there are many interesting behind-the-scenes tales. The one you’ve alluded to came about as a direct result of CGI being such an altogether new way of creating effects and all the unknowns that go with it.
The Gallimimus stampede was envisioned by Steven Speilburg from the beginning to be one of the film’s big set pieces. It was envisioned as being very dynamic and cinematic, while at the same time, very grounded in nature as if it was shot out in the wild with real animals.
At some point after shots had been blocked out and plates shot in Hawaii, conversation arose concerning the stampede sequence – specifically the moment where the frightened Gallimimuses lunge over a large fallen tree.
Though I can’t remember exactly how the plan was hatched, the idea of shooting some Gallimimus reference footage came up. Why not get a group of Jurassic Park personnel to run and leap over a scale version of the fallen tree, and in so doing, provide valuable insight into how groups of individuals might jockey for position in a frantic attempt to make it over that log and away from the snapping jaws of death breathing down their necks?
To pull such a test shoot together, as the show’s effects art director, I worked with the model shop in getting large plastic pipes up on supports and in a configuration that matched the plate photography.
These big constructions were then set up in one of the parking lots, weighted down with sandbags to keep them in place. Then, on a sunny afternoon, a small camera crew set up the shot to match the lens and reference.
When the scheduled time arrived, approximately 14 animators and I all lined up on one side of the pipe, stretched, warmed up and endeavored to get into our most informed Gallimimus head space. These pipes on their stands where actually quite high off the ground, perhaps 3 1/2 feet. Getting over them was going to mean a quick approach and putting a good amount of spring into the jump. It would take real effort, but didn’t seem altogether that hard.
Now, the thing of it is, as excited as I was to play dinosaur – in point of fact – I was a dude who never played sports as a kid, no basketball in high school, and I wasn’t a skateboarder, skier or bicycle rider. I spent my time drawing, tipping beers and watching movies. But then again, this was Jurassic Park, and it was all so new, exciting and ground-breaking. I was intent on giving it my very best. I would not be stopped.
Roll camera, take one: Not bad. We all hit our marks, cutting and jockeying for position as we approached the plastic log. But, Mother of God, it was a steep jump! To counter this realization, I went deeper into the zone.
Roll camera, take two: I’m in the zone, working my approach with the jerky movement of a scared Galli. Then I cut towards the center of the group, only to lose speed behind so many other frightened comrades. I’m at the rear of the pack, I can feel the snarling Tyrannosaurus gaining on me. The path to the log ahead of me clears and I jump!
Not good. I do not reach maximum height.
My foot catches and I find myself pile-driving towards the asphalt parking lot below, my feet still hung up on the plastic log. I swing up my arms, reach out to soften my landing, protect my head with only split-seconds to spare. Crack! Snap … and tumble.
(You can see me actually taking the header at 34:30 of this video. I have the black baseball hat on.)
What’s this? Had I broken something? No, I had shattered something. The elbow of my drawing arm! The Tyrannosaurus would surely have eaten me. I was a failed Gallimimus.
Surgery was required: bone chips removed, badius bone clipped clean with the aim of letting scar tissue develop into a kind of organic rubber band which would not hinder the movement of the remaining ulna bone and joint.
As unsettling and painful as all of this was, my only thought was, “Please don’t let this affect my credit.” That’s how much this movie meant to me.
With regards to the ultimate value of the reference footage we shot, something interesting did come out of it all. When Phil Tippett heard what had happen to me and my arm, he said, “Well, then one of the Gallis is going to need to take a fall. If it happened to Ty, it would likely have happened in the wild.” And that’s just what you will find in the film. If you watch closely, as the group of frightened gallimimus go running and leaping over the log, one does indeed stumble right between 1:02 and 1:03. Unlike me, after scuffing up patches of grass, it does scramble to its feet and continue out of frame.
Was there any motion capture work on Jurassic Park?
Not in the present understanding of that technology, there were no actors in special outfits leaping around playing raptors, for example. There was an amazing bit of technology created for animating the T-Rex called the D.I.D. (Dinosaur Input Device), which was used – in a somewhat roundabout way – to capture movement.
To understand how the D.I.D. operated, one needs to think about how traditional stop motion is done. A puppet with a posable armature inside of it is placed before a camera and photographed one frame at a time. Between each new frame, the puppet is moved a little at a time. The resulting series of frames, when played back on a monitor or projected at normal speed, results in a movie in which the puppet appears to move.
On a basic level the D.I.D. was a posable armature constructed to mimic the anatomy of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This armature was then moved a little at a time to create the desired movement of the dinosaur. However, instead of shooting individual frames onto film, the armature was fitted with digital sensors that sent electronic signals into a computer. These signals represented coordinates in X, Y, and Z space, so that the computer could place a digital “armature” inside of a virtual space.
What this ultimately meant was that a traditionally trained stop motion animator could use his wealth of skills to do computer animation without being retrained to use a computer and a mouse.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the D.I.D. proved to be less effective then envisioned due to a host of technical and physical difficulties.
The ILM Crew T-Shirt (Courtesy of TyRuben Ellingson)
Let’s fast forward to the present. What do you believe are the most significant advances in the visual effects field since Jurassic Park?
Wow, there are really a great many. I guess for me, I’d point to the incredible development of motion capture technology, which I trust is still in its infancy.
As a moviegoer during the 1990s, I recall that the pace of advancement in visual effects seemed to grow by leaps and bounds. T2, Jurassic Park, Titanic and The Matrix felt like watershed moments. Do you think the pace of change is as noticeable today to the average moviegoer?
I really don’t think so, at least not as much as back in the ’90s. The advancements today are more subtle – things are getting better, but it’s hard for the average moviegoer to put their finger on exactly why.
Additionally, people today have seen so many effects and understand that there are a great many they don’t see. So in my mind, they are not really tracking visual effects. They kind of take them for granted unless they are inferior in some way. If they stand out as being bad, then they get noticed.
Has the advent of digital cinematography affected the nature of your work? Is it easier to integrate visual fx into movies compared to the days of film stock and celluloid?
There is really no comparison. Back at the time of Jurassic Park, it was really difficult to get film footage digitized – and very hard to get digital imagery back out onto film. Now, if digital cameras are being used, the data they create is digital so that scanning hurdle is entirely erased.
I know that many are unhappy with digital cameras, digital cinematography, digital film production, etc. But to me, it’s important to remember two things: 1) digital filmmaking is still very much in its infancy and 2) there is no lid on how powerful digital technologies can ultimately become. Anything that traditional filmmaking and film projection offers, digital tools and technologies will ultimately be able to identically duplicate regardless of what it is. It is just a matter of time.
Do you approach the design process differently when you are working on a 3D feature such as Avatar or Pacific Rim?
As a concept designer, there is no difference as everything I design is, in my mind, a real object. It occupies three-dimensional space, so it is really how the design is staged and/or framed that impacts on how it appears onscreen.
Are audiences today harder to impress?
Yes and no. I think it’s harder to impress them with spectacle just because the bar on doing so has gotten so very high. One need only look at Guardians of the Galaxy, Pacific Rim, or the latest Fast and the Furious films to understand what I mean by this: It literally boggles the mind.
On the other hand, I think as human beings, we tend to be most impressed when we encounter a cinematic moment that is greater then the sum of its parts. What I mean by that is, when the story, characters, music and imagery all come together in just such a way as to truly move us. When that happens, we are impressed.
Doing such a thing as that, bringing all the pieces together in such a way as to create “magic” has always been tough and I trust always will be.