Let there be life

26th January 2001 at 00:00
Dinosaurs and animated films make a winning combination and the British Film Institute is bringing them together in a season that coincides with Walt Disney's centenary. Adam Jezard explains how model monsters can become a moving force in your classroom.

child of pre-school age, watching a picture show about dinosaurs and calling out their Latin names - including some that never appeared in Hollywood movies - inspired Michael Crichton to write Jurassic Park.

Crichton knew that, by tapping into the part of our unconscious where we are still children in his terrifying tale of modern-day dinosaurs, he was playing on a fascination that began when dinosaur bones were first identified in the 19th century, and that still grips youngsters today.

His book certainly appealed to director Steven Spielberg, who reportedly bought the film rights even before the novel was published. By using animation to bring dinosaurs to life, Spielberg added another layer of interest for many an inner-child, because the process itself is as fascinating as the lumbering monsters of pre-history. Animation captures children's imaginations, as spin-off toys and products, from Mickey Mouse to Buzz Lightyear and Wallace and Gromit, prove.

Since cinema first began a little over a century ago, filmmakers have tried to scare, amuse, entertain and educate us with films about dinosaurs. A study of the different techniques used over the years to create screen dinosaurs can unlock elements of art, history, English and science.

Meet Gertie

The process of telling simple stories in a series of successive images has a history that can be traced back to cave paintings. In modern cartoons, the greatest influence was the comic strip. A leading American figure in early cartoon films, Winsor McCay, was a newspaper cartoonist. His best-known creation was Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). He produced some 10,000 drawings of Gertie's movements and photographed them individually, the most time-consuming way to make even a short cartoon film.

McCay also gave Gertie a recognisable character, something few animators had previously done. One of the first cartoon characters to acquire mass appeal, Gertie made her first appearance when Walt Disney was about eight, almost 20 years before Mickey Mouse hit the screen.

Feat of clay Another popular form of animation involves making models that can be laboriously posed and photographed frame-by-frame to give the illusion of movement, a process known as stop-motion photography. One of the earliest examples is special effects expert Willis O'Brien's The Lost World (1925), based on Conan Doyle's novel about the discovery of living dinosaurs in South America. As a child, O'Brien began his life-long interest when he staged a fight between two clay model boxers and filmed the results. He made his name with films about bizarre creatures, such as The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1915), which helped establish the trend for historically inaccurate films about primitive men living alongside dinosaurs.

In his early films, O'Brien used wood, clay and cloth to create model miniatures. By leaving blank spaces in the film footage of the monsters, where images of the film actors would later be placed, and cutting the two sets of film together, he became the first person to mix stop-motion photography with real people. On screen, the dinosaurs- in reality 17 or 18 inches high - dwarf the actors.

For The Lost World, a new technique of model-making was developed. Skeletons were made from metal, with articulated backbones and ball-and-socket joints. Sponge rubber that would realistically flex and stretch was used for muscles, and spines, scales and warts could be stuck on to "skin" made from latex. Some creatures were equipped with a balloon hooked to an air supply, enabling them to "breathe".

Fights between dinosaurs were filmed by up to seven cameras so as to capture the "movement" in each shot from different angles, and some body parts, such as heads, were remodelled on a larger scale for detailed close-up views.

The Lost World remains a seminal film, not least because its pioneering special and photographic effects were repeated in King Kong (1933) and provided inspiration for many other filmmakers. O'Brien's team also instilled a personality into each creation, but avoided the comic, a lesson that was invaluable when creating the sympathetic Kong.

Although stop-go animation gives movement a somewhat jerky appearance, it has nevertheless remained popular with filmmakers, and has been used with computer-assisted modification right up to Aardman's Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.

Cartoon capers

Walt Disney once said: "The span of 12 years between Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey film with sound, and Fantasia is the bridge between primitive and modern animated pictures." Fantasia (1940) combines classical music with animation to tell stories without words. Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rites of Spring becomes the soundtrack to the history of the world, from the creation of life to the death of the dinosaurs. A battle between a tyrannosaurus and a stegosaurus is a high point of the film. Unlike Gertie the Dinosaur, Fantasia is made in brilliant colour.

What made the difference in production terms was the increased use of a complex system called cell (or cel) animation, developed in 1914. It can take many people and several years to make the millions of drawings required to make films in this way. First, the script and storyboard are approved, and then the soundtrack - music and voices - is recorded and timed so that the illustrations can be matched to it.

Two sets of artists then set to work; background artists who create the "scenery", and character artists, who create the main protagonists and anything they interact with (such as food and cutlery). The character artists work to a "timing script". Film is projected at 24 frames per second, so the artist knows exactly how many illustrations are needed to complete an action. The finished illustrations are copied in ink onto cells (sheets of celluloid acetate), which are then coloured. Next, the cells are photographed on top of the backgrounds and finally the film is combined with the soundtrack. The main advantages of cell animation over filmed drawings are enhanced sense of depth in the final image, and reduced costs, as each background needs to be drawn only once. Mickey Mouse and Looney Tunes cartoons were also made in this way.

Walk on

In this hi-tech age it is easy to imagine that computers are used to achieve all the special effects. The skills of model making and puppetry, however, are still very much in use. Around 80 models were used for the BBCTV series Walking with Dinosaurs. When combined with computer-generated effects, the model dinosaurs appear to move with greater fluidity than is possible with stop-motion techniques. Most of the models were of heads and limbs, elements that needed to be filmed in close-up for activities such as eating and walking; model eggs were also created for realistic hatching. Model-making is still the best technique for these kinds of action shots.

Some of the models used in Walking with Dinosaurs were hand-operated, some had electronically remote-controlled elements - animatronics - such as eyes, eyelids, nostrils or muscles. Computer-generated images were used for group or distance shots. The animation process was divided between two teams, one devoting itself to the creation and manipulation of skeletal outlines (more like creating a series of three-dimensional computerised maps than a cartoon) and their movements, while the other created skin textures and lighting effects. These two sets of animation were married together and then added to backgrounds filmed in such diverse locations as New Zealand, Chile and California. As birds and grass did not exist until the end of the dinosaur era, the backgrounds had to be very carefully selected.

Some filmmakers, such as the Walking With Dinosaurs team, tried to reflect contemporary knowledge about dinosaurs; however, the giant creatures in Fantasia are not destroyed by a meteorite, as it was made before the meteorite theory had been expounded. Others, such as Steven Spielberg in Jurassic Park, have increased the dramatic effect by showing dinosaurs doing things they may not have been capable of, such as spitting venom.

Other factors, such as what a dinosaur sounds like, lie in the realms of pure speculation. For one film, the recorded roar of a real lion was played backwards and dubbed over the animation.

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