‘The Lost World’ turns 20: Animation director Randal M. Dutra reflects on those early days of the digital age

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Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

How Steven Spielberg came to adopt CGI dinosaurs for 1993’s Jurassic Park is an often-told story, including in several interviews I’ve done recently. Ultimately, the move from stop-motion to digital dinos paved the way for an explosion in CG characters in blockbuster movies.

That included Jurassic Park’s sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, released 20 years ago this week, in which the director and visual effects studio Industrial Light & Magic returned with even more photorealistic digital dinos.

One artist who was there on both films, straddling the stop-motion and CG worlds, was Randal M. Dutra. He was at Tippett Studio for Jurassic Park and heavily involved in early movement tests and the use of the innovative Digital Input Device (DID). Then Dutra moved to ILM to work as Animation Director for The Lost World. On the film’s 20th anniversary, vfxblog finds out more from Dutra about his dinosaur experiences.

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Dutra animating the T-Rex attacking the Ford Explorer for the “T-Rex Main Road” Animatic. July/August, 1992.

vfxblog: Before you worked on The Lost World, you had obviously been part of the efforts on Jurassic Park. Can you talk about what preparations were being done at Tippett Studio on the traditional stop-motion animation that was going to be done, and on the animatics?

Randal Dutra: In regards to Jurassic Park’s core contributors, more information is steadily coming to light that was not made available at the time of its release in 1993. There is a definite growing interest, and I have been increasingly asked specifics about my involvement in its production.

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Randal Dutra animating the stop-motion Raptor model for the “Dinosaur Movement Bible”. December, 1991.

I had already been working with Phil [Tippett] for 10 years before Jurassic Park (JP) reared its hefty head. I had a long history as a key sculptor, creature designer, puppet fabricator and lead animator for Tippett at his shop. In addition, seven years earlier, in 1984, I applied all of these disciplines to my work in his shop for the televised documentary Dinosaur!. So Phil was very well-acquainted with my delivered work, established abilities and crossover talents. Especially when it came to prehistoric creatures.

I was Senior Animator for Tippett at his shop throughout JP’s grueling year and a half production schedule that included: the stop-motion animation of the Raptor and T-Rex for the Movement Bible and the Animatics, and the final shots/sequence animation using the Dinosaur Input Device (DID); a contraption that hurled animator Tom St. Amand and me into the “Digital Age”.

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The Raptor pair that Randal Dutra designed, sculpted, fabricated and animated for the 1985 documentary Dinosaur!. The models were 16″ long.

vfxblog: At what point did that work stop and you move into digital animation and use of the DID? How did your background in stop-motion inform the digital animation, in terms of skills perhaps that CG artists at the time did not have?

Randal Dutra: It was in late April of 1992 when news broke at Tippett’s that JP production was going the way of CGI. I had been stop-motion animating for five months; having completed the Movement Bible, and was completely absorbed in the Animatic phase of the Raptor Kitchen Sequence. Tom St. Amand and I were seasoned animators, but now we had to switch from analog to digital and learn a new language. It was all quite sudden, and certainly raised grave concerns for our future.

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Tom St. Amand (left) and Randal Dutra (right) taking a break at the end of production with the Raptor DID.

The DID was created as a hands-on bridge to the digital realm, a glorified traditional stop-motion armature—co-designed and machined by St. Amand—with the addition of motion encoders attached to the joints that allowed our incremental poses to be translated into digital data. But the absolute prerequisite was having the necessary animation experience and knowledge—there was no substitute for that, even given this new, sexy tool. My animation labors with the DID focused on JP’s Raptors in the Kitchen and T-Rex Main Road sequences as seen in the final film.

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Dutra animating the Raptor DID leaping onto the kitchen countertop for the “Raptor Kitchen” sequence as seen in the final film. December, 1992.
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Dutra animating the Raptor DID hunting the children in the “Raptor Kitchen” sequence. Note the foam core set piece representing the kitchen cabinet and counter top. December, 1992.

vfxblog: Can you talk about how you then came to be at ILM for The Lost World?

Randal Dutra: Certain veterans within the FX industry were well aware of my foundational and core creative contributions to JP.  That led to ILM’s Dennis Muren approaching me in November of 1996 to secure me as Animation Director for The Lost World (LW). Tippett and his shop had no involvement in LW’s production, as Starship Troopers was gearing up.

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Animation Director Randal M. Dutra with Lead Animator Miguel Fuertes on a Compy shot for The Lost World.

vfxblog: There was certainly more CG animation in The Lost World – where did you and the filmmakers want to take the dinosaur performances now that there had been a few more years of experience in this brand of animation?

Randal Dutra: Anything that followed JP had to top it in animation, character, and dynamics. The burden of expectations was tremendous. The shock of seeing JP’s CG dinosaurs for the first time is an experience that cannot be repeated—and I was pleased to have been in on the ground floor of its success.  But what could be done is to take LW’s dinosaurs even further than their predecessors. That we did, and it’s all there on the screen. LW’s animation work is much more refined, complex, synergistic and behaviorally specific. Case in point is the thoroughly interactive and creepy Compy sequence. That’s evolution.

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On the hunt: The “Round Up” Sequence.

vfxblog: What did you think, at the time, were the important parts of animation that made for the performance of a living, breathing dinosaur? Where did you look for inspiration or reference?

Randal Dutra: I informed my crew of 27 animators (compared to eight on JP) to put JP out of their minds. LW was a whole new adventure with many new creatures, ranging in scale from the diminutive Compy, to the Stegosaurus, to the gigantic, 95 ft. long sauropod Mamenchiasaurus. We were beholden to nothing but Nature’s demands. That was our measure, our goal. Our prehistoric animals had to reflect an absolute respect for, and observance of, Nature’s variety and adaptability.

Yes, we knew we could generate photorealistic looking dinosaurs. But could we make them move with a higher degree of creative realism? Nothing was off-limits for reference. I have spent my life immersed in Nature, observing animals both wild and domestic, and Nature never disappoints. In fact, She is full of surprises, having a head start on all of us. Remember too, that dinosaurs were a unique breed unto themselves possessing unusual, strange characteristics physically and behaviorally. With many prehistoric species there are no living equivalents. Hence, hybrids are the only way to even begin to try unlocking the mysteries of dinosaur character.

vfxblog: Were there animation cycles or shots in The Lost World where you perhaps tried something different, and it didn’t necessarily work, but still informed the final result? How did you explore different approaches?

Randal Dutra: Each sequence provided us with incredible challenges: From the Stegosaur Stampede, to the Round Up, to the Compys Attack, to Raptor Town, to the T-Rex running amok in San Diego. Each had its own narrative place, pace and spectacle. LW’s schedule was unrelenting and exhausting, taking everything my apt crew and I had.

Ultimately, LW had 85 CG dinosaur shots, almost 50 percent more than JP and more than three times the animation crew. LW required ten times more animation and rendering due to extremely complex sequences containing multiple dinosaurs and ran a full 15 minutes of CG screen time—more than twice that of JP. For our delivered work, our peers nominated us for an Academy Award.

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A herd of Stegosaurs cross a Redwood creek bed.

vfxblog: One of my favorite sequences involved the compys – can you talk about how this was different perhaps to animating huge dinosaurs, and how you approached that first attack scene?

Randal Dutra: The Compy sequence is still my favorite of any Jurassic entry. For me, it all came together both artistically and technically in this darkly intimate drama staged deep in a Redwood forest. Ironically, with all the hulking behemoths on the island, one of the most deadly was no bigger than a domestic chicken.

It centers around macho hunter, Dieter, who believes he is in control…suddenly becoming lost and disoriented in a hostile environment.  The hunter becomes the hunted. While standing tall and vertical, Dieter poses a threat and the Compys back off. But when he stumbles and falls on the slick creek bed rocks, horizontal and prone, they collectively attack swarming him mercilessly. Contained in each of their tiny brains is the instinct to kill. By the end of the Compys’ dogged pursuit, the much larger Dieter is reduced to a terrified, pathetic meal on two failing legs. Spielberg was brilliant in visualizing this sequence. A twist on David and Goliath.

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A screenshot of work in progress animation for ILM’s Compys, in this scene from the opening of the film.

vfxblog: Seeing the T-Rex walk the streets of San Diego is one of my very clear memories about how incredible CG could look. How did you approach the motion of the dinosaur for those shots – was it different from the actions of the T-Rex on the island?

Randal Dutra: The T-Rex loose in San Diego was our chance to place a prehistoric icon in a modern world. An obvious nod to Willis O’Brien’s 1925 The Lost World and 1933’s King Kong. How a creature like this could behave in such foreign surroundings is exemplified by her chasing down and powerfully head-butting a “threatening” public transit bus, destroying traffic lights, and creating urban mayhem. The Rex is both confused and outraged, but gets her revenge in the end by reducing villain Ludlow to an educational snack for her baby. She is, after all, a good mother.

vfxblog: Any thoughts on dinosaur or large lizard creature animation you’ve seen since The Lost World and what works and doesn’t work?

Randal Dutra: I see a lot of animation that is merely “pushing pixels” and not convincingly conveying character—or weight and scale. It is not informed work. One advantage to working with a model is the tangible reminder of the physicality of something. When using a mouse, keyboard and monitor, animators must remind themselves of the basic properties of reality, of the effects of gravity.

Incredible achievements in visual effects are being realized today! The best practitioners are bravely and resolutely embracing the future. Great talents doing great things. However, with the daily grind and glut of product, I also see a high percentage of derivative, uninformed, flaccid work.

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Dennis Muren (left) and Randal Dutra (right) gather lighting reference on location using a Stan Winston T-Rex model.

Some advice: Study Nature. Learn something of structure and anatomy—remember: form follows function. Go outside, get some dirt under your fingernails. Don’t be sedentary—move—get off your ass. Look for fresh references, don’t rehash what has been done before. Be a pioneer in your own way. Live up to the greater promise of the medium.

vfxblog: You have always been an artist, but can you briefly mention what you are up to these days?

Randal Dutra: After having spent a period of 25 years in the effects industry, I have seen many changes. I went from the communal, gritty, artisan workshop atmosphere of Jedi creating creatures with aluminum wire armatures, clay, molds and rubber to the comparatively “clean” and hermetic workspaces of digital technology. I was at the right place at the right time in history to experience and participate in both worlds with equal weight. I started as a mold maker on Jedi and ended up being a CGI Animation Director for Spielberg and ILM. It continues to be quite a journey. Nothing remains stationary.

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Dutra animates a Raptor for the “Raptor Kitchen” Animatic for Jurassic Park. April/May, 1992.

I am active in both the traditional and digital aspects of visuals and art, but I most enjoy interacting with rising talents—nurturing the gold in each individual, and mining potential. There exist universal truths that will not die, no matter if employing mediums known or yet to be discovered. What gives me great joy and satisfaction is to go beyond accepted norms, while continuing to learn from others.

Thank you to Randal Dutra for taking the time to be part of this retro look at The Lost World. You can find out more about Dutra’s work at his website: http://www.randaldutra.com.