Thesis: Annotations of Jurassic Park and The Land Before Time

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ANNOTATION #1: Jurassic Park

Spielberg, Steven, dir. Jurassic Park. Universal, 1993. Film.

Jurassic Park is widely acclaimed as a classic action film with revolutionary visual effects that hold their own over 20 years later. In addition to being a high-octane Hollywood adventure, Jurassic Park is the means by which millions of viewers in the 1990s were introduced to “the modern dinosaur.” Prior to the film’s release, dinosaurs were widely perceived as cold-blooded, sluggish, dull, and lizard-like. Although Jurassic Park is by no means a documentary and contains more than its share of glaring paleontological inaccuracies, Spielberg’s efforts to work with paleontologists such as Jack Horner gave the public a more realistic view of dinosaurs as warm-blooded, active and birdlike. As such, it is an important film to study for a baseline understanding of paleoart in a cinematic context.

While watching Jurassic Park this time around, I focused on the scenes featuring Brachiosaurus, a large sauropod (pictured above). Brachiosaurs are proportioned differently than titanosaurs and have much larger forelimbs and a more vertical posture, but the two species likely filled similar environmental niches and would have exhibited similar behaviors. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM)’s CG reconstructions of Brachiosaurus were among the first in the field of digital paleo art, so I learned much by analyzing the animal’s movements. It was also extremely helpful to look at how the art directors chose to frame such a massive creature, as scale is one of the defining points of this term’s Dreadnoughtus research.

The first scene of Jurassic Park to fully reveal a dinosaur featured a brachiosaurus rearing on its hind legs to reach some high-growing foliage. I watched this scene with Emma Fowler, a Paleontology / Digital Media undergraduate who is working on the Dreadnoughtus Project with me. The first thing she pointed out about Jurassic Park’s Brachiosaurus was the lack of motion in the animal’s shoulder girdle. Having to support the massive weight of this dinosaur would result in a lot of shoulder movement, especially when it crashes down to the ground after rearing up. The weight shifting of the animation was pretty inaccurate all around — not surprising, since these models were among the first to be digitally animated. The technology was incredible for the time, but studying the limitations of the past will allow us to create more realistic animation right now.

We also had several issues with the rearing action itself, which prompted a discussion about sauropod behavior. Would this animal rear up? Could it? The rearing pose in Jurassic Park was extremely off-balance, with the Brachiosaurus’ center of gravity resting behind its legs and near its tail. We determined that this dinosaur was more likely to collapse and break its spine than stick the landing, which would have made for a MUCH more entertaining opening. But even with more realistic weight shifting, would a sauropod ever really need to rear on its hind legs? It’s an impressive motion, but the main goal of this reconstruction is accuracy.

Anatomical issues aside, the cinematography of this scene is iconic and extremely effective. When revealing the dinosaur, the camera starts at waist level, then slowly pushes to the right and tilts upward to reveal the animal’s huge mass. This point of view emphasizes the size of the brachiosaurus, especially its vertical height. This shot is definitely one I’ll consider including in the reconstruction (though I’ll substitute Dr. Grant with a fleeing theropod). With any luck, including a similar shot will evoke the same feeling of spectacle that it did to viewers of Jurassic Park in 1993. We want Project Dreadnought to be a spectacle in its own right, while passively educating those who watch it with modern paleontology research.

Jurassic Park has one other sauropod scene which occurs after a high-intensity Tyrannosaurus chase. When Dr. Grant and his precocious companions are seeking shelter in a tree, they stumble across a goofy animatronic Brachiosaurus who plays tug-of-war with a tree branch and sneezes on them. I’m including this as an example of typical Hollywood sauropod behavior that dates way back to Windsor MacKay’s Gertie the Dinosaur. People tend to fixate on the fact that these animals are herbivores (or “veggiesaurs”), and depict them like big, doofy cows. Dr. Lacovara has expressed an interest in capturing aggressive and territorial sauropod behavior, so this scene is a perfect example of what I shouldn’t do. This animals weighed nearly 50 tons! Do you know what else likes eating leaves? An African bull elephant, and you wouldn’t try to poke one of those with a tree branch.

 

 

ANNOTATION #2: The Land Before Time

Bluth, Don, dir. The Land Before Time. Universal, 1988. Film.

When I asked a few faculty members for viewing lists that would fit this project, John Berton recommended I take a look at animated films. He warned that animation will have to be viewed in the abstract, but would still be of some use. I watched Windsor McKay’s Gertie the Dinosaur, Disney’s Fantasia, and a number of other animations, but settled on annotating my favorite childhood movie: The Land Before Time.

I was surprised to learn that The Land Before Time was produced by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense. Spielberg was going through his midlife dinosaur craze at the time, and would go on to make Jurassic Park immediately afterwards. Despite being an animated children’s movie, the direction was excellent —  The Land Before Time truly is a heartbreaking story with beautiful art direction, lighting and matte paintings. I hadn’t seen it in over a decade, and I was delighted by how well it held up when I watched it as an adult.

The Land Before Time stars a family of “long-necks,” or Apatasaurs. Apatasaurs were another clade of sauropod dinosaurs related to both brachiosaurs and titanosaurs. The main character Littlefoot is a hatchling and has extremely exaggerated movements and proportions, but the first act focuses a lot on his mother and grandparents. These are the characters I focused on for the purposes of this annotation, as they were SLIGHTLY more naturally proportioned, and provided some useful insights for framing, drama, and behavior.

The most dynamic scene by far is when Littlefoot’s mother fights off a “sharptooth,” a large theropod. I watched this scene with Emma Fowler as well. In a surprising twist of expectations, we determined that Littlefoot’s mother actually exhibited more realistic sauropod behavior than the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park did, albeit heavily abstracted and exaggerated. Littlefoot’s mother fought with her tail, shifting the weight through her hips whenever she moved to deliver a blow. I compared this motion to videos of extant reptiles such as crocodiles, iguanas and Komodo dragons, and the posturing is similar across the board.

Littlefoot’s mother does rear up on her hind legs at one point, but unlike in the scene from Jurassic Park, she keeps her tail raised while doing so. Her center of gravity is also positioned towards the front of her body and the motion seems much more plausible. She seems to do this out of desperation, as she is backed into a corner, instead of for feeding purposes. This coincides with the . For the rest of the fight, she raises her hind legs one at a time to build potential energy before swiping with her tail, which seems like a much more realistic way of posturing.

The cinematography of this scene was also incredible, and will be one of the main sources I draw from for the Dreadnoughtus tail-whip shots. Many of the shots are done with a telephoto lens, which lengthens the space and extends the sauropod’s already dynamic tail and neck. The camera angles are low, a traditional , and cut between close-up detail shots and dynamic, silhouetted long shots. This contrast emphasizes the scale of the dinosaurs. Even though my animation will not feature a fighting theropod, I believe that I can still pull off a dynamic narrative by using these techniques.