An all-too-real dinosaur 'puppet'

Sam Neill, Tea Leoni, William H. Macy, and the rest of the "Jurassic Park III" ("JP3") cast are under no illusions. In this latest installment of the Michael Crichton-inspired franchise, only one star roams the set: As in the previous two films, it is whichever dinosaur is the biggest, scariest, and most difficult to escape from in this movie about a genetic experiment gone wildly wrong.

In this third visit to a tropical island populated with escaped dinos from the misguided InGen theme park, the current king of the beasts is the spinosaurus. This predatory, long-snouted meat eater, for which only one complete set of bones has ever been discovered, was carefully re-created in a joint effort by the two special-effects industry giants, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and the Stan Winston Studio.

The first "Jurassic Park" had only 55 shots of dinosaurs, compared with more than 400 in "JP3." And while much of the action between the actors and dinosaurs in "JP3" (see review, page 15) was computer-generated, one of the most frightening scenes was a real challenge for the performers.

Early in the film, a scene depicts a plane carrying an assortment of scientists and adventurers crashing on the dinosaur-inhabited island. The actors are attacked by a 26,000-pound spinosaurus "puppet." But, the performers say, that word puppet is misleading.

"It's as huge and scary as a real dinosaur would be," Ms. Leoni says, "and just as dangerous." The computer and puppeteer-controlled creation actually bit down on the plane fuselage, as well as crashing into it with the actors inside. "Anything can happen in a situation like that," says Leoni. "When we looked scared, that's because we were."

In person, the spinosaurus puppet represents the next generation of scientific knowledge about the dinosaur, combined with the latest in technical wizardry.

A team of four Stan Winston technicians demonstrated the "chops" on this dino. "That's about 2,000 psi [pounds per square inch] on those jaws," says Lloyd Ball, a hydraulic engineer controlling the creature's head for the demonstration. "That's about the power of a trash compactor."

With that, the long snout of the towering spinosaurus closes, a resounding snap driving home the point. Altogether, it takes four men to activate it. Mechanical designer Paul Romer runs the eyeballs, painter and sculptor Rob Ramsdell the jaws, and art technician Carey Jones moves the arms.

Mr. Ramsdell has the job of maintaining the skin on this unlikely film star, a reminder of how detailed the technology of bringing extinct creatures to life must be - as well as a hint of how sophisticated it has become.

The most difficult aspect of a dinosaur to re-create, says Jim Mitchell, visual effects supervisor for ILM, is "how the skin moves and reacts over the action of the muscles." For starters, Mr. Mitchell says, his team has learned how to re-create such basic effects as how skin moves over muscles, by building the creature up from the inside out.

The latex and metal spinosaurus used in "JP3" does not have a long life. "The skin materials decay quickly," says Stan Winston. But the detailed research that helped create it has benefited more than just the film community.

"We can spend so much more [on research] than [scientists with] government grants," says producer Kathleen Kennedy.

Many of the molds from the film have been donated to museums around the country. "The big thing we contribute is the research and development that has gone into re-creating the way these creatures moved and lived," she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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