Before Jurassic Park, Dinosaur! Brought paleo-art to the fore

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Bring in the dino-nerds in your life to Jurassic World Dominion Again? You know the guy – that insufferable know-it-all who never stops to ask if you want any information on current paleontological developments, or why Colin Trevorrowthe last film of so offensive. They’re just ready to list its many flaws before it even hits theaters. “You know the T. rex probably had one of the best eyesights in the history of the animal kingdom, right? You know Velociraptor wasn’t that big and blocky, right? you know the excuse they gave to keep these designs obsolete for all dinosaurs is really dumb, right? why can’t we watch prehistoric planet In place?”

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If I was the kind of dino-nerd now I was back when the first jurassic park came out, I’d be into that obnoxious chorus, but I’d like to think I’ve mellowed with age (I called the jurassic world stupid movies, many times, but only because of the scripts). Movie buffs should all accept that, despite the name, scientific accuracy isn’t the top priority of most sci-fi movies. Even back then, school age, I never lit the fire jurassic park. Of course, at the time, the large scaly raptors and the Brachiosaurus with frontal nostrils were, in part, a genuine effort to match the state of paleontology at the time. Dino-nerds could hardly complain when their favorite prehistoric beasts looked the same on the big screen as they did in Zoobooks, National Geographic and the prehistoric planet of his day, the 1985 CBS TV movie, Dinosaur!


This is perhaps a bit hyperbolic. Dinosaur! was not as sumptuous as prehistoric planet. It was just a single hour of television that depicted the prehistoric life of just six species, and those only in vignettes. It was less of a full-fledged attempt to recreate the Cretaceous period and more of a hodgepodge of different dinosaur topics. But it was an ambitious, primetime, major-network documentary that sought to introduce audiences to dinosaurs as science then understood them. He had his own famous narrator – Superman himself, Christopher Reeve. And his dinosaurs were created using state-of-the-art effects for their day, courtesy of the animator Phil Tippet.

RELATED: How ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Revitalizes the Documentary Trope of Personified Animals

Tippett was, indirectly, the ancestor of the film. He chose dinosaurs as the subject for a 10-minute experimental short film made in his garage, titled “Prehistoric Beast” for a line of King Kong. The short film (available on Tippett’s YouTube channel) tells a simple story: a Monoclonius falls prey to a T. rex. It was an opportunity for Tippett to show off his skills as a freelance effects man for movies and showcase the developments he’s made in a variation of stop-motion animation known as go motion. . Where traditional stop-motion captured one frame at a time, keeping its subject constantly in focus, motion used rod puppets and motion-controlled cameras to create motion during each exposure, creating motion blur in character movements. The same controls could also simulate the work of a handheld camera, freeing Tippett from the locked down nature of most stop-motion effects footage up to that point.


The technique made for a damn good short. “Prehistoric Beast” is an intense ride, building slowly and beautifully to a fierce climax. The animation is superb, retaining all the practical elements of past stop-motion dinosaur battles like Ray Harryhausen while instilling a new dynamism. And dinosaurs move and act like real animals more than movie monsters. Today, Monoclonius is considered a dubious genus, and T. rex was probably much heavier than Tippett did. But he couldn’t know that in 1984, a time when dinosaurs still had a reputation for being slow, tail-dragging pea-brains. Depicting them as active creatures with erect tails and respectable animal intelligence was a big step forward for dinosaurs in film.

As ‘Prehistoric Beast’ made the rounds on the animation festival circuit, it caught the director’s attention. Robert Guenette and producer Steven Paul Marc. They approached Tippett about expanding his short film into a documentary. Six months of additional effects sequences later, Dinosaur! was born. The new animated segments mostly featured a family of duck-billed Hadrosaurus, with a few raptors, an egg-stealing Struthiomimus, and a Brontosaurus (pushed back in time a few million years) for good measure. These recreations of the past, as told by Reeve, were interwoven with archival footage from old dinosaur movies and interviews with top paleontology stars in the mid-1980s.

Scientists love Robert Baker, Phil Currieand Jack Horner got some of their first major TV exposure through this documentary (and if you compare it with their appearances in later TV documentaries from the 90s and 2000s, their comfort curve with the camera really shows). They discussed advances in their field, from the question of how dinosaurs held their tails to a new understanding of their social behavior, new discoveries and a new understanding of how they might have died out (the giant meteor theory was gaining momentum when the documentary was produced). Meanwhile, Reeve explained the impact of dinosaurs on popular culture, especially movies, using all of this archival footage. These popular depictions, steeped in an outdated view of dinosaurs, were juxtaposed with Tippett’s new animation, and the thrust of the documentary was how quickly our understanding of dinosaurs was changing in the 1980s and why that made it a continuing source of fascination.


Among the fascinated were Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg. Although neither prehistoric beast neither Dinosaur! directly inspired them in the creation of jurassic park, when it came time for the dinosaurs to come to life in Spielberg’s adaptation of Crichton’s novel, the director turned to Tippett. The experience on the CBS documentary and his own short film made Tippett a seasoned animator and an expert on dinosaur movement, at least as it was understood at the time. Even after production dropped the move for CGI, Tippett’s knowledge was invaluable in guiding digital animators. When it comes to dinosaur appearance, while liberties were taken (human-sized raptors, neck frills for Dilophosaurus), paleontological advice from hired advisers like Horner was sought to make the animals reflect the state of the dinosaurs. scientific art discussed in Dinosaur!

Alas, you can only stay on the cutting edge of science as long as no new discoveries are made. A better understanding of the relationship between non-avian dinosaurs and birds, and how and when feathers first appeared, has made the jurassic park dino designs suspect at best from the first sequel. Dinosaur! had some facts wrong even at the time of its production (that Brontosaurus in the Cretaceous… of shame), but the march of science has left behind most of its content. We know that most of the dinosaurs depicted don’t look like what Tippett made them, one of the new discoveries touted by the documentary (“Ultrasauros”) turned out to be erroneous pieces of known species, and the The “dinosaur man” thought experiment discussed at the end of the film seems difficult to reconcile with what we now know about dinosaur evolution.


Their value as a model of scientific advances, however, has faded, Dinosaur!and “Prehistoric Beast”, and the original jurassic park, joined the ranks of what is now called retro paleoart. It is the term for cultural representations of prehistoric life that have become obsolete or deliberately follow past assumptions. It is a class that includes the famous Iguanodon statues in Crystal Palace Park, paintings by Charles R. Knight and old movies that Dinosaur! borrowed so many sequences.

Our hypothetical dino-nerd from earlier could turn his back on retro paleoart. “What good is it if everything is wrong? Put prehistoric planet already!” Well, I’m much more interested in prehistoric planet that I’m not in Domination or anything else out of the Jurassic franchise these days, but retro paleoart still holds value. On the one hand, many things are beautiful. Knight’s paintings and Harryhausen’s stop-motion look great, move well, and show a lot of life and personality. movies like The Gwangi Valley weren’t scientifically accurate even when they were created, but they’re a lot of fun. A documentary that falls into disuse can acquire an old-fashioned charm, and a place in the history books as a breakthrough.


But perhaps the greatest value of retro paleoart is the impact it has on consumers, especially children, upon its release. I was born a few years too late to catch Dinosaur! when it first aired on CBS, but I grew up with the VHS right next to it jurassic park on our shelf. And as much as I have loved and watched jurassic park, I watched the documentary over. My first visual memory is of a moment of Dinosaur!the dramatic slit the T. rex makes for the Monoclonius in the “Prehistoric Beast” pictures. Dinosaur! This is where I first learned most of the famous dinosaur names, this is where I learned that there was such a thing as a paleontologist and what his job was, and where i started looking for more dinosaur books and documentaries, which led to more books and documentaries about living animals today. It also helped fuel my love of cinema early in my life; I’m still trying to track down one or two of the clips he used.

Paleontologists and casual dinosaur fans of previous generations have spoken of the impact Knight’s paintings had on them, and I have no doubt that many of the current generation of dinosaur experts have been guided down this path by jurassic park and the glut of TV documentaries in the vein of Dinosaur! That kind of inspiration isn’t carried away just because a new skeleton proves that Velociraptor could never open doors or that Monoclonius was really a Centrosaurus. It’s what makes future generations of dino-nerds who hopefully can keep that initial inspiration in their hearts as well as the latest facts in their heads.

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