When did dinosaurs stop being exciting? This was the query that started rattling around my head in the early hours, the week before last, during the tail end of an egregious bout of insomnia. I should add that it wasn’t just a purely random thought that had popped up while I paced around, fretting over whether the lack of sleep would leave me too insensible to get any decent work done during the few daylight hours we now have each day. Instead I’d been sat at the computer, whiling away the time watching The Land That Time Forgot – Animus Productions’ cheap and cheerful adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel – in its entirety on YouTube.
It was a shame that I was catching it out of kilter because it would have made a perfectly good Sunday afternoon matinee. Co—written by Michael Moorcock, the film sticks reasonably close to the source material as the crew of a U—boat and the survivors of a recently torpedoed merchant ship – led by that big slab of heroic 1970s beefcake, Doug McClure – face the twin perils of aggressive, barely—evolved humans and carnivorous dinosaurs when, dangerously low on fuel and rations, they chance upon the lost sub—continent of Caprona. Watching it I wondered if the film would now only entertain young kiddies who haven’t seen better or people of a certain age who remember being enthralled by The Land That Time Forgot upon its release back in 1975.
Shown to a generation of slightly older children used to things being slick and shiny, would they complain about the back—projection, the scenes that looked like they had been shot in a local park, and – more importantly – the puppet dinosaurs? Would the gliding pterodactyls bring howls of protest, especially since the wires on the full–scale models and the harness on the actor that ends up in one of the creature’s mouth are clearly visible on screen. Or wouldn’t that matter to them? Would they just enjoy the film for what it was? All these years later The Land That Time Forgot is still great fun. After all, this is a film in which a Triceratops takes a round from the U–boat’s deck gun in the face. What’s not to like?
The next night, still awake, and knowing that watching movies wasn’t going to help, I decided to find a book to read that would help get me to sleep. Rooting around in a box in the bedroom cupboard, filled with the paperbacks there wasn’t room for in the bookcase shelves, I happened across Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I’d read it just the once when it was first published in 1991 and with dinosaurs still on my mind decided to give it another go. And it did the trick! A couple of chapters and I had nodded right off. Having hidden this book away for the better part of twenty years, I’d forgotten how absolutely rotten Crichton was at writing fiction. The characters are perfunctory at best and show no emotion throughout what is supposed to be quite an ordeal. Instead of conversations between individuals they just give lectures on their field of expertise.
Although one character on the page gets so scared they wet themselves, the rest blithely blather on with their oral dissertations on genetics or paleontology or chaos theory even in the face of what any normal person would consider the most appalling danger. It’s like Westworld only the visitors are the robots. If Crichton couldn’t write female characters – sidelining the paleobotanist through most of the book – he sure as shit couldn’t write credible children. The kids in the book were so clueless and irritating that every time they appeared I wished someone would hurl them into the gaping jaws of the nearest predatory beast. When the only ticking—clock drama was that the supply boat had to be stopped from docking at the mainland because, for the whole voyage, the crew were obviously too stupid to notice there were escaped dinosaurs on board, I wished I had some Burroughs in my hands. But that would have defeated the exercise and kept me awake. Instead, night after night, Crichton’s novel helped put me to sleep.
Although I honestly can’t remember what I thought of the book when it first came out, rereading it I’ve newfound respect for the screenwriter David Koepp. Credited with the scripts for the first Mission Impossible movie and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I’ve never been a big fan of his work, but you have to hand it to him for having managed to fashion a half decent script for the film adaptation of Jurassic Park. I can remember the night I saw the movie in the West End. Everyone had to see the movie, simply because it had dinosaurs in it. But after seeing the dinosaurs there really wasn’t much else. For me the saving grace was the casting of the still much—missed Bob Peck as the game warden, Robert Muldoon, livening up every scene he was in. And I laughed heartily when the Velociraptor peered through the circular glass in the kitchen door, mirroring the scene where the no—nonsense Nurse Murch looks in on Gordo Cooper during one of the more bizarre tests at the Lovelace Clinic in The Right Stuff. Although nobody else in the audience seemed to get the joke.
For all the pixel power involved in rendering the computer—generated dinosaurs, the more satisfying scenes involved a hefty dose of animatronics from Stan Winston Studios. And even then, the best part of the set piece involving the Tyrannosaurus attacking the cars on the park tour was the ripples in the glass of water, foreshadowing the arrival of the weighty T—Rex. Although the fact that it would later tippy-toe into the visitor centre, much to everyone’s surprise, to chew up the raptors made nonsense of that earlier sequence. But by then I guess nobody cared. Dinosaurs were the new big thing. By the end of the decade, because there was an audience for it, we had the six—part quasi—natural history documentary Walking with Dinosaurs. That led to a whole number of Walking with... documentary series, which, all combined, covered life on Earth from the Early Precambrian period up to the Late Pleistocene.
Just as I mentioned in the previous post how the Mariner 4 flyby of Mars robbed the planet of its mystery once it began sending back images of the surface, the problem I found with this sort of “factual” programming was it made dinosaurs ordinary. Built in a computer, no doubt with any number of drab scientific advisors peering over the shoulders of the animators and digital artists explaining every last little boring detail, the creatures created for these series may have been anatomically correct and attributed the behavioural patterns best surmised by the experts in the field, but this surfeit of data reduced them to carnivores and herbivores of that era, no different than the beasts that roam the planet today. Where’s the fun in that?
A couple months back I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Julie Harris who had been the costume designer on the likes of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, Carry on Cleo, the 1960’s spoof of Casino Royale, Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Darling – for which she won the Academy Award – and The Land That Time Forgot. Utterly charming and still sharp as a tack, during our chat she mentioned that when it came to working on period dramas, although she would diligently research the clothing of the time, for the costume designs she would create a fashion for the era because historical accuracy would only go so far and audiences expect a lot more.
Though computer animators can now feel very proud for being able to create the perfect Tyrannosaurus, the end results still sadly lack the imagination of the dinosaurs that dazzled audiences in the original King Kong or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, One Million Years B.C. or The Valley of Gwangi. There stop motion animators like Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen – the absolute masters of their profession – not just brought those creatures to life but, more importantly, imbued them with some personality traits that went towards defining their character. And that’s what seems to have been lost amongst the vast numbers of pixels and hours of render—time, when animators only get their hands on a keyboard and Wacom tablet and not the dinosaur itself.
Even if the animation is done well it still requires lighting and shading to integrate it into the scenes and if one of those stages isn’t up to snuff the whole thing looks utterly phoney when it is composited into the live action footage. A couple of months ago I caught the first couple episodes of Terra Nova. Remember that dreadful BBC drama Outcasts? It’s like that, but worse. Because instead of useless colonists sent to a distant planet, the bozos in Terra Nova are sent back in time to the late Cretaceous period, which means dinosaurs. And not just any dinosaurs but badly animated and horrendously composited dinosaurs that looked utterly out of place in every scene they appeared in.
At the moment critics are falling over themselves to praise The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film shot in black and white. Hopefully sometime soon stop motion animation will make a comeback. Because in recent years the only computer generated dinosaur I can think of that has come close to recapturing the true character of that wonderful earlier work is Rex, the over—excited plastic T—Rex with an inferiority complex from the three Toy Story films. Everything else I’ve seen of late just makes my heart sink as I yearn for those simpler, yet more exciting, days. And that’s not right.