Jurassic Park: the simple genius behind its lowest tech, most effective effects shot

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For the all the ingenuity that went into Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, arguably its most effective visual effect involved a simple guitar.

It’s been namechecked a few times on this site in recent weeks, but the documentary series Light & Magic – now streaming on Disney+ – is very much worth seeking out. If, like me, you’re a movie nerd of a certain vintage, then you’ll have seen the film industry change pretty much before your eyes, as the practical effects of old gave way to digital techniques. Light & Magic charts this by telling the story of effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic – ILM to its mates – and the episode where the onus is primarily on 1993’s Jurassic Park is fascinating.


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What it gives us a glimpse of is what Steven Spielberg’s dino blockbuster could have been, and indeed was going to be, until digital effects took hold.

We see footage of a stop motion dinosaur, replete with a reptilian tongue popping in and out of its mouth. And as we know, that work was trampled when Spielberg and his team saw an animated test of a Tyrannosaurus Rex being developed at ILM. The film pivoted overnight, and the effects industry wasn’t far behind. It’s hard not to wonder just what Jurassic Park would have been had Spielberg got to it just a year earlier.

That said, Jurassic Park still marks something of a bridge between the old and the new. Stan Winston built and created animatronic creatures that hold the screen too, and there’s a fair amount of practical work against surprisingly little CGI in the final feature. It just happened to be the CG that dominated the headlines.

Still, what’s the most iconic shot in the entire film? What’s the one moment you look at and instantly know what you’re watching? The first T-Rex attack is a good candidate, certainly. The Velociraptor’s head poking through the all and startling Laura Dern as well. Or what about the first glimpse of a park of extinct creatures?

All qualify. But I think the two standouts remain Richard Attenborough walking in the direction of the camera – although not looking at it – and uttering the line “Welcome to Jurassic Park”.

And then, above them all, this one…

A glass of water, on the dashboard of a car. The water rippling. It’s movie shorthand for “we’re in deep shit”, and so it proves just just a tiny wait longer in the film.

Yet when you sit and think about it, it’s quite difficult to make a glass of water ripple just by itself. Sure, the ILM team could bring gigantic dinosaurs to life on screen, but a small practical effect required a different kind of ingenuity to achieve.

The idea for the glass in the first place had come from Spielberg himself. Turns out that he was driving around playing his music a little too loud, and he’d popped a few tunes by Earth, Wind & Fire on his no-doubt economic in-car stereo. Then he noticed the effect that the heavy bass of the music was having in the car. Things were vibrating (not like that, mucky), and he had a lightbulb moment. What, when the dinosaur was thumping towards the car in his dino film, if there was a glass of water with circular ripples that denoted something was approaching.

Terrific idea, people agreed. Let’s do that. But, er, how do you do it?

It took a little bit of work from Michael Lantieri of ILM to crack the problem, and he solved it fairly late in the day. He got on the phone to sound engineers to try and work out how to do it in the first instance. An assortment of approaches were tried, but to no effect. Wave tank generators were acquired for instance, and the kind of technology that comes as part of a half-decent fish tank was considered.

Lantieri was on the edge of cracking the challenge, but hadn’t quite got there. And on the night before they were due to shoot the necessary moment, he went back to where Spielberg had begun: music. Out came Lantieri’s guitar and he started playing and experimenting. With a glass of water at hand, he then tried something simple. He put said glass on the guitar itself and plucked a strong. And what do you know: he got the necessary vibration and ripple in the water, just as Spielberg had wanted.

Steven Spielberg in a promotional shot for Jurassic Park

There was still a little bit of work to do when he rocked up at ILM the next day. The effects team needed to do a bit of rigging of the car itself where the water was going to see. No computer graphics here though. They simply ran guitar strings through the car, and put the water in position. Then, one lucky recruit got to lie on the floor of the car and be that day’s chosen plucker. He plucked the strings, the water rippled. Spielberg got his shot.

Thinking back to the promotion of the film, the water ripple was pretty much unavoidable back in 1993 as Universal Pictures’ marketing department swung into action. In fact, prior to release – and this was before the internet would have spoiled things too – it held back virtually every image of a dinosaur from the film. Instead, the logo for the film was everywhere, and the marketing focused on the promise of dinosaurs, and the tease of a small glass of water being gently displaced.

Only when Jurassic Park made it into cinemas and had been playing a week or so were the dinosaurs themselves allowed out into television spots and such like. But by that stage, no matter: the glass of water has become an iconic image from the 1990s’ giant sized blockbuster hit.

It’s not a moment that you see in Light & Magic, but it’s the kind of quiet ingenuity that oftentimes flies off radar, yet arguably deserves to be celebrated as much as any extinct creature snatching a lawyer off a toilet.

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