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How to Build a Better Dino

Think the second coming of Jurassic mania involves the usual celluloid scares? Creators of the 'Lost World' creatures say think again.

May 11, 1997|Chuck Crisafulli | Chuck Crisafulli is a frequent contributor to Calendar

There are monsters in Van Nuys. Behind the deceptively placid facade of one building in an industrial strip near the airport, there lurk vampires, demons, voracious aliens, killer robots and a host of other nightmarish humanoids. There's also a decidedly nonhuman member of this unfriendly bunch--looming over the rogue's gallery, looking hungriest and angriest of all, is the massive head of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The T. rex and his smaller cohorts are part of the welcoming committee at Stan Winston Studios. Winston is one of Hollywood's masters of makeup effects and creature construction, and on closer inspection, the life-size, monster mannequins in his shop's showroom are very familiar: the vampire is Tom Cruise from "Interview With the Vampire," the robots are Arnold Schwarzenegger and his molten "Terminator 2" nemesis, the alien is the angry mom from the "Alien" series. And the T. rex, of course, had his star turn in 1993's "Jurassic Park."

The Rex has been out of the spotlight for the past four years but, with the help of Winston, he's about to come back in a big way. The T. rex, along with hyper-aggressive raptors, hulking stegosauruses and a host of other giant lizards, will populate "The Lost World," the Steven Spielberg-directed follow-up to "Jurassic Park."

The $74-million feature, loosely based on author Michael Crichton's sequel to his "Jurassic Park" novel, centers on the actions of two groups of humans who venture upon another island full of genetically resurrected dinosaurs--"Site B" to the island encountered in the first film. The cast of "The Lost World" includes Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore and Richard Attenborough, but "Jurassic" fans will undoubtedly be watching intently for the human cast's scalier co-stars. The T. rex returns, with a family this time, and in addition to some of the favorite dino characters from the first film are such newcomers as the tiny compsygnathus, which Winston describes as creatures akin to "very angry skinned chickens." The film opens Memorial Day weekend.

It's no surprise that a return to a dinosaur island was eagerly anticipated at Universal Studios--"Jurassic Park" has become the highest-grossing picture of all time, with worldwide ticket sales approaching the mind-boggling billion-dollar mark. But the film was made the same year Spielberg achieved his greatest artistic success with "Schindler's List," and some in the film community felt the director might not be interested in returning to the escapist thrills of another dino flick. But Spielberg, who's been away from directing since "Schindler" while he helped establish DreamWorks, did in fact decide to step back behind the camera and bring dinosaurs back to life.

The director may have been swayed more by public demand than the deeper artistic challenge of a "Jurassic Park" sequel, but for his reassembled dinosaur team--Winston, special dinosaur effects supervisor Michael Lantieri, and Dennis Muren, leader of the computer aces at Industrial Light & Magic--"The Lost World" was a tantalizing, T.-rex-sized challenge.

"It wasn't a question of yes or no in signing on to this film--it was just 'Of course. When?' says Winston, kicking back in an office that contains several more of his monster creations and his four special-effects Oscars. "I couldn't wait to get involved. I wanted to show the world what they didn't see in 'Jurassic Park': more dinosaurs and more dinosaur action. 'More, bigger, better' was our motto. Basically we wanted to out-'Jurassic Park' 'Jurassic Park.' "

Muren says that's precisely the approach he took at ILM. "A lot of people asked me, 'Why would you want to do a 'Jurassic Park' sequel? You did it so well the first time.' But whenever I hear that--it's a challenge I want to take on, because it means that no one else can figure out how to top what you did. You're going to have to do it yourself."

Aside from its popular success, the first "Jurassic Park" was a groundbreaking special-effects triumph, seamlessly blending the robotics and animatronics that Winston specializes in with the cutting-edge, hyper-realistic computer-generated images that Muren designed. But in four years, special-effects technology has leaped so far ahead that both Winston and Muren found themselves working with a wide range of new tools.

There's still something of a low-tech side to Winston's work--"Lost World" dinosaur designs began as pencil and paper sketches, moved on to 3-D miniatures and then became towering, full-size clay sculptures from which huge plaster casts were taken. Dinosaur skin was replicated by applying meticulous paint jobs to the 330 gallons of foam latex used to cover 44 creatures of nine different species. But by the time Winston's crew finished their work, underneath that skin were some remarkably sophisticated robots, packed with computer-controlled systems of servos, electronics and hydraulic valves.

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