Promotional still from When Dinosaur Roamed America,
Discovery Channel 2001
A few things came together to inspire this post, and I want to emphasize up front that I'm not here to slam any of the artists involved, but rather to point out common errors or technique problems that are so common it's fair to describe them as systemic in modern paleoart, at least when it comes to 3D computer-generated models.
The first and most immediate were comments on this otherwise very nice looking CGI Dromaeosaurus model made by Matthew E. Dempsey and posted at DeviantArt. The first comment on the piece noted that the feathers should probably be longer. That's probably right. We know that basal paravians generally had pretty long body feathers, and there isn't much reason to suspect they were proportionately much shorter in larger individuals. Modern flightless birds may reduce the complexity of their plumage, but not generally the volume or length. You'll never, for example, see a bird with a short-cropped, cat-like pelt. This may be because the beneficial effects of feathers, such as nest brooding, insulation from heat and cold, and occasionally waterproofing, require a decent length beyond the skin and a good degree of overlap not possible if the body feathers are very short.
Matthew Dempsey (aka Sketchy-raptor) pointed out the biggest hurdle to making CGI maniraptor models this way: he wanted the feathers to be longer, but due to the way hair is rendered in CG programs (feather rendering is extremely complex and usually limited to specialized big-budget films like Up), adding long feathers to the CG "naked" raptor base resulted in absurd-looking sticky-out plumage that made it look as though the animal were being electrocuted. The compromise was to reduce the body plumage to essentially a glorified texture map, which makes the end result look like a dinosaur with feathers tacked on, rather than a feathered dinosaur.
Similar problems occur even in coordinated attempts to earnestly create believable and accurate feathered maniraptors. There is currently an Indiegogo movie project called Dino Hunt in production. The intent of this project is to create a realistic short film featuring dromaeosaurs hunting a ceratopsian, and it's close to reaching its fundraising goal for production. The overall project looks really cool. The web site features interviews with the producers who discuss their desire to see a nature-style dino doc done right, as accurately as possible. From the test footage, it seems to be a silent nature drama along the lines of Phil Tippet's classic Prehistoric Beast. If done right, this could be just the kind of dinosaur doc we've been clamoring for. No narration, no talking heads, no anthropomorphism, just a slice of Mesozoic life.
The producers, while they may have initially underestimated the sticklerism of paleo fans, seem to be game for fixing things in preproduction when called out on inaccuracies. For example, they initially had pronated hands on their dromaeosaurs. Once this was pointed out to them, they not only fixed the mistake, but posted a video about the classic paleoart mantra "clappers, not slappers." (Yes, the "fixed" version still has naked repto-fingers sticking out of the wing for some reason. Wings are modified hands, not things that stick off the hand. But it's getting closer!).
Despite these efforts, the overall look of the dromaeosaurs (at least based on available concept art) still suffers from the "body first, feathers later" technique. It is simply impossible to render a realistic bird-like animal by starting with a naked body and putting feathers over the musculature. Feathers are too complex for modern CGI to make that process yield even remotely believable results. As great a concept as Dino Hunt is, I have a bad feeling that Gorilla Suit Syndrome might completely break the illusion for myself and many other paleo-fans, whom this project seems to be aimed at.
As much as I eat up any and all dino-related media, I don't think I could get behind something that looked like.... well, like this:
|CGI restoration of Aurornis xui, by Masato Hattori.|
Don't. Render. Individual. Feathers.
It seems simple. A little too simple. But this is how CGI birds are always done, and it's something paleoartists need to figure out.
Imagine you were commissioned to do a CGI movie featuring chickens. If you were a paleoartist, you might spend hours or days modeling something that looked like this:
|From Amusing Planet|
But what you should have done is have realized that the muscles and even much of the skeleton of birds or any other maniraptorans probably did not contribute much at all to the life appearance of the animal. Those things are just scaffolding for feathers. Don't waste your time! A smart CG artist would use something like this as the base for a chicken:
Some CG feathered dinosaurs are improving in this way. The trailers for the new Walking With Dinosaurs 3D film seems to feature brief glimpses of maniraptors that have realistic, natural-looking feathers on the body (the lizard-faced troodont notwithstanding). They seem to have started from an appropriately fluffed-up base, and added just the tips of shaggy, ratite-like feathers, which gives both moving feather textures and the appropriate volume.
In the end, my advice to people making CG model of maniraptors will be a little counter-intuative. Ignore the underlying bone and muscle. Ignore it! You're just wasting your time rendering it, and it makes your finished product less believable to look at. Instead, sketch out a naturalistic version of what the animal would have looked like in life, figure out the contours of the feather covering, and just render that. You can then add as many shaggy feather tips as you want, but because you started with a realistic base, the whole thing will be much more accurate.