David Vickery – Capturing Reality with “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”

by Graham Edwards

David Vickery - VFX supervisor on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

After joining Industrial Light & Magic in 2015, and with film credits including Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 and 2, and Jupiter Ascending, David Vickery took the role of production visual effects supervisor on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. At VIEW Conference 2018, where he gave a presentation on this latest dinosaur epic, Cinefex chatted with David about the benefits of capturing reality on set, and the magic of enhancing it in post.

VIEW Conference 2018

CINEFEX: In your talk on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom at VIEW Conference, you stressed how important it was for you as visual effects supervisor to be on the show from day one.

DAVID VICKERY: Yes. In fact, I see ILM more and more not just as a postproduction vendor, a tool that is used by filmmakers to finish their movie, but as a real partner in the whole filmmaking process. On Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, we actually tried to find a lot of different ways to engage the shooting crew as part of the postproduction process.

CINEFEX: For example?

DAVID VICKERY: Take a shot where you’ve got a dinosaur standing up against a wall in a corridor, and there’s nothing else going on in that frame. A lot of the time, you would just take a camera operator and say, “We need a clean plate of that corridor. Just lock it off and shoot it, and we’ll add the dinosaur in post.” That’s fine, and we’ve got really talented people that can do all the dinosaur animation, but we don’t have a camera operator with 20 years worth of experience, or a director of photography who’s trained their entire life in how to light sets. So, what we actually did was put a dinosaur performer in the shot and invited the camera operator to shoot what they felt was right. Because the camera operator is a performer as well – they’re the one telling you what to look at.

CINEFEX: You used animatronic dinosaurs created by Neal Scanlan and his team, and you even had an inflatable indoraptor, right?

DAVID VICKERY: It sounds mad, doesn’t it? Just thinking about it seems slightly insane.

CINEFEX: It does, but when you see the behind the scenes footage, it totally makes sense – a super-lightweight puppet that looks like a bit like something out of the War Horse stage show.

DAVID VICKERY: It’s exactly the same sort of idea. Even if you don’t get quite the performance you’ll get from something like War Horse, you get a lot of value by actually bringing a performance to set. Liam and Aiden Cook puppeteered our indoraptor – they’re a father and son team who work with Neal frequently. They actually became the character of the indoraptor and, as oddball as the footage looks, there are pieces in the sequence where we matched their performance.

CINEFEX: So did you keep the inflatable in shot for the actual takes?

DAVID VICKERY: Well, my original idea was to rehearse with the inflatable so that everyone would know their cues, and camera would know where to look. Then we would take the inflatable away and shoot without it, because it would be a lot of work to paint it out. The problem was, as soon as we did that, everyone slightly missed everything. Eyelines went in slightly different directions and we lost that energy. As director, J.A. Bayona was really aware of this, and so we ended up shooting with the inflatable in, all the time. That way, we got this amazing performance.

CINEFEX: But leaving you with all that paint work in post.

DAVID VICKERY: Well, getting the best shot on the set doesn’t necessarily make things quicker or easier in post, but it does guarantee that you get a really good shot. You believe the performances of Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt, because there’s a fairly lethal-looking inflatable jabbing towards their faces! Those inadvertant flinches they make are all real. Much better than a tennis ball – although we did have to resort to tennis balls every now and then!

CINEFEX: Sounds like a win-win.

DAVID VICKERY: It’s very beneficial for us, and it’s slightly selfish as well. Because what I get on set is a decision from a director as to what’s correct, in real time. Hans Zimmer summed it up beautifully in his talk at VIEW, when he said, “Real time is where shit happens.” He was talking about music, and I’m talking about dinosaurs, but it really is perfectly true, in that good shit happens on set. First, you get decisions. Second, you get people reacting and interacting. So, Neal and I worked hard to find as many ways as we could to bring dinosaurs to the set.

CINEFEX: It’s a theme that’s come up throughout the conference, not least in Dennis Muren’s talk on the critical five percent that makes a shot look great. His idea that you don’t add it in post – you capture it during production.

DAVID VICKERY: Dennis talks about it a lot, and sees it very clearly. If the first five percent is wrong, you’re never going to get the final five percent right. Get it right to start with, and then you’re not fixing it in post. You’re enhancing it in post.

CINEFEX: We’re sensing quite a swing to this way of thinking lately.

DAVID VICKERY: It’s a logical approach to filmmaking and visual effects. I think the slightly ironic thing about my job is that we actually spend most of our time in prep working out how not to do visual effects. It’s our job to help filmmakers understand how they can shoot things for real, not how we can just go do it in post.

CINEFEX: And it’s actually got nothing to do with the tiresome debate of whether you do it practically or digitally.

DAVID VICKERY: That’s right. I would say to Neal, “Look, I’m not precious, it doesn’t need to be digital.” And he would say to me, “Well, I’m not precious either. If you need to fix something, you fix it.” It’s all about making it as good as it can be on screen. We had shots with Blue where we got an amazing performance from the animatronic in camera. While we replaced most of Blue digitally in post to add subtle details, we kept the practical muzzle, because the small vibrations that we got in the leather straps were completely real, and not a detail that we’d have had time to add in post – if we’d even thought of it.

Watch a Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom featurette:

CINEFEX: The original Jurassic Park exploded out of nowhere and took the world by storm. More than anything, it did something new with dinosaurs. Did you and J.A. and the rest of the team want to do that too?

DAVID VICKERY: We’re all creatives, so we come to every project wanting to bring a little bit of ourselves. We knew that J.A. as a director would bring his own visual aesthetic and sensibilities. There’s a very definite Spanish haunted house vibe going on in the third act of the film, which I love. In some of the concept art you can see a direct homage to frames from Jurassic Park, but J.A. would tweak it slightly, like putting an insane dinosaur in a girl’s bedroom rather than a velociraptor in a kitchen.

CINEFEX: Looking back at your recent portfolio of projects – Fast & Furious 6, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Jason Bourne, even Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – a lot of that work is based on what you might call “grounded reality.” Is that your thing, or is it just coincidence?

DAVID VICKERY: I think it’s just coincidence. But, I do feel very passionate about trying to make things as real as possible. It seems silly to say it, because everybody wants that, but even in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when we were working on incredibly fantastic things, I would try to look for inspiration in reality, because you can’t just invent that stuff. If you think you’ve invented a crazy animal, look in nature and you’ll find an even crazier one. I actually trained as an industrial designer, which is all about trying to understand how things are put together, and how they work. I think that gave me a really solid basis for visual effects. But really, I try and make films that I think I would enjoy, personally. I just love the idea of creating iconic, beautiful images. The first sight of the brachiosaur in Jurassic Park has to be one of those same moments for me. I love that there’s a line in Fallen Kingdom where Bryce’s character says, “Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” Every time I hear that line, I think, “Yep, I remember,” and I get the goosebumps.

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Get comprehensive coverage of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” in Cinefex 160.

Save the date for next year’s VIEW Conference, scheduled for 21-25 October, 2019.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” image copyright © 2018 by Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.