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Dinosaurs in Hollywood: from a 1914 cartoon to Jurassic World

06/12/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/11/2016 05:59 EDT
Jurassic World, the fourth instalment in Steven Spielberg's prehistoric dinosaur franchise, goes into wide release today and promises the top-notch special effects that have been the series' hallmark since Jurassic Park changed creature effects forever in 1993.

But dinosaurs were a favourite on the silver screen long before filmmakers had technology that could convey the majesty of a brontosaurus or show malevolence on the face of a velociraptor.

In chronological order, here's a look at the evolution of dinosaur special effects over the past 100 years. As the trailer for No. 5 on our list bellows, "See the fascinating, strange and fearful creatures who roamed the Earth a million years BC!"        

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) 

This list mostly ignores animated films (sorry Land Before Time), but crudely animated herbivore Gertie deserves special note because it's one of the first films to star a dinosaur. Directed by Winsor McCay, the 12-minute film features Gertie following McCay's orders, including having a drink and doing a little dance. (Jump to the seven-minute mark to see Gertie in action.)

The Lost World (1925)

Created by special effects wizard Willis O'Brien, who would later work on the classic King Kong, the dinosaurs in The Lost World (and there are a lot of them) are among the first stop-motion effects ever on film. 

King Kong (1933)

Deemed "culturally, historically and esthetically significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress, King Kong is the most critically acclaimed film on our list. The stop-motion battle between Kong and a tyrannosaurus, with Fay Wray screaming all the while, is one of the great special-effects sequences of its age. The film inspired 13-year-old Ray Harryhausen, who became one of the most well-known visual effects creators of the last century.

The Lost World (1960)

We've focused on the effects that were the best for their time, but let's not forget there has been lots of dinosaur dreck over the years too. Director Irwin Allen wanted stop-motion effects for this version of Arthur Conan Doyle's story, but instead had to use an alligator, a gecko and some monitor lizards with a little foam rubber attached. The results are less than terrifying.

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

Here's Harryhausen at work, bringing to life the brontosaurus, pterodactyl, triceratops and other dinosaurs more convincingly than Raquel Welch's performance. Harryhausen created a form of stop motion called Dynamation that allowed much more subtle interaction between his creatures and real-life scenes. This was the only film where Harryhausen used both stop-motion animation and real creatures. 

Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985)

This largely forgotten Disney dud was made after Harryhausen's era (his last film was released in 1981) and before the groundbreaking technology of Jurassic Park. It takes another approach, trying to convey its baby brontosaurus through animatronics (a portmanteau of animate and electronic). Though the movie is by all accounts worthy of extinction, Roger Ebert (in a one-star review) said then that the film provided "surprisingly believable dinosaurs."

Jurassic Park (1993)

"Welcome to Jurassic Park!" Richard Attenborough's John Hammond says as characters in the film look on with the same awe that moviegoers had 22 years ago. While the film is rightly hailed as a breakthrough in computer animation, the film also uses animatronics (most notably with a life-sized tyrannosaurus) and even men in suits (for the velociraptors).  

King Kong (2005)

Peter Jackson's remake of the 1933 classic won an Oscar for best visual effects. While the original had Kong fighting one tyrannosaurus, the updated film has the giant gorilla fighting three fictional vastatosaurus rex. It's fun to watch both and see what 72 years has done for special effects, though it's not clear the 2005 scene is any better. 

Jurassic World (2015)

The critical consensus for the latest dinosaur film is only mildly positive, but review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes says critics concede the film is "visually dazzling." Oscar-winning special effects artist Phil Tippett, who was involved in both the first Jurassic film and this one, told NPR this week that not much has changed between the two films. "The tools are better, the animation software, the compositing software, storage space and all that kind of technical stuff has improved significantly," he said. "But the actual hands-on skill of animators and compositors and the technical directors that light the stuff is really a skill level thing."

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