Vintage Dinosaur VHS: Eyewitness Dinosaur

Film review

Back in the 1990s, any trip to the library had to involve raiding the shelves for Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness books. Packed with lavish photography printed on the glossiest of high-quality paper, they were a real visual feast when compared with contemporary kids’ non-fiction. The then-unusual approach of isolating objects (be they model dinosaurs, fossils, living animals, cars, archaeological artifacts or whatever else) on a stark white background made them instantly striking. Of course, there was an Eyewitness Dinosaur book, and it’s one I really ought to track down – unfortunately I never owned it.

What I did (indeed, still do) own was the spin-off VHS tape. Oh yes. Knowing they were on to a good thing, DK expanded the Eyewitness brand in various multimedia directions. Happily, Eyewitness Dinosaur, the video, is now readily available on YouTube*. Let’s take a trip into the abstract white-walled museum of memories…

The Eyewitness videos were apparently broadcast on TV, but I never saw any of them other than this one, and then only on VHS. Watching it again today, I can’t help but be impressed. It’s a very zippy, fun little film, well edited and full of entertaining visuals, making the best use of what was presumably a fairly limited effects budget. As it was made in 1994, it would have been all too easy for the film makers to cash in on Jurassic Park, but thankfully there’s only one really egregious ‘borrowing’ from that film, namely this thing:

Which, amusingly, is quickly revealed to be a 3D model with hovering teeth, missing skull holes and all. It’s like someone tried to create a CG Tyrannosaurus skeleton with only the stylised Jurassic Park logo as reference. Still, that aside, the CG introduction was pretty jaw-dropping back in the day, and emphasised DK’s desire to make the Eyewitness brand seem ‘cutting edge’. And what better way to keep the audience’s attention than to open the main presentation with the two magic words: “Tyrannosaurus rex“. Of course, T. rex pops up a number of times during the show, almost serving as a narrative thread – we move from its discovery to reconstruction to controversies over its palaeobiology. Some slip-ups are made – that three fingered hand on the first T. rex mount wasn’t found nearby, it was just based on Allosaurus – but it’s mostly sound. The awe-inspiring, toothily fearsome look of the Tyrant King also makes for some great visuals, be they none-more-’90s swoopy shots of skeletons in the dark, or a stop-motion T. rex standing in a pair of scales opposite a pile of cattle.

Those of you familiar with DK books from the ’90s will probably recognise that T. rex model as one that appeared in print quite regularly. Indeed, a few such models appear in the film, including a Triceratops, Baryonyx and Brachiosaurus, which is said to weigh “77 tonnes…heavier than two Boeing 737s”. Well…dependent on fuel and payload, as far as I can tell. But who wants to quibble when that classic green-and-tan model is striding across the screen? The same model appears in the background later on, too, when invisible palaeontologists are ‘arguing into the night’ over dinosaur metabolism – except it’s been turned around to expose its ‘cutaway’ side. For its time, this model is top-notch. Look, they got the hands right and everything.

Improbable aerobatics team, go!

Apart from the DK models, we’re also treated to plenty of clips from old movies (like One Million Years BC and The Lost World), along with snippets from Phil Tippett’s Prehistoric Beast (Tippett snippets?). For some reason, the soundtrack on the latter’s been replaced, so it includes the same slightly rubbish roars and screams heard elsewhere in the show – even when they don’t match what’s happening on screen. Oh well. (Incidentally, Prehistoric Beast is also on YouTube. Hooray!) Additionally, there are a few shots of museum robots, most notably during a sequence in which they are superimposed over footage of diggers operating in a foggy quarry, in the dark. The link’s a bit tenuous – see, dinosaurs were a bit like the ‘ancestors’ of our heavy machines, because they were big and tore into things and could reach really high, and stuff. I think someone working on this just had a bit of a thing for heavy plant. It ends with stegosaur spikes ramming through a corrugated metal fence, a nice physical effect that was probably inserted to wake everyone up.

Watching dinosaurs parade around the screen is all good fun, but the show is keen to remind us of “the global and serious game of palaeontology” – represented visually by a literal board game (above). Although some key points of the history of the science are covered – Richard Owen and Gideon Mantell duly appear – surprisingly few scientists are actually named. Jack Horner gets a name-drop, because of course he does, but I can’t help feel that a few more scientists should have been given their due. The running time was very limited, I suppose, and it’s impressive just how much is crammed in. As I’ve already mentioned, the controversy over dinosaur metabolisms is covered, as is the dinosaurian origin of birds. Bizarrely, though, we are told that while birds descended from a group of small theropods, larger theropods are more closely related to crocodiles. Baryonyx is wheeled out, presumably because its head looks a bit crocodilian. Even for the time, that’s plain muddled.

Seemingly just as muddled is a look at extinction theories, in which the importance of an asteroid impact is apparently dismissed out of hand. However, this is rather more a case of ‘Science Marches On‘ – there were still plenty of experts around at the time who supported the idea that the dinosaurs went extinct far more gradually than an apocalyptic impact event would suggest. Of course, I mostly wanted to mention this because the show covers a few sillier ideas, including the hypothesis that all the dinosaurs went blind and, I guess, all walked off cliffs or into ravines. It’s illustrated with very amusing footage of wind-up dinosaur toys, equipped with wee pairs of sunglasses, plummeting off a tabletop. I love it.

The show closes by noting that while the dinosaurs may be extinct, their legacy continues today in our imaginations, in artwork and in, well, merchandise. As the narrator notes, “some would say, all over the world, dinosaurs have made quite a comeback – there are more today than ever before”. This leads us to the above shot of a table groaning with early ’90s dinosaur toys, the mere sight of which is almost enough to drive me to tears. (Stiff upper lip, Marc, stiff upper lip.) JUST LOOK AT IT. There are countless Invicta toys here from the Natural History Museum series, along with boxed Jurassic Park toys, Aurora model kits, assorted cheaposaurs and much, much more besides. It’s…it’s beautiful.

That’s probably enough for now, although I couldn’t write about this video without properly crediting the aforementioned narrator, who does an absolutely sterling job of sounding serious and authoritative where required, but also maintaining hints of a wry sense of humour. He’s none other than the late actor Andrew Sachs, most famous for playing bumbling Spanish waiter Manuel in the British sitcom Fawlty Towers. I had absolutely no idea it was him until recently, although, ahem, it does say so on the back of the box, albeit in very tiny print. Superb work, and it’s a shame that he’s no longer with us.

*For some reason, the YouTube video ends with some stuff about fish. We don’t care about fish here, we’re not Darren Naish. The VHS has a making-of documentary, instead.

6 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur VHS: Eyewitness Dinosaur

  1. As a member of a slightly younger generation, I didn’t grow up with this VHS, although Dorling Kindersley was as omnipresent in my life as in any young British dinosaur fan, especially the classic models which cavorted the pages of many non-fiction books, activity packs and playing cards. My most treasured eyewitness memory has to be the edutainment video game “Dinosaur Hunter”, which fused the classic 2d images of Natural History Museum models with low-poly CGI dinosaurs, which would swarm the virtual museum on the completion of a fossil hunting mini-game. I spent more hours in that game than almost any “proper” video game, and the classic theme music still gives me chills.

    1. I actually got that with my first PC in 1997. Unfortunately it crashed a lot, to the point of being unplayable. I was able to see it for a short while on a friend’s PC.

  2. Oh my dear gosh, the Nostalgia. My local library, over here in the U.S., had a number of the DK Eyewitness VHS tapes, including the Dinosaurs one, I believe, and I put them all through their paces. The local library also had PBS’s “The Dinosaurs” hailing from 1992 which was available as a 4-part miniseries on 4 VHS tapes. 1992 was a little early for me (born in 1991) but even if they were a few years out of date by the time I got my hands on them, I ate them up. Thankfully, “The Dinosaurs” is also on Youtube (the first of the 4 episodes can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5cXQj80PxM) and I still watch them every now and then just to stoke my inner nostalgia flame and because I think, outdated science aside, they are much better than the newer made-for-TV Paleontology documentaries. If you ever make a Vintage Dinosaur VHS post about PBS’s “The Dinosaur” I would be beside myself with joy.

  3. If you ever branch out into movies, one you can take a look at is Sea Rex: Journey to a Prehistoric World – a 2010 IMAX documentary on marine life of the Mesozoic era I used to be obsessed with (which I just found out starred Chloe Hollings, aka Widowmaker)

  4. I had a ton of those DK Eyewitness books growing up as a kid and absolutely loved the “museum exhibit” look of the colored models against stark white backgrounds. I was looking back at some artwork I did a few years ago and I realized that I’d been unconsciously using that style for some of my own natural history illustrations.

  5. Spent a lot of time watching this in my formative years. I read Andrew Sachs and thought “that can’t be right.” It turns out the US version had a different narratorusing the voice talents of Martin Sheen! (a prolific actor, best known to me from “The West Wing”) His voice is less wry and more gravelly, so the show had kind of a different feel stateside, at least for me.

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