The Abyss, Jurassic Park and when CGI replaced practical effects

Jurassic Park Gareth
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From The Abyss to Men In Black, there are many films that replaced practical effects with CGI during production – we take a look at some notable examples.


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When filming The Abyss in 1988, director James Cameron was talking to Steve Johnson of XFX, Inc., the company that created the underwater aliens for the film’s finale. Cameron told him that every film needs that one movement that, no matter what, the audience will walk out of the cinema and be talking about nothing else.

For The Abyss, it was the revolutionary computer-generated imagery (or CGI) of the pseudopod, a tentacle that the aliens had created with seawater. In reality, this was 75 seconds of CGI that had taken the special effects company Industrial Light and Magic six months to create.

Cameron had taken a huge risk in incorporating this brand-new technology into his film, but he had a backup plan. If the computer graphics had failed in any capacity, the relevant scene could be edited from the film without any consequences.

Emboldened by what he saw, Cameron of course went on to direct Terminator 2 which, without the advancement of computer technology, couldn’t have been achieved. Almost everyone in the industry was very excited about this new tool and wanted to use it in their own films.

There was, however, a group of people who saw this as a threat to their livelihood. The hardworking teams of artists and technicians who had been practically creating wonderful creatures and horrific monsters for film for the past 20 years.

The blow to the industry really came with the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993. Spielberg had decided that one of the biggest practical effects magicians, Stan Winston, would build the dinosaurs full size, but for a creature the size of a T-Rex, it would be impossible to build an animatronic that could give the impression it was walking.

To achieve that on screen Phil Tippet, who animated the four-legged Imperial Walkers for The Empire Strikes Back and ED-209 for RoboCop, was hired. The plan was to use stop motion animation, the technique of animating a character by moving and photographing it one frame at a time, to create the effect of full-size walking dinosaurs.

However, unbeknownst to anyone on the Jurassic Park project, a computer animator by the name of Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams had other ideas. Williams worked at Industrial Light and Magic on the CGI for The Abyss and Terminator 2 and wanted to see if he could push it further. In his spare time at ILM, he created a T-Rex skeleton within the computer and animated it walking across a landscape.

When this was revealed to Spielberg, he was amazed at what he saw and asked if the whole film could be done this way – but with a caveat. He wanted to see a properly fleshed out dinosaur walking around in the harshest midday sun. Williams went back to the computer and worked on the shot of a T-Rex, with its skin on, walking through a field. Spielberg was sold on the second test animation and decided that CGI was to be used instead of the planned stop motion animation.

Phil Tippet was devastated exclaiming, “I’ve just become extinct!“, a line Spielberg loved and put into the film. Tippet’s talents weren’t wasted, though, because he had a huge knowledge of animal movement and behaviour, and was kept on the project to supervise the CGI animation. This ensured the dinosaurs moved, breathed and reacted in a realistic fashion, and Tippet won an Oscar for his work.

Jurassic Park was lauded for its CGI work and was a huge success around the world. Although, it’s interesting to note the final film only contains six minutes of CGI dinosaurs, with the rest created practically by Stan Winston and his crew at Stan Winston Studios. According to his son Matt, Stan initially felt hurt that everyone seemed to be ignoring his hard work, but then went out to buy several CGI workstations as he could see this was the way forward.

There has been this long-running discussion about CGI having completely replaced the practical creations used on set. While it certainly feels that way at times, seeing an actor standing in a sea of green from a behind the scenes production photo, the truth is that CGI is simply another set of tools that allow filmmakers to be creative in different ways.

As the technology has grown ever more powerful, CGI can be used to achieve almost anything. With Jurassic Park, practical on set creatures were blended together with CGI creations, but there have been times when one has completely replaced the other.

In creating The Hobbit trilogy of films, Peter Jackson had filmed scenes with actors in prosthetics to play the Gundabad Orcs. But during production, Jackson decided that the Orcs didn’t have enough of a menacing presence on screen and didn’t match his original concept. There was nothing he could do as he was mid-shoot, so once filming had finished, he decided to replace them with bigger CGI creations in post-production.

Both the Orcs that were replaced with digital versions were played on set by Conan Stevens, who also appeared in Game Of Thrones as The Mountain Who Rides, a series he left so he could appear in The Hobbit films. Here he is in full Orc prosthetics and costume in the role of Bolg. You won’t see him in the film, as the final CGI character was used instead.
Bolg in The Hobbit, made with practical effects (left) and CGI (right).


There have been times when a film director has made this change, but didn’t keep the special effects guys in the loop. This happened on the production of The Thing, the 2011 prequel to the John Carpenter-directed classic of the same name released in 1982.

The Thing (1982) wasn’t a success when it first opened in theatres, but has since become a cult classic. It’s worth noting the excellent practical on set creations that were realised by special effects artist Rob Bottin in order to bring the alien creature to life.

First time director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. wanted his prequel film to be in keeping with the original film and have all of his monsters built for real. When speaking to Den of Geek he revealed, “well, the initial plan – slightly naïve, maybe – was to build everything practically. Which is great to have on set, because if someone kicks open a door and there’s a monster standing there, you don’t have to act much. They’re reacting to what they’re seeing – you don’t have to explain to the actor what they’re seeing. Whether they’re believable or not, it’s so much better than in these Star Wars movies where they have to pretend there’s something there. Although we shot the film practically, at the end of the day, it didn’t hold up. It looked a bit like an 80s movie, actually, which for some people is really special, but perhaps not in 2010, 2011. So, we enhanced it with CG.”

When asked what the CGI to practical ratio was, he replied, “It was mostly overlying stuff we’d already shot, but as a percentage, I think it’s 70 to 30.

This came as a surprise to ADI (Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.) who created and built all of the on-set monsters for the film. You can find multiple on set videos of ADI working on The Thing over on their YouTube channel, including a huge monster that was to be seen in the film’s finale but was replaced with a CGI creation.

Videos of ADI’s founders, Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, speaking at The Thing’s premiere reveal them talking diplomatically about the visual effects work, as you might expect. As far as they knew, their practical work was going to be enhanced with a CGI, not entirely replaced.

Sometime after seeing the final cut of The Thing, Gillis was reported as saying, after the The Thing 2011 came and went, we had some post-partum depression. Our designs survived mostly intact, but the animatronics themselves were so worked over that we felt we could have done the designs and stayed home. It’s not the first time this has happened. Everybody including Rick Baker and Stan Winston has had their work ‘enhanced’ or replaced by CG.

In an interview with Bloody Disgusting, The Thing screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, also agreed that the original intention was to use practical work all through the film. “I got this job going in with the firm, fervid belief that no CGI should ever be in this movie. That it should be all practical. We are creating a very grounded psychological thriller and part of that paranoia with the monster movie is to have the monsters as real and as grounded as everything else we’re making around them.

In the same interview, he states that the director, van Heijningen Jr., wanted the practical effects to stay and, “stuck with for as long as he could and for his reasons.” As this was a film with a first-time director, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that Universal may have had different ideas and van Heijningen Jr.’s decisions were overruled.

Alec Gillis mentioned the work of Rick Baker, another legendary special effects artist. Baker created the amazing werewolf transformation sequence for An American Werewolf In London and turned actor Ron Perlman into Hellboy. Just two examples from a long list of impressive work spanning over four decades.

Baker was hired to work on the 1997 film Men In Black, to apply special make up effects and create the alien creatures. If you haven’t seen the film, the main protagonist is an alien who crash lands on Earth. To try and blend in, he takes the skin of a farmer called Edgar, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. After disguising himself, he barely looks human and this was achieved via Bakers work.

In the original draft of the film’s finale, “Edgar”, who’d revealed his alien form to Jay (Will Smith), was to have a philosophical discussion with him. Baker tells the tale of the creature’s design. “In the script, Edgar was always mentioned as a bug. There were numerous bug references throughout. So, during the initial preproduction design phase, we did a lot of drawings that looked like bugs. But Barry Sonnenfeld (the director of Men In Black) and Steven Spielberg seemed to have another idea in mind, and the creature evolved into something decidedly un-bug like. It became a mix-and-match kind of thing — the legs from one drawing, the head from another, the torso from yet another. Eventually they approved a design that looked nothing at all like a bug, but rather more like a reptile.”

Baker recalls that all through the process he was concerned the monster shouldn’t talk at all, as that would detract from what makes it scary. His concerns were played down by Sonnenfeld who just kept pressing on with the idea that the ‘Edgar’ bug had to talk.

Rick Baker and his team spent months sculpting and building two highly detailed 15 foot animatronic bugs for the finale. One bug was a full representation of the creature which could perform a walking function. The second bug was built from the waist up only and featured moving arms and a fully animatronic head that would be able to fully articulate and speak with Will Smith.

Unbeknownst to Baker and his crew, the script was going through several changes. They diligently kept on working and when the day came to film their animatronic bugs, they were taken to set. However, the philosophical discussion had been scrapped. The script now called for Jay to try and stop the ‘Edgar’ bug from reaching a spacecraft in order to escape Earth – the finale as it exists in the finished film.

Sonnenfeld wanted the bug to perform in this new action-orientated finale, except there was a problem. The ‘Edgar’ bug was incompatible for the sequences they wanted to shoot; it was designed to have a conversation. The decision was made and the ‘Edgar’ bugs were not even filmed. Instead, the design was sent over to Industrial Light and Magic. They tweaked and changed the bugs appearance to fit the new ending when creating an all-new CGI version, as seen in the finished film.

You can watch Rick Baker talk about the ‘Edgar’ bug and see the creature for yourself in this video from 2015.

These are just three examples of when CGI has been used to replace practical work, but there’s plenty more. Such as when Lou Ferrigno might have been a demon in Bedazzled. Remember the CGI creatures from Will Smith’s I Am Legend? Here’s an impressive but discarded real life concept by special effects artist Steve Johnson.

While there are valid reasons for this practice of CGI replacing practical creations, I just wanted to share the amazing artistry and talent of these hard-working people and the amazing creations that normally go unseen.

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