Monday, December 7, 2009
Dinosaur Sunday: Good + Bad + Ugly
Last night, the first part of a new Discovery Sunday special aired, Clash of the Dinosaurs--sort of a slightly more rigorous and scientific-sounding version of the horrible Jurassic Fight Club. Hopefully, any DinoGoss fans will know that these types of CGI action-fests are only loosely connected to reality. One of the main criticisms of these shows, often pointed out online by the very experts featured as "talking heads," is that the writer will latch onto any speculative aside a scientist might have tossed around, and then present it in the show as a concrete fact. Apparently, audiences don't want to know about the process of science or that there may be debate (or no solid evidence at all) for some of these hypotheses. It's more exciting if we just know, man!
Anyway, in this post I'll go over a few things I noticed watching the show, informed by chatter on the DML today from some of he scientists featured and what they thought of the show. I'll also talk about the (very cool if very inaccurate in some very weird ways) show that followed (which I hadn't heard about!) all about Spinosaurus.
First, Clash of the Dinosaurs:
This species tried a bit harder than others to illustrate why we think dinosaurs were the way they're portrayed based on anatomical studies. Each CGI model came with a see-through version to show off the bones, muscles, gastric system, etc. While not perfect, they looked ok, though the show seemed to only focus on the brain for most dinosaurs. It also missed a good opportunity to highlight little-known aspects of anatomy, like the air sac system (especially in the sauropod and pterosaur).
External anatomy was even better in most cases. The T. rex looked great, much better than the god-awful Walking With Dinosaurs or slightly less awful Jurassic Park versions. The sub-adult Triceratops were cool looking despite the extra front foot claw, and from what we saw of the ankylosaur, they obviously did their research (hey, Ken Carpenter was one of the talking heads) rather than just giving it a random arrangement of nodes and scutes. The Quetzalcoatlus was decent, about on par with the When Dinosaurs Roamed America version, but it was not only naked but scaly, a complete departure from known science. Nice to see the leapfrog launch and terrestrial stalking papers come to life. However, the wings looked too much like simple flaps of skin, as in a bat. And the "X-rays" and narration gave no indication that they were anything but skin. No mention of the complex system of muscluature, inflatable sacs, etc. that made these structures true organs, rather than dermis.
The sauropod segments were especially good, and the show obviously benefited from having Matt Wedel of SV-POW! as a talking head. It did a good job explaining the age segregation of juveniles, and their "flood out the predators with food" reproductive strategy. Even the CGI models of Sauroposeidon were very good, with the correct number of fingers (though the back of the front feet were still elephantine and not concave as they should have been, but they're trying!).
What I can't forgive is the Deinonyhcus models, which while better than usual (certainly leagues better than JFC) still looked like ugly, overgrown lizards rolled in glue with feathers slapped on willy-nilly, very unnatural, with artificially "mean" looking faces (and apparently, Joker makeup for that extra serial-killer punch). The wing feathers were barely visible, and for a while I thought the arms were naked. What's the point of retaining wings for display (as we know for a fact medium-sized dromaeosaurs did) if you can barely see them? Basically, while CGI animators are getting better at following the facts (raptors had feathers), they're not getting the implication (they should look like giant Archaeopteryx, not mini T. rex with fuzz).
Summing it all up is an excellent quote from Tom Holtz (also featured on the show):
"The documentarians often take anything that any of the talking heads speculated about, and transformed these into declarative statements of fact. In some cases this is particularly egregious, because I strongly disagree with some of these statements and believe the facts are against some of these (say, about tyrannosaurid cranial kinesis...) and they present these as facts rather than suppositions."
For the record, on that cranial kinesis point, dinosaurs could NOT flex their jaws open like pythons. Lawrence Witmer, another consultant on the show, has demonstrated this thoroughly in print, but was not given a say on the matter, which is especially bad since it implies all the experts agree with Dr. Bob on this. Really, I imagine the producers must have loved having Bakker as a talking head, since it gave them license to depict all kinds of zany speculation as fact. I owe a lot to Bakker and idolized him as a kid, but I'd hesitate to call what he does 'science' and not 'unsubstantiated speculation to hype science for kids.'
One last pet peeve, then stay tuned for Spino. I'd estimate the CGI segments of the show totalled about 5 minutes of footage, with clips repeated over and over and over and over again to illustrate different points. I'd gladly accept lower-quality CGI if we could at least get some actual 'action' sequences that last more than 5 seconds apiece, and it makes me wish they'd bring back cheaper methods, even stop-motion. Some of the pieces showed even more skimping, like the baby Sauroposeidon with Walking With... Dimetrodon syndrome. That is, the hatchlings use the same model as the adults, making it look like they shrunk down, Mario style. Even worse, the Sauroposeidon hatching sequence takes place at night, on a wide sandy featureless field. With no sense of scale, it looks a herd of adult brachiosaurs emerging from the soil on the moon, which is actually pretty cool.
Oh well. At least they didn't put a Suchomimus head on their T. rex, but more on that later...