Breathing New Life Into An Old Cinema Dinosaur

On June 2, 1983, 54 boxes of materials arrived at the Western History Research Center, now the American Heritage Center. It’s always exciting to open boxes of new materials to find out what surprises might be in store. So, those AHC archivists 37 years ago most likely were in turns delighted, puzzled, and concerned when one of the boxes revealed the rusted model of a dinosaur known as a triceratops whose stiffened foam body was shedding its “skin” onto every surface it touched.

The triceratops’ donor was Sam Peeples, a television script writer and author whose most common genre was westerns. He had been a regular collection donor to the AHC since 1958 and went on to contribute 567 boxes of his papers by the time of his death in 1997.

Author Samuel A. Peeples, 1976.
Photo of Sam Peeples for his book The Man Who Died Twice (1976).

Peeples was also a literary science fiction enthusiast who provided advice and reference material to his friend and colleague Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original Star Trek television series. Peeples wrote for the series as well as other science fiction series.

The triceratops was first used in an uncompleted 1931 film titled Creation, which was a project of renowned stop action animator Willis O’Brien. RKO studio producer Merian C. Cooper dismissed Creation as boring, but was impressed with O’Brien’s work. Cooper hired O’Brien to create effects for his 1933 film King Kong. Dinosaur miniatures and armatures, even some footage, from Creation was salvaged and reused for King Kong.

Poster from the film King Kong (1933).
Poster from the 1933 film King Kong. Box 111, Forrest J Ackerman Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Unfortunately for the triceratops, its scenes from King Kong were left on the cutting room floor, although the original Creation test footage can be found on the R1 King Kong DVD released by Time-Warner in 2005 and on YouTube.

It’s not known how the triceratops model came to be in Peeple’s possession. He may have purchased it, or it may have been given to him due to his love of science fiction. Once it arrived at the AHC, the triceratops found a comfortable, protective home in a dark archival box. It was again in the spotlight for a time as a display in the AHC’s Loggia where it helped tell the story of stop action animation technology.

Triceratops model on display at the UW American Heritage Center.
Triceratops on display at the American Heritage Center.

In 2020, 100 years after its creation, the sponge rubber and latex armature is finding new life as a set of 3D computerized images. The AHC seeks to make all of its collection material available to researchers, but the aging triceratops was simply too fragile to handle safely. After all, it wasn’t built for permanence. AHC’s Digital Archivist Rachel Gattermeyer and University Archivist Sara Davis joined with the team at UW’s Shell 3D Visualization Center to make a digital copy of the triceratops before any additional deterioration could happen, as well as to create a new way for researchers to interact with it. With the 3D scan rendering almost complete, viewers will soon be able to rotate the model, zoom in, and examine it in greater detail on a computer screen.

Sara and Rachel were interviewed by the Viz Center team to give some background and context to this fascinating collaborative project, resulting in this interesting visual. Take a look to find out more.

Post by AHC Archivist Leslie Waggener from contributions by AHC archivists Rachel Gattermeyer and Sara Davis.

Much appreciation to the team at the University of Wyoming’s Shell 3D Visualization Center for their help in this project.


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