Tyrannosaurus redux: how do scientists and artists bring dinosaurs to life?
Image credit: Dinosarus in the Wild
New discoveries and technological advances have allowed palaeontologists to rediscover dinosaurs in incredible detail. Are model-makers and animators keeping up?
Crystal Palace Park in London is adorned with sphinxes, a maze, and crumbling old statues, but since the glass palace burnt down, its main attraction has been the monsters lurking around the lake. These creatures – the world’s first dinosaur models – were created under the scientific direction of Sir Richard Owen, a founding father of palaeontology who coined the name ‘dinosaur’ and founded the Natural History Museum.
For more than a century these bloated models reflected how dinosaurs were imagined, largely thanks to Owen’s influence. Owen was a controversial figure; among other misdeeds, he credited himself with the discovery of Iguanodon, which had been discovered by rival palaeontologist Gideon Mantell and his wife, Mary Ann Mantell. While Mantell saw dinosaurs as shrewd and birdlike, Owen saw dinosaurs as degenerates stuck in an evolutionary dead end and bound for extinction.
“Owen thought that dinosaurs were something of a failure: lizard-like and a bit slow and stupid and rubbish. Mantell thought, no, these things are really dynamic. That was a philosophical war, and Owen won it,” says Dr Dave Hone, a palaeontologist based at Queen Mary University of London. “If your starting assumption is wrong, all your interpretation is going to be wrong.”
For most of the history of palaeontology there were no academic groups, no professional researchers and limited fossil specimens; nobody was in a position to challenge Owen. His view was not overturned until the ‘dinosaur renaissance’ of the 1960s and 70s, when palaeontologists noted dinosaurs’ impressive bone strength, large muscles, and organs which could be in keeping with a high metabolism and active lifestyle. Crucially, the idea that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs finally took off.
One dinosaur reinvented by this renaissance was Tyrannosaurus Rex [T. Rex], which was thought to stand in a ‘kangaroo posture’ and drag its heavy tail on the ground. Simple lever models demonstrated that it could not balance like this, and a more streamlined posture with tail parallel to the ground was accepted. Museums scrambled to adjust their models, some of which had been forced into the unnatural pose with rods in their tails.
In the past decades, increasingly sophisticated methods have become accessible to palaeontologists, particularly with regards to dinosaur locomotion. Historically, dinosaurs were compared with modern analogues; for instance, giant pillar-legged dinosaurs were presumed to move like elephants. During the renaissance, researchers built on this foundation by scrutinising footprints. Notably, in 1976, Robert McNeill Alexander developed a formula (the ‘dinosaur speed calculator’) to calculate speed from footprints. While modern analogues and footprints remain invaluable today, computers have modernised palaeontology.
“Today, instead of just looking at dinosaur anatomy and conjecturing about how dinosaurs would have moved based on the bones, what has changed dramatically thanks to technology is that we can use computers to test out how dinosaurs might have moved,” says Professor John Hutchinson, an expert on biomechanical simulations of large extinct and extant creatures at the Royal Veterinary College. “We can build a digital dinosaur skeleton in 3D in luxurious detail now. That’s opened new doors for us to ask how dinosaurs might have behaved in deep detail.”
By examining detailed fossil finds – which can be non-invasively explored using CT scans – palaeontologists can identify not just traces of eyeballs, feathers and scales, but also of muscle.
“[Muscles] aren’t preserved in the fossil records, we only have the bones, but bones respond to the forces that are applied to them by muscles. So we can look at where the muscles attach to the bones and we can identify which muscles they are, and we can do that by comparison with the closest living relatives of the dinosaurs: the crocodiles and the birds,” says Dr Susie Maidment, a vertebrate palaeontologist based at the Natural History Museum, London.
Combining comparison with dinosaurs’ extant relatives with what we can infer from scarring of their bones by muscle, researchers can add soft tissue to skeletons. The resulting biomechanical models are used to simulate walking cycles and other movements, allowing researchers to experiment with position and strength of muscles, even the order individual muscles fire. Implausible or inefficient types of movement can be rejected, narrowing the range of possible movements.
“We’re getting to the point where you don’t even need a supercomputer to do pretty sophisticated simulations that predict how dinosaurs might have moved [...] computer power has enabled questions to be asked that were too hard to handle on paper,” says Hutchinson. For instance, palaeontologists can investigate how dinosaurs moved from four to two legs, or how their locomotion changed as they became birds.
New, high-quality discoveries (particularly from China) and computational modelling allow for the empirical study not just of locomotion but also of details such as breathing, circulation and bite strength. Professor Mike Benton and his colleagues at the University of Bristol have even reconstructed the colours and patterns in dinosaur feathers from the shape of fossilised melanosomes: pigment-packed organelles (specialised sub-units in cells).
“Colour used to be speculative, all you could do was compare your fossil dinosaur with living animals,” says Benton. To his surprise, analysis of the melanosomes demonstrated that many dinosaurs had extravagant plumage – stripy tails, bars across the wing and colourful crests – likely intended for sexual show.
As science has transformed dinosaurs, palaeontological art and sculpture has adapted accordingly. The model dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum in London appear sleek, agile and, in some cases, feathery. The T. Rex roars with its tail parallel to the ground and two Deinonychus – feathery structures on their arms – bob their heads as visitors pass.
“They look cuddly,” says Zoë, 7, on a trip from a local primary school. She would hug them like soft toys as long as they are not real; a friend reminds her that they are only models. They leave the museum with a thoroughly modern impression of dinosaurs.
“We [scientists] are consulted at every step of the way when they are making anything, right down to soft toys. Absolutely anything the museum is putting out to the public, it’s very important that the information is accurate,” says Maidment. “It’s a fast evolving field and that means that things move more quickly than the museum displays. One of the challenges is to keep the public informed and up to date within the constraints of what’s possible.”
A mounted set of bones offers a faithful depiction of the inside of a dinosaur, although fleshed-out, moving models tend to make for more memorable displays. Model-makers face the challenge of recreating creatures no human has ever seen, and about which knowledge is rapidly growing and changing.
Crawley Creatures – an animatronics company based in Buckingham – has provided animatronic dinosaurs for museums, the renowned BBC documentary series ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ and immersive attraction Dinosaurs in the Wild.
The company works with palaeontologists to collect reference images. 3D computer models are built from scans of skeletons, or based on detailed measurements. Engineers and designers use these models to decide what movements they want to achieve, and calculate whether the necessary actuators will fit inside the dinosaur.
“Once we know what gear we can fit beneath the surface of the creature, we can get all that into [a CAD file],” says Jez Gibson-Harris, CEO of Crawley Creatures. “We can work out an armature [framework] then the sculptor will come in and start sculpting in a water-based or wax-based clay. Once it’s all been signed off and approved we can go to the next stage, mould-making.”
A mould based on the sculptor’s work is used to produce flexible skins and an internal frame which is moved by actuators. A fibreglass shell covers the metalwork and supports the actuators, while soft materials like furnishing foam bridge the gap between hard metalwork and semi-rigid fibreglass, and help give the appearance of musculature. Increasingly, the company has been adding 3D-printed components, particularly in small hatchling animatronics.
Palaeontological studies (including those using biomechanical models) prove useful for Crawley Creatures, although living animals provide the main inspiration for the movement of their models. Replicating subtle movements lifted from living animals, such as the flickering of an eyelid, can create a sense of familiarity in the model.
“[The movements] may not be realistic but when we’re putting the creatures in front of the public, it’s what the public expects the animals to do,” says Gibson-Harris.
From the Crystal Palace sculptures to the Dinosaurs in the Wild animatronics, models give way to intimate experiences with these long-dead giants, but their range of movement is limited, particularly in a museum setting. In order to create dinosaurs capable of chasing prey, engaging in dramatic combat or devouring a lawyer sitting on a toilet, it is necessary to move into the realm of animation.
While Crawley Creatures built approximately 20 per cent of the dinosaurs in ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’, the majority were computer-generated. Like model-makers, animators are challenged to recreate living, breathing dinosaurs based on dusty bones.
“We’re dealing with a very speculative area, but that’s what recreating extinct creatures is all about,” says Tim Haines, who created ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’. Haines employed six scientists across a range of subject areas and took on their comments with every detail of the dinosaurs. Benton, who consulted on the series, felt that it was “very much a community effort”, which the vast majority of palaeontologists was pleased with.
The animators began with ‘stick figures’ based on fossils, to which they added soft tissue and pelt and gradually built up into cylindrical structures. Although scientists were consulted throughout, Haines also values artistic interpretation.
“I’ve seen scientists try to recreate things like a theropod walking with computer models and it’s often not very convincing because they end up with this repetitive clock-like cycle and you will always need an artist to have a look,” says Haines. “And it’s very difficult in scientific terms to identify what that is [...] it’s about trying to marry together what looks right with what the scientists say is right.”
Dinosaurs in the Wild is an immersive experience created by Tim Haines, the man behind ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’. According to Haines, the attraction was intended to be a sort of “dinosaur safari, to give you a feeling of what it’d be like to see the dinosaurs out of the window”.
Visitors to the Greenwich-based attraction are transported 67 million years into the past to explore a research facility surrounded by wild dinosaurs. Guided by actors playing employees of the facility, they observe a dinosaur post-mortem, eggs hatching and dinosaurs frolicking outside the windows. Highly realistic animatronic and animated dinosaurs are at the heart of the attraction and, during its development, the team behind the show wanted to ensure that these dinosaurs were up to date with current research.
“There’s still this modern theme that dinosaurs are quite bland, boring, big scaly things, and the actual fossil evidence is totally contrary to that,” says Dr Darren Naish, the vertebrate palaeontologist who served as the scientific adviser to the project. “I hope people realise immediately that these are not the dinosaurs of our parents or grandparents, these are modern, new, weird dinosaurs. So you’ll notice bright colours, unusual skin structures and interesting behaviours.”
In order to ensure that the dinosaurs were brought to life as accurately as possible, the animators began by studying biomechanical models created by palaeontologists and added appropriate colours, patterns and textures to the creatures. Although Dinosaurs in the Wild strives to be as scientifically accurate as possible, Haines says an element of constructed drama is necessary to bring the action to a climax, despite the behaviour being “very unlikely”.
When it comes to combining palaeontology with cinematic appeal, it is impossible not to think of ‘Jurassic Park’, which blasted dinosaurs into pop culture. The film series’ popularity puts its animators – as well as its model-makers – under immense pressure to deliver dinosaurs that are both accurate and exhilarating.
The ‘Jurassic’ animators strongly mimic movements of modern analogues when breathing life into their dinosaurs. Scientific adviser Jack Horner – the inspiration for ‘Jurassic Park’ hero Dr Alan Grant – helps pick appropriate reference animals: rhinos for triceratops and ostriches for raptors, for example. The naturalistic movements lifted from these animals are the “hallmark of the ‘Jurassic’ films”, says Glen McIntosh, who has overseen animation on three of the films at visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).
The movements of living animals are also infused with motion-capture performances. During the making of ‘Jurassic World’, ILM animators studied footage of herons and other birds in order to build a retargeting system to translate actors’ upright postures into a raptorlike posture (almost parallel to the ground) in real-time. The technique proved so effective that it was also used on motion-capture performances for the T. Rex and genetically engineered Indominus Rex.
“If we don’t count birds – which we should – nobody’s ever seen a living dinosaur, but we’ve all been to the zoo, we’ve all watched the [David] Attenborough documentaries,” says McIntosh. “So by imbuing the mannerisms and movements of an elephant or rhino onto an Apatosaurus or Triceratops, it feels real to the audience. They don’t know why it feels real but it’s because we’ve assigned the naturalistic movements of modern animals.”
Like academics, animators use living analogues and computer models to generate possible forms of motion, and reject implausible forms of motion. Unlike academics, however, filmmakers have the freedom to make aesthetic judgement calls. For instance, after inflating the Mosasaurus in ‘Jurassic World’ from 18m to 36m in length in order to achieve a more dramatic shot, its animators chose to sacrifice its forked tongue, which appeared too fantastical.
“It started to feel more like a dragon from ‘Game of Thrones’,” says McIntosh. “If most of the audience saw this giant animal with a forked tongue they’d roll their eyes [...] We didn’t get it wrong, it was just an aesthetic choice based on what most people are going to believe when you present it.”
Similarly, the droopy-tailed Stegosaurus seen in ‘Jurassic World’ may have incensed dinosaur enthusiasts, but was a deliberate choice inspired by classic palaeontological art, such as Rudolph Zallinger’s iconic The Age of Reptiles mural (depicting sluggish, 1940s-style dinosaurs). Combining palaeontological art and research under the vision of directors and animators, McIntosh believes that the ‘Jurassic’ films are a “really nice amalgamation of art and science”.
“‘Jurassic Park’ was such a watershed for palaeontology,” says paleontologist Hone. “It brought the fast, smart dinosaurs to the world and had it not done so I wouldn’t be surprised if we weren’t still broadly stuck with that [pre-renaissance concept] as the public impression of what dinosaurs looked like. The irony is that it hasn’t moved in the past 25 years.”
Horner, who continues to serve as scientific adviser on the ‘Jurassic’ films, says the films have challenged assumptions about dinosaurs: not just lingering ideas of slowness and stupidity, but also the assumption that they were uncaring monsters (rather than birdlike creatures who nurtured their young). This was more than they had the responsibility to do, he says.
“The science doesn’t really need to be in ‘Jurassic Park’,” says Horner. “It was nice that Steven [Spielberg] tried to get a bit of it, but ‘Jurassic Park’ is a fictional film and the idea is to make money, not to educate.”
Many palaeontologists – including Horner – wait in anticipation for a big-budget alternative to the ‘Jurassic’ series which depicts dinosaurs as we understand them now: active, colourful, feathery, and perhaps even cute. Meanwhile, creatives like McIntosh hope their thrilling – if sometimes inaccurate – recreations of dinosaurs give something back to palaeontology, as inspired viewers go on to seek new knowledge and in some cases pursue research careers and make their own discoveries.
Since the dinosaur renaissance, palaeontologists have employed increasingly sophisticated technologies to learn more than they thought possible about dinosaurs, recreating their movements in detail and even decoding the patterns in their feathers.
Meanwhile, the work of model-makers and animators has brought dinosaurs – and new knowledge about dinosaurs – to a far broader audience. Palaeontology has become a far more open, empirical, creative and exciting field: a world away from the early days when nobody was in the position to ask Sir Richard Owen whether his Crystal Palace dinosaurs looked just a little bit too stupid.
Six of the most iconic dinosaurs
Dippy: Dippy is the 32m-long plaster Diplodocus replica which welcomed visitors to the Natural History Museum from 1979 until its replacement in July 2017 with a blue whale skeleton.
Godzilla: Godzilla, or Gojira, is a member of the fictional Godzillasaurus species. The vast dinosaur-inspired character has been depicted in 29 films as a destructive sea monster empowered by radiation.
The ‘Berlin Specimen’: This is the most complete Archaeopteryx fossil and ranks among the world’s most famous fossils, beautifully demonstrating the transition between dinosaurs and birds.
Yoshi: Yoshi is a much-loved protagonist of Nintendo’s ‘Mario’ games. A bouncy green dinosaur, Yoshi gives rides to players and will consume almost anything with a flick of its prehensile tongue.
‘Jurassic Park’’s T. Rex: This T. Rex, which was created with animatronics and visual effects, has a reputation for being among the most chilling and powerful big-screen villains.
Dino from ‘The Flintstones’: Dino is pink and lives like a dog in the Stone Age. He may bear as much similarity to a dinosaur as a banana, but if you’re taking science lessons from ‘The Flintstones’ you have bigger problems than palaeontological misconceptions.