Saturday, May 30, 2015

Wishful thinking: feathered dinos in Jurassic World

Ok, admittedly the raptors from the first Jurassic Park were cool. They were cool beyond reason, and I wouldn't change the 1993 film (though I would be interested to see a remastered feathery edition ...). You've probably heard by now that the raptors of that film are now outdated, and that many scientists and dinosaur aficionados are upset that the look is not being changed for next month's Jurassic World release. However, it may surprise the layman to learn that the raptors were out of date even at the first release of the film in 1993. Many scientists believed as early as the 1980s and even 1970s that dinosaurs had feathers. Darren Naish, paleontologist, science blogger, and co-host of the Tetrapod Zoology podcast recently recounted attending the release of the original film in his youth wearing a t-shirt protesting the featherless raptors. Even then, the view was becoming prevalent and only very conservative paleontologists envisioned raptors without feathers.

Then, 3 years later, we found the first feathered dinosaur fossil in Northeastern China, which has since produced feathered dinosaurs by the cartload. Feathers have now been found on nearly every family of carnivorous dinosaurs (including a large Tyrannosaurid), and even on some herbivorous ones. 1993's reluctance to put feathers on the raptors was a conservative decision. 2015's decision removes the film from scientific reality entirely. In the words of Tyrannosaur Expert Thomas Holtz:

"The original movies brought the dinosaur research of the 1980s to 1990s viewers, and the latest one seems to bring the dinosaur research of the 1980s to the 2010s viewers."

The 1980s to 2015—more than a 30 year gap, guys! That's the equivalent of Spielberg showing up  to the theaters in 1993 and instead of blowing our minds with the new vision of active, birdlike dinosaurs, opening a dusty film reel canister of 1962's Reptilicus:

Heh. "An annihilating Mastodon Immune to all known weapons of warfare," not to mention all suggestions of the scientific consultant. Ok, so maybe that's a bit harsh. Jurassic Park has much more scientific integrity than a 1960's B-movie, and in all honesty more than any dinosaur film before it and many after. That's what's saddening though—audiences came to the first film and saw dinosaurs as we knew them, something they could believe. In the words of Hammond, Jurassic Park's founder, "I wanted to give them something real." The filmmakers of Jurassic Park did their best within the constraints of storytelling to give the audience real dinosaurs; that's the Jurassic Park legacy. Now, there has been a conscious decision not even to try. I understand as a filmmaker that continuity is important, and that to the public at large feathered dinosaurs are still tough to imagine as being cool. However, for me at least, refusing to update the animals is a betrayal of the spirit of the original film, of the original book, and of Michael Crichton. I never knew him, but I grew up on a steady diet of his books—Sphere, Prey, Timeline, The Andromeda Strain, and countless readings of both Jurassic Park and The Lost World. Crichton, a medical doctor by training, was a man of science as much as he was a man of imagination, and it was the combination  of the two that made his books so compelling. He fed readers so much reality that they had to believe the illusion. He did exhaustive research on the topic of each book he wrote, rubbed elbows with the best minds in the fields of those topics, found the boundaries of human understanding, and it was there that he planted the magic. Just as the medieval map makers placed monsters at the edge of the earth, so Crichton placed his at the edges of human understanding. In each book the reader learns something, really learns something about science, and that is what makes the wonder of the unknown Crichton presents so much more sublime.

I am still incredibly excited to see Jurassic World. I love the world of Jurassic Park and am very excited to go back there. However, as I make my living creating dinosaur imagery, I recently indulged in a bit of speculative fan  art for a contest hosted by (top). The prompt was to design the cover for my ideal Jurassic World video game. Hence, the feathered raptor.

I made the concession that the raptor was a large Deinonychus rather than a Velociraptor, as the creatures in the film are actually based on the former animal. Deinonychus is known to be a pack animal, while Velociraptor has thus far always been found alone. In addition, Velociraptor was about the size of a golden retriever (see image below, taken with a handsome 6' (1.8 m) red-'froed guy for scale).

If I haven't destroyed your childhood image of Velociraptor enough, here are a couple of pictures from The Making of The Lost World: Jurassic Park by Jody Duncan.

Page 50

Page 153

Kudos to the filmmakers for bringing us back to Jurassic Park! Naked dinosaurs or not (should that factor into the MPAA rating?) I'm sure it's going to be a fun ride.