February 2nd

1925 – The Lost World Premieres

On this date in 1925, a landmark film opened across the United States. The first feature-length dinosaur blockbuster was based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s bestselling novel, “The Lost World” which itself was released in 1912. The cinematic retelling of the story is significant for many reasons and its influence on the motion picture industry is still felt today.

The Lost World Movie Poster
A promotional poster for The Lost World. / The Dinosaur Museum

Today, our image of dinosaurs is a loud one–roaring, bellowing, calling, and stampeding through our movies. But in 1925, the dinosaurs screamed in silence.

Visually, the dinosaurs were so convincing that some people thought the film was comprised of documentary footage. This was in no small part due to the fact that Conan Doyle held a screening of the film’s dinosaur sequences to the Society of American Magicians (including Harry Houdini). Even the illusionists were mystified.

The man behind the realistic dinosaurs was special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien. O’Brien had been making Flintstones-like shorts with slapstick comedy between cave people and prehistoric animals for the Edison company. He worked on the influential short,  “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain,” which also featured dinosaurs,  but his work on The Lost World elevated the art of stop motion animation.

The Lost World Dinosaurs
O’Brien’s dinosaurs battle for supremacy in a famous scene from The Lost World, 1925. / The Public Domain Review

Using dinosaur models supported from within by metal armatures, Willis O’Brien was able to animate the dinosaurs by moving them slightly and exposing one frame of film. Then the model was moved slightly again, and another frame of film was exposed. At 24 frames per second, animating the sequences was time consuming, tedious, and expensive. But the results were incredible realism (at least, for its day), and “O.B.” as he is affectionally known, did not stop there.

O’Brien put football bladders in the bellies of the dinosaurs so that they appeared to breathe. He animated dinosaurs jumping, battling, and even moving in herds. His dinosaurs were scientifically accurate based on what was known in the 1920s, and by the process of optical compositing, he was able to put actors in the same shot as his dinosaurs.

The Lost World was the first movie to ever use stop motion animation as a principal photography technique in so significant a fashion. These effects techniques were astounding for both motion picture professionals (who would use these same ideas until the advent of convincing computer graphics) and the public.

An adventure story that took place in a prehistoric setting with dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals became a fixture of popular film culture. Remakes of the original version of The Lost World have been produced continually since the film first appeared in 1925. Although the film is very dated today, it’s still entertaining, and its place as a forerunner of dinosaur and monster movies makes it one of the most influential motion pictures of the 20’s.

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