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A Leap in Technology for a Giant Step Back in Time

To create a world from scratch, the 'Dinosaur' filmmakers needed a few breakthroughs first.

May 07, 2000|VALERIE J. NELSON

For four years, about 350 people labored to make a movie using technology that often didn't exist until they invented it. They seemed to play God with filmmaking, creating a digital world that frequently incorporated multiple live-action backgrounds with computer animation in a single scene. "They just look into their computer screens, and they can have anything they want," says Pam Marsden, who produced "Dinosaur." "The frontier is limitless." Four of those pioneers spoke with Times staff writer Valerie J. Nelson about how they brought a new dinosaur world to the screen.

Dick Zondag

Supervising Animator, Bruton

Zondag was working in story development for "Dinosaur" when he was given the chance to animate Bruton, an aging iguanodon who's the lieutenant for the film's bad-guy dinosaur. Like many artists who worked on the film, his previous experience was in drawn, not computer, animation. His brother, Ralph Zondag, was one of the film's two directors.


Bruton is the largest of all of the iguanodons, but he's overweight and he's definitely in middle age. I needed to be able to show that. We played him a little like a big Cadillac, where you'd hit the brakes but the car would keep moving.

To place Bruton in a scene, I am handed a folder with a sheet of paper that has a frame-by-frame accounting of the scene. The dialogue is written on the sheet, every letter of every word is broken down.

That packet also has a storyboard that gives me a brief visual reference of what's expected of my character. Then I have a little conversation with the director, in this case Eric Leighton. I would pitch him any ideas I have about what the character might do. He goes away, and I go to work. We used two different computer programs. One did the body animation, the other the facial detail. I'd type in a code that would bring up the exact scene, with the virtual background in place, that was prepared for me in advance by the layout department.

If there's a line of dialogue, I have another tool that replays the dialogue in concert with the animation. It's like turning on the video as I work. Once I'm happy with the animation, I go back and do quite a few renderings. I'm constantly tweaking the animation. Once I feel I'm in the ballpark, I show it to Eric.

At that point, we would probably buy off on the scene in its rough form. I'd save it, then import it into the other program to animate the actual face. I always tend to animate the eyes first. I didn't allow Bruton to blink too much.

After the eyes, I'd do the rest of the features. The mouth and dialogue came after the fact. Then I'd add the last little bits of detail, such as jaw clenches or muscle spurts. Once I got it, I'd show it to Eric. If he liked it, it would move on to the next department, skin and muscles, and we would go back and forth on it. We played down the amount of muscle inertia on his arms and legs and played up the skin inertia. His skin was looser than his muscles.

Bruton didn't enter the film till midway of Act 2, and he was more of a side character with lesser footage. But one person can only ever go so fast. My crew wasn't so big. I had one other animator and a couple of assistants.

Sean Phillips

Model Development Supervisor

In "skin and muscles," as model development became known, characters were fleshed out as realistically as possible. Phillips, who has a degree in engineering, supervised secondary animation that made muscles bulge and skin wrinkle. The filmmakers consider the work a technological breakthrough.


We wanted to build a full muscle-stimulation system that would drive exterior skin. In the past, skin was wrapped around bones and any musculature was animated by hand. We spent a lot of time looking at elephants. They were about the largest creature we could find that were close to the size of the dinosaurs, although they were still small.

Unlike other films, we didn't have human characters for a sense of scale. We needed the characters themselves to give a sense of their massiveness. Without the moving skin and bulging, they don't seem as big.

First, we built the exterior skin of the character, in a neutral pose, that was a shell of what it would look like. From there, we fit the bones back into the character. Those would serve as the animators' controls. We'd set the point where the hip or knee would rotate inside the interior skin.

We fit muscles between the skin and bones, then had animators do a range of motion study--sort of calisthenics for dinosaurs. It gave us a starting point to adjust the parameters. We would ask, "How much should it bulge when it stops quickly?"

Then we worked on adjusting the muscles to behave in a way that seemed reasonable with skin attached to it. Each point in the skin was made to stick to the closest point in the underlying muscle. That made for skin that looked crinkly where limbs joined the body.

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