Today I spent much of the day building a digital woolly mammoth. Then I took a break and went with friends to see the new Jurassic Park film.
The contrast between Paleolithic and Jurassic simulacra reminded me of a surprising awakening of consciousness I once had. It had occurred at the SIGGRAPH 1997 Chapters party, which was held at the Los Angeles Zoo.
At the time, Jurassic Park was a very big deal, especially if you worked in computer graphics. The second film, Jurassic Park, the Lost World, had just been released two months earlier, so dinosaur movies were very much on the minds of computer graphics researchers.
Unlike most other CGI movies at the time, the Jurassic Park movies were pioneering in that they consistently strove for extreme realism. Intellectually you knew that what you were seeing was impossible, but you wouldn’t know it from what you were seeing on the big screen.
In particular, I was always impressed by the skin of the dinosaurs. “How,” I had often asked myself, “did the filmmakers know what dinosaur skin looked like? It’s not like you could just wander over to the nearest zoo and look at the dinosaurs.”
That evening at the LA Zoo, I happened to look into the rhinoceros enclosure. I was fascinated to see that the skin of the rhinoceros looked exactly like the skin of a dinosaur.
Just then I remembered that I wasn’t comparing what I was seeing to actual dinosaurs. I was comparing a living rhinoceros to movie dinosaurs.
And then I said to myself, “Oh.”