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Disney Takes a BIG Departure from Formula with Dinosaur

Wendy Jackson Hall takes a look behind the scenes at the animators of Disneys Dinosaur.

The history of animation is filled with films about dinosaurs; from short films such as Winsor McCays Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), Willis OBriens Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1917), Will Vintons Dinosaur (1980) and Phil Tippetts Prehistoric Beast (1983) to features such as The Land Before Time films, and in recent years to CG effects in films like Jurassic Park (1993) and T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998). So why in the world would Disney want to go and make another dino flick?


Iguanodons Aladar (left) and Neera (right) develop a special bond as they face the hardships of trekking across the desert together. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. Bloodthirsty carnotaurs threaten the herd of migrating dinosaurs. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

The origins of Disneys Dinosaur actually date all the way back to 1988, when the studios live-action division acquired a screenplay called "Dinosaur" by Walon Green. At that time, Paul Verhoeven and Phil Tippett were interested in making the film, but it never got off the ground. Then in late 1994, Walt Disney Feature Animation adopted Dinosaur and began shooting various tests, placing CG characters in miniature model backdrops before deciding to take the unprecedented route of combining live-action scenery with computer-generated character animation.

Six years in the (actual) making and with a budget of approximately $127 million (some reports have it as being much higher!), Dinosaur is one of Disneys biggest animated films. It is also one of its biggest risks. The film, co-directed by Ralph Zondag, who also co-directed Were Back! A Dinosaurs Story (1993) and Eric Leighton, a stop-motion animator, is only the second PG-rated animated feature the studio has ever released (the first one was The Black Cauldron in 1985, which many define as the low point of animations down-cycle in the 1980s). There is no singing in the film, other than the earth-shaking roars of the dinosaurs, and the character design is extremely realistic. Disney is hoping the action-packed film will draw teenage and adult audiences


Strength in Numbers

One of the key themes of the film is also a description of the production process: it's not about one individual but rather the strength of the group. The credit sequence says it all: In addition to the two directors, the production crew included over 500 people. The artists were organized in teams according to the stages of production: Visual Development & Character Design, Workbook, Look Development, Model Development, Digital Image Planning, Animation and Scene Finaling, aided by production staff and several teams devoted to technology, software implementation and rendering.

From the storyboards, a "3D Workbook" was created to give all of the department supervisors an idea of what each scene will look like. Using the 3D workbook as reference, a film unit shot background plates in beautiful and exotic locales around the world, including Australia, Venezuela and Samoa. This footage was digitized and composited to create fantastic settings that never existed in the real world. "I like to think of our backgrounds as being a character in the film," explains visual effects supervisor Neil Krepela.


Two lemurs, the elder statesman Yar and his daughter Plio, watch a baby dinosaur hatching from its egg. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.


A pteranodon carrying an Iguanodon egg swoops through a herd of grazing dinosaurs. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

A total of 48 animators worked on the film, one-third of who were already versed in computer animation, while the other two thirds came from traditional hand-drawn animation and stop-motion animation backgrounds. Early on, co-director Eric Leighton recruited several animators he knew from being a supervising animator on The Nightmare Before Christmas including Mike Belzer, Joel Fletcher, Angie Glocka, Owen Klatte and Trey Thomas.

From Stop-Motion to CG"It's a new place and a new technique but there are lots of similarities to stop-motion," says Joel Fletcher, "Working on a stage with a little puppet is all three-dimensional. On the computer, it's a virtual three-dimensional world. The characters are on a virtual stage with virtual lighting and are essentially a puppet. The big difference is that with stop-motion, each performance is a one-of-a-kind thing that you have to live with even if you make a mistake. On the computer, if you don't get it quite right you can keep refining until you get a more perfect result."

Mike Belzer, whose stop-motion work runs the gamut from Gumby to James and the Giant Peach, agrees, "The biggest similarity is you are working in 3D space. I missed the tactile nature of it, but the tools were created with that in mind, because we had so many different kinds of animators working on the film." Belzer had worked briefly at Pixar before joining the Dinosaur production as supervising animator for the characters Baylene, the brachiosaur, and Url, the ankylosaur. But learning the ropes at Disney was like starting from scratch because of differences in the proprietary software at both studios. The animators worked mainly in Softimage, but the Dinosaur software group wrote 70,000 lines of code to fine-tune the controls for the animators. They animated fleshed-out skeletons (Model Development Supervisor Sean Phillips compares the rough model parts to Tootsie Rolls) for the first run, then after rough animation, the Model TDs (technical directors) added muscles according to the animators' directions.


"One of the biggest challenges was key-framing," says Belzer. "With stop-motion you start with frame one and animate straight ahead." He had to learn to animate in stages, for instance "first just the legs and body, then I would animate the shoulder and other parts later." The extreme realism in the animation of the dinosaurs was achieved by taking this layering technique very seriously. "With stop-motion, you take it one frame at a time and you pray a lot," says Belzer. "One of the highlights of computer animation is the fact that what you do is enhanced so much more by other peoples efforts with the muscle and skin, the compositing and lighting."

One of the animation principles Disney always adheres to is secondary action, which in this film is mainly the rippling skin and jiggling flesh of the dinosaurs as well as the fur of the lemurs. Baylene, the biggest dinosaur in the bunch, is a prime example of secondary action in animation. When she stomps her foot on the ground, several complementary motions accentuate the action: a ripple rises through her body and a rotation twists her leg slightly. Baylenes foot alone contains four types of controls for distributing weight. A fascinating simulation of these controls is available on the official Dinosaur web site (, where users can load a model of Baylene's foot and toggle controls for its animation attributes: "hang" causes the sole to droop when the foot is lifted off the ground, "squish" controls the degree to which the fleshy regions of the foot spread out when weight is applied, and "heel" and "toe" controls indicate weight placement toward the rear or front of the foot.

Brachiosaur Baylene and the other

Brachiosaur Baylene and the other "misfit" dinosaurs find an alternate route to the lush, green nesting grounds. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Drawing From Life

Throughout the production, the directors and animators did a considerable amount of research. The animators met with paleontologists, including Stuart Sumida, who lectured to the artists about dinosaur locomotion and anatomy. (Sumida is writing a book called Anatomy for Animators.) They took frequent trips to the L.A. zoo to observe elephants, rhinos, ostriches and giraffes, but zoo animals are remarkably sedate, recalls Belzer. "I said to [the producer] Pam Marsden -- I know they brought in deer for Bambi. SoCan you get us an elephant?" A week later the animators headed up to a ranch to study and videotape Nellie, the famous Hollywood elephant walking and running. "One of the easy things about the Baylene character was the trunk of the body was very similar to that of an elephant. We were really able to study the skin and the muscle inertia. But with the long neck and the tail we had to wing it!"

After animation was completed, intricate skins were painted on using a technique that matched points on the skin to the muscles underneath, creating a believable effect. Hundreds of shaders were written to create the unique look of surfaces, lighting and shadows. Additional effects such as dust and splashing water were filmed in live-action then applied to the characters. Integrating the CG and live-action elements proved to be quite a challenge.


Eamonn Butler, supervising animator of Kron. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. A group of thirsty dinosaurs on their journey across the arid desert. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Mammoth Technology

Bringing Dinosaur to life required 3.2 million processing hours and the filmÕs total elements occupied 45 terabytes of disc space (45 million megabytes) stored on 70,000 CD-Roms. The studio's render farm consisted of 250 dedicated computer processors and another 300 desktop processors at the workstations. On average, 30,000 processing hours per week were devoted to rendering and compositing the film.

At the conclusion of production on Dinosaur, the digital studio joined with Disney's effects division Dream Quest to form a new entity called the Secret Lab, now co-located in a modern building near the Burbank airport. The name accurately portrays Disney's closed-door policy about projects in development. Even family members are not allowed in the studio. Mike Belzer and other animators are currently working on several new CG films at Disney, which are of course under wraps.

Wendy Jackson Hall is an independent animator, educator, writer and consultant specializing in animation. Her articles have been published in Animation Journal, Animation Magazine, ASIFA News, the Hollywood Reporter, Variety and Wired. She was previously associate editor of Animation World Magazine.