The small scale clay model of each dinosaur was then scanned by the team at Industrial Light and Magic to inform the digital version. The digital scan was then passed on to Nolan’s team to use as the plan for their physical animatronic dinosaur. At least one dino, the feathered pyroraptor, ended up being built as a mythical beast – CGI in the back half, with an animatronic head and neck. “Each individual feather was dyed and painted and cut and clipped and then hand-woven into this stretch material,” Nolan explains. “That net was then put on top of the animatronic dinosaur, so when the head moved around, the feathers would naturally move with it.”
The digital side proved to be a major technological challenge. “There’s this scary line in the script that says, ‘The Pyroraptor jumps out of the water covered in snow and ice,'” Vickery says. “Feathers are a very difficult thing to do digitally, water is a very difficult thing to do digitally. So if you put the two together, you’re in a perfect storm of technological complexity. “
Vickery’s team built a completely new system for reproducing feathers in the animation software Houdini, where each feather is defined by thousands of curves – one for the central feather pen (called rachis) and one for each of the individual barbs coming from the side. “Each feather can have up to a thousand curves to define it,” Vickery says. “There are thousands of feathers on that dinosaur, so you end up with a creature defined by millions and millions of curves.”
ILM’s visual effects artists and Nolan’s animatronic work complemented each other. For the dilophosaurus, for example, ILM provided a computer-generated animation of how the creature fared, so that the 12 puppet masters controlling it had a reference to work from. But they also recorded the puppet master’s movements and led them back to the digital animation for a more natural effect. “When you coordinate 12 puppet masters, you get happy mistakes and it looks right,” Nolan explains.
It was the same for the feathers. “This is where our two disciplines really come together and complement each other,” Nolan says. They gave the VFX artists samples of the feathered net they had made. “They could get a hair dryer on it and see what the feathers do when you blow wind on them, and then they would put it into their animation.”
Dominion takes up a few years after the events of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and puts dinosaurs all over the world for the first time – stalking through northern forests, terrorizing drive-in cinemagoers, treating Mediterranean places like tapas plates. It may seem absurd to strive for scientific accuracy when putting prehistoric creatures into modern Malta, but it is a task Dominion‘s VFX team took it very seriously, though, as Jenkins notes, “there also comes a point where we tell a story.”
But perhaps the swing for realism is part of what gives these films their lasting power, three decades after the bunch of smooth-skinned sauropods first hit our screens in Jurassic Park. “Dinosaurs are so exciting because they were real,” Vickery says. “They are not a myth. They are not legends. They existed.”