When I was a boy we had a VHS tape full of wonders, a video that took me back to the humid swamps and icy tundras of the ancient world. I can’t remember where or when my parents got it for me, and I know it was lost long before our last VCR ever broke in the early 2000s. But that tape fired up my imagination and fossilized (heheh) my lifelong love of dinosaurs and other vanished creatures, along with books that I checked out of the library over and over again.
The stop-motion animated short film had two segments. The first focused on dinosaurs, the second gave an account of the mammals of the Cenozoic era (leading up to the dawn of man). We may have taped these off a PBS broadcast, now that I think about it.
The recent discovery of a feathered dinosaur tail preserved in amber piqued my interest in the terrible lizards again, and spurred a search for this video online. Surely others must fondly remember this film, and someone must have uploaded a copy? A search for “claymation dinosaur documentary” on Youtube produced what I was looking for. I was pleasantly surprised to learn the dinos and stop-motion animation in Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards were done by the amazing Wah Chang!
Mr. Chang’s work can be found all over the science fiction/fantasy productions of the 50s-60s-70s, but he is best known for establishing the look of Star Trek in its earliest days (he is also the inventor of the flip phone, indirectly). He brought his experience in crafting aliens for The Outer Limits to Trek, creating the Talosians and their alien menagerie for the first pilot episode “The Cage.” The ape was actually a straight up re-use of an Outer Limits creature, and the humanoid bird was later re-used in that show.
When the series was approved for full production, Chang also designed the final versions of the phaser pistol, tricorder, and the communicator. He continued to work on the show, creating iconic aliens like the Balok puppet, the Salt Vampire, the Gorn, and tribbles.
Following his work on Star Trek, Mr. Chang moved on to creating props/costumes for other films and continued his work in animation (he apparently sculpted the Pillsbury Doughboy and animated its first appearance). There’s not a lot of details available on the production of Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards, but it was released in 1970. A few years later Wah Chang would create and animate the dinosaurs on Sid and Marty Krofft’s The Land of the Lost (1974).
As I began watching the video I recognized the visuals, but I knew something was off. The narrator sounded different, the 80s synth score was missing, and the segment on prehistoric mammals was absent. But it had the same shots of mostly solitary dinosaurs in lonely, prehistoric vistas:
A little more searching turned up the exact footage I watched countless times as a young’un; apparently in the early 80s they decided to go back and gussy up the short with a new score and narration. The production logo at the beginning (stored away in my subconscious from repeated viewings) let me know that this, this was that short video of claymation dinosaurs I had watched again and again in my youth. I can’t describe the weird feel of time travel, of something barely remembered becoming as clear as day. Behold! Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards (Revised Edition):
When they re-cut and re-released the film, they also added a follow up segment called The Age of Mammals. Wah Chang had no involvement in this sequence; it was animated by a man named Mark D. Wolf. The more fluid, dynamic theropod dinosaur (an Allosaurus) from the beginning of this short was inserted into the beginning of the revised Dinosaurs segment as well:
That sabertooth’s cold, dead eyes terrified me when I was younger. Poor Megatherium!
What I remembered most about The Age of Mammals was the bit at the end featuring primitive man. Though the models don’t look great, I always found the sequence quite haunting. The very last line – “With his superior intelligence, man is the first and only mammal with the ability to change the world around him. Will man survive? The choice is ours.” – has stuck with me with ever since. I feel it contributed in part to the depressive feelings and lack of hope I have at times about the fate of our kind (the series finale of Disney’s Dinosaurs also helped; the Dinosaurs go extinct due to the greedy business practices of Earl’s employers).
Human beings proudly plod ahead; believing that we are the pinnacle, the final product of evolution. Meanwhile, we have altered the composition of Earth’s atmosphere in very recent history with our industrial activities and have severely threatened our food supply (notably the ocean, bees, etc). I mean…what other animal shits where it eats like we do? And this is just through carelessness, not even considering nuclear weapons. We are ruining the air we breathe by burning the remains of dinosaurs and other aeons-dead life for energy.
It’s like no one remembers the lesson of the dinosaurs – that a type of creature can be so successful and run rampant over the face of the Earth for millions of years, then be gone in a comparatively short period. In fact, I recently met someone who was not even sure dinosaurs actually existed! They were a “the Earth is 6000 years old, dinosaur bones were put there by Jesus to trick you” type Cuckoo Christian.
But I depressingly digress. These videos (and other videos, and books too!) opened up my imagination to lost worlds, vanished monsters, endless vistas and infinite geologic time. They were video evidence that life is infinitely variable and ever-changing, depicted with sculpted hides draped over metal armatures. Discovering that Wah Chang was the man behind the monsters was an awesome surprise; he was an amazing force in crafting incredible worlds.
SPACE STATION WAGON BONUS – The Way of Peace; a much earlier stop-motion animated short film by Mr. Chang. Be forewarned, it’s kind of a downer (much like myself):