Blog Directory CineVerse: Reel dinosaurs: A larger-than-life history of dino-FX on film

Reel dinosaurs: A larger-than-life history of dino-FX on film

Thursday, June 4, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

From "King Kong" to "Jurassic Park," movie-going audiences have been fascinated with animated attempts to recreate dinosaurs. One glimpse of the spirited T- Rex in the new "Land of the Lost” movie shows just how far Hollywood has come at breathing new life into large lizards and their gargantuan, Godzilla-esque cousins.

Thanks to highly advanced technology, the era of what can now be perceived as cheesy, choppy giant monster special effects are about as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves. But for more than 70 years, frame-by-frame cel and stop-motion 3-D figure animation ruled the earth--or at least the big screen dino-domain.

The evolution of dinosaur animation began in 1912 with Winsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur," which blended cel animation with live action for the first time. But the first recognized special effects wizard was Willis O'Brien, whose depiction of dinosaurs in the 1925 silent film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" was a pioneering effort in 3-D puppet model stop-motion animation and compositing (taking two or more separate images and combining them onto a third piece of film).

O'Brien achieved immortal fame next in 1933 as the animator for "King Kong" and "Son of Kong," which both drew worldwide acclaim for their dazzling stop motion photography of flexible rubber models, realistic sets, and pre-filmed images projected
in the background.

O'Brien's famous protégé was Ray Harryhausen, who perfected the art of Dynamation, a patented 3-D stop-motion matting process that combined a more seamless blend of animated models with live action, as demonstrated in films like "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" (1953); "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963); One Million Years B.C." (1966); and all the films in the "Sinbad" series.

Eiji Tsuburaya may not be a household name, but films featuring his more primitive special effects are, including "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," (1954), "Rodan," (1957) and "Mothra" (1962), most of which involved men dressed in rubber monster suits attacking miniature model landscapes.

"Go motion" animation, a technique that allows
stop motion animators to record onto a computer the way they move puppet models, which are choreographed via a joystick and then simulated by the computer frame-by-frame to create a life-like blur, made its debut in 1981 with "Dragonslayer."

Finally, dino-flicks made a giant leap with "Jurass
ic Park," which employed a sophisticated blend of full-size robotic dinosaurs (metal skeletons covered with flexible molded skins attached to devices like air bladders to mimic breathing, and radio‑controlled servo motors to control facial motion) and computer generated images (CGI), all a la the work of George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic special effects company. The result? The most the most realistically textured, life-like dinosaurs ever hatched for the big screen.

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