How Special Effects Work #4: The Reveal

The latest in my semi-random, long-neglected series of asides on special effects continues with the concept of the “reveal”. This is that moment when you finally get to see the spectacular object that has been withheld from you for so long. A good reveal will not just happen, but will be the culmination of a series of gestures that draw you in to a state of curiosity, suspense and anticipation. In short, if they’ve spent a lot of money on their biggest selling point, they’re going to make you wait to see it.

Jurassic Park‘s big selling point was, of course, its dinosaurs, and the marketing campaign was supremely diligent about keeping them under wraps for as long as possible. In the trailer, you got to see a foot and part of a leg, but that was just a tease to make you earn for a good luck at all that off screen dinosaur anatomy. So, after a prologue in which a Park employee is eviscerated by a barely-glimpsed velociraptor, the spectator is prompted to anticipate the moment when the figurative curtains are drawn back and the much-touted technology provides a clear view. I’m going to analyse the couple of minutes that demonstrate this reveal, but you could argue that the build-up starts much earlier, as the scientists talk about and study dinosaurs, continually making references to things which you can’t yet see. This just delays, and thus builds up, the moment of revelation, without ever letting you forget that it’s on the way…

As the Jeeps enter the Park’s dinosaur enclosure, the gates are closed behind them, announcing a new stage of the film: In Jurassic Park, set-pieces are often delineated by movement between fenced or walled areas, or onto a new enclosure. The narrative is compartmentalised like a theme park or zoo. Each dinosaur gets its own scene in a different part of the park. The danger sign, and the sheer scale of the security system indicates to the viewer to beware what lies within, i.e. anticipate some scary stuff inside.

An altercation between John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the park’s owner and Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), the lawyer assigned the task of investigating the park’s safety on behalf of shareholders, sets up a tension between Hammond’s idealistic maverick and the bureaucratic or venal corporate interests that threaten to compromise him (but which will later prove to be wholly self-interested). The film is careful not to portray Hammond as a “mad scientist”, or indeed to demonstrate any scientific knowledge or interest himself: all the “sciencey bits” are explained for us by characters onscreen or, in one sequence, by a cartoon strand of DNA. Each character seems to embody a different position in relation to the film’s central moral question concerning the ethics of genetic engineering. But note how Gennaro’s position will completely change by the end of this scene.

These shots establish the space in which the reveal will take place. Hammond, orchestrating the spectacle for his guests, brings the jeeps to a halt, indicating that something will happen.  He is controlling the scene for his audience, just as Spielberg mediates it for his viewers. Spielberg signals significant moment in his films by pushing the camera in to a character who strikes a pose or says an important line of dialogue with numbing frequency. Improbably, nobody but Hammond is looking out of the vehicle, so both “directors” are able to set up their reveals, Hammond by stopping the vehicles in an advantageous position, and Spielberg by…

… delaying the moment when his audience gets the longed-for reverse shot that tells us what they have been brought to see. Palaeontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill) spots it first, establishing an eyeline that sets up expectation that we will get to see what he sees.

The build-up is further extruded by having Grant stand up for a better look, an involuntary standing ovation that physically represents his rising sense of awe. He clumsily divests himself of hat and sunglasses – this is something he wants to see clearly, with his own eyes, unencumbered. Eyes wide and jaws dropping, the trick of using the reaction shot before the subjective shot of the dinosaur is an obvious one. We are meant to identify with Grant’s amazement, but we are teasingly out of the spectacular loop.

And there’s more. Impolitely, Grant twists the head of his partner, palaeobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) to make her look. She has been too absorbed in examining a prehistoric leaf (!) to notice the dinosauric action going on nearby. She repeats the process of removing her sunglasses, standing up and gawping offscreen.

Finally, a reverse shot shows us what everyone is staring at. The camera is moved back to a long shot of the scene, and still the brachiosaurus is too big to fit into the frame. As it walks, the camera pans and reframes to take in its neck and finally its head at the top of the trees. The camera mimics the same uplifting, upward gaze that Grant  and Sattler have just enacted.

The low angle emphasises the size of the creature. Bright skies and the pastoral scene of grazing ensure that the scene is not misinterpreted as a threatening one. Throughout this sequence, John Williams’ score develops into a rising fanfare of wonderment. The shot lingers on the beast’s body – the reveal certainly delivers on its promise to follow concealment with explicit vision.

Neill and Dern are our surrogate gawkers in this scene: their eyelines direct us where to look (as if a bloody great dinosaur wasn’t enough of a hint), and their gasping disbelief is designed to infect us with a similar shiver of amazement. This reaches a peak when our scientific expert points, uselessly, at the giant monster and exclaims “It’s a dinosaur.” No shit. His critical, intellectual and scientific credentials are suspended, overpowered by the sheer force of seeing. Not once do they question the reality of what they’re seeing. To do so might push the spectator out of the illusion and cause them to question the fabrication of what they’re seeing.

Hey, where did the jeeps go in this shot? It looks as though they just don’t suit the composition, with the little people in the foreground dwarfed by the brachiosaur, its upright pose mimicking the bend of the trees. The space created by the composition is not a realistic one, but a spectacular one, where the spatial logic is dictated not to by fidelity to the position of objects in the surrounding shots, but by the demands of revelation and display.

Bookending the scene by referring back to the earlier discussion in the Jeep, our lawyer succumbs to the wonder of the moment: “We’re gonna make a fortune with this place”, striking the only sour note and spoiling the simple pleasure of spectacle by reminding us all of its inevitable corruption by corporate-commercial interests.

And there you have it. This reveal scene performs the simple task of showing off the central spectacular conceit of the film, but Spielberg makes it do more work than that, establishing a discourse of scientific spectacle that will then be questioned and condemned. It records the main characters’ responses to their first contact with the dinosaurs whose presence will become increasingly threatening, and encourages a parallel sense of amazement in spectators by using formal techniques that put the viewer in an identificatory relationship with the onscreen observers. It’s a spectacular moment, but one that promotes engagement rather than awed distanciation.

8 thoughts on “How Special Effects Work #4: The Reveal

  1. Great analysis. Too bad the movie’s shite. Holding back the reveal was something Spielberg learned on Jaws not because he didn’t want to show the shark but because he couldn’t. The thing was legendarily buggy. Spielberg can’t help hitting the audience over the head with unnecessary spectacle over subtlety. If u need evidence of this compare the “trapped in the basement” scene in his War of the Worlds to the scene he ripped off from Signs. Shyamalan manages to amp the fear over the top by letting ur imagination scare you — he only shows u shadows, a turning doorknob, etc.

    • Thanks, S-Rex. I make no claims for the movie’s quality, only its ability to illustrate a recurrent technique. JP certainly looks clunky and heavy-handed now next to more nuanced monster movies such as The Host or even Cloverfield, but Spielberg’s obviousness makes him good for showing how stuff works schematically. I admire the premise of Signs, and I’m sure that most of us would experience an alien invasion just like that – cowering in a basement, poring over rolling news footage for clues about how screwed we really are. But the nonsensical ending soured it in my memory, and I forgot how effective and terrifying the build-up was.

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  3. I often think that this sequence was perfect as a kind of trailer for the film as it was one of the big sequences that must have been specifically chosen for release and was played over and over during its initial cinema release. The audience is specifically told what to feel through the character’s reactions in this scene especially but really emotions are broadly telegraphed throughout the film. Sometimes it works to add something to the scene (as here where the dry and dusty experts are wowed back into a child-like sense of wonder), and sometimes it just becomes clunky as characters point out things we knew long before (or their actions become as subtle as a black butler in a 30s Hollywood film, such as in the teen girls wobbling jelly as she senses danger). Of course all these flaws were magnified in fascinatingly lunkheaded sequel.

    • “As subtle as a black butler”. Love it. Jurassic Park is like a blockbuster whose formulae are entirely exo-skeletal: you can see all of its mechanisms in motion. That’s why I like to use it for illustrative purposes rather for, you know, fun? I remember being utterly thrilled by it when it first came out, but it looks horribly overdetermined now.

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