I forgot to include this image on the previous blog. It’s one of the inspirational sketches I drew, the idea of which found its way into Lost World: Jurassic Park.
(A reminder: I had some involvement with six of the ten films. They’re marked with an asterisk)
5a) The Dinosaur Project (1986)*
I think this might be the best dinosaur movie that never got made.
After making Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Jim Henson was looking for a new film project that utilized his “serious” Muppets style the way those two movies had. His daughter Lisa wanted to make a film on the Cope/Marsh dinosaur wars. The two got together in the Bahamas and brought a stack of dinosaur books with them. During their working vacation, Jim convinced Lisa that making a Muppets dinosaur movie first might just pave the path to her making her Cope/Marsh project. They sat on the beach, poring through their pile of dinosaur books.
Their cook came out to deliver their lunch. She looked down at the little dinosaur library they had assembled.
“You think those are dinosaur books? I’ll show you a dinosaur book.”
She disappeared into the house and re-emerged with a copy of my book, The Dinosaurs – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era.
“THIS is a dinosaur book!” she proclaimed.
Jim and Lisa looked through my book. They noticed in my bio at the back of the book that had experience working in film. Perfect! Jim instructed Lisa to contact me upon her return to Los Angeles. And she did.
We had our first meeting at Warner Brothers. Not much was accomplished except that we all agreed it would be great to make a good dinosaur movie together. Our second meeting had the same result. Frustrated by our lack of progress, I sat down and wrote a dinosaur movie screenplay, brought it to our next meeting and gave Jim and Lisa copies. They loved it and showed it to Lucy Fisher at Warner Brothers. Lucy and Warners pledged $25 million to make the film (a lot of dough back then) , plus another $5 million solely for Muppet dinosaurs research and development. I began designing the characters and painting key scenes from my script.
We were making real progress on the project when Jim discovered that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were making The Land Before Time. Their people claimed that they would beat us to the box office by a year (they lied). But Jim didn’t know they were lying. He began to worry that their movie would come out before ours and that he would be perceived as a Lucas/Spielberg copier. Our project got killed, although it gave me entry into the Writers Guild of America west, a membership I proudly maintain to this day.
CUT TO: May, 1990. I’m working as a full time consultant to Walt Disney Imagineering, designing additions to all of their theme park properties. I’m in the middle of a meeting. Jim Henson, walking down the hallway, spots me and pulls me out of the meeting.
“Bill! I’ve got great news! Our dinosaur film project is back on! I’ll call you next week!’
Jim died a few days later. I never found out what he was going to tell me.
5b) The Land Before Time (opening) (1988)*
In 1983 Byron Preiss and I wrote a children’s book, The Little Blue Brontosaurus.
I painted the covers and some of the other illustrations in the book, designing the characters using a 1936 Disney-influenced animation style. I laid out the rest of the book’s pictures to be finished by Pogo artist Don Morgan. Our book won the Children’s Choice Award for 1984.
Sadly, the story and artistic style were lifted wholesale for Don Bluth’s animated feature The Land Before Time. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas produced the Bluth feature, so there was no hope of my suing them if I wanted to remain in the film business. A close friend of mine reported seeing a copy of The Little Blue Brontosaurus on producer Kathleen Kennedy’s desk during the development of the Bluth film. The Land Before Time killed my own film project, a dinosaur film I was creating with Jim Henson. Ironically, I was hired to create some of the advertising for The Land Before Time (see above). Byron wanted to sue Lucas, Spielberg, Kennedy and company. I owed Kathy a favor and declined to participate in the suit. Plus, George had always been kind to me, giving me work on a fairly regular basis. I knew Steven from sharing offices with him during my early Conan the Barbarian days (he had me board some of Raiders of the Lost Ark).
It still hurt, though, as I considered both Kathy and George to be friends. Why didn’t they just option my book?
The Land Before Time follows my book pretty closely but the film’s opening does not; it’s more like Fantasia’s Rite of Spring sequence. No talking. And it’s brilliant. Check it out!
4) Godzilla in 3D (1982-83)*
In 1982 a big part of my business was creating “presentation art” — typically a fake movie poster for a proposed movie or a painting of a proposed film’s key scene. These pictures were used to get financing for the film projects.
Director-producer Steve Miner approached me about creating a presentation piece for a 3-D American Godzilla movie. Fred Dekker wrote a brilliant script, its story seen through the eyes of a smart young junior high schooler in San Francisco. After I painted the presentation piece and after several discussions about the film, Steve hired me to storyboard the picture.
The great storyboard (North by Northwest, Blade Runner) artist Mentor Huebner was visiting my studio. I invited him to look at my boards.
“My god — the detail! You really should ask about becoming the production designer of the movie, Bill.”
I did just that. After a few phone calls to people I had worked with to guarantee I could handle the job, Steve hired me as Godzilla’s production designer. I convinced Steve to hire Dave Stevens and Doug Wildey to help with the storyboards (Alex Toth turned me down). Rick Baker was slated to create a giant robotic Godzilla head. Sculptor Stephen Czerkas took my redesign of Godzilla and created an articulated stop motion animation figure for us. Dave Allen was hired as our stop motion animator (no clumsy rubber suits for our Godzilla! I designed him as a cross between the classic Godzilla and a Tyrannosaurus).
It was the right project at the wrong time. With effects shots in nearly every scene, Godzilla was going to be very expensive. At about that same time four mega-budget films flopped, Heaven’s Gate being one of them, so all of the studios were big budget-shy and passed on the project. We dropped the expensive 3-D aspect but still couldn’t get a green light.
To this day I would like to make our version of Godzilla. I think it would be a smash and a real career high for Yours Truly.
BTW, if our Godzilla had been a success, I was in line to direct the follow-up: Rodan.
3) Rite of Spring sequence from Fantasia (1942)
Not long after I first saw King Kong, Rite of Spring from Fantasia aired on Walt Disney’s ABC television series. It was pretty much dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs from that point on in my life
The Igor Stravinsky ballet is still one of my favorite pieces of music of all time and the Disney imagery is still just as thrilling and fantastic as it was when I saw it as a kid. I think seeing Kong and Fantasia at age three damaged me at a genetic level. I’ve been nuts about dinosaurs ever since.
2) King Kong (1933)
What more can be said about the greatest movie ever made? It has everything: action, adventure, exotic locals, romance, humor, 1930s New York, a gigantic ape and DINOSAURS! It also happens to be the very first film I ever saw. I was three years old when I saw this 1933 movie at the Reseda Drive-In Theater upon its re-release in 1952.
I’ve seen King Kong over 100 times and still never get tired of it. The battle between Kong and the T. rex is one of the most fantastic showstoppers ever made. Every frame of that film (and its great Max Steiner score) still fires my imagination.
1) Walt Disney’s Dinosaur (Five Minute Trailer/Opening) (2000)*
Way back in 1985 I was approached by the Walt Disney Company to work as the key designer on a dinosaur movie project. The film‘s dinosaurs would come to life via stop motion animation. I read the script and quickly recognized it as the dinosaur film project that I knew was being made by Paul Verhoeven and Phil Tippett. I immediately called Phil, whose stop motion work I admired greatly.
Disney had asked me to design their new dinosaur film but I told Phil that I would never stab him the back by working on a project of his without his consent or knowledge.
Phil told me that he and Verhoeven were no longer on the project. Paul had told Disney that he needed $80 million to make the movie. Disney responded that they would never spend that much on a motion picture!
Phil told me to feel free to jump in and have fun with his blessing.
I called Disney and told them I was available. They got excited. From the tone of the conversation, it sounded as if they wanted me to start the following Monday.
Then I heard nothing. For months. For a year.
In 1990 Disney called me again, telling me they wanted to make a dinosaur film. I asked them to send me the script. They messengered one over. I read it. It was the same screenplay from the previous year.
Again, I said I’d be happy to design the film. Again, they got excited and made it sound like they wanted me to begin on Monday.
Another year went by. This mini-drama repeated itself every year for over a decade. I eventually got pretty blasé about their annual offer.
In 1999 I got that Disney call again. I guess my doubt and lack of enthusiasm was beginning to show, as the producer said, “No — we’re really going to make it this time. Seriously! We really want you on this project.”
“Okay,” I replied. “Let’s go.”
Months passed without a peep from Disney. After about nine months I got a call. It was a Disney attorney.
“We’re really sorry this is taking so long,” he explained. “We’re trying everything we can to make this happen. The big problem is your insistence upon working at home.”
I had never made such a demand, especially as I prefer to work as close as possible to the director on my films.
“Well,” I said, “I can work there at the studio.”
“You can? That’s GREAT! Bill, I’ll do everything I can to get this pushed through so that you can start work on the film.”
Another nine months went by. A different Disney attorney called.
“I’m sorry this has taken so long but we’re almost there, Bill.”
“Let me just reassure you that I’ll be happy to work at the studio.”
“Work at the studio? The unions would kill us!”
“Well, I could work at home…”
“You could?! That would be great! I’ll do everything I can to push this right through.”
About nine months later a Disney producer called me to let me know that all the legal stuff had been ironed out and I was clear to begin work on Monday. I would bring the work I had done into the studio each Friday.
“We need you to solve a tough problem we’re having. Our lead characters are iguanodons. To us, all iguanodons look alike. Can you give us a family of iguanodons that are readily distinctive from one another, yet still reasonably accurate in their iguanodon physiology?”
“I love problems like that; the harder the better. I’m sure I can crack it. See you on Friday.”
I drew the iguanodon grandparents first (see above). I made them sag with age all over. I gave them shedding, patchy old skin and swaybacks.
I took the two young male leads, bulked up the slightly older male and gave him a spine frill that pointed aggressively forward.
I made the female lead sleek, smooth and feminine.
The Disney folk were knocked out by what I had done. They asked me to design all the other characters for the film.
I had a blast, coming on each Friday over the next few months. Adding greatly to the experience was meeting Thom Enriquez, an incredibly talented artist and storyteller on the film. We hit it off and had great discussions about what we wanted this film to be. I recommended other artists I thought should work on the film, guys like my brilliant pals John Gurche, Mark Hallett and Doug Henderson. Doug, who has a very cinematic eye, ended up drawing most of the film’s storyboards. Thom showed me backgrounds he had drawn that looked like they were right out of the 1933 King Kong. Absolutely gorgeous, moody work.
We did not want the dinosaurs to speak in this movie. The creative team ended up writing, designing and shooting a five-minute teaser trailer to show that we could tell the story we wanted to tell completely visually — without dialogue. I still get chills and tear up whenever I watch this incredible footage. The music is perfect, the visuals are awe-inspiring and the story told in those five minutes is emotionally compelling.
The Powers-That-Be looked at our little masterpiece with disinterest and declared, “Make ‘em talk”.
We were crushed but did as we were told.
I went out on the road to promote Dinosaur at comic and sci-fi conventions armed with two video trailers. First, I would show our five-minute dialogue-less trailer. The reaction was palpable and immediate. People wanted to see that movie NOW. They were ready to hand me money for tickets in advance.
Then I would show trailer #2. The one in which the dinosaurs, uhhh… spoke.
It was like letting the air out of a zeppelin. I could see the zeppelin crashing to earth right before my eyes as the people began to ask in sad, disappointed tones, “The dinosaurs aren’t going to talk, are they?” and I had to tell them that, yes, they were going to talk. Their enthusiasm vanished.
Remember Disney refusing to spend $80 million on the Verhoeven’s version of the film? The final tab for Dinosaur came to $127.5 million (more like $200 million if you count the creation of an all new computer animation department for the film — a department that, amazingly, was dismantled right after the movie was completed!).
Disney’s dinosaur movie did well at the box office despite the absurdly inane yammering of the lead dinosaurs. But I can still feel it in my bones that our beautiful dialogue-less dinosaur film would have made both movie and box office history.
And this gem of a trailer is my offering of proof to that supposition. You can watch it here, although it’s better seeing it big and crisp via high def Blu-ray — and even better in a theater, of course: