The Jurassic Park Period: How CGI Dinosaurs Transformed Film Forever

The 1993 thriller, returning to theaters this weekend in 3D, marked the second time Steven Spielberg started a new era in cinema—for better and for worse.
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Steven Spielberg, for all his achievements, will always be first remembered for how his little (big) shark movie set the mold for a new kind of film: the summer blockbuster. Thanks to Jaws's eager-to-thrill filmmaking and box-office success in 1975 (coupled with Star Wars's impact two years later), the entire cinematic landscape shifted as producers and executives translated "We're going to need a bigger boat" to "We're going to need bigger movies." For better or worse, concept-driven, big-budget, escapist entertainment became the dominant component of the movie calendar and Hollywood business model.

But a little more than 20 years later, Spielberg would bring about another, nearly as epochal change. Jurassic Park, which sees a nationwide rerelease in 3D this weekend, ushered in our current era of films dominated by computer-generated images (CGI)—and stands, like Jaws, as an example of how great movies can beget great change, in part by inspiring a generation of not-so-great movies.

When Jurassic Park was released in 1993, CGI was still largely unproven both in the industry and at the box office. Hollywood was hesitant to gamble on high-tech special effects in the wake of the financial costs and middling returns for of Tron. Film critic J. Hoberman, in his book Film After Film, gives that one movie the dubious distinction of being "credited with (or blamed for) delaying CGI-based cinema for a decade." The result being, as industry expert Ron Miller tells us in Special Effects: An Introduction to Movie Magic, that even into the early '90s "directors were still wary of computer-generated special effects," in spite of better and better technology.

Part of this was because moviegoers had yet to accept CGI as anything more than a novelty. As journalist David Morgan observed in 1993, "audiences were always aware that what they were watching was carefully crafted special effects." Which is why for all of Terminator 2: Judgment Day's success and technological innovation, its effects didn't so much sweep audiences away as it did elicit "How did they do that?" reactions. For effects to truly break, their creators had to advance the technology to the point where the seam between illusion and reality completely disappeared.

Jurassic Park did that. Spielberg told Tom Shone (for Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer) that when he saw Industrial Light and Magic's first test shots of the dinosaurs, he felt as though he was "watching our future unfolding on the TV screen." George Lucas, who was also there, recalled "it was like one of those moments in history, like the invention of the light bulb or the first telephone call... A major gap had been crossed and things were never going to be the same." He was right. In the words of Shone: "Jurassic Park heralded a revolution in movies as profound as the coming of sound in 1927."

Jurassic Park's revolution was technological, but more importantly, it was popular. If Spielberg and Lucas saw the future of cinema in those shots, it was the public who made that future a reality. Sam Neill and Laura Dern's stunned awe upon seeing a real-looking brachiosaur on its hind legs eating from a tree was a perfect mirror of our own. Audiences believed. When that dinosaur's feet came down with a thud, the reverberations rippled past dumbstruck viewers and into moviemaking itself.

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Alexander Huls is a writer based in Toronto. He has contributed to The New York TimesEsquire, Hazlitt, and others. 

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