Spielberg Spectacle vs. Trevorrow Spectacle: Perceptual Realism

Audiences have a funny sort of standards for their films. They want them to be realistic, even when they obviously are aware that what is being filmed is impossible, like a T-Rex coming to life on screen. Directors like Steven Spielberg and Colin Trevorrow play into this need for a spectacle, creating films that both look as if they could really be happening and yet are fantastical enough that their audiences still feel satisfied that what they are seeing is larger than life and worth being lost in as an alternative to their real lives. The real interesting part is in how time shapes the audience’s expectation for the spectacle they pay for in the theater, as well as how the perceptual realism that creates the relationship between a film and spectator. Because of the realism created by Spielberg, the relationship between the audience and the films that both Spielberg and Trevorrow created are intensified and the idea of what dinosaurs should be has been solidified in the minds of the viewer. In the case of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequel, Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (2015), 22 years along with a combination of photorealism and a paradox of perspective have not only shaped how an audience views dinosaurs, but how that audience understands realism and spectacle as well.

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Perceptual realism is what drives the spectacle of these two films- it designates the relationship between Jurassic Park, it’s sequel Jurassic World, and the audiences who view the two by using both real and unreal images. Spielberg and Trevorrow, like all directors who understand spectacle, build scenes to appeal to their audiences by combining the reality of actors and sets with the photorealism of dinosaurs. Now, everyone knows that dinosaurs have been extinct for thousands of years, so no one expects the ones they were given by Spielberg to be real. All that matters to the audience is that these dinosaurs seem real enough that the audience feels as if they are part of the action. Spielberg was very particular about this, as it was also a large part of the story- as character John Hammond eloquently sums up, “I wanted to show them something that wasn’t an illusion. Something that was real, something that they could see and touch,” (IMDB) For Spielberg, the spectacle was about being drawn into the movie and feeling as if the dinosaurs were actually there in front of you, larger than life and part of the world you know. He accomplished this with certain tricks of perceptual realism, namely by creating both real images and false ones in the same space. Many of the dinosaurs in the film were animatronics that the actors could actually stand next to and touch. Effects like dinosaur movement, skin texture and color, and the basic expressionism of the dinosaurs helped to make the dinosaurs seemed realistic throughout the entire film, so that even when CGI dinosaurs were substituted in, the audience was not jolted out of the reality that Spielberg was creating. Of course this wasn’t easy to do, as Stephen Prince pointed out in his article “ True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory”. “Multiple levels of information capture must be successfully executed to convincingly animate and render living movement because the viewer’s eye is adept at perceiving inaccurate information,” (Prince 33). Because the audience had seen the majesty of the robot T-Rex, they were more open to accepting the CGI gallimimus herd that ran alongside Sam Neill in later scenes, but it still had to be well done, otherwise the spectacle of the whole thing would be lost in the audience being drawn out of the story. Spielberg preferred that his audience believe in his story and he combined both the real and the unreal to make it happen. As Andre Bazin stated, “the great artists…have always been able to combine the two tendencies…holding reality at their command and molding it at will into the fabric of their art,” (Bazin 11). Spielberg’s chosen spectacle was that of immersion, so to keep his audience from being jolted out of the story he set up their expectations and created dinosaurs that felt real for the majority of the movie. After that, all dinosaurs felt real, even when they were computer generated. Setting up these expectations also set the expectations for Trevorrow’s dinosaurs- none of Trevorrow’s dinosaurs had to look as real because of what Spielberg had already implanted in the minds of his audience.

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After 22 years went by, Trevorrow was ready to take up the challenge of continuing Spielberg’s legacy of creating dinosaurs for viewing audiences, but his take on spectacle and perceptual realism was very different from Spielberg’s. Because of the time that had elapsed, Trevorrow had more CGI at his disposal, and therefore he relied on Spielberg’s original film to serve as the visual and social cues that his spectatorship would be built on. Rather than the limited CGI use that Spielberg had preferred, Trevorrow used almost all CGI for his dinosaur action, with the exception of two instances- when the velociraptor heads were locked in their holders, and when Chris Pratt cradled the heads of the dying Apatosaurus’ (IMDB). Because of this choice to use the original Jurassic Park as the realistic point for his audiences’ spectatorship, Trevorrow also created another paradox within the dinosaur series. Despite research being done in real life on dinosaurs, their appearances and habits, audiences were accustomed the the ‘real’ experience with dinosaurs that Spielberg had given them years ago. Audiences have actually been known to complain about other dinosaur productions because they were so used to Spielberg’s- when the BBC documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs was aired, audiences complained that the dinosaurs did not look “real enough”, because they were animated differently than Spielberg had created them and were more based off of more accurate scientific research. Therefore, even when it was found that dinosaurs had feathers, Trevorrow listened to the 93% of his audience who preferred the way the dinosaurs had looked in the original film (IMDB) and kept them all featherless and with the same walking and moving mannerisms that Spielberg had begun.

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Spielberg and Trevorrow’s differences in thought on spectatorship, when it came right down to it, were simple. Spielberg based his spectacle around the audience feeling that they were a part of the action, and Trevorrow built his spectacle around the manipulation of digitally designed images that wowed audiences rather than making them feel included in the action, which could not have been accomplished with nearly as much audience acceptance if Spielberg has not first created such a realistic version of the Earth’s extinct giants. The two versions of spectacle can be clearly seen in Jurassic World, where Spielberg did have a bit of input but Trevorrow had directorial control, so you can clearly see Spielberg’s preference for immersion in spectacle and Trevorrow’s love for grandeur and larger-than-life spectacle that fed into the message of the film itself. For one thing, the gyrosphere tour of the new park was Spielberg’s idea, specifically because he wanted to create a way to get up close and personal with the animals (IMDB). He also suggested that the cast of the film be taken down underground during the Mosasaurus feeding so that they could better see and connect to the animal itself (and so that the audience could do the same). What Spielberg contributed to the newest edition to the Jurassic Park universe was the sense of connection that his original audience had fallen in love with and that was his personal brand of spectacle. Trevorrow, on the other hand, continued to try and make the spectacle even larger so that his audience would be thoroughly entertained. Many of the ideas for the script came from Trevorrow, who created an elaborate story treatment to approach Spielberg with when he heard the opportunity to direct the next installment of the series was available. While Spielberg pitched the idea of bringing the Mosasaurus closer to the audience, the actual inclusion of the Mosasaurus (as well as making it far larger than skeletons suggest it to be) was Trevorrow’s idea, as well as the idea to make it eat a shark in homage to Spielberg’s Jaws. As well as making the dinosaurs larger than they truly were and making them look like audiences believed them to, he more than doubled the body count of any of the original films (The Lost World held the original record at 13, Jurassic World boasted 25 onscreen deaths as well as those implied in the Pterodactyl rampage) and created more dinosaur action by only using CGI to create them, rather than limiting the movement to the animatronic robots. Trevorrow’s bigger-and-better take on spectacle wasn’t even just limited to dinosaurs- the Jurassic World control center was based around the Universal Studios theme park in Florida, but Trevorrow was reportedly disappointed that the control room was just a few men and some old computer monitors (IMDB). So, instead, he made the control room bigger, grander, more fantastical, which was also an upgrade from the control center in the original Jurassic Park (which had been plenty big but also full of old monitors). Every bit of perceptual realism that Spielberg had already put into place was heightened by Trevorrow’s spectacle of Jurassic World, and Trevorrow displayed his own spectacle tendencies by taking it all to the next level.

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So how has time and perceptual realism shaped the way that audiences who watch the Jurassic Park series understand spectacle and realism in film? Well, Spielberg’s use of perceptual realism set the tone for the series by combining the realistic sets and live actors with the robotic dinosaurs, all of which helped him to quietly intersperse CGI action once in awhile. By doing this, Spielberg drew his audiences into the world of Jurassic Park and gave the impression that spectacle was something to be immersed in. This also laid the groundwork for Trevorrow’s larger than life version of spectacle, which relied on Spielberg’s groundwork of realism to build up an almost entirely fantastical version of spectacle that kept the audience in awe, though not immersed. By Spielberg’s combination of photorealism and Trevorrow’s use of paradox and the 22 years of assumptions built up by his audience, the spectacle of Spielberg evolved into something new. Perhaps it is less realistic, but it is the same larger-than-life action we have come to expect from movies about the giants who once wandered our planet. Even if the audiences know dinosaurs are gone, Spielberg and Trevorrow’s spectacle makes it almost feel as if we could indeed be seeing them in the flesh.

Works Cited:

Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” What Is Cinema? Vol. 1 (1967): pp 9-16. Web.

“Jurassic World.” Internet Movie Database. Copyright 1990-2016. Web. 25 April 2016. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0369610/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Prince, Stephen. “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 49, No. 3 (Spring 1996): pp 27-37. Web.

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