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Associate professor discusses work on Disney’s Dinosaur

Taylor Sexton
Arts & Features Editor
[email protected]
Highsmith’s Grotto echos with the prehistoric roar of dinosaurs as students file in, filling nearly every seat, packing the house. Standing in front of the screen showing the battling creatures is a lone man wearing a Dinosaur jacket, his name inscribed on the top right corner: Oakley.
Director and associate professor at UNC Asheville, Christopher Oakley has more than 25 years of film, animation and television experience, including spending four years working on Disney’s animated film Dinosaur released in 2000, which he said helped pave the way for Disney’s

Josh McCormack checking out the figures that Christopher Oakley brought out.

future animation projects.
The event, put on by Asheville Campus Entertainment, featured a showing of Dinosaur as well as an introduction and Q&A by Oakley.
“Disney was by far, the most amazing place to work. It never, ever, felt like a job,” Oakley said.
Oakley’s journey with Disney began with a simple phone call from director Eric Leighton, who was previously the animation supervisor for The Nightmare Before Christmas.
“Most of the crew from this came from The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Oakley said, causing the crowd to rile up in an excited response. “I was trying to get onto that show and then he called me to say ‘you missed it by one week,’ but he remembered me.”
According to Oakley, Disney was recruiting stop motion animators because they were easier to train and Oakley just happened to be one of those recruited. Next thing he knew, he was being flown out to Los Angeles, California, where he would spend the next four years working for Dinosaur.
When Oakley joined the team, the overall story was still a work in progress, the title Dinosaur wasn’t even finalized until the last year, before then, it had just been called “The Dinosaur.”
“They made the mistake of putting a board up for us to write in our suggested titles. The one I put up was ‘The Land Before Time 3D,’” Oakley laughed, going on later to explain this was due to the fact one of the directors of The Land Before Time was also a director for Dinosaur.
In the original story, the main character Aladar was originally named Noah with just one lemur who became friends and tried to find their way through this catastrophe. Then it evolved into two brothers, in which the older one became the leader, but in truth the younger one was the better leader but could not prevail because of his older brother’s status.
At a time when dinosaur movies were becoming popularized due to movies such as Jurassic Park, the team had to come up with a way to make Dinosaur stand out with not only animation style, but also with the types of dinosaurs they chose to use as characters.
“As I recall, they chose an iguanodon to play Aladar because they hadn’t been done to death at that point. In dinosaur movies, it’s always the t-rex, it’s always the velociraptors, so they decided that it was probably better to go with something that wasn’t expected,” Oakley said.
Oakley’s job was animating the older lemur, Yar, voiced by Ossie Davis. In order to accurately animate the animals, Disney would send their animation crew to the Los Angeles Zoo so they could study their movements. This research process also happened to be Oakley’s favorite and what he said was the most important part of the experience.
“We’d just say ‘Hey, we’re going to go over to the zoo,’ ‘OK’ and the zoo would let us in for free. And we went to an ostrich farm, because they believe that ostriches are the closest things we have to a dinosaur,” Oakley said.
The animation style of Dinosaur was a first for Disney, Oakley said. They would shoot landscapes and scenes at real places, using a device they invented called the ‘dino-cam,’ which is now a camera used to sweep across the field at football games, and the animators would go in to add the CGI characters.
“I think they chose to go that way was because it was ultimately cheaper to make, but also because I’m not sure they were sure they could make a convincing CG world,” Oakley said. “Ultimately the decision was to concentrate on making the dinosaurs and the lemurs and leave the rest to the real world.”
Oakley described the scene where the meteor hits the ocean and proceeds to cause chaos as well as how they made the scene possible.
“That was all live effects, very little of that was computer. The smoke, the flames, the thing coming across the water, we called it the ‘monster cloud’ coming across the water, that was all actual effects that we did in the park lot,” Oakley said, causing the audience to laugh in response.
Dinosaur had a huge influence and paved the way for Disney’s future animated films, Oakley said.
“This film set up the digital production and they spent about $350 million to set this thing up. And the actual budget of the film, they say it was $175 million, but I think it was $300 something million because they were building in the infrastructure at the same time,” Oakley said.
The showing of Dinosaur drew in a large number of students who had been interested in the event for nostalgia’s sake.
Junior Diana Casillas was one of these students. She came to the event because she had not seen the movie in a long time.
“It made me remember a lot of the things that I hadn’t noticed before. I didn’t notice it was so sad, I just remember the lemurs,” Casillas said.
New media student Crissa Berger said she chose to come to the event because she’s had Oakley as a professor for three years and has always been fascinated by his films.
Berger had also not seen the movie in years and said she noticed much more in the film this time around, especially thanks to Oakley’s introduction and Q&A.
“What really stuck out to me this time was just all the live action effects and not just all digital because I thought it was all digital before. I mean, looking at it now, you can tell it was all live action,” Berger said.
Oakley also admitted this showing was the first time he’d actually seen the movie in a while. Even though he said he cringed at much of the dialogue, it was nice to look back on the film and see just how much work he put into it.
“I kinda felt like I was seeing a friend that I haven’t seen in a long time,” Oakley said.

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