Dinosaur Institute - Dinosaurs and Hollywood | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

Dinosaurs and Hollywood's movie making industry roots go back to the early 1900's when movie making first started to make lead actors out of paleontologists.



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Dinosaurs and Hollywood

The dinosaur collections of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County are filled with more than true fossil specimens. Unknown to most of our visitors, however, the Museum also preserves an extensive collection of motion picture memorabilia, much of it having to do with Hollywood's dinosaurs.

Hollywood's first dinosaur "star" (also distinguished as the first classic character created for an animated film) was Gertie, given cinematic "life" in 1912 by the much-respected cartoonist Winsor McCay. In this pioneering short subject, Gertie (a copy of which is included in the collection of the Museum's Seaver Center for Western History Research), an Apatosaurus, then generally known to the public as Brontosaurus, performed, through a sequential series of McCay's drawings photographed one at a time, in an anachronistic "prehistoric world" that included a woolly mammoth and other extinct animals. Coincidentally, it seems, McCay gave Gertie a long and low head resembling the one we now know Apatosaurus possessed, rather than boxy Camarasaurus-type head then seen on most skeletal reconstructions and consequently, life restorations of this dinosaur.

A collection of original dinosaur movie posters is housed in the History Department of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Just as cartoon dinosaurs like Gertie can be brought to life on the screen photographed one frame at a time, so can model dinosaurs sculpted in three dimensions. The process called "stop motion" or "dimensional animation" had been in use for a number of years when Willis O'Brien began experimenting with it around 1914. O'Brien, a paleontology buff as well as a pioneer film maker, had already made a number of dinosaur-related movies by the time he was hired by First National Pictures to film the dinosaur effects for the 1925 silent-movie version of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World.

Although a capable model maker himself, O'Brien brought Los Angeles sculptor Marcel Delgado and others on board The Lost World project to create the dinosaurian menagerie that would populate Doyle's South American isolated plateau that had somehow remained untouched by the passage of time. Delgado used as direct inspiration for his models the paintings, drawings and sculptures of Charles R. Knight, perhaps the greatest of all restorers of prehistoric life (whose 1925 stunning mural of the La Brea Tar Pits and a 1944-46 series of prehistoric animals are housed in our Museum). Knight worked under the guidance of such legendary paleontologists as Edward Drinker Cope, Barnum Brown and Henry Fairfield Osborn; therefore, his life restorations, in their day, were considered to be scientifically accurate. Consequently, Delgado's Knight-based dinosaur models, when placed into historical perspective, may be regarded as some of the most accurate ever to appear on the motion-picture screen. Today, one of Delgado's original models still survive, preserved in our Museum's special collections.

Among O'Brien's animation assistants on The Lost World was Los Angeles sculptor J. L. Roop, of whom the Museum's Seaver Center for Western History Research maintains a collection of scrapbooks, photographs, articles and other items. One of Roop's models from The Lost World is housed in the Museum's History Department. Three years following The Lost World, Roop did the rather crude special dinosaur effects for The Lost Whirl, a comedy inspired by (but not really based on) the original film.

However, new and improved dinosaurs would later emerge from O'Brien and Delgado. In 1931 the team would be back at work again, sculpting dinosaurs and then test them in scenes for the proposed RKO movie Creation, a fantasy-adventure story about a group of people stranded on a prehistoric promontory that rises from the sea. Again working from Knight's life restorations, Delgado produced a number of models of extinct animals, including a family of the horned dinosaur Triceratops. Extant is a sequence in which a submarine's crewmember kills a baby Triceratops, only to be pursued to his death by the dinosaur's angry mother. The sequence was somehow ahead of its time, as there was no recognized evidence for dinosaurian parental care back in the 1930s. Creation was never completed, going far over budget being one of the reasons for its premature termination. The completed Triceratops sequence (now missing the ending shot, wherein the mother dinosaur impales the crewman against a tree with her horns), however, became, for a while after its completion, a popular exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The clips are now housed among our collections of rare film frames.

Although Creation was never finished, those two creative men mainly responsible for the project - along with some of their dinosaur models - did survive into the project's unofficial successor. Shortly following the cancellation of Creation, movie producer Merian C. Cooper was hired by RKO to salvage what he could of some of the studio's unfinished film projects, among them Creation. Cooper saw Creation as "just a lot of animals walking around," although he was impressed by the special effects work of Delgado and O'Brien. At the time Cooper had been planning his own modern "Beauty and the Beast" movie featuring a performer in a gorilla costume and some Komodo dragon lizards, all photographically enlarged to make them appear gigantic. Now sold on the stop-motion project, Cooper hired Delgado and O'Brien (who brought along some of the dinosaur models built for Creation) for his own motion picture, which became the 1933 classic King Kong. Some props from King Kong, including a miniature articulated hand from the Kong stop-motion puppet that climbed the Empire State Building, now have a permanent home in our Museum's History Department movie memorabilia collection along with a Delgado-created Brontosaurus model also believed to be from King Kong.

King Kong proved to be an enormous hit upon its first release, so successful that - the very same year - RKO rushed out a comparatively inferior sequel, The Son of Kong, which also included, courtesy of O'Brien and Delgado, its share of dinosaurs and other extinct animals. Fortunately O'Brien meticulously recorded his behind-the-scenes work on The Son of Kong through a series of snapshots that he then preserved in a scrapbook now under Seavers Center curatorship.

In more recent than past years, moviemakers have finally paid attention to scientific accuracy in their dinosaur movies. Dinosaurs are now depicted with greater accuracy, based upon current paleontological information. Also, most movie dinosaurs are now portrayed more as real animals rather than, as in the past, lumbering monsters existing only to attack anachronistic "cave people," engage each other in "mortal combat" or destroy cities. Much of this change in appearance and behavior can be attributed to the movie Jurassic Park (1993), based on the 1990 novel of the same title authored by Michael Chrichton. Thanks to the seeming miracles of CGI (computer generated imagery) and to the foresight of director/producer Steven Spielberg, who demanded that his cinematic dinosaurs be portrayed with some accuracy, the paradigm for dinosaur movies has been raised, seemingly forever. Yet, the movie's fearsome Velociraptor is several times bigger than its real inspiration. This bigger-than-life-sized working model of Velociraptor, made by the Stan Winston studios and pictured above, now proudly resides within our Museum's collections.