show #1205

Peggy visits IndusÄtrial Light and Magic (ILM) to find out how they make computer- generated dinosaurs. Segment length: 9:16


Insights & Connections



Main activity

Try this


It is a dark and stormy night. A Tyrannosaurus rex wildly rips through an electrified fence,then roars. The dinosaurs in the megahit movie Jurassic ParkJurassic Park made history as the most realistic-looking movie stars ever created on a computer. Dozens of animators,artists, software programmers, and technicians collaborated on the project.

They developed a galloping herd of ostrich-like Gallimimuses entirely on computers. But most dinosaur scenes blended footage of robotic models, puppets, and cutting-edge computer graphics. For example, a full-body view of a computer-generated, gentle Brachiosaurus switched seamlessly to a shot of a hand-controlled, puppet dinosaur head.

To bring the Tyrannosaurus to life on a computer screen, animators first built a 3-D wire frame skeleton on their computers, based on photographs of dinosaur bones. But how did a T-rex run and how fast could it go? To find out, the moviemakers consulted paleontologists and examined fossilized footprints and other dinosaur remains. They also observed wild animals, studying how giraffes eat and how elephants shift their weight as they walk.

The animation team practiced pantomime so they could understand how to create more compelling performances from their dinosaur stars. To help, technicians invented the Dinosaur Input Device, a T-rex puppet connected to a computer. Stop-motion animators--experts in animal movement--manipulated the robotic T-rex puppet with their skilled hands. Every time they moved it, the image on the computer screen moved too. When they opened the puppet's mouth to roar, the T-rex on the screen mirrored the movement, and the computer recorded it.

The animators used a special scanner made by Cyberware to capture the surface dimensions for the computer-generated dinosaurs. The scanner moved a laser beam around a sculpture model of the T-rex, capturing its form as a 3-D computer model. One of the most difficult jobs was adding the skin. Computers are good at making shiny, smooth surfaces. But real animals are covered in varied wrinkles with shadows. The animators spent weeks determining how the skin of the T-rex should look as it moved.

Two years of painstaking work resulted in a total of six minutes of computer-generated dinosaur footage in the final film. The crew made great strides, improving computer animation technology and technique. Before long, expect to see computer-generated human actors appearing at a theater near you. Now, that's really frightening!


armature mechanical model of a movie character that is controlled by computer

CGI computer-generated images

claymation stop-animation in which the characters are formed out of clay digitizer machine that "captures" real-world information and converts it into computer form

FX movie lingo for "special effects"

go motion an animation technique designed by Industrial Light and Magic that allows stop-motion animators to record the way they move puppet models with their hands onto a computer

paleontologist:paleontologist scientist who studies past animal life-forms

scanner a machine that captures an image from the real world and turns it into digital form on a computer

stop motion:stop-motion an animation technique that involves filming an object one frame at a time, moving it a short distance between each frame

wire frame: the basic line drawing of the shape of an object drawn in three-dimensions


Computer Resources

Computer animation programs such as Animation studio, Animation works, Hanna-Barbera, Lifeforms, Macromind director, and Microworlds.

Additional sources of information

SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Graphics) Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) (312) 321-6830 (Ask for SIGKIDS information. For those with Internet access, log on to the ACM Gopher server at:

Community Resources

Computer animator

Art school


To develop an understanding of how its dinosaurs could give expressive performances, the Jurassic Park computer animation team took lessons in pantomime. They hid their faces behind Balinese masks and tried to express a variety of emotions, using only their bodies. Try this technique in the following variation on the game charades.


  1. Set-up: On the front of each index card, write down an emotion or attitude. You can use the words from the following list, or come up with your own. Leave the reverse side of each card blank.

    Select one person to be the referee and give the referee the cards. Divide the remaining players into two teams, with two to ten players on each team. Each team should have the same number of players. Number the players on each team, from one on up.

  2. Playing the game: The referee picks a card from the stack and calls out a number corresponding to one of the player numbers. The players with that number on each team approach the referee. Both players get a chance to look at the card, then each takes a mask to cover her or his face. On a signal from the referee, the two players then return to their respective teams and begin acting out the attitude written on the card, using body language only (no symbols or sign language allowed).
  3. Scoring: The first team to correctly guess each attitude scores a point. A one-point penalty is subtracted if players acting out an attitude reveal their faces. The game continues until one team scores five points or until the cards are used up.


  1. Did you find it difficult to convey an attitude without using facial expressions? Which attitudes were hardest to convey?

  2. Why do you think that the Jurassic Park computer animation team spent time behind masks and behaving like dinosaurs?


There are 24 frames in each second of a motion picture film. Find the length in hours and minutes of your favorite movie. Estimate how many frames this movie contains. Compare your method of solution with that of other people in your group. Use a calculator to find the actual number of frames. How close was your estimate?


Compare an artificial flower to a real one of the same variety, if possible. In what ways does the artificial flower look different from the real one? Why do you think it is difficult to make something artificial look real?


The animators for Jurassic Park used both 2-D (flatbed) and 3-D scanners to capture images for the computer. Use a photocopier to scan your hand. What details of the hand does it capture? What does it miss? Do you recognize your own hand as distinguished from someone else's hand? If possible, compare the image of your hand to one captured using a computer flatbed scanner or a video camera attached to a computer. How might a 3-D scanner differ from these 2-D input devices?


The movie Godzilla was one of Steven Speilberg's inspirations for Jurassic Park. Rent a Godzilla video to watch. Do the monsters look convincing to you? Some people think that Jurassic Park will look like this to young people 20 years from now.
Newton's Apple is a production of KTCA Twin Cities Public Television. Made possible by a grant from 3M. Educational materials developed with the National Science Teachers Association.