For all the ingenuity of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, arguably its most effective visual effect involved a simple guitar.
His name has been checked several times on this site in recent weeks, but the documentary series Light & Magic – now streaming on Disney+ – is definitely worth seeking out. If, like me, you’re a movie buff of a certain vintage, then you’ll have seen the film industry change pretty much before your eyes, as the practical effects of the old have given way to digital techniques. Light & Magic traces this by telling the story of the effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic – ILM to its friends – and the episode where the blame lies mostly with the 1993s jurassic park is fascinating.
It gives us a glimpse of what Steven Spielberg’s dino blockbuster could have been, and was going to be, until digital effects took hold.
We see footage of a dinosaur in stop motion, filled with a reptilian tongue sticking in and out of its mouth. And as we know, that work was trampled on when Spielberg and his team saw an animated test of a Tyrannosaurus Rex being developed at ILM. The film pivoted overnight, and the effects industry was not far behind. It’s hard not to wonder what jurassic park would have been had Spielberg achieved it a year earlier.
That said, jurassic park still marks a sort of bridge between the old and the new. Stan Winston built and created animatronic creatures that also hold up the screen, and there’s a lot of hands-on work versus surprisingly little CGI in the final feature. It just so happened that it was the CG that dominated the headlines.
Yet, what is the most iconic shot of the entire movie? What is the moment when you are watching and instantly know what you are watching? T-Rex’s first attack is a good candidate, certainly. Velociraptor’s head piercing through the whole thing and startling Laura Dern as well. Or how about the first glimpse of an extinct creature park?
All qualify. But I think the two stars are still Richard Attenborough walking in the direction of the camera – although he’s not looking at it – and saying the phrase “Welcome to Jurassic Park”.
And then, above all, this one…
A glass of water, on the dashboard of a car. The lapping of the water. It’s movie shorthand for “we’re screwed,” so it just goes to show you just have to wait a little longer in the movie.
Still, when you sit down and think about it, it’s pretty hard to ripple a glass of water on its own. Sure, the ILM team could bring gigantic dinosaurs to life on screen, but a small practical effect required a different kind of ingenuity to achieve.
The idea for glass in the first place came from Spielberg himself. It turned out that he was driving playing his music a little too loud, and he had released some Earth, Wind & Fire tunes on his undoubtedly economical car stereo. Then he noticed the effect the heavy bass of the music had in the car. Things were vibrating (not like that, mucky), and he had a blistering moment. What, when the dinosaur was bumping towards the car in his dino movie, if there was a glass of water with circular ripples that indicated something was approaching.
Great idea, people accepted. Let’s do this. But, uh, how do you do it?
It took a bit of work for ILM’s Michael Lantieri to fix the problem, and he fixed it pretty late in the day. He phoned sound engineers to try to figure out how to do it in the first place. An assortment of approaches have been tried, but to no effect. Wave tank generators were acquired for example, and the kind of technology that is part of a half-decent aquarium was considered.
Lantieri was close to the challenge, but wasn’t quite there yet. And the night before filming The Moment Needed, he returned to where Spielberg had started: the music. Lantieri’s guitar came out and he started playing and experimenting. With a glass of water handy, he then tried something simple. He put said glass on the guitar itself and plucked a loud. And what do you know: it got the necessary vibration and ripple in the water, just as Spielberg had intended.
There was still a bit of work to do when he arrived at ILM the next day. The effects team needed to do some rigging of the car itself where the water was going to see. No infographic here though. They just ran guitar strings through the car and put the water in place. Then one lucky recruit got to lay on the floor of the car and be the chosen picker that day. He plucked the ropes, the water was rippling. Spielberg succeeded.
Thinking back to the promotion of the film, the water ripple was pretty much inevitable in 1993 when Universal Pictures’ marketing department swung into action. In fact, prior to release — and that was before the internet messed things up too — he was withholding virtually every single dinosaur image from the movie. Instead, the movie’s logo was all over the place and the marketing focused on the promise of dinosaurs and the tease of a gently moved little glass of water.
Only when jurassic park made in cinemas and had played a week or two were the dinosaurs themselves allowed in TV spots and the like. But at this point, it doesn’t matter: the glass of water has become an iconic image of the giant 1990s blockbuster.
It’s not a moment that you see in Light & Magicbut it’s the kind of quiet ingenuity that often escapes radar, but arguably deserves as much celebration as any extinct creature snatching an avocado from the toilet.
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