The small-scale clay maquette of each dinosaur was then scanned by the team at Industrial Light and Magic to inform the digital version. That digital scan was then passed to Nolan’s team to use as the blueprint for their physical animatronic dinosaur. At least one dino, the feathered pyroraptor, ended up being built like some mythical beast—CGI in the back half, with an animatronic head and neck. “Each individual feather was dyed and painted and cut and snipped and then hand woven into this stretch net material,” Nolan explains. “That net was then applied to the top of the animatronic dinosaur so that when the head moved around the feathers would naturally move with it.”
The digital side proved a bigger technological challenge. “There’s this terrifying line in the script that says, ‘The pyroraptor leaps out of the water covered in snow and ice,’” says Vickery. “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 brand-new system for rendering feathers in the animation software Houdini, with each feather defined by thousands of curves—one for the central quill (called the rachis), and one for each of the individual barbs coming off the side. “Each feather could 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 that’s defined by millions upon millions of curves.”
ILM’s visual effects artists and Nolan’s animatronics work complemented each other. For the dilophosaurus, for instance, ILM provided a computer-generated animation of how the creature walked so that the 12 puppeteers controlling it had a reference to work from. But they also recorded the movements of the puppeteers and fed those back into the digital animation for a more natural effect. “When you’re coordinating 12 puppeteers you get happy mistakes and it looks real,” Nolan explains.
It was the same for the feathers. “That’s where our two disciplines really come together and complement each other,” Nolan says. They gave the VFX artists samples of the feathered net they’d made. “They could get a hairdryer on it and see what the feathers do when you blow wind on them, and then they would put that into their animation.”
Dominion picks up a few years after the events of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and puts dinosaurs fully out in the world for the first time—stalking through northern forests, terrorizing drive-in cinema-goers, treating Mediterranean plazas like tapas platters. It might seem absurd to strive for scientific accuracy when putting prehistoric creatures into modern-day Malta, but it’s a task Dominion‘s VFX team took very seriously, even though, as Jenkins notes, “there also comes a point where we are telling a story.”
But perhaps that swing for realism is part of what gives these movies their lasting power, three decades after that herd of smooth-skinned sauropods first lumbered onto our screens in Jurassic Park. “Dinosaurs are so intriguing because they were real,” says Vickery. “They’re not myth. They’re not legend. They did exist.”