August 2, 2014

Jurassic Park as an intro to Studio Era visual style

While I was watching Jurassic Park with my 6 year-old nephew today, I noticed how long some of the shots lasted, and how sparsely a very-close-up framing was used -- there were way more long and faraway shots than in a typical movie from the past 40 years. It seemed like every other shot had multiple characters in frame, who were also moving around to make interesting spatial arrangements (rather than purely naturally).

Since most viewers are unfamiliar with the movement and pacing of Studio Era Hollywood, they need a reminder to anchor the approach they're seeing to an old movie that they have seen. As the towering, torch-lit gates to the park are opening up, one of the characters asks, "What have they got in there, King Kong?"

Here is a short article by Warren Buckland that quantifies these aspects of the movie, while comparing it to The English Patient, which is more typical of contemporary filmmaking in having shorter shots, closer-up framing, and less camera movement.

Whether you want to give your kid something to watch that won't warp his attention span, or you're looking to get more comfortable with the old approach yourself, Jurassic Park is a great introduction.


  1. Yes, I especially remember liking the scene where the ostrich dinosaurs get chased through the park by the T-Rex. I couldn't put my finger on what I liked about it, but I realize now it was in part because of the camera work you describe.

  2. Some thoughts about the movie in no particular order. This was one of the last effects heavy movies in which the makers seemed to care about making the effects believable. They used some nice animatronic stuff while also being selective with the CGI. Even the man-in-rubber-suit bits were well done in the Velociraptor scenes. It might seem like a cop out to partly hide the effects with darkness and rain but that was commonly done in the 70's thru the early 90's.

    The movie takes place in a relatively confined location with a relatively small cast. The modern or mid century epic, spacious approach really hurts any kind of suspense or tension in a nominal thriller type movie by moving too quickly from one setting and/or group of characters to another before we can get drawn into a given scenario. Jurassic Park builds up a foreboding atmosphere by establishing the danger of the location and it's antagonists while focusing on a group of protagonists who are trapped in the location.

    Unlike the highly impersonal modern or mid century blockbuster in Jurassic Park even the early victims are allowed to show some personality before they die. While they may not be that sympathetic they still have humanity. Compare that to the Godzilla type movies where city block after city block is leveled and we don't even get face to face with the victims.

    I know agnostic has beat the drum before about the idiocy of the camera and lighting showing everything in an alleged thriller, but it's worth bring up again. One easy way to build atmosphere and suspense is to not show the audience everything and Spielberg remembered that with Jurassic Park.

    On a more frivolous level the costumes indicate that the movie was made just a bit before nineties fashion started to go down the crapper. Nice to see some color, If the movie were made to day everyone would probably wearing charcoal gray, black or olive green.

    Hope I didn't bore anyone, thanks for reading.

  3. "Watching a movie with my nephew."

    It's amazing how often you hear middle aged white people talk about their nieces and nephews in the same context older generations talked of their own actual children. It's sad to see aging white people always have to parent vicariously through that one sibling of theirs that had a child (usually just one).

    Keep an eye out for that: "Niece" and "Nephew" activities are 99.9% referenced by aging white people.

    But yeah, Jurassic Park is a very traditionally shot and paced movie, for certain, and I think that it holds up wonderfully BECAUSE of this, not in spite of this. Just four years later, the crappy sequel 'The Lost World', was shot with Janusz Kaminski as cinematographer and it had all this "artistic" lighting and twisted camera angles and fisheye lens effects and just looked weird. Needless to say, it didn't do as well, and is decidedly aged.

  4. When talking about that schmaltzy melodramatist 'berg, I feel like the kid pointing out the emperor has no clothes.


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