Make a Scary Dinosaur

This is a project about making pictures and sounds into short movies. Points for class discussion are in parentheses [discuss:____].
Making a scary dinosaur is a good test of your movie-making abilities. The main goal is to bring a dinosaur to life. Whether it then succeeds in scaring anyone is a different issue. Being scared is an audience reaction. You can never guarantee what your audience will do.
Dinosaurs have had a lead role in the history of motion pictures. The first dinosaur movies were made around 100 years ago. The first popular character in cartoon history was a tame dinosaur named Gertie. So, dinosaurs have not always been portrayed as scary monsters.
Gertie the Dinosaur poster

Gertie the Dinosaur poster

Gertie in 1910 was the first popular cartoon character. What distinguished her was her lifelikeness. She’s no mindless monster.  She reacts with caution like a modern animal.  Because we identify with these emotions we care about this character. She’s like us. When we see a tiger yawn in the zoo we get that same identification – like us, yes, but a whole lot stronger so we still know to keep bars between us.

So the first step in making it scary might well be making it real doing something less scary like even itself being afraid. All this makes your character seem like a living thing.

[discuss: Can you guess what sort of dinosaur Gertie is supposed to be? If humans had existed then, would such an animal have tried to eat them? Would she have attacked them? Would she have feared humans? What evidence do we have about humans and huge animals?]

Indeed, it is hard to make a dinosaur scary!

The audience might see your dinosaur as cuddly or silly. Actors dressed in rubber dinosaur suits are only scary if the movie has a good script and uses special effects to make them seem bigger. Why have dinosaurs been such popular movie stars?

  • No one has ever seen one, except their fossils, so pictures are our only chance to see them
  • They were different from most animals today
  • They are literally ‘larger than life’
  • There were many types of hero and villain dinosaurs to choose from

What makes a movie scary?

Is this a scary monster?

Skull in museum

Skull in museum

The animal above weighed a bit more than the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex – about 10 tons. What if these creatures were alive today?
Well – they are!
[discuss: See if you can work out what they are and whether they should be considered ‘scary’.]
Does ‘big’or ‘dangerous’ =‘scary’?
People have lived near killer whales and sperm whales for thousands of years. They are larger than a T-Rex. But whales have never shown much interest in attacking humans. Orcas have even bumped into swimmers by  accident. So they’re not really dangerous to us. But they might scare us.

[discuss: The animals below are all related to dinosaurs. How is each one like a dinosaur? Which of them are dangerous?]

Animals of today

Living relatives of dinosaurs

Being scary isn’t just about being large or having big teeth.
What scares us may be the element of surprise. For example, we can see a lion in a zoo without being scared. If it suddenly stares at us and then jumps at the bars of the cage it becomes very scary.  Even a small tame cat can scare us if it suddenly gets angry.

In other words, animals are just like any other actors. They are only scary if they do something that makes us respond.

Dinosaurs as Actors

How would a Dinosaur react to you?
Most animals today want to check you out before they run at you or away from you. They smell the air. They look from different angles. They listen.

Gertie the Dinosaur confronts a frog

Gertie the Dinosaur confronts a frog

In the clip above, Gertie appears to be hesitant about touching a small frog.

[discuss: Can you think of any reasons why a large animal might be afraid of you? Plenty of small animals are very dangerous, for example a spider, jellyfish, or octopus. Search the Web and find out which are the world’s most dangerous animals. ]

 Winsor McCay, the artist who created Gertie in 1910, made her realistic by making her react the same way as animals do today. Animals are not reckless and foolhardy. The largest land predator, the polar bear, will stalk before charging. Even a great white shark, nearly as big as a T-Rex, might circle and take a small test bite before charging.  If you think of your dinosaur as a giant version of a bird like a crow or raven you can get an idea of how a dinosaur might act.

[discuss: Imagine the bird confronting a small but dangerous animal like a scorpion.   How would it use its five senses? It would look, listen, sniff, touch, and, finally, taste.  Practise acting out a scene of an animal confronting an unusual prey. This will help you make your dinosaur more realistic.]   
Can a picture be scary?

The short answer is – no.
A still picture shows us something about the actor and the scene.  Our brain does all the work. The picture does not change over time.  Even a picture of a living dinosaur would not be scary unless it contained something that linked it to us in real-time – for example, if a photo taken a minute ago showed that the animal was sneaking up on us.

Movies and sounds are quite different to still pictures because they portray change. A sound track can start quiet, build suspense with music, and then suddenly surprise us with a loud sound.  A silent movie would do much the same. It could build suspense with shadows and movement in the scenery then suddenly surprise us with a dinosaur springing from somewhere unexpectedly.

A scary movie uses both its sounds and images to create the effects. It forces our brains to work, taking in clues and wondering ‘what will happen next?’. Having aroused our attention it then overloads us with the surprise element.

[discuss: What is the difference between ‘horror’, ‘creepy’ and ‘scary’ in movies?]

Horror is a combination of shock, disgust and fear.   Creepy refers to things that make your skin crawl and things that sneak up on you.

Picture of boy. What are his reactions?

What are his reactions?

A horror film therefore is usually scary but the fear is only one of the components. If we saw a picture of something being eaten, it might shock or disgust us. It would only frighten us if it made us worry about who might be next on the menu! The entertainment in a horror film comes from the emotions leading up to the scary event.  Sometimes the scary event is not even shown or heard directly in the movie. Thousands of years ago ancient Greek plays used a special cart. It was wheeled onstage with the bloody evidence that a violent event had taken place. The audience never saw the battle. They had to imagine it.  Stephen King, a famous author of horror stories and movies, once said:
“What’s behind the door or lurking at the top of the stairs is never as frightening as the door or the staircase itself”.
[discuss:What did he mean by this?]
That this also applies to dinosaur movies was shown in the film Jurassic Park. The T-Rex was not shown directly until the audience had first heard its growl off-camera, then witnessed the evidence of its power from ripped chains, meat and blood spatter, and the impact of its heavy footsteps. This dinosaur was scary before we ever saw it on the screen. Even huge things can be creepy!

Where do we start?

 1. Collect sounds and still pictures
Collect some pictures and sounds of dinosaurs from the Web. There are no actual dinosaur recordings so most of these have been created from other sounds such as a modern-day crocodile or elephant. Pictures are also merely artists’ ideas about what dinosaurs might have looked like. The fossils have only traces of skin that tell us little about their colours or stripes. Most of our pictures are based on modern animals like lizards. Plastic toy dinosaurs can be photographed and look quite real because the artist who created them put some effort into getting a genuine skin texture.

2. Swap and experiment with your picture collections
See if you can change the pictures by putting in different scenery. To do this you need to use photo-editing software to cut the dinosaur away from the background. There are several ways to do this:

  • Use a ‘lasso’ tool to cut around the dinosaur
  • Use an ‘eraser’ or ‘wand’ tool to remove the background from the dinosaur
  • Use ‘.gif animation’ or ‘blue screen’ software to remove the background
Image of Gertie extracted and pasted to blue screen

Image of Gertie extracted and pasted to blue screen

3. Swap and experiment with your sound collections
Do the same sort of experiments with your sound files:

  • Use audio software to lower the pitch or lengthen the sound
  • Add a ‘multi-track’ background sound such as a jungle
  • Add a music track that builds suspense
  • Add special effects sounds such as heavy footprints

Lights, camera, action!

Live Footage

Now that we’ve practised with other people’s photos, let’s try our own camera. Where do we find the dinosaur?  Toy shops have dinosaurs but they are copyright. So toy dinosaurs are fine for the classroom but might be illegal for publication to the web. If in doubt, create a dinosaur out of clay. You can use a toy dinosaur as the base.

The main problem with miniature dinosaurs is – How do we make little things scary? First we go back to our question ‘What makes an animal scary?’. We know that small lizards can be scary because they can bite and poison or infect. But we want a dinosaur to seem huge.  Do we just buy a bigger plastic model? – No!  There are techniques to making things look bigger:

  • Background – paste the dinosaur into the picture next to something we know to be big, for instance a tree
  • Foreground – put some foliage or bush in front of the dinosaur
  • Lighting – use live footage or software to get a shadow; film outdoors to get real sunlight on the model
  • Texture – plastic is shiny, so to ‘dull’ it we can sprinkle some finely-ground chalk on the plastic toy
  • Slower motion – a tiny lizard moves around more quickly than a giant elephant; make your dinosaur movement more like the elephant
  • Focus – have objects in the foreground in different focus so the background seems further away
  • Colour – objects in the background look slightly blue and foggy compared to those in the foreground, so de-saturate colours
  • Sound – lower the pitch and stretch the length of the wave file so that the animal sounds bigger


The Dinosaur as Actor

The Dinosaur as Actor

Dangerous animals in the movies are specially trained to show aggression, snarl and roar. In reality, some of these animals are big, friendly softies. Their trainers are nearby ready to give them food and a hug for their performance. It can take weeks to film a fight scene with an animal.


Live filming a puppet dinosaur needs some effort as well. We need to rehearse the movements to make them realistically slow like a huge animal. If we are using blue screen or .gif techniques, we need to rehearse our movements so we don’t put our hands in front of the dinosaur.

Animation from still shots also takes some thought. If we are using morph or avatar software we need to carefully lay out the points on the dinosaur photo that we want to move.

Sound synchronisation needs some preparation. A microphone needs to be close enough to the action to pick up the tiny sounds, but not so close as to be seen on camera.

The importance of a script dinosaurs as actors

The importance of a script

Why do we need a script if we’re only doing an action movie with plastic dinosaurs?
Answer – an action movie is not always a scary movie.

To make our dinosaur scary we need to do the following:

  • Make us ‘care about’ the characters: hero, victim and villain
  • This means making them seem alive and believable
  • The scary dinosaur villain must seem nasty, powerful and menacing
  • The victim dinosaur must be appealing. We must fear for them.
  • Build suspense through revealing bits at a time
  • Make a ‘scary event’ that surprises the audience

A storyboard is needed to work this out. This usually consists of the photos to be used, together with captions describing the action at different points of the movie. This can be done with paper & pencil or computer software.

Our Studio
Our studio to do this movie need be nothing more than a computer. It is possible to create the entire movie using clip art and sounds in presentation software such as PowerPoint. Rather than using special animation software this method combines animated .gifs with the built-in animation features in the presentation software.

Animal sounds can be found in our Interactive Whiteboard sound files and from the Web. It is easy enough to record our own growling and foot-crunching sounds into the computer with a microphone.  This can then be pitch-shifted lower (with Audacity software) to make it sound more like a large animal.

For live footage, we only need a video camera and plastic models. We can use blue sheets, tarp’s, blue gloves and blue-painted strings & sticks if we know how to do blue screen or animated .gif shots. We may want pictures of rocks, plants, and trees to use as props and backgrounds to make the dinosaur look larger.

A Demonstration


Make a simple dinosaur movie using Clip Art

Presentation software such as Windows PowerPoint or Mac Keynote has built-in animation. To create an animated dinosaur with sound you will need the following software:

  • Ms PowerPoint or Mac Keynote – for clip art, vector editing, final animation
  • Ms Paint – to convert vectors to gifs
  • Sound Recorder or Audacity – for recording of vocal and footsteps, pitch-shift + echo; other freeware audio mixer like Kristal

You will need to download and install
Ms or Coffee Cup Gif Animator – for animation and chroma key (blue-screen)
Step by Step
1.  Find a good dinosaur picture
Try several methods:
Picture from the Web
Picture from Clip Art
Photograph a toy dinosaur or one you make from clay
Photograph a live lizard, if possible
Paint your own dinosaur

2. Find or make dinosaur sounds
Try several methods:
Sounds from the Web
Sounds from Clip Art collections
Record your own voice and footsteps
Pitch-shift or slow the sound with Ms Sound Record or Audacity

3. Create movie frames from the dinosaur picture

We will start by examining an animated .gif.  Search the Web and find some examples of animated gif’s. There are thousands of dinosaur animations. Just search ‘dinosaur animated gif free’.  Save a few on your computer.  If you have special Gif Animation software you can open the file and look at the frames. Just by watching the animation you should be able to see that each frame is set to less than a second of time and may have a colour for transparency (usually this is white). You can experiment with these to learn how to use the software. Try changing the speed or the order of the frames.

Make your own original dinosaur

A single picture of a dinosaur can be made into an animation – whether it’s a photo of a plastic toy or lizard or an original art work like one of your own drawings.  The easiest place to start is with clip art pictures on PowerPoint slides. Most PowerPoint clip art will be vector images. That means we have to deconstruct them to edit them. Do the following:

Within PowerPoint “Insert > Picture > Clip Art > Selected Media File Types > Clip Art”
Double click an image to insert it on the page
At lower left select ‘draw > ungroup”. The response will usually be “This is an imported picture … Do you want to convert it to a Microsoft Office Drawing Object?” Hit ‘Yes’ then repeat the procedure until the elements of the vector image are highlighted.
Go to the ‘Slide Sorter View’ and make as many copies of the slide as you want to become animation frames – for example, 10 copies.
Within each slide, move pieces of your dinosaur to a new position – for example, the head nodding slightly (with the tail moving to balance it).
Do this with each slide. Make the movement peak in the middle slide #5 (the head as high as it need go) then with each slide #6, #7, #8, #9, go back to the starting position at slide #10. (see below)

Animation frames

Animation frames

To view the animation simply toggle the PageDown andPageDown keys and observe the movement.

Draw and edit your own dinosaur

Even if you are not a very good artist, you should draw your own dinosaur to learn about animation. You can use PowerPoint or Paint. If you use pencil and paper you can photograph or scan the picture into your computer.

  • Make a side-on (profile) picture.
  • Save your picture as ‘frame1.gif’
  • Now make some changes to it – for example, cut & move the mouth and eyes a little bit; move the arms and legs
  • Save your changed picture as ‘frame2.gif’
  • Do this a few times to make at least five different frames.
  • Import these into the Gif Animation software in an order such as ‘frame1, frame2, frame3, frame4, frame5, frame4, frame3, frame2, frame1’
  • Set the white background to be the transparent colour; set the time per frame
  • This should give you a movie sequence you can then save as a single animated gif file.
  • Import this file into PowerPoint and try different backgrounds;
  • use the PowerPoint animation tool to make it move around the screen
  • Add a sound file.

There you have a dinosaur movie without leaving your desk.


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