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A conversation with the dinosaur wrangler live from Jurassic World

Director Colin Trevorrow concluded the modern Jurassic World trilogy in dramatic (and familiar) fashion with Jurassic World Dominionwhich brought back many original characters and dinosaurs from the original jurassic park movies.

The Domination the team did it with a mix of practical and visual effects, in keeping with the franchise’s historic tradition of blending behind-closed-doors movie magic with groundbreaking digital animation techniques. In addition to a visual effects team led by ILM’s David Vickery, Domination relied on John Nolan Studio to create practical, animatronic creatures that added a physical component to the film’s menagerie.

Digital Trends spoke with John Nolan, who served as the live dinosaur supervisor on Jurassic World Dominionon the work he and his team did on the film.

Digital Trends: It’s so hard to see the division between animatronics and CG in a film like this, so how extensive was your team’s work on the film? How many dinosaurs did you end up creating?

John Nolan: Well, that was the most in any of Jurassic [films] so far. We have created 14 different species and 48 dinosaurs in total. The Giganotosaurus was the biggest. This one was crazy.

What goes into building dinosaurs and getting them to look and move?

All of the dinosaurs are actually designed, their size and all, by production designer Kevin Jenkins and his team. And then, of course, there’s Steven Spielberg, Steve Brusatte, the paleontologist, and all the others too. This work is therefore made easier for us.

A sculptor works on a dinosaur model for Jurassic World Dominion.

For movement, we could look to the previous films for animation of walking dinosaurs and the like, but there’s still artistic license in our work. For example, if a dinosaur needs to walk, we can look at ILM’s walk cycles and then have our puppeteers perform those walk cycles. When it comes to eye movements, mouth, tongue and all, we can also have a bit of artistic license and try things out. As long as the dinosaur is the right size, with the right scale, and moving in the right way, all those little features that we can actually have fun with and try to make it look as organic as possible.

How do you approach making the dinosaurs expressive in their facial and other movements?

Puppeteering is tricky, but if you have one puppet and you have up to 12 puppeteers, it’s almost like an orchestra performing. As soon as you get this puppet there are so many different looks you can get from it and so many different expressions. You give a good puppeteer a sock and he can make a character out of it, you know? We worked with amazing puppeteers. Derek Arnold, our puppeteer captain, is amazing. It’s a challenge, but that’s what excites us.

A model of Giganotosaurus looms in the foreground of a scene from Jurassic World Dominion.

You mentioned this one earlier, but tell me about your work on Giganotosaurus. He was one of the stars of the film, after all.

Well, we originally had a list of dinosaurs and the Giga wasn’t on it. A year into work, we heard that Colin might want this dinosaur for some in-camera scenes. So we had about six months to build it, but because of COVID and schedules and such, we started wasting time. The producers said, “We have three months to do it. Do you think you can still postpone it? What was good about Giga was that it ended up being the work of three departments working together. We had visual effects, special effects, and creature effects all working as one department to build this character.

When we were trying to find stuff that existed in 1993, there wasn’t a lot of material. We basically started with a model of ILM – sort of a 3D model in a Z-Brush sculpting program – and talked to Colin and figured out exactly what he wanted to achieve in camera. He wanted it to be right in front of Giga’s shoulders, down the back of her neck.

Sculptors work on a model of Giganotosaurus for Jurassic World Dominion.

So what went into building the hands-on version of the dinosaur?

We used a robotic arm to cut a 1:1 scale version of Giganotosaurus out of polystyrene, which became the base of our sculpture. We then skimmed the polystyrene – almost like icing on a cake – with oil-based clay, and 20 sculptors replicated every detail that exists on the CG model. Then we cast it, fabricated the skin, built the robot, and then on set we actually had the visual effects animation team control the puppet with our live control. This allowed Colin to shoot in camera as much as possible and then just extend the back of the dinosaur that isn’t there in post-production. It was a very nice way of working because it brought together the three disciplines.

And the Therizinosaurus?

I love this one, but you know what? We only did head on a stick.

Bryce Dallas Howard's character tries to hide from a dinosaur in a lagoon in a scene from Jurassic World: Dominion.

Oh good?

Yeah. That’s what was so good about the quality level of ILM and David Vickery and his team. We had a huge creature store and were building so many handy puppets, and their team would often look at what we were doing for reference. They were filming our hands-on puppets and applying this live puppet performance to their animated characters. So even though we didn’t build anything for this character, there was such a wonderful overlap and appreciation between the departments. We were influenced by them, and they were influenced by us. And I hope that shows in all the characters.

And the Pyroraptor?

We were asked to build an animatronic head for this one, but not use it in camera at all. However, the reason they wanted to build a working puppet was so the visual effects team could see the feathers and how they move on the neck. Finola McLennan, our feather and fur manager, had her team dye each feather to match Kevin Jenkins’ artwork. Each individual feather was woven into a net that went over the animatronic head. Although it didn’t make it into the film, it was such an amazing tool for ILM to have on set.

Chris Pratt stands next to a head model of a Pyroraptor on the set of Jurassic World Dominion.

Going from the dinosaurs to the other creatures built for the film, the giant locusts, what went into their creation?

Yeah, they were disgusting. Just awful. But seriously, it was lovely, because we were able to take a 3D model and then 3D print all the parts for the locusts. We had about 120 small, very small rooms. There were eight mandibles that could eat food. However, we had to get all the animatronics away from the head, because Colin wanted a lot of wet slime in his mouth. The head could move in all directions, the body could move up and down and rotate, and the four wings could lift and float.

In the movie, when they go crazy, we knew they would be supported with visual effects, so they could enhance our animatronic and spruce it up with even more movement. So when you see the grasshopper puppet in the movie, it is enhanced with CG and it looks so beautiful. We were very happy with it, because it’s great for Colin and John Schwartzman [the director of photography] to have something that they can actually shoot and light up, and the actors can interact with. This is another great crossover between the departments.

A model of Giganotosaurus looms in the background of a scene filmed for Jurassic World Dominion.

What was the hardest scene for your team? Was there a scene that had more animatronic characters than the others?

There were eight handy dinosaurs in the Maltese scene. What a crazy scene it was. For the Lystrosaurus, it was five puppeteers in a box under the floor. There were three people painted with visual effects around the Dimorphodon. We had someone with their hand on the back of the Stygimoloch, which looked like someone was trying to give birth to a cow. You can see it on the “Making Of” feature of the DVD.

But really, I would like to know if people think that certain characters are CG or in camera, because that’s part of our job: all we care about is that they believe in the character and believe that he is real.

A dinosaur model from Jurassic World Dominion.

Lots of elements were brought back from the original jurassic park for this movie. What has this experience been like for you and your team?

To be given the dinosaur relay in a Jurassic film is just an incredible honor. You look at artists and studios that have come before, and it’s just amazing. For Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern to walk into the Creature Shop and touch these puppets and tell us their 1993 filming anecdotes – it was an incredible honor to have the opportunity to do so. This is what drove so many of us to get into this business.

Directed by Colin Trevorrow, Jurassic World Dominion is now available on 4K, Blu-ray and Digital On-Demand in an extended special edition.

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