April 23, 2012
I wanted to like Dinosaur Revolution. Despite a few clunky dinosaurs and some ludicrously over-the-top set pieces, I quite liked the idea of a Mesozoic journey in which the show’s prehistoric creatures were left to play out their stories on their own terms. The show as originally conceived—as a silent epic with a separate, accompanying show about the science behind the drama—sounded like a promising new direction for a documentary subgenre dominated by Walking With Dinosaurs wannabes. That version of Dinosaur Revolution never aired. Late in the show’s production, Dinosaur Revolution was transformed into a more traditional show, sprinkled by annoying narration and talking heads.
But now the constantly scrapping stars of Dinosaur Revolution are being given a new life in movie theaters. The program’s virtual prehistoric world has been re-cut into a feature film dubbed Dinotasia, narrated by Werner Herzog and set to premiere this spring. The new cut looks closer in sentiment to what Dinosaur Revolution was meant to be.
Herzog, known for exploring the dark and dramatic, casts the age of dinosaurs as a time when monsters were real. And he is present to guide viewers. According to a piece about Dinotasia published this week in The Times, Herzog gravitates toward the shockingly violent nature of dinosaurs. “If I’m the voiceover, then I’m speaking almost as God—and I fit much better as a villain. So my voice of God is never going to comfort you,” Herzog said. The amount of dinosaur gore in the trailer alone underscores the point that the film is not a tamed image of prehistoric lives meant for kids. Dinotasia is a celebration of destructive dinosaurian power.
Exquisitely rendered Jurassic ultraviolence isn’t a new thing. Even before the name “dinosaur” was coined, paleontologists imagined the fantastic battles between Megalosaurus and Iguanodon. The early 19th century artist John Martin, who specialized in painting apocalyptic biblical scenes, created a vision of the two creatures as intertwined wyverns clawing at each other in a primeval jungle in an 1837 mezzotint called “The Country of the Iguanodon.” More recently, Disney’s Fantasia reveled in the brutality of Mesozoic life. A grotesque Tyrannosaurus kills an anachronistic Stegosaurus to survive, but ultimately, all the dinosaurs turn into piles of bleached bones in an intense global drought. Fantasia was not as outright bloody as Dinotasia, but both exploit our fascination with dinosaur destruction and death.
In truth, we have made dinosaurs too violent. The Age of Dinosaurs was not simply a world of eat or be eaten, just as lions are not constantly tearing at their herbivorous neighbors on the African savanna. Blood and guts are simply the staples of nature documentaries, and the same goes for shows about prehistoric creatures. We have a persistent habit of bringing dinosaurs to life only to have them destroy each other. That will never change. From the time of John Martin’s paintings to Dinotasia and whatever comes next, we will undoubtedly remain obsessed with how dinosaurs employed their formidable arsenal of jaws, horns, spikes and claws.
September 8, 2011
I have already said plenty about Discovery’s new prehistoric tribute, Dinosaur Revolution, but my paleo-blogging colleague David Orr recently brought up one aspect of the new program that has been nagging at me since I finished watching the screeners for the miniseries. Like many other programs, the show claims to overthrow the old, outdated image of Apatosaurus and company, but how far behind is the public’s understanding of dinosaurs? As David puts it:
If asked to picture the world of the Mesozoic, does the average person on the street see the vision of Zallinger or Spielberg? We’re now almost twenty years into the Jurassic Park era, and the idea of the “raptor” has ascended to a level of popularity arguably equal to Tyrannosaurus rex. … Are we beating a dead horse when we boldly claim to be killing obsolete ideas about dinosaur life?
In a way, it almost feels as if we sometimes resurrect the drab, lumpy and grossly outdated images of dinosaurs only to have them quickly dispatched by the swift, hot-blooded dinosaurs of the modern era. (Lest I be called a hypocrite, I have been guilty of this, too.) As David points out, Jurassic Park popularized an updated vision of dinosaurs almost twenty years ago, and to pick another benchmark, the acrobatic and active dinosaurs in Robert Bakker’s 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies no longer look as scientifically sacrilegious as they did when the book initially came out. Not all of Bakker’s ideas are accepted today, but the overall vision he helped promote has become entrenched. Images of slow and stupid dinosaurs were tossed out a long time ago—the last time I can remember seeing a vintage dinosaur on screen was when Peter Jackson effectively brought the “Brontosaurus” back to life for his 2005 remake of King Kong, and even that dinosaur was pretty agile and light on its feet compared to the swamp-dwelling sauropods of old.
But the trouble with dinosaurs is that they are not entirely objects of scientific scrutiny that are constantly being updated according to new research. Dinosaurs are everywhere, and there are so many reconstructions and restorations that we sometimes create conflicting images. Let’s say that a young dinosaur fan watches Dinosaur Revolution and starts incessantly bugging her parents to take her to the museum. When she arrives, she may encounter dinosaurs in their outdated, early 20th century garb. The majority of the dinosaurs in Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History are still static tail-draggers, and a number of the famous mounts in the American Museum of Natural History are sorely out of date because they could not be safely re-posed (just to pick two examples). Even in some of the greatest dinosaur showcases in the world, modern dinosaurs stand right alongside more archaic visions of dinosauriana.
Depictions of dinosaurs in movies, documentaries, books and even museum displays are going to lag behind that latest science. That may say more about the rapid progress of paleontology in recent years more than anything else. Add that to the fact that the dinosaurs we adore during our childhood tend to stick with us. Though I pride myself on trying to keep up with the latest science now, for a time I just could not accept that many dinosaurs were covered in feathers. They looked silly and I had no idea what the state of the evidence was. Given the choice between the mean, scaly Deinonychus I knew and the more bird-like version paleontologists were talking about, I preferred the version I grew up with. (At least until I understood the actual science of the reconstructions that made me initially uneasy.) Even if dinosaurs are not changing as dramatically as they did during the heyday of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, ongoing research continues to alter our perspective on our favorite monsters—the dinosaurs we know from childhood may look unfamiliar to us when we re-encounter them later, be it in a museum or movie theater.
Nevertheless, perhaps we are putting the wrong emphasis on the actual “dinosaur revolution” now underway. The idea that dinosaurs were active, complex creatures and not just big lizards has been established for more than 30 years now. That isn’t new. What is novel about this period in science is that we are gaining a more refined picture of dinosaur lives thanks to numerous fossil discoveries and a variety of new techniques for studying those remnants of the Mesozoic world. The real dinosaur revolution isn’t so much about an image change—it is our ability to begin to answer, or at least approach, long-running questions about how dinosaurs actually lived. Perhaps, rather than beating a dead Camarasaurus, we should focus on how science is refining our picture of dinosaur lives.
September 2, 2011
Dinosaur Revolution is Looney Tunes. I mean that literally. At the last Comic-Con International, Erik Nelson – the executive producer of Discovery’s new 4-part series – explained that at least one of the show’s vignettes was created as a reimagining of a 1942 Bugs Bunny cartoon, only this time with pterosaurs from the Early Cretaceous of Brazil. The animals themselves were real, but, true to the intent of the segment, they act like Mesozoic cartoon characters. Rather than being a silly one-off, the slapstick scene embodies the tone of the prehistoric miniseries.
I am not entirely sure what to call Dinosaur Revolution. “Documentary” doesn’t feel quite right. “Dinosaur tribute” might be a better fit. Whatever you choose to call it, though, it’s a program that employs the well-worn dinosaur playbook that has been in use for over a decade. Walking With Dinosaurs – the BBC’s 1999 docudrama – brought the idea of following the day-to-day lives of dinosaurs (with little to no human presence) into vogue, and Dinosaur Revolution continues in that tradition while adding a few unique quirks.
Discovery’s new dinosaur extravaganza is played out in four chapters. The first episode sets the stage with an over-the-top scene meant to represent the mass extinction at the end of the Permian period about 250 million years ago. This was the most devastating global extinction event in our planet’s history, and the one that, in time, opened up evolutionary possibilities that resulted in the evolution of dinosaurs (among other Mesozoic creatures). From there, the series sets up a number of vignettes that flow in more-or-less chronological order from the Late Triassic through the very Latest Cretaceous. Episode one features a family of the early dinosaur Eoraptor; episode two focuses on an injured Allosaurus living by a Late Jurassic watering hole; episode three tells the stories of pterosaurs, mosasaurs, feathered dinosaurs and other Cretaceous creatures; and the finale tracks a clan of Tyrannosaurus, as well as a pair of Troodon. The cast of dinosaurs is more extensive than what I have just mentioned here, though, and I was glad to see the inclusion of some recently-discovered taxa, such as the long-necked stegosaur Miragaia and the giant frog Beelzebufo.
From the rumors and buzz leading up to the release of the show, I thought Dinosaur Revolution was largely going to be a silent program that let the dinosaurs act out their stories without narration. In essence, I had thought the show was going to be a movie version of the type of stories one of the show’s creators, Ricardo Delgado, had drawn up for the Age of Reptiles comic series. Apparently this idea was scrapped, or at least altered – the dinosaur storylines make up the bulk of each episode, but there are brief segments in which familiar talking heads are brought in to talk about different aspects of dinosaur lives. Sparse narration is also sprinkled over each episode, though the show’s narrator has the annoying habit of speaking in sentence fragments and often states the obvious. The show’s dinosaurs are certainly expressive enough to tell their own stories, but it would seem that Discovery got nervous about a lack of human presence in the show.
I have mixed feelings about Dinosaur Revolution. For one thing, the quality of the show’s animation is uneven. On the positive side, the level of detail each dinosaur has received is excellent, and some of the dinosaurs – such as an Allosaurus with a broken jaw that stars in episode 2 – have never looked better. (I never liked the dopey, thick-headed Allosaurus of the Walking With Dinosaurs series.) The trouble is that the dinosaurs are not always blended very well with the background environment. In the first and third episodes, especially, the dinosaurs appear to be living on a separate plane of existence than their surrounding habitats. Likewise, the way some of the dinosaurs moved could use a little more refinement. Small theropods, especially, run with a stiff, herky-jerky motion that looks exaggerated and silly. The dinosaurs look great when standing still, but it’s hard not to chuckle when they go bobbing off in their awkward gait. The creators of the show certainly deserve a lot of credit for giving their coelurosaurs feathers and not giving their theropod dinosaurs “bunny hands”, but some of the basic aspects of the dinosaur models make the show’s stars look out of place in the prehistoric world.
But the dinosaur models and animation aren’t what really bothers me about Dinosaur Revolution. There have been far worse dinosaur models, and, given that the show is meant for popular audiences, it’s practically useless to worry about how much Triceratops really flexed its elbows, how tightly the skin on some dinosaur heads appears to adhere to the skull, or whether prehistoric mammals really could spray noxious liquid in the faces of predatory dinosaurs. At least the artists put feathers on Troodon, Velociraptor and other theropod dinosaurs, and I am thrilled the show does not shy away from making their dinosaurs bird-like. No, what gets me is that Dinosaur Revolution is being presented as a program about the latest dinosaur science when the actual scientific content is minimal.
One of the principal problems of communicating the science of paleontology to the public is that we have not done a very good job of explaining how our science actually works to the person on the street. People are constantly being bombarded with the end-products of fossil research – from skeletons in museum halls to restored dinosaurs on television – but how often do members of the public get to see the dinosaurian sausage being made, so to speak? Dinosaur Revolution claims to be based upon the latest dinosaur science, and the show makes infrequent references to “new techniques”, yet the series does not offer much insight into how we know what we say we know. Sound bites from professional paleontologists are used to back up certain claims, but this is merely using scientific authority to back up a premise – very little is actually explained this way.
This brings me back to my earlier comment that Dinosaur Revolution is more of a dinosaur tribute than a scientific documentary. Even though I have grown tired of the emphasis on violence in dinosaur documentaries, I understand that show creators need to get people to watch. Featuring dinosaurs just standing around isn’t going to do that. If eyeballs aren’t on the screen, educational opportunities are lost. Nevertheless, the animals in Dinosaur Revolution do not act like real animals. They are constantly fighting in an exaggerated, cartoonish style that often just looks plain silly. In episode two, for example, the large predatory dinosaur Torvosaurus tries to snag a juvenile sauropod and ends up setting off a dinosaur free-for-all in which the stegosaur Miragaia, an Allosaurus and an adult sauropod all end up taking turns beating on the predator. The scene has more in common with a WWE cage match than anything in nature. In another vignette, the sauropod Shunosaurus gets high on some funky mushrooms and is attacked by a pair of Sinraptor who are about as coordinated as The Three Stooges. Like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park III, as well, the creatures of Dinosaur Revolution are adept martial artists capable of tossing their victims or enemies around. The dinosaurs are more monsters than animals, and their behavior reminds me of what I imagined for them when I was a five-year-old dinosaur nut playing in the sandbox.
Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t automatically have a problem with a program like Dinosaur Revolution depicting prehistoric creatures as monsters. From the time dinosaurs were first recognized by science in the early 19th century, they have often been restored as rapacious and bloodthirsty beasts, and violence has a deep, deep tradition in restorations of prehistoric life. What I object to is such scenes being presented as the best reconstructions of dinosaurs science can offer us. If Dinosaur Revolution was presented as a fun anthology of imaginary dinosaur stories, this review would be very different, but instead the show is meant to showcase the latest in paleontology. Fossil evidence is mentioned from time to time – what fossil site the animals in the show came from, or a specimen that inspired a particular story – but the methods by which paleontologists actually reconstruct prehistoric life are left undiscussed. There is a wide gap between the fossil as an object of interest and the restoration that is the end-product of a scientific process. Again, the products of paleontology are presented in full color, but how that knowledge is generated in the first place is obscured. Audiences are left to rely on the say-so of the scientists in the show, which, I believe, shortchanges viewers who want to know how we know what we say we know about dinosaurs.
And, as is too often the case, the gallery of scientific experts are entirely male and pale. (Paleontologist Victoria Arbour recently pointed out this persistent problem – which is sadly not unique to Dinosaur Revolution – in a review of the sensationalist program Dino Gangs.) For a program that is supposed to be about the “revolution” in dinosaur science, I would expect to see experts such as Karen Chin, Mary Schweitzer, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, Victoria Arbour, and others give their perspectives on how new discoveries and techniques are providing us with an unprecedented view of dinosaur lives. When there is such a diverse array of paleontologists doing interesting work, why does Dinosaur Revolution perpetuate the image of a paleontologist as a white male? Granted, not everyone who is asked to participate in a documentary is going say “Yes”, but I refuse to believe that, if they really tried, the creators of Dinosaur Revolution would have been unable to find scientists who differed from the stereotyped image of who a paleontologist is.
Many of my qualms about Dinosaur Revolution stem from problems that are not unique to this new show. For a decade, we’ve been seeing the same kind of dinosaur-driven, CGI storytelling that has become the new standard. Perhaps, if Dinosaur Revolution was the first show of its kind, I would have felt differently about it. And, in fact, I would actually love to see a show that didn’t take itself too seriously and paired top animators with excellent storytellers. (Can you imagine an animated dinosaur story written by David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell?) If Dinosaur Revolution had fully committed to that and presented itself as a fun restoration of prehistoric life in the vein of, say, “The Rite of Spring” sequence in Fantasia, I would have spent a lot less time quibbling over the program. There is certainly room for fun and imagination in dinosaur programs, but I get a bit prickly when science is used to back up fantasies without much explanation of where the science stops and the fiction begins.
As paleontologist Thomas Holtz says in the show, we need imagination in paleontology. If we restricted ourselves only to the actual evidence we have acquired, we wouldn’t get very far – at some point you have to hypothesize, speculate and infer to bring prehistoric animals to life. The creators of Dinosaur Revolution certainly had the technological know-how to do this in a new way, but the fact that the show is presented as a scientific program creates a tension between the feel of the program and its stated aim. Dinosaur Revolution is a fun – and often silly – fantasy that is informed by scientific discovery but is not itself overly concerned with communicating the nuts and bolts of science. The real story of the dinosaur revolution – how our understanding of dinosaur lives is growing deeper and more detailed by the day – has yet to be told.
The first two episodes of Dinosaur Revolution premiere on Discovery on September 4 at 9 p.m. eastern time, and the second two will air on September 11 at 9 p.m.
A few days ago, screener copies of Discovery’s upcoming miniseries Dinosaur Revolution arrived on my doorstep. The anticipated show is already being argued over based on sneak-peek clips and images—some say it’s going to be the best dino-documentary of all time, while others see it as another sensationalist program rife with inaccuracies. After seeing the episodes myself, I have no doubt that the debate will get even more heated once the program airs.
I will write about Dinosaur Revolution later today, but watching the show made me recall the favorite dinosaur shows of my childhood. (Not to tip my hand too much, but if I’m going to point out what I don’t like about a show, I figure that I should have a good idea of what I do like.) The forthcoming show displays dinosaurs in their own habitat with sparse narration and the minimal presence of talking heads—a format that gained a nearly ubiquitous TV presence after the premier of Walking With Dinosaurs in 1999. I can’t remember the last time I saw a dinosaur show presented by a host, but when I was a nascent little dinosaur nerd, my favorite shows were those guided by TV personalities. As luck would have it, a DVD of one of those shows arrived the same day as the Dinosaur Revolution discs.
The 1986 show More Dinosaurs was one of my earliest introductions to the prehistoric world. Hosted by Gary Owens and Eric Boardman, the show is framed as Eric’s quest to find a dinosaur and bring it back to Gary for a showstopping finale. (“A grabber,” as Gary puts it, and boy does he get one….) This is not a serious documentary. Most of the show is downright goofy and, even by the standards of the time, the restored dinosaurs in the show looked just plain awful. To pick one example, if a new dinosaur documentary started off by bringing up the far-fetched possibility that a sauropod is still living in some far-off African swamp, I’d immediately change the channel and angrily register my objection on Twitter.
But I have a soft spot for More Dinosaurs all the same, and I was glad when Tyler Rhodes of Dinosaur Theatre was able to help organize a new DVD release of the program. (The picture quality leaves something to be desired, but that just makes it feel like I’m watching an old VHS tape and adds to the nostalgia.) The show is something of a dinosaur mixtape in which science and dinosaur pop culture are blended together, and, when I was a kid, I didn’t particularly care that many of the show’s dinosaurs looked lumpy and unrealistic. They were still dinosaurs, and that was all that mattered to me. In a way, the show reminds me of the “Crocosaurus” which can still be seen on the Jensen, Utah roadside (and, coincidentally, appears in More Dinosaurs): By scientific standards it’s the pits, but I still recognize it as a dinosaur and adore it for that reason. The scientist in me can’t stand it, but part of me that’s an unabashed dinosaur fan can’t help but like it.
Nostalgia obviously has a lot to do with why I enjoyed More Dinosaurs so much, but I think there’s more to it than that. The show was a celebration of dinosaurs, both in terms of their scientific identity and their pop culture appeal. That’s something that’s missing from most new documentaries. More often than not, recent dinosaur shows have focused entirely on violence and presented endlessly repeated snippets of CGI dinosaurs tearing at each other as the best that new science has to offer us about paleobiology. If we were to take recent cable documentaries as any indication, dinosaurs did little more than try to skewer one another. More Dinosaurs and other old favorites of mine certainly have that aspect, but the important thing is that they often went beyond that to showcase the changing images of dinosaurs. More Dinosaurs and shows of its ilk represent a format that is now nearly extinct in which movie clips, cartoons, interviews with scientists and visits to fossil sites were presented side by side. Maybe it’s time to give dinosaurs a rest—let them stop tearing at each other for a minute and have a little more fun with their enduring legacy.
August 12, 2011
Dinosaurs aren’t exactly uncommon on television. After the debut of Walking With Dinosaurs in 2000, especially, computer-generated Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and other prehistoric creatures have been almost continuously stampeding across the screen. I don’t think they have ever looked quite as good as they do in the Discovery’s upcoming miniseries Dinosaur Revolution, though.
Previously titled “Reign of the Dinosaurs”, the prehistoric serial promises to “feature never-before-seen intimate behaviors to illustrate the extraordinary life of dinosaurs, dropping viewers directly into the Prehistoric era.” Based upon the exclusive promo clip above, all I can say for now is that the animation looks absolutely top notch. Fighting Cryolophosaurus, sauropods using their whip tails to wail on theropods, and more, all gorgeously animated. Really, it’s about time. After seeing so many poorly-designed, bargain basement dinosaurs on television, I’m glad to see that Dinosaur Revolution plans to pull out all the stops.
The show will premiere on September 4th, 2011, and check back here for a review of the series before it airs.