Looking out over a mammoth exterior set high atop Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, production designer Ed Verreaux seems to have little time to admire his handiwork. “The Spinosaurus is going to be in here in two weeks,” says Verreaux, about one of the new dinosaurs being introduced in his biggest film to date, Universal Studios' Jurassic Park III. His voice conveys equal parts trepidation and excitement — the set, situated at Universal's permanent Falls Lake location, designed to match set pieces across several soundstages, contains a towering rock wall surrounded by scaffolding, which will all have to be reconfigured and redressed for the Spinosaur's nighttime appearance. “The wall is carved out of foam and plaster,” Verreaux says. “It's about 350' long by about 50' tall.”
Such is the logistical life of a Jurassic Park production. With original director Steven Spielberg busy with AI: Artificial Intelligence, in the spring of 2000, director Joe Johnston signed on to helm the second Jurassic Park sequel, due for release on July 18. Though creature creator Stan Winston and his studio are again onboard, along with physical effects supervisor Michael Lantieri (both of whom also worked on the first two Jurassic Park films) and the digital effects teams at Industrial Light and Magic (this time supervised by Jim Mitchell), new to the team is Verreaux, who previously designed Mission to Mars and Contact.
One of the major challenges for Verreaux on his Jurassic-sized assignment was strategically serving such an enormous physical production. “Trying to fit all the pieces in and making sure that the production was getting all the pieces it needed was one challenge,” he says, “and also just trying to figure out how to do it. What usually happens is that the art department and I are the first ones hired onto the show, aside from, obviously, the director, writer, and producers. So, when you read something in the script, you have to start coming up with what you think it's going to look like. How are we going to work this all out?
“Of course, everybody else is reading the script and thinking about story,” he continues. “They're not thinking ‘Where are we going to do this river canyon? What's this river canyon going to look like? How are we going to break it all down?’ For example, production had already storyboarded this whole sequence of a plane crashing into the jungle. I had to sit down with my art director, Greg Papalia, and put all the boards up on the wall and basically break it down. Then we showed it to Joe and the production keys and said, ‘This is how I see this being shot.’ This isn't a movie that you just shoot straight ahead; I help to get it organized and lead the charge.”
To methodically integrate his vision into Jurassic Park III, Verreaux made certain to confer with Johnston, cinematographer Shelley Johnson, and Larry Franco, the producer, throughout principal photography. “We'd have models of all the stages and say, ‘On this stage, in this configuration, we're going to have to add catwalks to the side of this wall here, so then after we shoot them, we have to go away for two days while we pull the catwalks off,” Verreaux says. “Therefore, we'll go over to this other stage, and then we'll come back.’ The model was built so the catwalks came out, and they could say ‘Okay, I see.’ We did this so that people can get wrapped around the enormity of the project. That's probably the biggest challenge of working with something like this.”
Scattered across seven of the studio's famed soundstages, plus the Falls Lake set piece, Verreaux's elaborate production elements dominated Universal's backlot in the latter half of 2000. For eight weeks in July and August, Verreaux's team established the majority of the sets, and after the shooting company returned from location work in Hawaii and California, JP3 utilized Verreaux's talents, shooting all over the Universal lot, shortly following another huge production, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
On a December afternoon at Falls Lake, everything is gearing up for the appearance of the Spinosaur, which will shoot “dry for wet,” meaning that the dinosaur will never actually be in the water, though it will appear that way on camera. To accommodate the new dinosaur, Verreaux's team, which includes carpenters, plasterers, foam carvers, painters, foremen, and greenskeepers, will set to work to put the dinosaur in a believable river environment at Falls Lake. “Now we have the Falls Lake set tented in and fogged for a day scene,” he says. “For a week of night shooting, we'll have this entire outdoor set greened out, and all of our scaffolding will go away. The set will be rigged so it'll look like a river. One of Lantieri's mechanically submerging boats and Winston's Spinosaurus are going to be put in the lake and prepped, then we'll fill the lake again. We have these big Musco lights at both ends, and what we've really done is build a stage around a set. And usually you don't do this outside, but we would have been hard pressed to do this scene at the Grand Canyon!”
“When you see the film, you'll be surprised by how real our stuff looks.”
The execution of the tour-de-force scene will certainly rely on the combined efforts of the entire JP3 team. “There's an 18'-deep pit for when the sequence calls for sinking the boat, and there's a set of tracks that we installed for the Spinosaurus,” Verreaux explains. “The actors will get stuck in a cage on that boat trying to get away from the Spinosaur.” But the signature shot doesn't end there. “Then the boat gets submerged,” he continues, “so we're going to have to shoot closeups of the actors swimming from that cage while it's underwater. Since Falls Lake is only 3½' deep, we'll shoot that on a separate tank stage where we can work in 25' of water.”
Though there wasn't a soundstage big enough for Verreaux's rock wall set, he made use of Universal's Stage 27 — the largest indoor tank at the studio — to match part of the set piece. “The first thing we did was look everywhere to try to find a location out in the real world, and that's always the trick, especially when you have something in a script that says ‘river canyon,’” he says. “It turned out there was really nothing suitable in Hawaii, because there you don't have rivers that are running all the time. They're either in high flood and deadly, or they're almost empty and full of rocks. Then it was decided by the production not to try to go on location for the scene, but we are pretty much able to make our sets look an awful lot like Hawaii. And I think that when you see the film, you'll actually be surprised by how real our stuff looks.”
Luckily for film buffs, the original operahouse set from the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera rests against the walls of Universal's Stage 28. Unluckily for Verreaux, the set is on the National Historic Registry, and the studio cannot tear it down or move it. “It's a hassle to build sets on this stage,” Verreaux says. “However, we chose this stage for its height — it has more altitude than any other stage at Universal and we needed it to build an upper piece of the rock wall. In the story, the characters find a little bunker that's on the edge of a canyon. They go down a staircase, and they end up halfway down the side of it. We have constructed catwalks that are going along the side, and there will be adventures on these catwalks and bridges that they traverse.”
For a match cut from the giant rock wall set where fleeing characters slam a door shut to avoid predatory dinos, Verreaux built an interior set on Universal's Stage 29. “The idea was that there's an observatory at the top of this canyon, which we'll find out later is where the giant cages were being built for the Tyranodons,” said Verreaux. “We had already built the gates to that cave up at Falls Lake.”
Following logically, a section of Stage 29's observatory set included a spiral iron staircase that further matched a lower section of the rock wall built on Stage 44. “The whole idea was that this was way down the canyon,” Verreaux explains. “The characters come down the spiral staircase to this set, and they're here in this spooky, dark, misty place where they can't see 20' in front of them. We're getting ready to flood the soundstage with water — the entire stage is 250' long by about 100' wide, and the tank is 80' wide by 100' long. However, only about 1½' to 2' will be submerged. So we're faking shallow for deep.”
All of Verreaux's rock formations are impressive structures in their construction as well as conception. “We've had foam crews in here assembling the blocks,” he explains. “They actually carve them with saws; that's how they sculpt the rock. There's a wooden skeleton behind the foam, and then we build steel supports behind them to hold the catwalks. It was a real struggle because we had three different sculpting crews on different sets — you could come out with three different versions. Another of the real nerve-wracking things was imagining all this in white. That's where the trust comes in, going, ‘I know when we get it painted and get the greens in here, it's all going to look OK.’ The hardest area for me is in between conception and shooting, where 90% of the work is in limbo, and you're just hoping that you're guiding it in the right direction.”
Stage 12 at Universal is the largest soundstage on the lot, measuring 60' tall, 150' wide, and 300' long. While the first unit was busy at Falls Lake, Verreaux's team, numbering 150 at its peak, was busy on 12, shuttling in and out real greenery and artificial trees, preparing for an upcoming scene. “This is our major jungle set, which we have used in a whole bunch of different configurations,” Verreaux notes. “All along, this whole stage has been tying into Hawaii back and forth; we shot for the first month in Hawaii, and then came back and began to shoot on this and several other stages. There's a big trench that we installed that runs diagonally across the stage. Underneath the trench are two giant I-beam tracks for the big Stan Winston dinosaurs, the Spinosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus Rex.”
Meanwhile, on Stage 18, an elaborate dinosaur kennel set was being dressed for the next day's shooting. In the bowels of the kennel, large concrete pens line each side, each big enough to hold a Velociraptor that the Ingen people have been breeding. “For this design, Joe Johnston just did a little thumbnail of what he roughly thought the blueprint ought to be,” Verreaux said of the process, “and I came up with the basic look. Then I did a couple of sketches and showed him. We built a little Foamcore white model, as well as beginning the construction drawing, then Joe approved that. He was in here last week, just walking through, observing the finished product.”
Clearly, one of Verreaux's advantages on JP3 has been working with a kindred spirit in Johnston, who for many years before becoming a director was the art director at ILM. “I've known Joe for about 25 years, and worked with him on a couple of the Raiders films,” says Verreaux, “and Joe is so visual himself that it's very, very easy for me. Between us, we sit down with pencils or pens and just sketch something out. Then Joe will come down here and look at the sets and make comments. Because of Joe's background, he storyboards everything and he really works stuff out visually.”
Reflecting on his third turn at production-designing a feature (he is currently designing Universal's The Scorpion King), Verreaux seemed pleased with the results on JP3. “What's really great,” he concludes, “is every time Joe comes to a new set, he walks around and always finds the best angles to shoot the set from. His visual acuity is so good that he finds really good angles to tell the story from. Building these kinds of organic sets are the hardest, because they're the toughest for people to visualize before they've been built. But the sets always get shot. That's the best part of the job.”Photos: Zade Rosenthal/©2001 Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment