Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Have You Seen "Prehistoric Beast?"

I only recently learned of a short film from 1984 called Prehistoric Beast.

Wait, don’t Google it yet!  Let me give you some backstory.

Dinosaurs have been a consistent feature of movies for almost as long as there have been movies. And they've played some pretty major roles in cinema history: the first well-known animated film character was a dinosaur; some of the most iconic early stop-motion animation was done with dinosaurs; and one of the most successful and recognizable movie characters of all time is a dinosaur, just to give some examples. 

And yet, movie dinosaurs have always been products of their times. Old ideas and outdated theories found popularity and longevity in film: brontosaurs lived in swamps; meat-eaters stood straight up like lumbering towers; all manner of dinosaurs were clumsy and dim-witted, dragging their tails through the dirt.

Promotional stills from The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (left) and
King Kong (right). Check out those old-timey dinosaurs!
Images from Wikimedia: here and here.
Around the 60s and 70s, these conceptions of dinosaurs began to change. Exciting new research by excited new researchers was overturning a lot of old ideas: fossilized nesting sites taught us that dinosaurs could be caring and family-oriented; newly-analyzed fossils of graceful, agile dinosaurs proved that they could be fast, perhaps even intelligent; and a new appreciation for biomechanics, as well as a conspicuous absence of tail-tracks between footprints, revealed true dinosaur posture: tails out, backs parallel to the ground. Our image of dinosaurs changed dramatically- this was the dinosaur renaissance.

Of course, it takes more than a flimsy thing like evidence to change half a century of Tinseltown tradition, so dinosaurs in the movies (and TV, and books, and so on) continued to lag behind the times. But the big change had to happen sometime.

Enter Phil Tippett (yes, you’ve probably heard that name before – don’t Google it! Allow me to introduce you). Phil was an animator – he pioneered an updated form of stop-motion animation called "go-motion" which, without getting into technical details, basically aimed to make stop-motion animation look a bit more realistic in its movements. He first brought these techniques to the big screen for a 1980 movie you may have heard of called The Empire Strikes Back - he animated the tauntauns and AT-ATs.

After playing around in a galaxy far, far away, Phil turned his attention to long ago.  He created a little pet project called Prehistoric Beast. 

Okay, watch this. Seriously, watch it. It’s not even ten minutes long. I'll wait until you're done.

 Did you watch it? 

Look at those dinosaurs! They hold their tails off the ground! They're active and intelligent! The Monoclonius communicates with a trumpeting bellow! Tyrannosaurus doesn’t lumber and stomp, it stalks! They act not like out-dated B-movie monsters, but like real, living animals.  In a ten-minute home video, Phil Tippett captured dinosaurs as credibly real creatures in a way no movie had ever quite managed to do.

I’m not the only one impressed. Shortly after he made it, Tippett was enlisted to expand his short film into a full-length documentary called Dinosaur!, featuring narration by Christopher Reeve, interviews with actual paleontologists, and a whole lot of beautifully animated dinosaurs. 

All this toying around with dinosaur animation eventually caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who was looking for some experienced assistance with his own dinosaur project. Phil ultimately became the animation supervisor for the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, where once again dinosaurs were front and center to a turning point in cinema history: this time, the rise of computer-generated animation.

Jurassic Park tends to get top billing as the cinema event that finally introduced updated dinosaurs to the general public - and rightfully so - but a decade earlier, that movie's smaller, primitive ancestor was a 10-minute masterpiece called Prehistoric Beast. 

No comments:

Post a Comment