May 14, 2012
The Dinosaur Museum, tucked away a few blocks from Blanding, Utah’s main drag, is an unusual place. Intricately detailed sculptures stand next to casts of fossils, full-size paintings of skeletons and various bits of dinosauriana, mixed together to create rooms full of competing dinosaur images. But I didn’t expect to run into a minor dinosaur celebrity in the galleries. Displayed in a small glass case were the decaying remains of King Kong‘s “Brontosaurus.”
I had almost forgotten about the stop-motion dinosaur. In the original, 1933 King Kong, the sharp-toothed sauropod made a brief appearance as a terrifying, carnivorous swamp monster. Worst of all, the dinosaur was just as dangerous on land as in the water. After wrecking the expedition’s boats, the Brontosaurus shuffled after the fleeing humans and nabbed one crew member dumb enough to think you can escape a long-necked dinosaur by climbing a tree.
But that wasn’t the model’s only appearance. The same model was employed in Son of Kong, a hastily created sequel to the initial hit, released a scant nine months after the first film. And the Brontosaurus was made to do double duty. Not only did the Brontosaurus make a brief cameo at the end of the movie, but the film’s special effects creators refashioned the model into a gnarly sea monster.
Today, this piece of Hollywood memorabilia looks even more monstrous. Time has not been kind to the dinosaur. The fabricated flesh has decayed from around the model’s mouth, eyes and neck, making the dinosaur look even more angry than it ever appeared on film. The sauropod was always meant to be scary, but it looks even more intimidating as a tattered cinema zombie.
September 28, 2011
Old dinosaurs have a way of hanging on. New discoveries are announced every week, and our understanding of how dinosaurs actually lived is constantly changing, but the public image of dinosaurs doesn’t always keep up with the pace of scientific discovery and debate. I was reminded of this tension after stumbling upon a short, 1970 documentary called Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards.
Dinosaurs regularly popped up during my early elementary school education. From preschool through third grade, at least, dinosaurs made a cameo or more during the school year, and I remember at least one field trip to see the animatronic dinosaurs at the Monmouth Museum in central New Jersey. The dinosaurs jerked and bellowed, as the robotic creatures are wont to do, but what really stuck with me was seeing Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards in one of the museum’s little alcoves. Animatronic dinosaurs were nice and all, but in the era before computer-generated dinosaurs were the rule, the stop-motion dinosaurs in the film were the closest thing to seeing the real animals come alive.
Created by special effects artist Wah Chang, the dinosaurs of the short film were as I had always known them. They dragged their tails, moved slowly and were generally covered in a drab palette of muted greens, browns, greys and reds. All the standard behavioral tropes were there, too: “Brontosaurus” lived near the side of the swamp, hadrosaurs escaped danger by fleeing into the water and Tyrannosaurus was such a force of destruction that not even the armor of ankylosaurs could stop it. In some cases, the film looked like the paintings of 20th century paleo artist Zdeněk Burian come to life, and since Burian’s art filled many of my dinosaur books I had no reason to think that scientists had already eviscerated this older image of slow, stupid dinosaurs.
I can’t blame the creators of the original film for portraying the 20th century image of dinosaurs as plodding, dim-witted animals. That was the general view at the time the movie was made. But the film was still playing in the museum I visited in 1990. By this time the scientific “Dinosaur Renaissance” had already been in full swing for well over a decade, but the big-time dinosaur image shift hadn’t happened yet. The dinosaurs in the 1970 video fit in perfectly with the ones I saw in museum displays, books and in the classroom. I had little understanding of just how much had changed since the time the stop-motion film was made.
Even though we’re not due for another wholesale shift in our understanding of dinosaurs, I think that we’re still suffering from the same science communication problems. Science continues, but library books and museum displays continue to present outdated information. That’s just the way things go, yet this fact is especially frustrating during a time when discovery and discussion are accelerating. How many students are initially meeting outdated dinosaurs, rather than the dinosaurs we know now?
August 18, 2011
Back in 1918, special effects artists had to make dinosaurs the old-fashioned way. Creating sculptures out of clay and bringing them to life through stop-motion animation was the only way to go, and the pioneering artist in this medium was Willis O’Brien. He’s probably best known for his work on King Kong—the giant ape and Skull Island’s dinosaurs were his creations—but O’Brien also made a number of silent short films which featured prehistoric creatures, including The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.
The plot is pretty simple. Uncle Jack tells his nephews about the time he went up to Slumber Mountain, (surprise!) fell asleep and dreamed of seeing prehistoric creatures through a magical telescope carried by a fellow named Mad Dick (who was played by O’Brien himself). The whole thing was mainly an excuse to get dinosaurs and other ancient critters on screen—the film’s tagline was: “These giant monsters of the past are seen to breathe, to live again, to move and battle as they did at the dawn of life!”
The short is just a shadow of what it was meant to be. Originally planned to be a feature film, the final product stretched only 18 minutes. Still, the movie was a financial success. According to the folks at Turner Classic Movies, it took about $3,000 to make the film but it brought in over $100,000 in profit. Not too shabby.
Although it’s usually only remembered by film buffs and dinosaur fans today, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain represents a significant milestone in the history of movies because it was the first time live actors were paired with stop-motion dinosaurs. This is the movie that got the ball rolling and gave O’Brien some of the skills he would later use on movies like The Lost World and Mighty Joe Young. Without it, we might never have seen Professor Challenger face dinosaurs on an South American plateau or seen a giant gorilla hang from the Empire State Building.
April 15, 2011
When I opened my email inbox this morning, I was met with a pleasant surprise. Phil Tippett’s exquisite short film Prehistoric Beast has finally been released in its entirety.
I had only seen bits and pieces of Tippett’s stop-motion story as a kid. The short’s dinosaurs – a Monoclonius and a tyrannosaur – had been featured in the 1985 documentary Dinosaur!, but the full film from which those scenes were taken was only seen at animation festivals. Now, after 26 years, Tippett has posted Prehistoric Beast on YouTube for all to see.
When I saw Tippett’s stop-motion dinosaurs for the first time, they embodied everything I imagined the living creatures to be. They still look good. Poorly-animated digital dinosaurs run rampant on television these days, but Tippett’s carefully-crafted stop-motion models have a certain life-like quality missing from modern Jurassic Park knockoffs. The braying of the lone, lost Monoclonius in the depths of the primeval forest looks like a brief moment in the life of a real animal.
Prehistoric Beast was skillfully shot, too. The film contains no dialog at all – The Land Before Time, it’s not – and the entire story is told through the experience of the Monoclonius. Sometimes the viewer is close-up – looking up at the dinosaur’s muzzle as it crops soft plants – and at other times we see the dinosaur from far away, feeling its isolation as it wanders into the dark woods. In one tense scene, the camera pans around the frightened dinosaur as the tyrannosaur stalks it in the background. We can see the predator disappear behind the trees, but the poor Monoclonius cannot.
Above all, though, Prehistoric Beast is impressive for the level of craftsmanship required to make it. We will probably never see such a film again. Dinosaurs can now be easily brought back to life via computers, even if many of them look absolutely atrocious, and so stop-motion dinosaurs have gone extinct. Maybe it’s just childhood nostalgia for the dinosaurs I grew up with, but, for me, Prehistoric Beast beautifully captures a few moments of prehistoric life that are now only represented by the bones and rock of Alberta’s Dinosaur Park Formation. Tippett’s stop-motion creation is about as close as I am ever going to get to actually seeing the lost Cretaceous world.
September 21, 2010
If paleontologists have said it once, they have said it a hundred times: non-avian dinosaurs and humans never coexisted. Most people who insist otherwise are creationist cranks who believe that evidence of a living dinosaur would somehow undermine evolutionary theory, but I understand that Hollywood has to play by different rules. Dinosaurs are just not as exciting without people to menace, and so it has been traditional to use time travel, the existence of prehistoric “lost worlds,” fertilized eggs preserved for over 65 million years and genetic engineering experiments gone awry to bring dinosaurs and people together. But none of these options worked for the creators of the 1970 Hammer film When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. They wanted dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters to attack scantily-clad cavepeople, and so they made a film that a biblical fundamentalist could take as a documentary rather than fiction.
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth doesn’t begin with a shot of a steaming, primeval forest, but of a gaggle of tanned and oiled cavepeople who have crawled out of their cliffside dwellings to engage in their regular “let’s pick which blond woman we want to sacrifice” ritual. Naturally, the prospective victims are not very happy about this—one throws herself off a cliff—but when they try to escape they are hindered by the fact that they are wearing prehistoric underwear so skimpy that it actually makes it more difficult for them to run away. It would have made more sense for them to lose the push-up bras and just bolt for it, though I imagine going streaking during prehistory would have presented its own unique risks.
In any event, one of the Cenozoic supermodels—named Sanna—does manage to escape by jumping into the sea and is promptly rescued by a conveniently placed group of fishermen whose unfortunate garments remind us why it’s never wise to wear thongs in a windstorm (I wish I were talking about sandals here—yikes). It is among this group of unfortunately attired men that we meet Tara, our film’s scruffy male lead. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the musclebound leader of the cavepeople is clearly upset that the sacrifice did not go as planned; he shouts incomprehensible phrases and gestures widely to get people to go do whatever it is they do. Maybe this was intended as a bit of fun for the audience—make up your own dialogue as you go along—especially since words like “akita” appear to mean: “Over there”; “Stop”; “Give me that”; “Come over here” and “Let’s have pancakes for dinner tonight.”
For me, though, the film’s real stars are the prehistoric creatures that help to thin out the cast, and the audience’s first look at one of the film’s exquisite stop-motion monsters comes when the fishermen return with the woman to their camp. While the dudes were out fishing, someone brought a plesiosaur (which is, of course, not a dinosaur) to the big clam bake, but damned if they knew what to do with the thing. It was too angry to just stick an apple in its mouth and start slow-roasting it, and when half the village runs over to examine their new visitor their dinner tries to make a break for it. Unfortunately, though, the plesiosaur wanders right into a mess of fluid the tribe uses for lighting fires, and soon the only question on anyone’s mind is: “White meat or dark?”
Things don’t look so rosy the next day. The cliffdwellers are still miffed that their sacrifice just up and left, and Tara’s wife isn’t too happy that he came back with a new, blond girlfriend. When Sanna’s captors show up, she makes a break for it, and thanks to an assist from an angry Chasmosaurus she gets a little extra time to get away. That does little to help the fisherman and his friends, though—when they set out after her the same dinosaur causes them a spot of trouble before throwing itself into what sounds like a bottomless pit (lots of roaring, but no crash). Sanna also encounters some of the dangerous local fauna when she finds herself being enveloped by a carnivorous plant, although I would not recommend her escape technique of reaching outside to stab inwards at the plant’s tough outer hide (pointsy towardsies = bad).
The remainder of the film is little more than an excuse to watch Victoria Vetri run around in an embarrassingly small bikini. Thankfully, there are a few more prehistoric critters to help break the movie’s naked tedium. A newly-hatched baby something-o-saurus and its mother (which look like cousins of the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) provide a brief bit of comic relief as they try to figure out whether Sanna is friend or food; an attack by an oversized Rhamphorhynchus livens things up a bit, and when Tara returns home to find that his tribe doesn’t think it’s cool that he ran off with someone else’s sacrifice, they try to serve him up on a raft to the local Tylosaurus. (The marine reptile responds by tossing him off the raft. “Yecch! Human? No thanks – I’m trying to cut back on junk food.”) Given how good these stop-motion creatures look, though, it is sad that the film also resorts to gluing plates and spikes on alligators and monitor lizards and making them fight, a practice that is despicable as it is lazy.
In the end, a giant tidal wave wipes away the coastal village but delivers our heroes to a mountaintop to observe a lunar eclipse. Dumb, but attractive, they would go on to found a settlement along the southern coast of California which would eventually be named Los Angeles. What happened to all the prehistoric monsters is unclear, though. Perhaps they got so tired of the cavepeople’s shenanigans that they eventually died of boredom—a risk I certainly felt while watching this vintage 1970s schlock.