Dinosaurs have been stomping and roaring across the screen for as long as there have been movies. Stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien made a career out of bringing dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures to life. Most of O’Brien’s early efforts were short films, but he was also behind the first major paleo-film, 1925′s The Lost World, based on a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. Taking cues from the work of artists like Charles R. Knight, O’Brien made Allosaurus, “Trachodon,” Triceratops, “Agathaumas” and other dinosaurs dance for the camera.
I have often heard that audiences were so blown away by the special effects of The Lost World that they thought real dinosaurs had been captured on film. An oft-cited 1922 article in the New York Times about a screening of a test reel for the movie gushed that Doyle’s “monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike. If fakes, they were masterpieces.” But this wasn’t a review of the film itself. The reference to “the ether” is a clue.
The hyperbolic New York Times article was an account of Doyle’s stop at a meeting of the Society of American Magicians in Manhattan. His interest in supposedly supernatural phenomena created a synergy with the magic of cinema. After losing many close family members, including his wife, Louisa, and his son Kingsley, Doyle sought out comfort in the popular spiritualist movement of the early 20th century. He often pondered the prospect of life after death, the existence of fairies and other paranormal gobbledegook, although Doyle did make some discernment about what he believed. At the meeting where he showed off the animated dinosaurs, he expressed his gratitude to magicians such as Harry Houdini who debunked the claims of “false mediums” and other frauds, even though Doyle felt that skeptics who tried to debunk the spiritualist movement as a whole were dealing with a subject they did not understand.
Doyle knew that the footage he previewed had been created for the upcoming movie, but he refused to answer any detailed questions about what he showed. Were the dinosaurs just special effects? Or did Doyle truly have some way to project images from a prehistoric past? He wanted to keep his sympathetic audience guessing. Doyle said the clips were “psychic” and “imaginative,” the breathless reporter wrote, but that’s all the author had to say about them.
When the finished film premiered in 1925, New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall submitted a mixed review. The Lost World suffered from “the unnecessary inclusion of countless protestations of affection by both hero and the heroine at inopportune moments,” Hall lamented. “o hear a young man mattering about his infatuation for a girl in the midst of is grotesque,” he wrote, though he noted that the problem “can be remedied by generous cutting of such scenes.” This is a lesson for those who feel modern movies are only a pale shadow of the great films of the past—what is true of Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean series and Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise today was also true of The Lost World.
Hall had kinder words for O’Brien’s dinosaurs. “ome of the scenes are as awesome as anything that has ever been shown in shadow form,” Hall wrote. But he didn’t think he was seeing images captured in a real lost world or transmitted to the screen from another time. After all, dinosaurs had already made several appearances in short films, courtesy of O’Brien, and Hall recognized them as the special effects they were. He even mentioned how certain techniques helped to create the illusion that the dinosaurs were actually huge. “In the initial scenes these monsters were shown without any double exposure effects, and therefore their supposed huge dimensions could not be contrasted with human beings,” Hall wrote, “But later, in the double exposures, the effect is remarkable.” (Furthermore, after the 1922 article about Doyle’s stunt, the Times issued another article in which it mentioned that Willis O’Brien was creating the dinosaurs for the film. By the time the film was out, people already knew the dinosaurs were fabrications.)
The Lost World was remarkable for the detail of its dinosaur stars, as well as the diversity of the prehistoric cast. But, even though cinema dinosaurs were relatively new, they were not unprecedented creatures—no more magical than cinema itself. The trick, which remains a challenge to this day, is getting viewers to forget they are looking at special effects wizardry and wonder, just for a moment, if those movie monsters are still roaming around somewhere.