Suspended Animation Bonus Column
Today, Disney park guests can experience realistic three-dimensional audio-animatronics dinosaurs at various Disney theme parks.
Walt Disney’s fascination with making dinosaurs “real” goes back several decades to the animated feature Fantasia in 1940. Disney transformed prehistoric monsters that had been extinct for centuries into living, breathing creatures using the most accurate information available at the time.
Walt said he wanted the Rite Of Spring section with dinosaurs to look “as though the studio had sent an expedition back to earth six million years ago.” The studio contacted museums and world famous authorities like Roy Chapman Andrews, Julian Huxley, Barnum Brown, and Edwin P. Hubble with detailed requests for information.
Disney animators were confronted with the challenge of how to draw a dinosaur in movement. The director told the puzzled animators to “just draw a 12-story building in perspective, then convert it into a dinosaur and animate it.”
Cartoonist Winsor McCay had solved some of his problems with animating a dinosaur by timing himself doing actions like inhaling and exhaling.
Walt told the animators, “Don’t make them cute animals. Make them real.” To help achieve a sense of size, the camera level was kept low so audiences were always looking up at the massive animals.
Paleontologists had reconstructed skeletons of the extinct giants but how does a Stegosaurus tail move and what was the skin texture and skin color like? Disney animators had to use their knowledge of balance and weight and color and were able to create a reasonable approximation that garnered accolades in the scientific community.
Pterodactyls took flight while a herd of Brontosauruses quietly grazed in a lake and a fierce Tyrannosaurus Rex threatened the peaceful scene in the film, and those images were later translated into three dimensions at the Disney theme parks.
Time magazine reported when the film was released: “The New York Academy of Science asked for a private showing because they thought [Fantasia’s] dinosaurs better science than whole museum loads of fossils and taxidermy.”
Walt Disney was always looking for ways to capitalize on his existing product to help generate more revenue for various other projects.
An official 16mm film division (later renamed Walt Disney Educational Media) was established with Carl Nater in charge in 1945. Nater had been the production coordinator on the Disney military training films and the health films during the war.
Originally, the division rented Disney shorts and features to local schools and organizations for fund raising. Nater remained in charge of the 16mm film division for more than two decades.
Schools or organizations could rent Disney features to show in the classroom or as fundraisers. Nater assured the theatrical film venues that Disney would not even permit schools or PTAs to schedule renting Disney 16mm films on Saturdays since it was considered in direct conflict with motion picture theaters.
Nater also looked at ways to configure existing material for education purposes like releasing in 1955 the Rite of Spring dinosaur segment from Fantasia with new narration and entitling it A World is Born.This newly edited version was released to schools to be used in science classes. Stephen Jay Gould, who went on to become one of the century’s great evolutionary biologists, claimed that he became enthused with dinosaurs as a child thanks to seeing this film in school.
However, the film was withdrawn from distribution because of complaints that it “promoted evolution”, a similar complaint when Nater tried to release a segment from Ward Kimball’s Mars and Beyond.
Around 1968, the Disney 16mm film rental division became the Walt Disney Educational Media Company with Nater as the president operating out of an office in Glendale, California.
The company was making close to a million dollars a year renting and selling films and filmstrips to schools. WDEMCO was an independent subsidiary of Walt Disney Productions and by 1973 was generating over ten million dollars a year in revenue.
One of the most memorable scenes in A World is Born as well as the original feature included a climactic battle between a Stegosaurus and a vicious, red-eyed Tyrannosaurus Rex that could never have happened, since those animals lived in different eras.
It was such an iconic scene that it became an integral part of tableaus at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Animating dinosaurs for the very first time in full Technicolor was just the first step for Walt. His next step into the prehistoric world wouldn’t be for another two decades but it was a big step: animating actual gigantic physical dinosaurs. While World’s Fairs had had full-sized representations of dinosaurs before, nobody could do it like Walt.
For the Ford Motor Company’s 1964 World’s Fair Pavilion Walt thought bigger than anyone. He had Imagineers Claude Coats, Marc Davis, and Blaine Gibson devise a prehistoric world with dinosaurs and cavemen.
These full-sized dinosaurs were sculpted backstage at Disneyland in a pre-fab building with an 18-foot doorway to get the figures in and out.
Gibson, who would later sculpt pirates and presidents, supervised sculptors like Howard Ball, who had sculpted dinosaurs for the La Brea Tar Pits, and former Yale art professor George Snowden. Gibson concentrated on the facial areas: “We are drawn to the head. When we look at a wild animal we are drawn to the eyes.”
Walt always dropped down to the building to look at the progress on the dinosaurs. Marc Davis came up with the idea of the Triceratops babies coming out of their shells. Jimmy MacDonald provided some of the savage howls and roars and was unable to speak for Mickey Mouse for quite awhile afterward.
These Disney dinosaurs premiered at the World’s Fair on April 22, 1964 – in Walt Disney’s Magic Skyway. When the fair closed in 1965, the dinosaurs, after failed attempts to get Ford to sponsor a pavilion at Disneyland, were relocated to the only area that could hold them, the grand finale of the Grand Canyon Diorama on the Santa Fe & Disneyland railroad.
Forty-six audio-animatronics dinosaurs were relocated to the west coast and installed as a glimpse into what the Grand Canyon may have looked like millions of years ago. The new addition debuted in July 1966. Once again, the climax was the battle between the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Stegosaurus in a bubbling lava-filled environment.
Over the decades other audio-animatronics dinosaurs popped up at the Disney theme parks from the Universe of Energy at Epcot to the Dinosaur attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom but it all began with the Fantasia dinosaurs.