A Blog by Brian Switek

Jurassic World May Be the Most Gonzo Dinosaur Movie Ever

I don’t often have cause to ponder Hollywood gossip on this blog, but how could I resist all the hubub about the next Jurassic Park movie? Much like the weekend’s claims of the biggest dinosaur EVER, the news may not be all it seems, but if the rumors are on the mark, next summer may see the release of the strangest dinosaur film of all time.

The Jurassic World spoilers, courtesy JoBlo.com, promise a completed, functioning Jurassic Park where nervous executives are worried about dinosaurs jumping the shark. (I’m sure that plot point is no way inspired by discussions with Universal studio executives about the franchise.) To spice up the prehistoric attraction, the park turns to Flip-O-Saurus for inspiration and creates a Tyrannocuttlesnakeraptor to draw more dinosaur snacks visitors. Surprising no one, the hybrid abomination starts devouring other dinosaurs and guests alike, the park’s only hope being a team of tame dinosaurs under the command of a dinosaur trainer played by Chris Pratt.

[The Jurassic World plot is brought to you by chaos theory.]

This could all be a diversion. Then again, many of the elements are familiar. The tame, ready-to-rumble dinosaurs are only slightly modified from the dinosaur soldiers in the equally-weird John Sayles script that raised eyebrows a few years back, and having a terrifying carnivore imbued with a cephalopod-like power of being able to camouflage itself against any surface is straight out of Michael Crichton’s depiction of Carnotaurus in The Lost World. Sure, feathery dinosaurs are too much to ask for, but an invisible carnivorous dinosaur that’s able to swallow objects bigger than its own head? Makes total sense.

If the scuttlebutt is on the mark, Jurassic World will be a full-on monster movie. In fact, the franchise itself made this clear in the last, groan-worthy installment in which the fictional Alan Grant reminded us that InGen made “genetically engineered theme-park monsters”, not proper dinosaurs. Fair enough. But I hope dinosaur fans and science communicators keep up on the film rather than roll their eyes at the franchise’s off-the-wall plot. Monster movies give the science-savvy plenty of fodder to talk about physiology, biomechanics, genetics, and other topics that rarely bubble up to the surface of public consciousness. There’s nothing quite like a Tyrannocuttlesnakeraptor to grab public attention, and we should be poised to take advantage of how awesome and awful such movie monsters can be.

A Blog by Brian Switek

Get Ready for Dinomania Next Year

I was ten years old when Jurassic Park smashed into theaters. I had never anticipated a movie more. Michael Crichton’s original novel – as a movie tie-in paperback, of course – was the first “grown-up book” I was allowed to read, TIME and National Geographic ran dinosaur cover stories that year which I pored over again and again, and representations of brightly-colored, actively-posed dinosaurs seemed to be everywhere. Dinomania hit a fever pitch that made me absolutely certain that I wanted to spend my life chasing the extinct monsters. Now, over twenty years later, I wonder if the same fossil pandemonium could be sparked again.

Walking With Dinosaurs 3D has already migrated through theaters, and, given the kaiju’s origins, Godzilla technically counts as a dinosaur, but next year’s releases are what may send fossil fans into a tizzy. Not only is the animation studio Pixar set to envision an alternate prehistory in The Good Dinosaur, but the Jurassic Park franchise is due to at long last continue the story of genetically-engineered monsters in Jurassic World. 2015 could be the Year of the Dinosaur. The question is how Hollywood versions of the long-extinct creatures will affect the public’s understanding of prehistoric life and how paleontologists study lost worlds.

How The Good Dinosaur will intersect with science, if at all, is a mystery. That’s because almost nothing has been revealed about the film other than the general story that humans and sauropods mingle in a universe wherein the deadly asteroid that devastated Cretaceous life never hit the planet. Seeing a feral prehistoric child palling around with non-avian dinosaurs does have something of a creationist tinge to it, but with a clear premise that the movie is meant as imaginative fiction I doubt that Pixar is going to give religious fundamentalists much solace.

Other than the fact that we won’t be seeing special-ops raptors, even less is known about Jurassic World. Yet the movie has already drawn the ire of dinosaur diehards – myself included – for reportedly refusing to adorn saurian stars like Velociraptor with the feathers the dinosaurs had in life. While the first Jurassic Park certainly took some liberties with dinosaurs – Dilophosaurus neck ruffles, anyone? – the movie nevertheless paired bleeding edge special effects with up-to-date science that brought dinosaurs to life as they had never been seen before. That Jurassic World might prefer scariness over updated dinosaurs is a disappointing possibility. What other film is going to have the chance to so powerfully revitalize dinosaurs for a new generation?

Would I like to see an enfluffed Tyrannosaurus chasing after hapless humans? Absolutely. I’d be thrilled to view such scientifically-informed nightmare fuel. But even if Jurassic World is populated by unabashedly scabrous and scaly dinosaurs, not to mention any other possible inaccuracies, I don’t see much reason to despair. As slavering monsters or friendly companions, the dinosaurs in next year’s films offer museums, writers, and science communicators with a rare opportunity to enjoy the free boost in dinomania.

Just like The Lost World, The Valley of Gwangi, and all the greater and lesser dinosaur films that have gone before, The Good Dinosaur and Jurassic World are works of fiction. They can do as they please with dinosaurs. Even with scientific advising, which I’m glad to see Jurassic World still has, the dinosaurs will still be deployed in the service of story. But if that helps spark the public’s interest in prehistory and inspires increased museum attendance, that’s a great benefit to everyone.

Consider the original Jurassic Park. Even for the era, the dinosaurs weren’t flawless. But the film did more to popularize paleontology and interest in dinosaur than any other recent event that I can think of, and I have to wonder how many upcoming paleontologists owe at least part of their interest in fossils to that movie.

Inaccurate and distorted dinosaurs can still offer useful ways to reach out to and excite the public. I can only speak for myself here, but when I repeatedly raided my local and school libraries for dinosaur books I mostly found already-outdated animals that were still dragging their tails and wallowing in swamps. Yet those lumposaurs still stoked my imagination, and by comparing them to more accurate depictions I gained a better understanding of how science is an ongoing process that will continue to alter what we understand about nature. We can and should push for accuracy where appropriate, but even animals that are less dinosaur and more dinosaurish can still assist efforts to plug the public into the wonder of science.

Next year’s big-budget dinosaur films may spur some new myths. (Over two decades after Jurassic Park debuted, I’m still earnestly asked whether or not Tyrannosaurus had vision based on movement.) That risk is a perpetual side effect of the fact that dinosaurs belong to imagination as much as they do science. Rather than grumble, though, paleontologists and educators should start thinking about how to use the films as springboards to talk about the true stories of discovery that continue to teach us about evolution, extinction, and the ongoing story of life on Earth. Plan an exhibit. Start a video series. Coordinate workshops, events, and screenings. Write articles for popular audiences. Don’t wait until the tide of prehistoric popularity has passed. Next summer, audiences will stomp to theaters and roar at the sight of dinosaurs brought back to life. We should be ready with stories of our own – true, amazing tales that tie us together in a shared and evolving history.

A Blog by Brian Switek

How Dilophosaurus Became a Rock Star

Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs were among the greatest to ever roar across the silver screen. Never before had science and special effects generated such realistic visions of prehistoric favorites, and some, particularly the film’s unstoppable Tyrannosaurus, still hold up pretty well. The movie’s special effects artists delivered dinosaurs better than anything my imagination could have conjured.

For most dinosaurs, the stakes were high. If you’re going to make a T. rex, you’d better do it right. The same went for Brachiosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Triceratops, and other paleo personalities that had been found during the late 19th and early 20th century bone rushes. But, taking a cue from Michael Critchon’s novel, the movie also cast a dinosaur that was unknown in Hollywood circles. Compared to its high-profile costars, Dilophosaurus was a newcomer with a complicated backstory.

The tale of Dilophosaurus goes back to a time after “the second Jurassic dinosaur rush” but long before modern dinomania kicked in. At the close of the summer 1942 field season, Sam Welles of the University of California Museum of Paleontology was instructed to check out a possible dinosaur find near Tuba City, Arizona. As Welles later recalled:

I tried to find this and failed, and went to see Richard Curry, who was then the owner of the trading post at the foot of the Tuba City grave. He got hold of Jesse Williams, a Navajo who had discovered these bones in 1940, and they both took me out to this site, and with Bill Rush and Ed Kott, we set up camp and decided to go ahead and excavate.

Of three dinosaurs splayed out within twenty feet of each other at this Kayenta Formation site, only two were worth collecting. The pair included much of the vertebral column and limbs from the dinosaur, as well as a few pieces of skull. Welles and his team dug them out of the ground within ten days.

The following scientific work didn’t go so fast. A team of three preparators worked for two years to clean the bones and place them into a wall mount, but even then it wasn’t entirely clear what the dinosaur was or to what geologic period it belonged to. In 1954 Welles published a preliminary description dubbing the dinosaur Megalosaurus wetherilli, with Megalosaurus being a long-known genus of theropod that had become a messy wastebasket of puzzling specimens.

A reconstruction of Dilophosaurus at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Photo by Brian Switek.
A reconstruction of Dilophosaurus at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Photo by Brian Switek.

A decade later, Welles returned to his “Megalosaurus”. The geologic age of the dinosaur, and therefore where it fit in the early evolution of theropods, was still in question. Some researchers suggested that the sediment of the Kayenta Formation was deposited over 200 million years ago, during the Late Triassic, but Welles suspected it was less than 200 million years old and therefore Early Jurassic in age. He went back out into the field to check his hunch, and in the process discovered another skeleton that was ultimately key to unraveling the nature of the dinosaur. Included in this large skeleton was a skull bearing two thin, rounded crests jutting from the skull.

The double-crest meant that the dinosaur was not Megalosaurus, after all. The dinosaur, confirmed to be Early Jurassic in age, was something new. And the better material allowed Welles to see something he had missed before. Among the elements collected in 1942 was a piece of skull with what seemed to be a cheekbone pulled out of place. The better-preserved, new skull showed that the bone in the previously-collected specimen wasn’t part of the cheek, but the crushed crests. In 1970, three decades after Jesse Williams found the first three skeletons, Welles recognized the dinosaur as a new genus named in honor of the double crest – Dilophosaurus.

[How Jurassic Park‘s “Spitter” came to life.]

As a relatively recent discovery, though, Dilophosaurus didn’t have the cultural momentum of T. rex or other beloved dinosaurs. Jurassic Park helped give the theropod a leg up. Welles was pleased to see his dinosaur on screen, although the dinosaur’s Lina Blair impression didn’t come from fossil evidence. The rattling frill and stinging mucus were fictional inventions.

A sculpture of Dilophosaurus outside the Arizona Museum of Natural History. Photo by Brian Switek.
A sculpture of Dilophosaurus outside the Arizona Museum of Natural History. Photo by Brian Switek.

The real Dilophosaurus differed from the horror movie version in more subtle ways, as well. The largest specimen Welles found would have dwarfed Jurassic Park‘s relatively puny facsimile. Large Dilophosaurus would have reached about 23 feet in length. A bit too large to hide in the trees like the film version. And aside from crests that were a bit lower and longer, the skull of Dilophosaurus looked a bit nastier than what appeared on screen.

Among the first carnivorous dinosaurs to start reaching larger body sizes, Dilophosaurus had a long, low skull with a prominent indentation right at the front of the upper jaw that gave the dinosaur a snaggletoothed look. Venom or no, the actual Dilophosaurus probably looked quite a bit more menacing than the Hollywood creation.

Granted, Jurassic Park‘s Dilophosaurus could have been a juvenile. All dinosaurs started off relatively small, after all. At least it really did count as a Jurassic dinosaur. But regardless of Hollywood tweaks, Steven Spielberg’s film made Dilophosaurus a celebrity. In an instant, a dinosaur known to paleo geeks and scientific specialists became a household name. I can only hope that next year’s Jurassic World does the same for some lesser-known dinosaurs that are hungering for some time in the spotlight.

[To hear Welles tell you the story of Dilophosaurus himself, visit the UCMP website.]


Naish, D. 2009. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 94-95

A Blog by Brian Switek

How to Ruin Dinosaurs

Imagine that you’re standing in front of a dinosaur skeleton in a dim museum hall. Let’s say that it’s a  Stegosaurus, that great armored dinosaur of 150 million years ago. The animal is both absurd and beautiful. A tiny head on a bulky body held up on pillar-like legs, decorated with polygonal plates and tipped with a set of short tail spikes.

As you’re admiring the Jurassic wonder, someone walks up and starts offering a running commentary on the skeleton. “I bet Allosaurus got the point” they say with a nod to the reconstruction’s intimidating thagomizer, taking a single beat before turning to the plates and continuing “Looks like mister stegosaur was trying to compensate for something, eh?” You try to ignore the bad-puns and dud one-liners, but you just can’t block out the yammering. All the inane comments have totally ruined the fantastic scene you came to see. And that is exactly how I felt while watching Walking With Dinosaurs 3D.

While the feature film carries the title of the famous fossil franchise, Walking With Dinosaurs 3D is a different animal than the documentary that preceded it. The original series narrated the day-to-day lives of dinosaurs through a mix of science, speculation, and silliness. (The Diplodocus ovipositor  is still seared onto my memory.) Walking With Dinosaurs 3D was supposed to use the same formula to concoct a silent feature, with slightly anthropomorphic dinosaurs playing out the tale of a male Pachyrhinosaurus in Late Cretaceous Alaska. Explanation and narration was kept to an absolute minimum. But that was before worried producers turned what could have been a cinematic spectacle into a film more grating than any Land Before Time sequel.

Instead of letting our heroic Pachyrhinosaurus “Patchi” communicate in the dinosaurian language of hoots, grunts, and bellows, the filmmakers decided to have the persistent ceratopsid prattle off some awful dialog voiced by Justin Long. “She likes me, and my hole!” is an actual line from the movie that isn’t any less cringe-inducing in context.  Tiya Sircar voices one-dimensional love interest Juniper, joined by Sklyer Stone as brash brother Scowler and John Leguizamo portraying the movie’s embarrassing “sassy ethnic character” trope, Alex the Alexornis. The movie’s predators don’t talk, of course. A mother Gorgosaurus saying “Hey, I’ve got to feed my kids, too” while dropping a hadrosaur leg into a nest just wouldn’t play.

None of the voice-overs were necessary. The entire movie was planned to be silent, with each character having their own personalities and stories told through carefully-directed visuals. You can still see this film playing out as the voice overs tarnish it. The magic the visual team wove in recreating the valleys and forests of Cretaceous Alaska is totally dispelled by the words the characters are thinking at each other. (Their mouths don’t move, so it must have been selective telepathy.) A moment when an injured Juniper collapses on the beach could have been a poignant and tense moment of a young dinosaur possibly meeting her demise. But that emotion can never take hold because whoever oversaw the 11th-hour changes wanted to have the dinosaurs talking about nothing at a constant clip.

Dialog ruined the dinosaurs. The special effects artists and visual team explored dinosaur lives while keeping a strong narrative, and their efforts were totally undermined whoever tried to punch up the script. I have no patience for the argument that such voiceovers should be expected in a children’s movie. No. The Land Before Time and You Are Umasou are both dinosaur movie’s for children, and both use dialog to explore issues of family, loss, and identity. The words of those dinosaurs have meaning. The dialog in Walking With Dinosaurs 3D is vacuous and not only lacks emotional weight, but actually drains any emotions the audience might feel for the characters. It’s safe and stupid – a film that asks children to just watch and not think or even feel.

There is a way to save Walking With Dinosaurs 3D, though. Give viewers to option to watch the film without the dialog. I sincerely hope that the home release has an option to see the film as it was meant to be, letting visuals and sounds of the reconstituted dinosaurs tell the story. Dinosaurs have never looked so good on the big screen, and a silent version could be a classic dinosaur epic that helps inspire children to keep searching for the astounding connections between the Earth as we know it and lost worlds preserved in stone. Sometimes it’s best to let dinosaurs speak for themselves.

A Blog by Virginia Hughes

How Monkeys Watch Movies and People Tell Stories

Movies — or good ones, anyway — manipulate us. A good director knows how to put scenes in a sequence that will attract our eyes, stir up our emotions, and ultimately connect those heightened feelings to cerebral associations, memories, and ideas. Good movies will tell a story and deliver a message. It’s why we watch them in the first place: to be moved.

This isn’t a new idea; it has been around since the early days of movie-making. One of the most famous examples of it comes from “Stachka” (or “Strike,” in English) a silent film made by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925. Stachka takes place in Russia in 1903. Its plot, in a nutshell: factory workers go on strike, asking for more money and fewer hours; the company rejects the terms; the workers are hungry, angry, rowdy; the military storms in, corrals all the workers into a big field, kills them all.

The movie is best known for a few scenes at the end, in which Eisenstein cross-cuts the workers running for their lives with graphic footage of cattle being slaughtered. It’s an intense couple of minutes, so click at your own risk:

The editing is powerful, which of course was Eisenstein’s intention. As he wrote soon after the movie’s debut, the montage is “snatching fragments from our surroundings according to a conscious and predetermined plan calculated to launch them at the audience in the appropriate combination, to subjugate it to the appropriate association with the obvious final ideological motivation.”

But just how well can a movie “subjugate” its audience? And does everybody fall under its spell in the same way?

A decade ago, neuroscientists probed these questions with the help of a brain scanner. While lying inside the machine, participants were asked to do nothing but watch a 30-minute clip of the 1966 western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Even though they could think about or look at anything they wanted, they had surprisingly similar patterns of brain activity and eye movements, the study found. This effect was more than just a consequence of everybody looking at the same visual image. In a different experiment, participants watched a lame, unedited, 10-minute clip of people at a concert in Washington Square Park in New York City. This time, participants’ brain activity was much less in sync than it was when they were watching the western.

“Typically when I watch a movie it seems like it’s all in my own volition that I’m noticing stuff,” says Asif Ghazanfar, a neuroscientist at Princeton University. “But really it’s all the director. And he can do that because he has some idea of what human understanding is, and how to manipulate human emotion and how our visual system operates.”

Ghazanfar’s lab uses monkeys to study visual and auditory perception. A few years ago, these movie studies got him thinking: The visual perception of monkeys is similar to ours in many ways. They recognize and follow moving objects on a screen. When watching movies of other monkeys, they can detect social hierarchies and sense emotion, such as fear. They’re even susceptible to the “uncanny valley” effect (which Ed can tell you more about).

Is it possible, Ghazanfar wondered, that monkeys would follow a film narrative like we do? Or is narrative-chasing a uniquely human skill? If the skill were shared with monkeys, “that would be really cool,” Ghazanfar says. “Then we could use movies to infer what their feelings were. Because they can’t tell us, obviously.”

To find out, Ghazanfar and his postdoc, Stephen Shepherd, tracked the eye movements of monkeys and people as they watched identical 3-minute clips from three films: the BBC’s “Life of Mammals,” Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” and Chaplin’s “City Lights.” The movies were converted into black and white and played without sound. As it turned out, humans and monkeys have similar cinematic tastes. Check it out:

Credit: Stephen V. Shepherd and Shepherd et al., Current Biology, 2010

“There was a surprising degree of overlap,” Ghazanfar says. The gaze paths of humans and monkeys overlapped 31 percent of the time. A small part of this correlation is due to our shared visual reflexes: Both humans and monkeys are attracted to bright spots. But the bulk of the overlap was driven by the two species’ shared interest in complex scenes, particularly faces, body movements, and social interactions.

But the researchers also found two intriguing differences between the monkey and human gaze paths. First, “humans appear to look at the focus of actor’s attention and intentions to a much greater extent than do monkeys,” Ghazanfar and Shepherd wrote in a fascinating review published in the film journal Projections. Second, “humans appear to pay attention to related details in a movie for much longer than monkeys do, suggesting that humans integrate events over time in a fundamentally different way.”

In other words, it seems that what makes people different is our ability to follow a narrative. Whereas monkeys look and react to scenes quickly, people fixate on one actor and integrate complex events over time. In a clip showing two monkeys, for example, people tended to look squarely on the monkey sitting quietly in the center of the screen. Monkeys, in contrast, looked at the more active second monkey, even thought it was jumping out of view of the camera. “Monkeys were reacting moment-by-moment instead of assembling and testing a narrative explanation for the scene before them,” the researchers wrote.

As someone who tells stories for a living, I relish the idea that narrative is central to what makes us human. The idea could plausibly explain a lot of the other skills that non-human animals don’t seem to have, such as language, music, imagination, and “mental time travel.” And, of course, why we so love the movies.

A Blog by Carl Zimmer

The Centrifuge Brain Project

For the past few years I’ve been a judge for the Imagine Science Film Festival. One of my favorites from last year is called The Centrifuge Brain Project; I was so delighted by it that I went hunting for it online to share here. For whatever reason, it didn’t show up until recently. You can now watch it on Vimeo, and I’ve embedded it below.

The Centrifuge Brain Project from Till Nowak on Vimeo.

I have complicated feelings about movies about science. I don’t like movies that come after you with a pedagogical cudgel. To me, the best movies are the ones that take the most liberties with science. I guess I like The Centrifuge Brain Project so much because it toys with science in such a deadpan way–so deadpan that some commenters at Vimeo asked if the crazy amusement park rides were real or not. And yet, in the end, it’s not a simplistic joke, but a short meditation on how we humans try to fight gravity–and nature in general–both in the lab and at amusement parks.

(Mark your calendars–the next Imagine Science Film Festival will be coming to New York this October.)

A Blog by Brian Switek

The Joys and Frustrations of Jurassic Park

I love dinosaurs. I have for as long as I can remember. My mother tells me that I had brief infatuations with trucks and elephants first, but, despite my enduring adoration of pachyderms, my heart really belongs to dinosaurs.

Visiting “Brontosaurus” at the American Museum of Natural History was a critical moment that crystallized this prehistoric passion of mine, and seeing Jurassic Park for the first time gave life to old bones so magnificently that when I left the theater I knew I just had to find some way to chase down dinosaurs where they rested in rock. There was nothing greater for a 10 year old dinosaur nerd than to see Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops seemingly alive again, and I hoped that I might get a chance to dig after bones just like the film’s fictional paleontologists did.

All of which is to say that I’m thrilled Jurassic Park is back in theaters to celebrate the classic film’s 20th anniversary. The movie is still the best dinosaur film ever made, and, for better or worse, established THE image of what dinosaurs were like for an entire generation. And to celebrate the cinematic return of the most realistic dinosaurs ever to stomp across the screen, today I’m proud to present five different articles that encapsulate the joys and frustrations of Jurassic Park.

Part of the reason why Jurassic Park was so special is because the film combined science, special effects, and an imaginative tale in a way that is rarely seen among blockbusters. We’re never going to be able to clone dinosaurs, as I explain over at Mental Floss, but Michael Crichton came up with an ingenious and plausible-sounding way of reinventing dinosaurs for the story on which the film was based. And with that story in place, special effects masters were able to combine puppets with computer-generated imagery to create the closest thing to living dinosaurs. As I explain in a countdown of the best and worst cinema dinosaurs for Tor.com, Jurassic Park‘s Tyrannosaurus rex is the greatest Mesozoic celebrity ever resurrected on screen. Even as researchers are discovering more about how T. rex actually lived, which I review in a National Geographic item, paleontologists think that the movie’s tyrant still holds up pretty well by today’s scientific standards.

That doesn’t mean that Jurassic Park is a flawless depiction of dinosaurs or paleontology. When science and special effects come together, the movie is wonderful, but there are some real *headdesk* moments throughout. The part that always makes paleontologists I know snort and chuckle in disbelief is the early camp scene, where excavating a dinosaur is shown as little more than dusting off rock until a lovely articulated skeleton comes into view. As I describe over at Slate, this scene is also the one instance I know of where someone is caught picking a dinosaur’s nose in a major motion picture.

And as much as I cherish Jurassic Park, the film’s legacy is a mixed one. I explore my conflicted feelings about this in a post at io9. The first film was actually quite progressive about insisting that birds are dinosaurs, as well as using then up-to-date science to revive dinosaurs (even if the filmmakers didn’t always pay heed to paleontological particulars). This sparked a new wave of dinomania that helped inspire the generation of paleontologists who are overjoyed that the movie is back. All day, I’ve seen paleontologist friends and colleagues say how excited they are to watch Jurassic Park in theaters again.

But Jurassic Park is also a time capsule of dinosaurs circa 1993 which misguided, diehard fans regard as immutable canon. The film’s dinosaurs have become so entrenched in the public imagination that there is much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth at the suggestion that maybe the fourth film in the series – set to debut sometime next year – should again mix the best of science and imagination by featuring feathery, bird-like dinosaurs.

Fictional paleontologist Alan Grant had a relentless enthusiasm for bird-like dinosaurs in the first film, but now it seems that devotees of the series, including Jurassic Park 4‘s director Colin Tevorrow, are more concerned about maintaining loyalty to outdated imagery than doing justice to dinosaurs. That’s a shame, but underscores just how powerful Jurassic Park was in shaping our perception of what dinosaurs were. Whether in the continuing Jurassic Park saga, or some other film, I hope filmmakers take the original installment’s lesson and combine true tales from the fossil record with the ferocious, amazing creatures that stalk our imaginations.

Bonus Reel:

A few weeks ago, I recorded a lighthearted review of Jurassic Park with the incomparable Lali DeRosier and Danielle Lee. I had a blast, especially considering what a dinosaur mix-and-matched from various strands of recovered DNA might look like. Poor “Puzzles.”

And if you haven’t had enough of my paleo pedantry yet, check out this vintage post from Dinosaur Tracking about why Jurassic Park‘s raptors don’t actually look like the real Velociraptor.  Even though the movie made “raptor” a household word, the fact is that the film’s most rapacious killer is actually another dinosaur named Deinonychus who was renamed for the movies.

A Blog by Brian Switek

A Velociraptor Without Feathers Isn’t a Velociraptor

Jurassic Park is the greatest dinosaur movie of all time. Aside from being an exceptionally entertaining adventure, the film introduced audiences to dinosaurs that had never been seen before – hybrids of new science and bleeding-edge special effects techniques. The active, alert, and clever dinosaurs that paleontologists had recently pieced together were revived by way of exquisite puppetry and computer imagery, instantly replacing the old images of dinosaurs as swamp-dwelling dullards. Despite the various scientific nitpicks and some artistic license overreach – let’s not talk about the “Spitter” –  Jurassic Park showed how science and cinema could collaborate to create something truly majestic. That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear the the next Jurassic Park sequel is going to turn its back on a critical aspect of dinosaur lives. In Jurassic Park 4, the film’s director has stated, there will be no feathery dinosaurs.

Three years after the first Jurassic Park debuted, paleontologists announced that the small theropod Sinosauropteryx was covered in a fine coat of fuzzy protofeathers. This was just the initial drop in a flood of feathery dinosaur discoveries which confirmed that a wide variety of dinosaurs bore archaic forms of plumage, from simple filaments to asymmetrical feathers that would have allowed them to fly. And not only did these discoveries confirm the fact that birds are one lineage of dinosaurs, but that many bird traits – such as feathers – evolved long before the first avians took to the air.

Velociraptor was definitely a feathery dinosaur, and Tyrannosaurus probably was, as well. In fact, other dinosaurs more distantly-related to birds – such as Triceratops – at least sometimes sported swaths of bristles, quills, or similar body coverings in addition to the pebbly tubercles of their skin. Dinosaurs were far stranger and flashier than anyone expected.

Are fluffy tyrannosaurs - such as these Yutyrannus - any less scary than the leathery-skinned sort? Art by Brian Choo.
Are fluffy tyrannosaurs – such as these Yutyrannus – any less scary than the leathery-skinned sort? Art by Brian Choo.

The Jurassic Park franchise quickly fell behind the times. There was not a feather to be seen in 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Granted, maybe the filmmakers didn’t have time to incorporate new designs that fluffy little Sinosauropteryx could have inspired. But 2001’s Jurassic Park III blundered by making the barest token effort to update their dinosaurs. The Velociraptor pack that harries fictional paleontologist Alan Grant and companions have little feathery wisps on their otherwise bald bodies. If you’re going to put feathers on dinosaurs, you really have to commit to the bit. The Jurassic Park franchise actually made their dinosaurs look sillier by holding back while science was giving dinosaurs a major makeover.

Now Jurassic Park 4 director Colin Trevorrow – who recently helmed the fun indie scifi confection Safety Not Guaranteed – is saying that the Jurassic Park franchise is going to continue to ignore some of the coolest science paleontology has to offer. Granted, Tevorrow’s statement on the matter was rather brief, but on Twitter he simply said “No feathers. #JP4.” How sorely disappointing.

I have no idea what dinosaurs are due to appear in Jurassic Park 4.  I wish that I did. But if Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus are reprising their roles, these dinosaurs should certainly have some kind of plumage. That comes right from fossil evidence and evolutionary logic. But this is about more than just visuals. A blockbuster summer film has the opportunity to introduce audiences to dinosaurs as have never been seen before on the big screen while simultaneously throwing some much-needed support to evolution by visualizing one of the critical traits that connects avian and non-avian dinosaurs. And speaking as an unabashed dinosaur fan myself, a dinosaur bearing fuzz, feathers, or quills is so much stranger and more wonderful than yet another olive green, scaly monstrosity. Hollywood, let paleontologists help you push the boundaries of fantastic dinosaurs.

Franchise purists might point out that Trevorrow’s plan is in the spirit of the original Jurassic Park. Nobody loves a retcon. But the franchise has already changed its dinosaurs several times with no explanation. The first sequel introduced new color palettes for the dinosaurs, as did the third film. (Not to mention the fact that Jurassic Park III raises the mystery of why Site B contains species that InGen didn’t clone, and never actually resolves this point.) If the dinosaurs are changing from film to film to start with, why not take a jump and show audiences something they have never witnessed before?

The fuzzy dinosaur Sinocalliopteryx actually ate other forms of feathered dinosaurs. Art by Cheung Chungtat, from Xing et al., 2012.
The fuzzy dinosaur Sinocalliopteryx actually ate other forms of feathered dinosaurs. Art by Cheung Chungtat, from Xing et al., 2012.

We shouldn’t feel bound by what audiences are comfortable with. I’ve never seen a major feature create a truly well-done, scary feathered dinosaur, mostly because they have been afraid to commit to science that differs from our cherished childhood imagery of what dinosaurs were. But if the creators of the original Jurassic Park showed the same fealty to old dinosaurs – tail-dragging, lumbering idiots – then the film might not have had the major cultural impact that it did. It’s time to take a calculated risk and update Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs.

Of course, I don’t have much any sympathy for complaints that feathery dinosaurs look lame. If feathered dinosaurs look silly, that’s because of a lack of care and attention from those that restore them. Paleoartists John ConwayEmily Willoughby, Julius Csotonyi,  and others, by contrast, have aptly demonstrated that feathered dinosaurs can be just as awe-inspiring and fascinating as the naked-skinned monsters we used to know. The only trick is fostering those dinosaurs according to science and looking to living animals to bound our speculation. Dipping a digital Velociraptor in electronic glue and shaking some feathers over it just won’t do.

If you’re being chased by a tyrannosaur, a carefully-arranged coat of fuzzy feathers doesn’t make the dinosaur any less fierce or threatening, just as there is something undeniably unsettling and scary about envisioning a Velociraptor cleaning blood from its colorful plumage after a kill. Letting feathery dinosaurs run wild could inspire a whole new generation of young fossil fans, thrill audiences, and give evolutionary science a much needed boost. When we eventually return to Jurassic Park, I most certainly hope to see feathery dinosaurs strut their stuff.