My Top Ten Dinosaur Films – Part Two

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 the cover of the revised edition)

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.

Cover to the proposed Little Blue Brontosaurus sequel.

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).

New Meets Old

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCqYuBIFE5I

14 Responses to “My Top Ten Dinosaur Films – Part Two”

  1. Rick Tucker says:

    Hi, Bill,

    It’s been a while. Sorry but I’ve been busy, which is good. I enjoyed the article and the memories. There is one thing about Dinosaurs that bugged me besides the characters talking. The story is basically the same as Land Before Time, just with a bigger more animated cast. We still didn’t get to see swamps, river valleys, forests or jungles. It was just another trek across a mostly sparse wilderness. Yeah, the dinosaurs looked great but once again the setting was drag.
    Maybe next time, eh.
    We should all be so lucky.
    Thanks for memories. Kong still rules the roost!

    Rick Tucker

  2. Brian Blacknick says:

    Gorgeous work in that trailer. My favorite part was the egg stealing creature scampering through the jungle! I couldn’t agree more about having the dinosaurs speak! That knocked me cold. The powers that be that made that decision should be tarred and feathered.

  3. Aaron says:

    Speaking of King Kong, a friend and I were talking about what makes our favorite films great. I noticed that most of the characters in the original King Kong have some heroic action. Carl Denham rescues Ann from arrest and starvation. Ann sets off on a brave voyage to an unknown world. Jack Driscoll saves her from Kong. Captain Englehorn is the calm pilot on the voyage, standing guard at the gate while his crew goes on a mission to save Ann. Even Charlie the cook raises the alarm when Ann is kidnapped. And the native chief rouses his warriors to defend the gate when Kong comes knocking. And Denham stands “throwing gas bombs” when everyone else runs for it. And let’s not forget Kong who saves Ann from one dinosaur after another. It’s just one more aspect of the film that makes it a classic today.

    Best,
    Aaron

  4. James Van Hise says:

    I didn’t see Land Before Time in the theater because the trailers made it look like a kids movie aimed at the pre-teen crowd (which it turns out all of the direct to video sequels are). Then I was in a store after it came out on home video and it was being shown on a TV monitor. What the heck is that? I wondered as it showed a T Rex chasing little dinosaurs and trying to eat them. That was The Land Before Time? None of that was in any of the coming attractions. When I finally saw the film I was surprised by the things it did, like the Rite Of Spring style opening sequence with its terrific animation, and the Bambi style death of Little Foot’s mother so that he was an orphan for the rest of the film. And then that climax with the T Rex! Unfortunately the low budget sequels have none of the creativity of the first film in the series, and as a result they are unwatchable. There’s also the fact that you have to regard the main characters as pygmy dinosaurs because they are little in all of the films.

  5. Rick Catizone says:

    Love seeing all this artwork. yes, sad they didn’t option the project…..sad that the other things didn’t get made….sad that Jim died, and that probably put the project back into limbo…..

    funny that they were worried a 3d puppet approach would be taken as a copy of a traditional cartoon…

    Thanks for sharing the stories, altho’ I admit to feeling cheated out of some great stuff by idiots at the top. And the yearly calls from the attorneys, all with conflicting requirements, is priceless…..

  6. filmfan says:

    Well, I hope no one here will want to kill me after I say this, but I liked Dinosaur. I think I saw it about maybe 3 times at the cinema. The velociraptors looked great, much better than what was in Jurassic Park. The dino fights were great too, what with Aladar and Kron thumb spiking each other, and then when Kron and the carnotaurus are slamming each other with their tales, not too bad! I can see why many viewers would have preferred that the dino’s didn’t talk, but there is the Walking With Dinosaurs series to take care of that.

  7. Rick Catizone says:

    I would have “preferred” they didn’t talk…but it was a fantasy interpretation. I am not sure anyone would sat through an hour and a half without it. I think they did a good job making the mouth motion seem appropriate…not always an easy thing to do, given the rather realistic nature of the models. But I too, enjoyed the film on a number of levels.

  8. Good choices for your dinosaur movies list, at least you praise the Jurassic Park sequels. I hate those people who call it crappy, shame on them. I know in your opinion on Disney’s Dinosaur that it should be silent, but to be honest I’m not sure if people would sit through a silent 90 min film. Since people are used to dialogue being spoke to them rather than pantomime and word cards telling whats happening. That’s why silent films are considered obscure to today’s standards. I kind of like Rick Catizone’s comment of how goodly executed they did the voice work and did the facial expressions, possibly in the comic con those ere more serious dinosaur fans rather than like kids. It’s just my oppinion

  9. Bill says:

    @Rick Tucker:
    Thanks for noticing the lack of geographical diversity in Dinosaur. Stuff like that drives me nuts. Carl Barks was a master at this kind of diversity, making his readers feel like they had gone on a vast journey.

    @Aaron:
    I agree wholeheartedly, although you’re preaching to the choir when it comes to Kong, as it’s still my all-time favorite film.

    @James:
    A lot of The Land Before Time still stings for the reasons sited in the body of my text.

    @filmfan:
    I thought the animation and effects in Dinosaur were superb. The film just needed to go that little bit of extra distance and ditch the dialogue.

    @Rick Catizone:
    I enjoyed Dinosaur for the most part but still cringe through bits that I know could have been better.

    @Tyler:
    It seems as if you misunderstood me. Not really silent — just no dialogue. There would be plenty of sound (and music).

    Successful examples of films without dialogue include The Bear, Quest for Fire and, most recently, the Academy Award-winning French film, The Artist. These all prove that if the story is good and interesting, people will come, whether there’s any dialogue or not.

  10. Flaming Turd says:

    How sad are those stories, Bill. It’s just so hard to understand how some suppossed artists (as those filmakers undoubtly are) can so much lacking respect for others. When people is so obsessed with money on a project, basic considerations as respect and elegance are secondary. Always looking for ways of saving money. So maybe that’s the reason why “the perfect you are to work in a movie, the less chances to get hired”. Maybe it’s cause they think that person would ask for too much dollars. When in truth sometimes it’s the oppossite, when you truly love something with true passion, you would actually do it (almost) for free. That’s something these people cannot understand, hear or remember, so one-track-minded they are.

    After all, the “Land Before Time” was a blatant ripooff but in Disney’s “Dinosaur” you got to even been officially hired after all, and yet… knowing how much involvement you had on the original designs, and even knowing it was you who brought Gourche, Hallet and Henderson, I’m amazed and angry you aren’t mentioned on the official “Dinosaur making of” book. I got that one some years ago hoping to see some of your concepts for the film, but you wasn’t there, not even mentioned once. Still I can see so many of your ideas on that film, taken from your original 1982 book. The climax for example, with the Iguanodon and the Carnotaurus fighting on the top of a hill about to fall from the cliff. You had a drawing on the 1982 book which depicted exactly that scene. And many more.

    Well. You are the visionary, Will. As Nietzsche said, the pioneers on something are usually sacrificed and their rights denied. Then, copied.
    What a world.

    BTW, Will you Disney “Dinosaur” sketches are labelled as 1995. Seems you started doing designs really really early. Did you actually sent these to Disney in 1995, or couldn’t do it until 2000?

  11. Flaming Turd says:

    Oh and another question, did you also designed the “naked” Oviraptor that appears on the Dinosaur trailer?

    Didn’t you at any point proposed to have FEATHERED theropods?

    You original Oviraptor design, on the 1982 movie, was actually feathered. One of the first feathered Oviraptors I ever saw on paleoart (if not the very first one).

    I also saw another feathered Oviraptor you made on 1995. Since the concept-art you posted here was also dated 1995, I was wondering, is this drawing also concept-art for the Disney movie?

    http://www.imagebam.com/image/341469333987782

  12. Bill says:

    @FT:
    The unfortunate Hollywood canard “the more perfect you are for a film, the less likely you’ll be hired” can at least partially be explained.

    A producer who doesn’t know me would be unlikely to hire me for a dinosaur film because with my credentials in that area, he might be afraid I’d challenge the director regarding things the director might like to have the dinosaurs do, or challenge him on size, appearance or other accuracies. Better (in his mind) not to hire me and avoid all that potential conflict. What he (or she) doesn’t realize is that I’ve been around the cinematic block more than a few times. I never present a problem without a good solution in my back pocket. I also know to never say anything in public that might embarrass a director.

    Regarding Disney’s Dinosaur: They first approached me in 1985. It took them ten years to finally get around to hiring me (hence, the 1995 dates on the art). Which leads to another story…

    I had to fight hard for my meager credit on the film. Months prior to the film’s 2000 release I called Disney to check on my credit in the film.

    “You’re not going to get a credit.”

    “Why?”

    “There are so many credits on this film that we decided to have a cut-off point for credits. You worked on the film fairly early, so you got cut.”

    “But I…er…designed the movie’s characters.”

    “We know, but that was a long time ago.”

    I made a list of 14 points as to why I should get credit on the film and sent it to Disney. They eventually relented. I assume it was due to the strength and logic of my arguments. I also got invited to a special cast and crew premiere, complete with great swag.

    Although they’re just printed in black and white, you can see several of my designs for the film in the back pages of “William Stout – Dinosaur Sketchbook” Volumes 2 and 3. Some also appear in color in my third trading card set, “William Stout – Saurians and Sorcerors”.

    The naked Oviraptor wasn’t mine (mine had feathers). I don’t know who designed it.

    I did indeed put feathers on my theropods (but not on the T. rex, the original villain of the film. The feathered tyrannosaur hadn’t been discovered yet). That was Disney’s call not to use them.

    The picture you referenced was drawn for my Jim Henson dinosaur film project (hence, its identifying code initials, “NHP”, which stood for “Natural History Project” (5a, above).

  13. Flaming Turd says:

    Thanks for the answer, Bill.
    Wow that was so informative and interesting. All this thing with Disney sounds so crazy and dumb… What a trip it had to be. At least you got the credit you deserved in the end, though not enough in my opinion. The movie could have been way better, all the potential to be erased year by year by who knows what production issues, to finally end on the most conservative and unrisky way: dinosaurs with no feathers, innacurate behaviours, species from different ages and places mixed together… and the talking.
    I remember when I saw it on cinema, hoping for some “Jurassic Park” magic, then feeling so dissapointed. “Land Before Time” was way better, maybe cause ironically they sticked more to your ideas.

    I see now that the date on the NHP drawing was actually 1985, not 1995 (which makes sense since Henson passed away on 90).

    Best wishes

  14. Luke Dickey says:

    Hi Mr. Stout,

    Thank you for posting these gorgeous pieces of concept art for Disney’s Dinosaur. When I was five, I saw Toy Story 2 in the theater and that beautiful five minute trailer played. I was blown away. Then I got Tarzan on VHS and the amazing trailer as on that as well. I got so excited to see it, then when I got to the theater…the dinosaurs talked….talk about disappointing. For what it’s worth, I think the film still has some redeeming qualities, mainly the designs of the dinosaurs, the cinematography and Howard’s amazing score. But ever since I was five, I always thought about what this movie could have been like without dialogue or tacked on CGI lemurs.

    I’m curious, did Walon Green’s script for Phil Tippett and Paul Verhoeven’s original plan for this have ANY elements that made it into the final film? I heard that the film went through a few different stages.

    Cheers

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