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Tales from Development Hell: Dinosaur

By Ryan Fleming

Everyone loves a Styracosaurus.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In any industry, advances in technology can alter the trajectory of companies, people’s careers, and projects in a very rapid fashion. The film industry is no exception, and the fleeting nature of fame and fortune perhaps is even more susceptible to these changes than other more staid industries. Advances in technology can include the move from silent to talkie pictures, from back-and-white to colour images, and the march of special effects. The latter hangs heavy over the adventure film Dinosaur (2000), where technology changes during the 1990s kept it in development for 14 years after the project was first mooted on the set of RoboCop (1987).

How a family-friendly, computer-animated Disney adventure sprouted from the set of the ultraviolent, satirical science fiction action film is the story of that film’s development hell.

The original project was vastly different to what would eventually be released. It was originally proposed by Phil Tippett, a visual effects artist who had headed the animation department at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic where he oversaw the stop-motion components of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Dragonslayer (1981), and Return of the Jedi (1983). The latter would earn him and his colleagues a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the 56th Academy Awards. That same year, he would leave ILM and found his own studio, whose first effort, made entirely from Tippett’s garage, was the 10-minute experimental film Prehistoric Beast (1984). It utilised Tippett’s go motion technique, a development of stop-motion that built in a motion blur to images and attracted enough notice to grow into a full-length television documentary. Dinosaur! (1985) was hosted by Christopher Reeve and aired on CBS in November of that year. The documentary used a mix of go motion content set in prehistoric times intercut with interviews with notable palaeontologists, but Tippett wondered why the latter were needed at all.

The next year, Tippett was on the set of RoboCop photographing the set where the ED-209 robot would chase the title character through the offices of the nefarious corporate villains. ED-209 would be realised using a mix of go motion and full-scale models. A mix up with star Peter Weller’s shoes meant the entire production was delayed whilst someone fetched the right pair. It was there that Tippett pitched to director Paul Verhoeven to do an entire film using the go motion technique, where actors in robot suits would not be a factor to hold up production. Its subject: dinosaurs. Verhoeven was attracted to the idea, specifically following a protagonist through a number of challenges as they move from a desolate setting to a hopeful one. They sought Walon Green, whose previous efforts included Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), to write the first version of the script. That version would have seen its Styracosaurus protagonist supported by a small mammal character, and their defeat of a Tyrannosaurus rex at the climax giving way to the film ending with the K-T extinction event. It was to have been dark and violent in tone, akin to a nature documentary showing its subjects red in tooth and claw. They took the project to Disney, of course.

A dinosaur loose in the Royal Ontario Museum.

Picture courtesy Andrew Brooks.

Ironically, it would not be the violence of the script that would raise eyebrows at Disney. This was a Disney still in their odd experimental phase that had begun with the death of Roy O Disney, Walt’s brother, in 1971 and continued until the release of The Little Mermaid (1989). That phase saw a lot of titles released by Disney that had darker themes such as The Black Hole (1979) and Tron (1982).

From Dinosaurs to Black Holes. Is there anything Disney hasn't tried?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Instead, then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg would balk at Verhoeven’s proposed $45 million budget. Disney’s dark age might have had a lot of experimentation, but the coffers were not as full as they had been before or since. Katzenberg did not believe there was enough potential interest in the project to justify Verhoeven’s budget, and instead offered $25 million. It was perhaps an odd decision, since Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time (1988) had just become the globally highest grossing animated film to date.

On the other hand, Disney had been battling with Bluth for some time by then, and their Oliver & Company (1988) had outgrossed the dinosaur picture, in the United States anyway. Disputes over the budget led to both Tippett and Verhoeven leaving the project, which remained on the books at Disney.

Disney continued development on Dinosaur without Tippett or Verhoeven, who moved onto other projects. A number of directors and producers were attached to it in the early 1990s, all of whom seemed to lean more to the Tippett/Verhoeven nature documentary style than the more traditional Disney story with talking animals. At one stage, months were spent filming trained lemurs to portray the film’s supporting mammal characters. Despite this progress under director David W Allen (like Tippett, a stop motion animator and ILM alumnus, whose credits included The Howling (1981), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), and Willow (1988)), the film fell back into development hell shortly thereafter at the whim of Disney. Their reason for getting cold feet this time was not over budget or even content, but rather over the special effects. There was another picture in production at Universal whose rumoured special effects might have left Disney keeping up with the Joneses. Those special effects were even being supervised by some of those who had been involved in Dinosaur before Disney refused to loosen the purse strings. Albeit go motion itself seemed to be nearing extinction with what was going on in the production of Jurassic Park (1993).

After leaving Dinosaur, Phil Tippett had been hired to create the dinosaur effects on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. As originally envisioned, the dinosaurs would be realised using a mix of Tippett’s go motion and full-sized animatronic dinosaurs created by Stan Winston. However, Spielberg found the go motion efforts at creating motion blurs unconvincing. The test footage of dinosaurs created for Jurassic Park remain some of the most impressive ever created. Dennis Muren, another special effects supervisor working on the film from ILM, proposed using computer generated imagery to realise the dinosaurs. That technology had rapidly advanced in a few short years, appearing in major films such as The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). Test footage was commissioned, and the results impressed everyone, including Tippett. The techniques the stop motion team used in animating their go motion puppets would be put to use with electronic input devices that matched the frame of a dinosaur and mimicked their movements on screen. Jurassic Park would become the most successful film to that time (Spielberg’s third film to manage that level of success) and ushered in a new era of film special effects. Its combination of tried-and-true stop-motion animation techniques, and the need to blend the computer-generated dinosaurs with the full-sized, live-action animatronics, have kept the film a high bar for special effects even three decades after its release.

Disney put Dinosaur on hold again in the early 1990s when it got wind that the dinosaurs on Spielberg’s production were going to be realised digitally. Not wishing to be selling cassette tapes in a CD era, it waited until it had the technology to do what the other boys were doing. Production resumed in 1994, but it would only be green lit in 1996 by then Disney CEO Michael Eisner. There was one caveat; Eisner insisted that the dinosaurs talk. He said that if they did not, it would be due to the failure of the animators in doing so, and not because (as far as is known) dinosaurs could not talk. This necessitated a change to the Iguanodon protagonists (having been changed from the original Styracosaurus somewhere along the line), who per the fossil record were duck-billed, but in the eventual film they were given lips. Dinosaur was finally released in 2000, where it failed to break even, despite raking in over $300 million globally and being far from a box office bomb. The failure was due to its expensive production and marketing campaign. Critical views were mixed, with many praising the visuals and animation, but criticising the uninspired plot and story. Many critics pointed to the talking dinosaurs as a major detraction from the film’s quality, but at least the animators succeeded.

What if Dinosaur had made it to screens far quicker than the 14 years it took between the proposal on the set of RoboCop and its 2000 release? What if it had been made as originally planned with Paul Verhoeven directing and Phil Tippett supervising the go motion visual effects? As it was disputes over the budget that caused both men to leave, could Disney have had better faith in the project and financed it appropriately? The problem is: Disney should really have known better historically. Oliver & Company may have beaten The Land Before Time at the US box office, but it was by no means a completely lopsided competition between the two animated films opening on the same weekend; only around $5 million separated them. People were willing to pay to see dinosaurs. Jurassic Park, Michael Chrichton’s novel, was also getting a lot of notice from Hollywood even before its 1990 publication. There were no fewer than five director/studio combinations agreeing to Chrichton’s demand of $1.5 million and a hefty percentage of any subsequent film’s gross and bidding on the rights. These included Tim Burton for Warner Bros, Joe Dante for 20th Century Fox, Richard Donner for Columbia Pictures, and James Cameron, who was pipped to the post by Spielberg and Universal.

Disney too had a very profitable 1989, with three films in the top ten highest grossing films worldwide all being from its distribution company, Buena Vista. Both The Little Mermaid and Dead Poets Society made $235 million at the box office, whilst Honey, I Shrunk the Kids earned $222 million. They could have spared the extra $20 million Verhoeven wished for but did not.

This was not Disney's Little Mermaid.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Had they had faith in dinosaurs, then Dinosaur perhaps might have made it to screens in 1990. One certainty for that film is that the dinosaurs would not speak, with the only dialogue coming from a narrator. Perhaps Christopher Reeve, a self-confessed dinosaur fanatic, might be convinced to resume his duties from the earlier CBS documentary. It might not break any box office records, but an effects driven film from a major studio featuring naturalistic dinosaurs could be a modest success. If Verhoeven is busy directing Dinosaur, then he may not be free to direct Total Recall (1990). As he was specifically sought by the star of that film, Arnold Schwazenegger, to direct, it’s possible that he might still direct it, but the resulting film might be far different from the version we know historically. Another film that would likely be impacted by Dinosaur being released in 1990 is Jurassic Park itself.

Spielberg might be even more interested in getting Tippett to supervise the animation component of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park if Dinosaur exists. Lessons learned on the earlier film could even lead to innovation where Spielberg might finally be convinced of the motion blurs in go motion. One thing the rise of CGI has led to has been a lack of development in any visual effects aside from CGI itself. Jurassic Park making use of go motion, although it’s very likely that some CGI makes it into the final film, could lead to more frequent use of other techniques.

It may be inevitable that productions come to rely on CGI, which can be produced more cheaply than other techniques, but other options might get more of a look in. A successful Dinosaur whilst the studios battle over the rights to Chrichton’s novel might also lead to more interest in acquiring the rights to John Brosnan’s 1984 novel Carnosaur, which were brought in 1991 by a canny Roger Corman with a mind to produce the film for release during the hype around Jurassic Park. In general, with Dinosaur coming before the Spielberg film and without every studio afraid of looking stupid for not having Jurassic Park-style CG dinosaurs, the early 1990s could see a boom in films featuring dinosaurs. The same way Jaws (1975) had inspired a wave of nature bites back horror movies or Star Wars (1977) space adventure films in decades prior.

Disney executives in the late 1980s did not believe there would be a wide enough audience for an effects driven dinosaur film. Had they done so based on what else was going on in Hollywood at the time, then it is possible that the trajectory of film special effects might have been altered. It is also possible that having been willing to take a chance that the Disney Renaissance might not lead to a complete abandonment of the more experimental direction the studio was willing to take during what is called their dark age, both in terms of content and lack of major successes. They just had to realise that people will never not want to see dinosaurs.

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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid.


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