Disney Dinosaurs

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I still mourn for the original concept that was to feature creatures “real, imaginary and extinct”. I guess I should be thankful that there is a DinoLand, although it is less than I had hoped for when I first heard about the concept.

Growing up in Southern California with the La Brea Tar Pits less than an hour’s drive away from my home and the original King Kong film shown mulitiple times some weeks on the local Million Dollar Movie TV station (along with Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young), I grew up loving dinosaurs and had my own little collection of plastic creatures to create my own stories where they battled my plastic cowboys and army men. 

One of my favorite dinosaurs is Gertie, who sits serenely in Echo Lake at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. She is an example of “programmatic architecture” that is perhaps better known as “California Crazy.” (An example of “California Crazy” style architecture is the Darkroom building on Hollywood Boulevard that looks like a giant camera but sells photo supplies inside. It is based on an actual photo shop from 1940s Hollywood.)

So why is Gertie selling ice cream? Well, back in the 1940s, people believed it was the Ice Age that killed off the dinosaurs. That’s why it is the ice cream of “extinction” rather than “distinction.” If you watch closely, Gertie is so cold that steam occasionally comes out of her nostrils.

Gertie is also there because she is probably the first example of what is known as “personality” or “character” animation where even though she is a creation of pen and ink, she seems to have a distinct personality with a wide range of emotions and seems almost real.

In fact, follow the pathway to a set of steps, and you will see where Gertie’s feet have cracked the cement as she walked into the lake. Gertie as an animated legend was the creation of cartoonist Winsor McCay who had great success at the beginning of the 20th Century with his Sunday comic strip “Little Nemo.” McCay was a prolific artist as well as a popular vaudeville performer.

His fellow cartoonists supposedly kidded McCay about being such a prolific artist and challenged him to draw enough drawings to make an animated cartoon short. In those days, it took 16-18 drawings to make one second of film (with improved cameras and sound the standard 24 drawings for each second became the norm later).

McCay created two experimental animated films (one based on his comic strip “Little Nemo”) but some audiences thought he was tricking them. They thought he had hired midgets and dressed them up or used puppets. They didn’t believe an artist could draw all those detailed, realistic drawings and have them move and interact.

McCay decided he needed to choose a character so outrageous that no one could claim he hadn’t drawn it. So he chose a lovable female dinosaur that he named Gertie. He had to draw more than 10,000 drawings to make approximately five minutes of animation. There were no schools or books (other than a flip book his son had shown him) that taught animation so he had to invent a method to do animation. 

He drew each drawing on a 6-inch by 8-inch sheet of translucent rice paper. The paper had to be thin enough for him to see the drawing underneath because he not only had to draw 10,000 drawings of the dinosaur, he had to draw 10,000 drawings of the background that were traced over and over and over.  At that time, cels were not in use and when they were introduced, they were first used for backgrounds rather than the actual animation.

McCay decided to use this animated short film as part of his vaudeville act. McCay would come on stage with a huge bullwhip like an animal trainer and tell Gertie to lift her leg and on a big movie screen behind him, Gertie would lift her leg. He would pull out a big apple and pretend to toss it to her and on screen she grabbed an animated apple and ate it. At the end of the act, he would walk up to the screen and an animated McCay would get on Gertie’s head and they would leave the screen.

Audiences went wild that this extinct monster seemed to obey everything McCay said. It was so memorable that writer Dick Huemer working with McCay’s son, Robert, was able to recreate the experience for the Disneyland TV show “The Story of the Animated Drawing “ (first shown November 30, 1955) having an actor do the exact dialog and movements of McCay. 

McCay later filmed a live-action introduction showing the original bet and his working methods as well as the final performance and released the film across the country. I know for a fact that Disney animator Ub Iwerks saw it and tried to get Walt to see it but I have no documentation that Walt ever saw the film although there are indications that Walt respected McCay’s early efforts.

Walt's fascination with making dinosaurs "real" goes back several decades to the animated feature Fantasia in 1940. Walt said he wanted the section with dinosaurs to look "as though the studio had sent an expedition back to earth 6 million years ago." The studio contacted museums and world famous authorities like Roy Chapman Andrews, Julian Huxley, Barnum Brown, and Edwin P. Hubble with detailed requests for information.

Disney animators were confronted with the challenge of how to draw a dinosaur in movement. The director told the puzzled animators to "just draw a 12-story building in perspective, then convert it into a dinosaur and animate it."  McCay had solved some of his problems with animating a dinosaur by timing himself doing actions like inhaling and exhaling.

Walt told the animators, "Don't make them cute animals. Make them real." To help achieve a sense of size, the camera level was kept low so audiences were always looking up at the massive animals.

Paleontologists had reconstructed skeletons of the extinct giants but how does a Stegosaurus tail move and what was the skin texture and skin color like? Disney animators had to use their knowledge of balance and weight and color and were able to create a reasonable approximation that garnered accolades in the scientific community. Disney transformed prehistoric monsters that had been extinct for centuries into living, breathing creatures using the most accurate information available at the time. 

Time magazine reported: "The New York Academy of Science asked for a private showing because they thought [Fantasia's] dinosaurs better science than whole museum loads of fossils and taxidermy."   An edited version of the dinosaur segment with narration was released as an educational science film to schools under the title "A World Is Born."

Animating dinosaurs for the very first time in full Technicolor was just the first step for Walt. His next step into the prehistoric world wouldn’t be for another two decades but it was a big step: actual gigantic moving dinosaurs. While World’s Fairs had had full-sized representations of dinosaurs before, nobody could do it like Walt.

For the Ford Motor Company's 1964 World's Fair Pavilion Walt thought bigger than anyone. He had Imagineers Claude Coats, Marc Davis, and Blaine Gibson devise a prehistoric world with dinosaurs and cavemen.

These full-sized dinosaurs were sculpted backstage at Disneyland in a pre-fab building with an 18-foot doorway to get the figures in and out!  Gibson, who would later sculpt pirates and presidents, supervised sculptors like Howard Ball, who had sculpted dinosaurs for the La Brea Tar Pits, and former Yale art professor George Snowden. Gibson concentrated on the facial areas: "We are drawn to the head. When we look at a wild animal we are drawn to the eyes."  

Walt always dropped down to the building to look at the progress on the dinosaurs. Marc Davis came up with the idea of the Triceratops babies coming out of their shells. Jimmy MacDonald provided some of the savage howls and roars and was unable to speak for Mickey Mouse for quite awhile afterward.

These Disney dinosaurs premiered at the World's Fair on April 22, 1964. When the fair ended, they were relocated to Disneyland where they became part of the Primeval World section of the Grand Canyon Diorama in July 1966. They can still be seen today by guests riding the train around the park back to the Main Street Station.

Another homage to the famous scene from Fantasia of the Tyrannosaurus battling the stegosaurus can be seen at Walt Disney World's Universe of Energy

In 2000, the film Dinosaur was released.  Filmed live-action backgrounds in Venezuela, Australia, Western Samoa, three of the Hawaiian islands, the Mojave Desert, Florida and even the Los Angeles Arboretum were combined with 30 species of prehistoric animals (not all dinosaurs) that were brought to life by computer animation in the film

I loved the opening of the film but had hoped that it really was going to be like “Bambi” with limited or no dialog and a more realistic approach. I loved seeing some of the original concept drawings by William Stout in his Dinosaurs Sketchbook Volume Two (www.williamstout.com) and one of these days I would love to see Stout’s concepts (from Buck Rogers to Godzilla to Wizard of Oz) transferred to animation.

The movie, unfortunately, was underwhelming overall.

Dinosaur, the attraction, originally opened as Countdown to Extinction at DinoLand at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and is one of four Disney theme park attractions that opened before the movie. After the movie was released, the attraction was renamed. The Dinosaur attraction does not retell the story of the animated film. It contains elements that are similar to those in the film, such as the appearance of the carnotaurus, iguanodon, and the meteor showers. 

Joe Rohde, Walt Disney Imagineer executive designer of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, and other Imagineers involved in the creation of the park, worked closely with the Walt Disney Pictures team that created the animated film, Dinosaur to create this unique experience.

To publicize the film, there were even plans to have an audio-animatronic dinosaur parade walk down Main Street at Disneyland. Those readers who saw the Travel Channel special on Imagineering saw the huge box drop open and a free standing four-legged audio-animatronic take a few steps.  

Those experiments resulted in the creation of Lucky the dinosaur, who I guess I was lucky enough to see at Disney’s Animal Kingdom because I guess he went to Hong Kong Disneyland and never came back.

Lucky the dinosaur is the prototype for the next generation of audio-animatronics figures. In fact, at 20-feet long, 12-feet tall, the 450-pound Lucky, who smiles, grunts, sneezes, bats his eyelashes and signs clover-shaped autographs, had a very successful test run at Disney's California Adventure in 2003. Lucky is patterned after the Gallimimus dinosaur, but Disney designers took some liberties to soften his image so children of all ages would fall in love with him. 

Lucky was five years in development. Unlike earlier animatronics figures, Lucky is operated by electric motors and sensors that are controlled through a central computer, which regulates everything from Lucky's ponderous footsteps to the gentle batting of his eyelashes.   

I will admit that as I have gotten older, read more about dinosaurs and seen films where dinosaurs mercilessly tear into people, my love for them has waned somewhat although my respect for them still remains. I still remain a “dinosaur hunter” as during the last decade I have been trying to track down a copy of Gertie the Dinosaur.

No, not the Winsor McCay version that is easily available but the rip-off version done by J.R. Bray on cels that sometimes is included in dinosaur documentaries and is passed off as McCay’s classic. Yes, even in the very beginnings of animation, there was always another studio trying to make an easy buck by fooling audiences into thinking it is the animated film that is getting huge publicity and great reviews.