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Creating a Monster

With a $110-million budget, Jurassic Park is this summer's most-anticipated theme park ride. But how do you make dinosaurs true to life?

May 19, 1996|David Wharton | David Wharton is a staff writer for The Times' Valley Edition

A dilophosaurus stirs from its hiding place on the construction site for Jurassic Park--The Ride. A thin brown head pops up, reddish eyes peering.

Nearby, workers stop to watch. They know the small dinosaur is only a robot, a contraption of tubular steel and hoses that pump hydraulic fluid at 3,000 pounds per square inch. They know its hide is a plastic-based compound meant to stretch and wrinkle in all the right places, like living skin.

But the dilophosaurus moves with disarming smoothness. It stares back at onlookers and waggles its tongue.

And the workers smile as if watching a dog doing a trick in the backyard.

With a $110-million budget and Steven Spielberg as a consultant, Jurassic Park is this summer's most-anticipated amusement park ride. Scheduled to open June 21 at Universal Studios Hollywood, its bright yellow boats will carry riders along a 5 1/2-minute course inhabited by more than a dozen computerized dinosaurs ranging from chicken-size compys to a stegosaurus the length of a school bus.

"We put a lot of sweat and craft into the physical movement of the dinosaurs," Spielberg said. "In a theme park, it's the naked eye that judges. You have to work hard to fool the naked eye."

The creatures rustle through a jungle of ferns, palms and bamboo at the center of the hillside park. A river runs through the greenery, past lagoons and waterfalls, culminating in an 84-foot drop that is the tallest ever constructed for a water ride.

In Southern California, where amusement means big business, a hot attraction can lure millions more dollars to the gate. Universal is hoping for the kind of success that Disneyland enjoyed last summer when its Indiana Jones Adventure ride sparked record attendance.

"Those two parks drive each other," said Tim O'Brien, an editor at Amusement Business magazine in Nashville. "You can expect Jurassic to be superb, if only because Universal wouldn't dare open anything less after Indy Jones."

The new attraction is six years in the making. It was hatched even before the Spielberg-directed film when Neil Engel, a creative director at the park, read Michael Crichton's 1990 bestseller. He recalls thinking: "Wow, this book was meant to be a ride."

But Engel and his designers faced a daunting challenge--the concept depended on lifelike robots.

"To borrow a pun, the parks have created their own monster by providing cutting-edge stuff every few years," O'Brien said. "Now the public expects it."

Spielberg, for one, was skeptical. Having scouted animatronics for his film, he found the available technology lacking. "Much too herky-jerky," he said. "The biggest critics would be the kids. They know."

After contacting engineers around the world, Universal's designers heard about a complex hydraulic system being developed for the space shuttle. "Compliant reactivity" offered quicker, smoother movement by way of extremely high-pressure hydraulics.

At the same time, computerization could make the robotics appear more natural. When an arm extended, for instance, the shoulders, torso and legs would shift slightly to maintain balance, just as they would in a living creature.

While a Utah company worked to translate this technology to dinosaur-size skeletons, chemists began developing a flexible, durable skin. The robots had to be both functional and realistic.

"The science is incredibly fast-moving, and there's still a lot of mystery," said Don Lessem, co-founder of the Dinosaur Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes research and education. Lessem consulted on the attraction and the movie. "I gave them options for the way the dinosaurs might have behaved, the way they might have appeared and sounded."

In 1993, with work progressing, the film came out. Powered by a convincing blend of robotics and computer animation, it would gross a record $1 billion in worldwide box office. Engel took his design team to see a preview.

"We sat there watching it, and we all said, 'Oh, so that's what Spielberg meant about looking super lifelike. Oh my God.' "

For the next two years, the designers tinkered with and tested robots that cost between $100,000 and $1.5 million each. Engelnormally relaxed and quick to laugh--recalled "dark hours of repeating, 'I hope we can do this, I hope we can do this.' "

The first of the dinosaurs arrived in Southern California this winter. The knee-high compys were so jammed with hydraulics and electronics that they weighed 500 pounds. The Tyrannosaurus rex weighed 18 tons.

This expensive technology subsequently fell into the hands of a man who goes by the name Davey Crockett Feiten.

Feiten began arriving at the construction site each morning in a T-shirt and sunglasses, looking for some shade to place a small table on which he arranged a laptop computer, a larger central processing unit and a control panel. He was a Spielberg-type character--a boyish genius on whom much depended.

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