A Brief History of Dinosaurs in Film

By Graham Edwards, Cinefex

For nearly seventy years, stop motion remained the technique of choice for bringing extinct creatures to life.

The word "dinosaur" was coined by Victorian naturalist Sir Richard Owen in 1841. Derived from the Greek, it means "terrible lizard". The modern meaning is, of course, "humongous slavering monster that tramples the getaway car, eats the supporting actor and fills the IMAX screen from top to bottom."

As well as giving dinosaurs their name, Owen was one of the first to recognize their entertainment potential. In 1852, following London's Great Exhibition, he oversaw the creation of 33 life-size concrete dinosaur sculptures. After the giant models had been artistically placed in parkland surrounding Crystal Palace, Owen hosted a flamboyant dinner party inside the hollow mold that had been used to make the Iguanodon.

Willis O'Brien and a dinosaur from "The Lost World"

After that, dinosaurs swiftly rampaged through popular culture, including early cinema. In 1925, Willis O'Brien – one of the earliest visual effects practitioners – chose them as a subject for his revolutionary stop motion animation techniques in The Lost World, a film which took Owen's Victorian concept of the dinosaur tableau and made it live and breathe.

For nearly seventy years, stop motion remained the technique of choice for bringing extinct creatures to life. In 1953, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms saw Ray Harryhausen using O'Brien's methods to resurrect a long-dormant Rhedosaurus – a fictional dinosaur awoken from its slumber by an A-bomb test.

The Rhedosaurus from "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms"

More Harryhausen dinosaurs followed in 1966, when One Million Years B.C. showcased his Dynamation process in glorious Technicolor. Three years later, he repeated the trick yet again with The Valley of Gwangi. Impressive though Gwangi's dinosaurs were, the film ultimately lacked the box office bite of its prehistoric predecessor (perhaps because it swapped Raquel Welch in a leather bikini for a bunch of cowboys).

Stop motion may have been king of the dinosaur world, but moving a complex puppet frame by frame is time-consuming … and therefore expensive. And you know movie producers: they're always looking for ways to cut corners. Enter the "slurpasaur" (AKA a lizard in a dinosaur suit).

One of the earliest slurpasaurs appears in The Mysterious Island, made just four years after The Lost World. You can almost hear the conversation during the preproduction meeting:"Hey guys, is this dinosaur going to be an animated model?" "Nah, let's just stick a plastic horn on a baby alligator."

Slurpasaurs continued to offer a low-rent alternative to stop motion dinosaurs into the '50s and '60s. Even the great Willis O'Brien found himself consulting on costumed iguanas for the 1960 remake of The Lost World – a far from satisfying experience for the master of stop motion. (Did Obie ever actual lower himself to getting hands-on with a slurpasaur? I'm not sure. If you know, leave a comment below and tell me all about it!)

Slurpasaurs battle in "The Lost World" (1960)

As you've probably realised, in tracking the evolution of movie dinosaurs, we are in fact dissecting the DNA of a much broader subject: creature effects. Name a technique, and I guarantee it's been used to make a dinosaur. Man in a suit? Check. While you might associate this option with such flops as The Last Dinosaur or Baby: The Secret of the Lost Legend, how about all those Godzilla movies? (Was Godzilla a dinosaur? Discuss.) Nor should we forget the amazing Velociraptor suits created by Stan Winston Studio for Jurassic Park and its sequels.

Stan Winston Studio's velociraptor suit from "Jurassic Park"

How about puppetry and animatronics? Check again. The challenge of making mechanical monsters was taken up in the 1970s by Roger Dicken in a series of Amicus productions including The Land That Time Forgot. The results may not be VFX gold but, when viewed with a few beers inside you, they're entertaining enough. Some years later, Doug Beswick made a valiant attempt to resurrect the technique by creating a rod-puppet tyrannosaur forMy Science Project (unfortunately, the puppeteers never got the rehearsal time they needed to do Beswick's impressive miniature justice).

"The Land That Time Forgot"

Most film directors prefer to have their performers on set. The sheer size of your average dinosaur has always made that a literally enormous challenge. Many of the films I've mentioned saw hapless actors stuffed into full-size replicas of chomping jaws, but it was Stan Winston who finally achieved the impossible when he populated Jurassic Park with full-scale dinosaurs that not only looked stunning, but delivered great performances too.

ILM's digital T-Rex from "Jurassic Park"

Jurassic Park also drew a line in the digital sand, heralding the arrival of the truly convincing CG creature. When Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill) got his first view of a Brachiosaurus and exclaimed, "It's a dinosaur!" I believed him, and I'll bet you did too. And by the time the Tyrannosaurus Rex brought the house down at the climax of the film, I was ready to agree that dinosaurs really do rule the Earth.

Jurassic Park spawned two sequels that steadily upped the ante in both the digital and animatronic arenas. The third movie features a stunning fight between a T-Rex and a Spinosaurus which, for my money, still stands as the definitive dino dust-off. Since then, you could be forgiven for thinking dinosaurs have become extinct all over again (unless you count the mediocre monsters served up by cash-ins like Carnosaur and Dinosaur Island, or the endless stream of straight-to-SyFy flicks with titles like Nuclear Tyrannoshark or Crocoraptor).

Full-scale T-Rex and Spinosaurus by Stan Winston Studio, as seen in "Jurassic Park III"

But you can't keep a good dinosaur down. This year brought a whole new generation of prehistoric critters to our screens with Walking With Dinosaurs 3D. While this family-friendly film barely snatched a Rotten Tomatoes score of 25%, Marco Marenghi, Animation Director at Animal Logic, calls their work on the film "game-changing". A new automated muscle system called Steroid took over control of the interaction between the dinosaurs' skin and the internal anatomy, with a second system called RepTile taking care of skin and scales. Read more about Animal Logic's work on the film on their website.

Animal Logic's state-of-the-art dinosaurs from "Walking With Dinosaurs 3D" (Image: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

None of us really knows what the future holds for movie dinosaurs. I'll leave the last word, then, for Jurassic Park's cynical mathematician Ian Malcolm: "Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we have the faintest idea of what to expect?"

This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 4/18/2014 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.