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It Took an Eon to Get These Guys Right

Forget ink-on-paper animation or stop-motion clay models. Disney's 'Dinosaur' takes the creatures to the computer era's cutting edge.

May 07, 2000|VALERIE J. NELSON | Valerie J. Nelson is a Times staff writer

Lizards with horns glued to their heads and clay models no bigger than Barbie dolls painstakingly animated one frame at a time. These are the humble forebears of the computer-generated, remarkably lifelike creatures that lumber across the screen in the "photo-real" world of Disney's "Dinosaur," which opens May 19, the latest of about 160 films to feature the prehistoric beasts over the last century.

Yet if it weren't for the animated star of a vaudeville act, dinosaur movies might not have evolved in quite the same way, film historians say. The nation's appetite for a celluloid dinosaur age can be traced to "Gertie the Dinosaur," which debuted in 1914. Brandishing a whip, animator Winsor McCay would stand onstage to explain how animated movies were made before appearing to interact with his "trained dinosaurus."

" 'Gertie' is a really important movie because it popularized animated cartoons and movies at a time when neither was extraordinarily commercial," says Edward Summer, New York-based publisher of an online science education magazine, the Dinosaur Interplanetary Gazette. "McCay toured it all over the country and people got excited about movies in general and animation in particular."

Without "Gertie," the history of animated film also might have been rewritten, since Walt Disney used to credit "Gertie" with making his animation career possible, at least according to Summer.

While "Gertie" was essentially a two-man animation show--McCay drew the dinosaur while another illustrator did the backgrounds in ink on rice paper--the techno-wizardry of modern epics requires virtual animation armies. "Dinosaur" employed 48 animators, only a third of whom had previously worked in computer animation.

The movies owe a debt to dinosaur flicks, and not just for such kitschy names as "Prehistoric Poultry" or "Untamed Women" that litter the faux primeval landscape. The long tradition of celluloid dinosaurs has been a major force in the development of special effects, says Bijan Tehrani, who taught a class on "Movies and Dinosaurs" at an art school in Iran and now teaches at the Art Institute of Los Angeles.

Most film historians agree that one of the best dinosaur movies is the first "Lost World," which in 1925 featured the stop-motion technique that Willis O'Brien had spent more 10 years perfecting. (In stop-motion, there is no motion; models are filmed frame by frame, and the illusion of movement occurs when the film is projected.)

"The harmonious mixture of the humans and the dinosaurs in that movie makes it great," Tehrani says. "In a lot of movies, they don't blend together really well. This movie manages to create a very surreal atmosphere, and the stop-motion technique makes it really believable. O'Brien is maybe the best dinosaur man in American film history."

"Lost World" set the artistic standard for dinosaur movies for a long time as well as another record it could never lose: It became the first in-flight movie when it was shown during a promotional screening during a flight around New York City, says Jerry Nealy, a film historian in Los Feliz.

The movie made an impact on a young Ray Harryhausen, another future master of stop-motion dinosaur animation, who was emotionally moved by a scene that ended with a clay-model dinosaur lying dead in a body of water, says Jennifer Kramer, a film and television scholar in Caldwell, N.J.

"Part of the realism in stop-motion is inherent to the source material," says Kramer, who as a child kept a "King Kong" poster above her bed. "What's hitting you is that someone made this real little being. It's that same creepy feeling you got from puppets. You know that someone made this with their hands. It's part of this quality little mini-world."

The makers of "Dinosaur" cite "King Kong" as an influence, for the 1933 classic's story line and art direction didn't shy away from the oversize creatures.

"It is probably still the greatest vehicle for special effects, with all the wonderful work O'Brien did with Marcel Delgado, and the scenes with dinosaurs and animal creatures on the island," says Ray Zone, a Los Angeles film and 3-D historian who writes for American Cinematographer magazine. "It was unprecedented to have this level of humanity in this thing that was just animated."


The legacy of other dinosaur movie is more comical. The 1940 film "One Million B.C." had a couple of present-day reptiles, a lizard and a turtle, impersonate the long-extinct breed. Stock footage from that film haunted the genre for years. Grown men forced to wear papier-ma^che dinosaur suits kept passing out during the filming of "The Land Unknown," released in 1957. Despite low marks for special effects, the film was moderately successful, Nealy says.

Out of this low-tech heritage sprang the relatively recent computer age of dinosaurs. "Jurassic Park" in 1993 was the first motion picture to use computer-generated imagery, or CGI, along with mechanical dinosaurs.

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