THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Dinosaur’

The one that laid the foundation for a revolution.

Since the late 1980s, the advent of computer animation had slowly changed the production methods of Disney’s animated feature films. As films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast dabbled with utilising the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) to craft selected sequences, it wasn’t long before entire films were being created using computer technology, blending both digital creations with hand-drawn designs.

But these films were still inherently rooted in the classic traditional Disney animation style, which had seen varied results in both artistic and narrative quality and, more importantly for the studio, financial success. At the same time, Pixar was breaking new ground with 3D computer animation, and the box office results were consistently beating Disney at their own game. It was time for the studio to adapt or die.

While it would still take several more years for Disney to fully dive into the world of computer animation, they began the new millennium with a feature unlike anything they had produced thus far. The idea for a Disney animated feature set in the prehistoric age of dinosaurs began way back in 1986 when directors Phil Tippett and Paul Verhoeven approached then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg with a pitch for a stop-motion animation film centred on the epic battle between a styracosaurus named Woot (yes, Woot) and a tyrannosaurus rex named Groz.

With an estimated budget of $45 million, the project was envisioned in the style of a nature documentary, with a decidedly dark and violent tone that culminated in the historic extinction of all dinosaurs after the cataclysmic impact of a gargantuan asteroid. As Disney began to push for the project to something more befitting of their family-friendly style, Tippet and Verhoeven soon departed the project, with producer/director Thomas G. Smith taking over the production in 1990.

While Smith also battled against Katzenberg’s pleas to craft a “cute story of dinosaurs talking,” he continued pre-production on the film with the assistance of screenwriter Jeanne Rosenberg. Their version of the screenplay included a conspiracy of lemurs (yes, that’s evidently the correct collective noun) in the film’s narrative, with Smith keen to use live trained lemurs in the production. But Smith also soon departed the project after Katzenberg asked for his assistance on Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.

The project was then handed to stop-motion animator David W. Allen, who spent months auditioning lemurs and working with the production team on visual development for the film’s dinosaur characters. In late 1992, Katzenberg caught wind of the game-changing advances in digital animation of the dinosaurs in Universal Pictures’ upcoming blockbuster Jurassic Park. Suddenly, the idea of a stop-motion animated dinosaur film seemed like an idea doomed to fail and the project was immediately shelved.

After Jurassic Park became the highest-grossing film of all time, dinosaurs were back in vogue and Disney saw the potential in reworking the beleaguered dinosaur project into a fully digitally animated film. In late 1994, they began development on the production by inserting computer-generated dinosaur characters against miniature model backdrops. By March 1996, then-CEO Michael Eisner was impressed by the concept footage and the decision was made to take the unprecedented route of combining live-action background footage with computer-generated dinosaurs.

Eisner subsequently greenlit the project, now titled Dinosaur, and assigned Oliver & Company director George Scribner and storyboard artist Ralph Zondag to direct the film. After working on the project for several months, Scribner was reassigned to direct animated theme park productions for Walt Disney Imagineering. Storyboard animator Eric Leighton was enlisted to take Scribner’s place as co-director, with the screenplay assigned to screenwriter John Harrison and animator Robert Nelson Jacobs.

In Harrison and Jacobs’ version of the script, Dinosaur focused on a young iguanodon named Aladar, who is adopted by a family of lemurs, led by the kindly matriarch Plio and the gruff patriarch Yar. After a meteoroid destroys their island homeland, the group join forces with a herd of several species of dinosaurs, who are en route to the “Nesting Grounds;” a bountiful sanctuary left untouched by the devastation of the meteor impact. Harrison and Jacobs injected a dose of the film’s original darker elements by introducing two vicious carnivorous carnotaurs, who stalk and hunt the herd, leading the several deadly encounters.

On April 17, 1966, the Walt Disney Company acquired the Californian visual effects studio, Dream Quest Images, who had recently won Academy Awards for their groundbreaking special effects work on The Abyss and Total Recall. Eisner merged the company with Disney’s Computer Graphics Unit to create The Secret Lab, with the newly-formed group assigned the daunting task of animating Dinosaur.

With a team of 48 animators, The Secret Lab utilised Softimage 3D, an emerging software program with the ability to create realistic 3D computer-generated animation. After Eisner discovered animator David Krentz had initially aspired to be a paleontologist, he was assigned the task of overseeing the character designs and the entire visual development team. Krentz’s designs were initially drawn on paper and scanned into the computers to create 3D skeletal dinosaur models.

From here, the animators used software programs called “Body Builder” to craft skin and muscles for the dinosaurs, “Fur Tool” to designs realistic fur for the lemurs, and “Mug Shot” to create expressive facial and mouth movements to allow the creatures to both speak and emote. Softimage 3D also provided the animators with the ability to craft realistic movements based on the skeletal and muscular structures of the dinosaurs, with the animation team closely studying fossils of each dinosaur species to authenticate these designs.

For the film’s live-action background photography, second-unit director David Womersley shot on location in California, Florida, Hawaii, Australia, Jordan, Venezuela, and Western Samoa. Capturing jungle, beach, and desert settings for the film’s various scenes, the crew shot over 800,000 feet of film. In order to replicate the footage from a dinosaur’s perspective, visual effects supervisor Neil Krepela invented the “Dino-cam,” which was rigged on a cable between two 72-foot-tall structures. The camera was controlled entirely by computer, with the ability to pan and tilt on 360 degrees and move at a speed of 30 miles per hour.

Once the live-action photography was completed, the footage was edited and blended with the computer-generated character animation, with the lighting department digitally adjusting the final lighting of each shot as per the natural conditions of each sequence. In total, Dinosaur featured roughly 90% live-action background footage, with one night sequence inside a cave using a completely computer-generated backdrop, as it was deemed too dangerous to attempt to film this background through live-action photography.

In a departure for the studio, Dinosaur would not feature musical numbers in any form, with the filmmakers feeling audiences would reject the notion of singing and dancing dinosaurs. The film’s scored was composed by Oscar-nominee James Newton Howard, with African-infused vocals by Lebo M, who Disney had enlisted for the vocal work on The Lion King.

In late 1999, singer/songwriter Kate Bush wrote and recorded a song entitled “Out of the Storm” to be used as the accompaniment to Aladar and his family mourning the loss of their island home. However, test screening audiences did not respond well to the song, and the producers asked Bush to rework the track. When the singer refused, the track was dropped from the film and its subsequent soundtrack release. Bush would later rework elements of the track into the song “Lyra,” which was used in the New Line Cinema film The Golden Compass.

Dinosaur was released on May 19, 2000, to relatively positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert praised the film’s “amazing visuals,” but took issue with the idea of the dinosaurs talking, noting “an enormous effort had been spent on making these dinosaurs seem real, and then an even greater effort was spent on undermining the illusion.” Variety called the film an “eye-popping visual spectacle,” but felt around the halfway point you “start to realize that the characters and story are exceedingly mundane, unsurprising and pre-programmed.”

In its opening U.S. weekend, Dinosaur grossed $38.8 million to take the #1 spot on the weekend box office chart. The film would gross $137.7 million in the U.S. and a further $212 million internationally to finish with a total worldwide gross of $348.8 million and end the year as the fifth-highest-grossing film of 2000. In 2001, the film sold a staggering 10.6 million copies on DVD and VHS to garner an additional $198 million in total sales. Despite the film costing $127.5 million to produce and standing as the most expensive animated film of all time, Dinosaur was able to turn a huge profit and was declared a resounding success.

Given this remarkable result, it’s rather surprising that only 20 years later, Dinosaur has all but faded into memory. Despite its stunning and groundbreaking animation, few are likely to call this one of Disney’s greatest films. That’s likely due to the unavoidable fact the film has not aged particularly well, with its visual effects looking decidedly hokey by today’s standards. However, for its time, Dinosaur was a stunning achievement of visual wizardry.

While it was a rather lazy cheat to use live-action footage for the film’s background imagery, the computer-generated dinosaurs were truly something special for early millennium cinema. There are several astonishingly crafted sequences in this film, particularly the dizzying opening sequence and the disastrous aftermath of the asteroid impact. These moments exist without dialogue, and it’s telling why these are the film’s greatest triumphs.

Talking animals were (and still are) a staple of animated feature films, but there’s something so decidedly offputting about realistic-looking computer-generated dinosaurs speaking with human voices. It simply doesn’t work, creating a rather jarring experience that ultimately damages the film, especially the bizarre decision to include Joan Plowright as the voice of an elderly brachiosaurus. Plowright’s performance is absolutely gorgeous, but hearing a British accent inexplicably mixed amongst a group of American voices does not make one lick of sense.

Every element of Dinosaur looks meticulously authentic, but that realism flies out the window the minute the creatures begin chatting away. It’s an issue we saw again with the “live-action” remake of The Lion King, which crafted an equally-uncomfortable experience with its emotionless felines. While Disney naturally could not have produced Dinosaur completely free of dialogue, it may have been wiser to generate the dinosaur cast in a less realistic fashion.

It doesn’t help the narrative is mostly a god-awful bore, beset by cliché moments, dull dialogue, and stereotypical characters. For all its technical accomplishments, Dinosaur faded into memory by being standing as a dazzling display of computer-generated animation and very little else. This was another highly ambitious work from Disney that focused too heavily on style and forgot about the substance. If nothing else, it gave the studio experience with computer animation that would eventually begin to serve them well.

One final note – there are some who would not consider Dinosaur officially part of the Disney animated film canon, especially given its blend of animation and live-action footage. In the purest sense, this is not technically an animated film. For many years, Disney itself did not consider Dinosaur part of its animated legacy. Somewhere along the way, they decided to reclaim the film and officially declare Dinosaur their 39th animated feature film, hence its inclusion in this project. Frankly, I would have been perfectly comfortable with ignoring it, but rules are rules.

Is Dinosaur a Disney Classic? As an early experiment with computer animation, Dinosaur offered a glimpse at the future of the Disney studio. However, as a first attempt, it’s painfully obvious they were still some way from understanding how to properly utilise this burgeoning technology to create a true Disney Classic. This one doesn’t even come close to that title.

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