Monday, December 7, 2009

Dinosaur Sunday: Good + Bad + Ugly

Above: The T. rex has not thought this through.

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.

Above: Nice pycnofibres, dork.

The discussion of Quetz's eyesight is a good spot to illustrate one of the points I mentioned above. The show asserted that Quet could see in UV, following urine trails etc. of its prey on the ground, and that it would have been eagle-eyed, hunting mainly from the air. The reason all this was in the show, is that expert Mike Habib (one of the talking heads) had a quick back and forth with the interviewers, who asked him if its eyesight would be as good as birds. Mike said it was plausible that it would have had similar eyesight to storks and hawks, and that (since it apparently hunted prey on the ground) maybe could have spotted food from the wing. This translated to Terminator-vision and rock-solid factual statements that it could see for miles. Of course, we have no way of knowing, but I would have said that it would be more stork-like than eagle-like, hunting on the ground, not on the wing.

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!).

Above: The role of Deinonychus is played by Heath Ledger. Why so serious?

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.'

Above: Sauropods... in... space!

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...


  1. I'm sorry, but this is some of the worst crap I have ever seen. Bakker does not do science? You really think you can sum up all of this man's work as 'unsubstantiated speculation to hype science for kids'? WTF? This man knows more than you ever will. 'Zany speculation'? If you subscribe to the hypothesis of warm-blooded dinosaurs and birds having evolved from them, well, I have news for your retarded little head, that was once consideered "zany speculation". What is wrong with you, just jealous or somethin'? Jealus because you will never be remembered for anything other than chronic constipation, whilst Bakker will be remembered as a vetran of paleontology? You are a loser who needs to get a life. BTW, your artwork sucks.

  2. Sorry, misspelled 'Jealous' as 'Jealus' that second time. But you are so retarded you probably wouldn't have noticed anyway.

  3. Thanks for your mature and reasoned counter-argument. Please direct me to the last peer-reviewed paper Bakker has published on his thoeries so I can educate myself.

  4. I, personally, thought Jurassic Fight Club wasn't THAT bad. ALthough, one can not watch it and not notice what science was sacrificed for entertainment. My friend, "Dinosaur George," the creator of Jurassic Fight Club DOES have a decent reserviore of knowledge but, sadly, he can be a bit off the mark at times. And, thanks for the review! I'll be watching it this weekend! (I have it on my DVR. ;))

    BTW- I LOVE how you handled that belligerent fool above. lol! You were just as calm as can be! I'm impressed. And, did I detect a bit of sarcasm in your voice?

  5. @Anonymous: Bakker does like to throw out a lot of weird ideas without backing them up. That's not a horrible thing, necessarily, but I agree with Matt that he could make it more clear when he's just speculating, and when he's talking about ideas that have actually been tested.

    If you go back and read Dinosaur Heresies, I think you'll find that about half the chapters hold up reasonably well and the other half don't. That's not bad for a book that came out in the '80s, especially considering the boom in research that came later. (Which he is certainly in no small part responsible for inspiring.)

    His publication record has been a bit sparse. In the past decade there's been the Bambiraptor paper and the Dracorex paper -- can't think of anything else off the top of my head.

    (Hmm, the "whilst" and the misspelling of "veteran" as "vetran" makes me think this commenter is English ... but then why "paleontologist" instead of "palaeontologist"?)

  6. Nice review. I haven't seen this, but in some ways it looks better than other documentaries. Clearly still has a lot of room for improvement though.

  7. Who cares, Mike? He might be Australian like myself. We are influenced by both cultures but I personally prefer to follow the English pattern because they invented the language. I think it's best to say his attitude comes from the internet age where being a 'fanboy' is fashionable.

    Anyway, I watch those shows for the reconstructions and I never thought we'd go down in the world after the the 'Walking With' specials and a few of the others. Dinosaur Fight Club was a real disappointment after all the hype Dino George gave it himself. One should have heard the alarm bells when encountering the title.

    Paul W.

  8. I came to know about Dinosaurs only after watching Jurassic Park but hey I love them even though they are one of the Ugly animals :)