Disney Takes a BIG Departure from
Formula with Dinosaur

by Wendy Jackson Hall

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

The history of animation is filled with films about dinosaurs; from short films such as Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), Willis O’Brien’s Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1917), Will Vinton’s Dinosaur (1980) and Phil Tippett’s 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?

Bloodthirsty carnotaurs threaten the herd of migrating dinosaurs. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

The origins of Disney’s Dinosaur actually date all the way back to 1988, when the studio’s 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 Disney’s biggest animated films. It is also one of its biggest risks. The film, co-directed by Ralph Zondag, who also co-directed We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s 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 animation’s 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.

Directors of Dinosaur: Eric Leighton (left) and Ralph Zondag (right). © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

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.

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