Friday, June 12, 2015

Why I Will Not Be Seeing Jurassic World

I love Dinosaurs. And being someone who works on animated films, you could rightfully assume that I Love Jurassic Park. I love movie magic, I love gnarly creatures, and I am a paleoartist. With all these ingredients, you might wrongfully assume that I would be absolutely stoked for the much talked-about Jurassic World. Leading up to its release, many of my friends have been asking my thoughts on it, and if I'm looking forward to it. Partly because my views are complicated, and partly because I'm tired of explaining the bite-sized version of my thoughts on the subject, I've decided to write an essay of sorts. The following is ultimately the reason why I am not rushing to the multiplex this weekend to check out Jurassic World. I apologize in advanced for the length, but to really understand where I'm coming from, you have to understand my relationship with the Jurassic Park franchise, as well as my passions for paleontology and paleoart. So the following are the thoughts that led me to the conclusion that I will not be seeing Jurassic World.


I've always loved Dinosaurs. Since I was a kid I delighted in learning about how they lived, how they looked, and how they were related to one another. I always tell people, that while many little boys relished in their toy trucks, I never cared much for nonliving things. I was much more excited about my toy dinosaurs and other animals.

The original Dinosaur Hall at the NMNH at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

  Out of all the toys and cartoons and books I engaged in as a child, there are really three major influences that helped cement my early love for Dinosaurs. The first Dinosaur museum I had ever been to was the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, back when I lived in Northern Virginia in the Washington D.C. suburbs. It was an incredible place that inspired wonder, and only further fueled my love for the natural world. I loved that place and enjoyed going back again and again.

I spent HOOOURS reading through the contents of this thing

The next major influence on my love for Dinosaurs, was actually a CD-ROM I had as a kid. It was called Microsoft Dinosaurs, When we moved to Northern VA, my family got our very first computer, and this was one of two or three CD-ROMs my brothers and I had for entertainment (to this day I'm grateful my parents provided us with ample educational entertainment opportunities growing up).  This Disc was loaded with information. It had tons of great drawings, and focused on all sorts of different areas of dinosaur studies. It is here where I learned about a much wider variety of dinosaurs than most books or movies represented, as well as how they were related to one another. I also learned here that Pterosaurs and Marine Reptiles aren't dinosaurs at all. It was also my first exposure to early Synapsids, and probably to the concept of evolution without even realizing it. As a bonus, the disc included a bunch of really great animated Dinosaur shorts that depicted some cool visuals and ideas, all of which treated the subjects as living animals. Most notable of these for me was Phil Tippett's Prehistoric Beast.


So I had a lot of Dinosaurs in my life, as a lot of kids do, but before I ever moved to Virginia, and before the two influences outlined above really started to put Dinosaurs into perspective for me, I was first exposed to the original Jurassic Park. It was 1993, and I was only six years old. It was the first PG-13 movie my parents would allow me to go see ('PLEASE MAKE AN EXCEPTION BECAUSE DINOSAURS!!').  Not only that, but I actually got to see it BEFORE it was out long enough to go to the Dollar Theater, which was unheard of at that time!

The movie was the first exposure I had that really tried to depict Dinosaurs as realistic living animals. The film talked about their feeding habits, their locomotion, illnesses, intelligence, breeding, social groups, and more. When characters talked about Dinosaurs in the film, they talked about them as if they were just regular animals. The film featured Dinosaurs I had never heard of before, such as Dilophosaurus and Velociraptor. It's where I learned there were different types of Sauropods. And even the toys taught me some things about dinosaurs:

'What's that thing between the raptor's legs? I thought all the Dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were female!' 
'Oh, it's because of the shape of the Pubic bone!'

 I saw the movie three times in the theater, The movie felt like something that could happen, and the expert use of animatronics, puppets, CGI, and good old fashioned suspenseful storytelling made it absolutely thrilling. And on top of that, the marketing loved to state how they used a real live paleontologist as a consultant to make sure things were right! Incredible! Like most of us, my little self was blown away.

We all know how much influence the movie has had on pop culture. It's the Dinosaur movie (For instance, before 1993, Velociraptor was an unknown, and now you can't have Dinosaurs in a film without some sort of Dromaeosaur running around.). After all, it is here where we all felt like we had seen real dinosaurs at last. They did it. They brought them back. Mission Accomplished!


...So imagine my surprise, when I popped in Microsoft Dinosaurs for the first time, and discovered that one of my new favorites, Velociraptor, was actually about the size of a turkey. And it didn't live in what is now Montana, despite what the field work at the beginning of the film would have you believe.

'Looks more like a 6 foot turkey!, just a turkey'

As a kid, I was confused, and felt a bit cheated. Really? That can't be right...can it? After all, they had a real Paleontologist who surely would have told them this was wrong, right?* The important thing is, after a few years of thinking I knew what dinosaurs looked like, I found out it was wrong. And it took some time to come to terms with the truth. It then made me question what else they got wrong in the film. There are plenty of scientific errors in Jurassic Park. I was able to come to terms with a lot of them in different ways- There are bigger Dromaeosaurs out there, so it's just a name- there were still animals much like the Jurassic Park 'Velociraptor' after all. Or - the frill neck and venom of Dilophosaurus is just a clever way of making a statement about how we have limited knowledge of soft tissues and behaviors that don't fossilize. It's a movie, after all. And a really great one with lots of memorable moments. They got a lot right, so I can forgive some things.

*I won't go into the details on the Jurassic Park Velociraptor misnaming and whatnot as it's been covered time and time again on the internet, and there's many differing versions of the story.

Time went on, and we got a sequel in 1997. I enjoyed the The Lost World: Jurassic Park quite a bit as a kid. As far as the animals were portrayed, I knew better about a couple of the inaccuracies of the first movie. I had come to terms with them. And in the new movie, they seemed to get a lot of things right about the animals. The Dinosaur stars once again made me feel like they were treated with respect. They did their research again, and let everyone know they had that famous consultant, so they probably wouldn't make the same mistakes again, right?

'No, you're making all new ones' - Ian Malcolm

 And there was a wider variety of animals! Ones we hadn't seen before, including my childhood favorite, Stegosaurus! And with the new dinosaurs came new ideas to continue the trend of treating dinosaurs like living animals. There's the running theme of parental care (both with Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus). There are ideas of conservation, and ecological and population studies. They also introduced the notion that not all dinosaurs were gigantic. (The Compsognathus was a fantastic touch). I felt like they had earned my trust back, even if the resulting movie wasn't as good as the first. Sure they didn't fix those raptors, but they had already established what they were like in the first movie, so I understood that it would take the audience out if they were suddenly tiny, or had a different name.

And then came the third movie.


Jurassic Park III (2001) was the first movie I saw, where afterwards I remember thinking. "Man...that was not a good movie." Especially considering it was one I was anticipating so much. This was the first time a franchise that I adored had let me down, and disappointed me as a fan. Not only was the narrative uninventive and devoid of any proper character or suspense, but I didn't know what to make of the brand new raptors.

The raptors looked very different from what was established in the first two movies. They were different colors, the males had a crest of quill-like proto-feathers, and even the skull shapes were different. Not only that, but they were ridiculously smarter than the raptors in the other two films (they should have met up with the clan from the second film and taught them some things, since those ones were as dumb and slow as (s)nails for the sake of cinematic convenience). The new look threw me off. In this movie, they attempted to update some of their 'science,' which is, admittedly, admirable. After all, the tradition of science and paleoart is to self correct and update with new information (see? That's what their paleo-consultant was there for!)!

'Velociraptor' in Jurassic Park III

 But considering how little they shifted, they might as well have not done it at all. The new raptors were part of the reason why I was taken out of the film (No more half measures guys). And it was unfortunate, considering the actual behavior and animation of the raptors were quite good. They had some real bird-like expressions, movements, and vocalizations. I once again tried to find ways to justify things. Maybe the quills are only on the males, which we haven't seen before this installment? Maybe they're a different species of Dromaeosaur altogether? But then why did Dr. Grant's laughable talking raptor dream, which happened before landing on the island, depict the new raptor design, and not the ones he already knew??

For this film, I couldn't find a way to justify it. At least not like I could with some of the problems of the first two movies. Also gone were the cool biological/environmental science themes from the first movies. But surely this film would have new dinosaurs we hadn't seen before, just like the last one, right? While true, other than the Spinosaurus and the Pteranodon (again, not a dinosaur), exciting new dinosaurs like Ankylosaurus and Corythosaurus were nothing more than mere cameos. At least in the previous movie, we got a little time with individuals like Parasaurolophus and Pachycephalosaurus. 

At this point, I felt done with the franchise. It had gotten itself into a bit of a jumbled mess, and I was ready to move on. And plus, this was the third one, and most sensible stories would gracefully end after a three part trilogy, right? Sure, there was much talk of a fourth installment trying to get off the ground. But then with the passing of both author Michael Crichton and special effects wizard Stan Winston in 2008, many thought it would be best to just let the series respectfully rest in peace.

Oh how little I understood about Hollywood at the time...


Rudolph F. Zallinger's "The Age of Reptiles" at Yale University 

While I was in grad school, I just wanted to make cool digital animals. I always thought animal anatomy and locomotion was fascinating. And creating, rigging, and animating creatures for films or research purposes is what I wanted to do. When conducting research to find a way to justify my Master's Thesis, and how it fit within the context of Digital Media as a whole, I really discovered what paleoart was all about. I had always liked the old murals I saw in museums, and the reproductions of paintings of prehistoric landscapes that I saw in books. I knew the works of people like Charles R. Knight and Rudolph Zallinger long before I knew their names. What I wasn't familiar with until I started my research, however, was the long history and tradition of paleoart. Plenty of people have written extensively about paleoart, and I won't cover it all here (If you would like to know more, feel free to delve into my thesis paper.). I will touch upon some key themes though. First off, paleoart goes back to the beginnings of paleontology. Paleontology is a very visual science, and much of the time relies on art to translate its ideas to the public in an intuitive way. The other important factor is that the aim of good paleoart is to be as scientifically accurate as possible.

But science is also a self correcting process. Ideas change. New evidence comes about. So how can paleoart ever remain accurate? It can't really. Paleoart has to constantly change and self correct as well. Animals look different in newer works, and some artists (especially now in the digital age) are constantly going back and revising old work to reflect new ideas. What is pretty incredible about this, is that when looking back at a timeline of paleoart through the years, you can easily track scientific ideas over history. A gallery show that chronologically showcases paleoart will double as the history of paleontology itself. 

Paleoart is how many people learn about prehistory. Whether it is accurate or not, it has an impact on what people think the prehistoric world was like. Once you see something, it can be difficult to imagine things another way. You already have a pre-conceived, visual notion in your head. For example, the reason we think of Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops as mortal enemies is largely thanks to this iconic mural by Charles R. Knight: 


You may be wondering what a 'monster movie' franchise ultimately has to do with traditions in art and science. Whether you like to believe it or not, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are part of this paleoart tradition. It became part of this tradition as soon as it boasted that it had accurate dinosaurs thanks to the help of a consulting paleontologist. Every single one of these films has stressed this collaboration. There are behind the scenes featurettes in the promotional materials of every film in the franchise. Even Jurassic World. 

While artwork, books, and museums teach people about long gone animals, films are often a much more immediate way to spread information, whether that's for better or worse. Films reach millions of people in a matter of hours. And that's one reason why, despite its inaccuracies, the science community has often stood behind the original Jurassic Park. It brought mostly up-to-date dinosaur science to the masses, in a convincing, entertaining way like never before. There is no doubt that the original film inspired many of today's up and coming paleontologists to do what they do. But remember, that movie came out 22 years ago. And what did we just learn about science and art? It changes. Sometimes rapidly. 

To be fair, I never wanted there to be a fourth installment. Because of the complicated 'continuity,' the sour taste number-three left in my mouth, and the inconsistent misleading scientific 'accuracy,' I always hoped that another new Dinosaur franchise would rise. This hypothetical new set of films would not be bound to what came before it. It could do its own thing. It could showcase feathery dinosaurs and fuzzy pterosaurs, that are visually appealing and up to date with current scientific ideas. This hypothetical new movie would treat its subjects with respect, and wouldn't be afraid to be both a great entertaining story, while also passively educating people in the way that Jurassic Park did.

(Quick aside -- Unfortunately, the closest thing we got was the visually brilliant, but horrifically produced Walking with Dinosaurs 3D in 2013. While I still think that this film has the best looking dinosaurs to ever be put on film, the result was ultimately a travesty due to studio meddling. The film was intended to be a silent mockumentary, but in fear of not appealing to kids, the studio forced the filmmakers to add voice-over of all the characters. This caused a horribly written constant juvenile narration throughout the entire movie; with hardly any breaks at all. IT. IS. PAINFUL... Even on mute, the story itself isn't particularly engaging, but damn do those Dinosaurs do a good job of reflecting current ideas, and showcasing lots of great animal motions and behaviors. I can even forgive them for a scaly Tyrannosaur, since Yutyrannus wasn't discovered until the movie was already far along in production.)

Walking with Dinosaurs 3D (2013)

Enter Jurassic World. The director, Colin Trevorrow, kicked off production with a tweet that lit the paleontology community on fire: "No feathers. #JP4"

If we've learned nothing else from dinosaur science over the last 22 years, it's that many dinosaurs of various types were full of all sorts of interesting integument - from full flight feathers to strange tail quills. Ultimately, I wasn't surprised by this revelation. I knew that Universal wouldn't want to change up their franchise, and were probably going to rely on nostalgia to get people to see it. But this is what did bug me about the new director's revelation: While I never expected the overgrown 'Velociraptor' or the Tyrannosaurus to suddenly have feathers in the new installment, (they're iconic 'movie monsters,' after all) the comment confirmed that none of the new animals would have them either. This bothered me, because there are some really cool weird animals we haven't seen yet on screen, that we know for a fact had feathers or other interesting integumentary structures. The franchise could potentially continue their science-friendly boasting if they at least showed some good will, by allowing appropriate new dinosaurs to be fuzzy. 

Imagine seeing Microraptor perched in the trees, or some big weird and fluffy Therizinosaurs browsing alongside the Brachiosaurus. This would allow the filmmakers to keep their 'continuity' while also showing they know better. If this movie really had to be made, this approach could allow them to have their cake and eat it too. It is a missed opportunity.

Instead, we live in a world where the Fourth 'Transformers' movie
 contains a more up to date dinosaur than a film called Jurassic World...

While the current take is expected, there is really no reason we can't have fully feathered 'veteran' dinosaurs as well. I can think of a number of reasons why. First of which, is that many of the animals have already looked vastly different in every film. Just look at the following examples:

Jurassic Park 'Velociraptor' throughout the franchise. 
By any form of scientific classification,
 all of these would be considered separate species...
(click to enlarge)

Jurassic Park Pteranodon throughout the franchise. 
You don't have to be a scientist to know that these are all
different designs. You might need to be a scientist to realize the
newest one looks the least like an actual Pterosaur
(click to enlarge)

Jurassic Park Brachiosaurus throughout the franchise. 
I really don't know what they were thinking with this one...
(click to enlarge)

So there's really no reason why they can't change things up. But sure, maybe you could argue that fully feathering something would be a much bigger change than color or shape changes. Don't worry, I have a solution to that as well. 

The new movie apparently focuses a lot more on the genetic engineering angle than the biological/environmental issues of the other movies. This could have easily allowed for a reboot of sort in design. We all know in the original movie, they explain how the scientists used 'frog' DNA to complete the gaps in the dino DNA. If the scientists of Jurassic World were real scientists, they should have realized that it would make more sense to be using Crocodylian or Bird DNA instead. And with this change, they could (like good scientists and paleoartists) be constantly revising their creations; trying to create accurate, more believable results over time. It has been 22 years, after all. Again. Another missed opportunity. 

I have been informed that there is a throwaway line in the film that shows that they know the dinosaurs of Jurassic World are not real dinosaurs, but genetically engineered monsters designed to conform to what tests well with the customers. It does sound like a clever way of jabbing at the studio, but they don't really seem to be doing anything about it either. 

Putting the issue of feathers aside, you would think that the designs of the new animals would at least get more interesting- whether that means more accurate, or at least more visually appealing. None of that is the case with the Pterosaurs in particular. These films love to boast their science cred, as we've seen already, yet they aren't even trying when it comes to the Pterosaurs. What were they even looking at when they approved the Pteranodon designs? And don't even get me started on the Dimorphodon... 

I've never seen such blatant disregard to basic anatomical shapes before. 
Where did they even get that skull shape from?? 
Not to mention the lack of fuzzy pycnofibers or properly shaped feet.

The fact that the Pterosaurs in films are still picking people up with their feet, despite the fact that they did not have a reversed hallux for grasping irritates me (Yes I know they did it in Jurassic Park III too, but you'd hope they wouldn't keep doing the same old trope over and over). I know they want the prehistoric flyers to be menacing, but why not draw upon some up to date Pterosaur research, which would expose the masses to some even more incredible animals. Imagine a 20 ft tall Pterosaur with a 50 ft wingspan picking people off the ground like a stork or heron. It would be terrifying.

The uninspired designs of new animals goes for color patterns as well. The filmmakers have once again been incredibly conservative in this area. While they could keep what they've established, there's no reason they couldn't design some of the new animals to have some striking markings akin to birds, lizards, or even African bovids. For example, there seems to be fan-favorite Apatosaurus in the newest installment of the franchise. And yet instead of making it visually interesting, based on our understanding of how living animals often have striking colors for display or species recognition purposes, we once again get another drab grey sauropod, making these new behemoths look unimaginatively similar to the first film's Brachiosaurus. How about some variety? They're not even the same animal!

It is these reasons why it appears to me, based on what I know, that the film is not paying respect to the science it relies on. There are plenty of opportunities were Jurassic World could have at least made an effort; showed some good will. And all I see is a disregard for the science. 

'But it's just a movie!' I know. Trust me. It essentially looks like a SyFy channel movie with a budget (but I won't comment on that because I haven't seen the film and therefore can't speak to the actual story). I wouldn't write this essay about another The Land Before Time movie. I wouldn't spend this much time trying to critique the anatomical and evolutionary inaccuracies and impossibilities in The Croods. But that is because the intention of those films are clear. They are supposed to be fun movies that grab inspiration from aspects of the real world, but are just kind of doing their own thing. And that is totally fine. I just know that Jurassic World is a part of a franchise which has demonstrably altered the public's perception of the animals it's depicting significantly. And it has the potential to do the same again. Especially when the PR team loves to push the paleontology collaboration. The other Jurassic Park films were aiming to be hard science fiction, where the truth and reality are expertly blurred in classic Michael Crichton style. So when a new movie in the series comes out, that disregards all the sort of research that Crichton would do for his books, it becomes glaringly obvious. I would argue that a film shouldn't try to present itself as a plausible hard science fiction thriller, but not include any actual scientific ideas in it. It brings the storytelling to another level when properly researched. Read pretty much any Michael Crichton book if you don't believe me. 

In all of this, I'm thinking ahead to that kid who, like I was, is introduced to 'modern' dinosaurs through a Jurassic Park film, only to find out his beloved 'raptors' aren't depicted correctly. Only this time, ALL the animals will be 22 years out of date, instead of just a few bits and pieces here and there.

There is no reason why we can't have both a fun entertaining film, as well as accurate animal designs. It can only serve to make it a richer experience. There is no doubt that this new film will inspire people to do some light reading or research on Dinosaurs out of pure curiosity. But what if when they went to Wikipedia, or opened a book, or visited a museum, they realized that the movie they just watched wasn't only accurate, but ahead of those resources? That would be an amazing thing indeed. 

The Lion King (1994)

I like to bring up The Lion King as another great example. This movie is an animated film. It has talking animals and isn't trying to be an accurate portrayal of the social dynamics of a lion pride, by any means. But there are so many subtle references to real animals, and their actual place in the ecosystem. It introduced me to animals I had never heard of before, and caused me to look them up and want to know more. This was not the point of the film. I would never consider The Lion King an educational film. But it had that effect on me because the artists took their time to make it true to the world and setting they were drawing inspiration from. It was what I like to call, 'passively educational.'

I have a dream that we will see that same sort of 'passive education' one day with the prehistoric world. I never expected Jurassic World to be that, as I've already stated. But just know that because of my love and respect for dinosaurs, the fact that I've spent a considerable amount of my adult life studying, contemplating, and learning about paleontology, paleoart, and media, and because of my experiences seeing firsthand how all of that affects culture, that I can not allow myself to contribute to the massive box office that Jurassic World is sure to take in. I know that, particularly today, studios will happily pump out sequels as much as humanly possible. I say humanly possible because we are the ones that allow them to do it. As long as people pay for the films, regardless of how good or bad the movies may be, the film studio will keep the franchise train chugging. Since I never wanted a fourth Jurassic Park film, and definitely don't want a fifth one based on what I know about Jurassic World, I will not pay for it. I've spent too much time caring about this stuff to just give in and support something that doesn't share my values simply for the sake of curiosity. I don't expect you to do the same. I'm sure the film will be entertaining as 'just a movie', and will even be pretty fun times. But I can't be part of the group that sends Hollywood the message this weekend that we want more of the same. 

I've spent many hours working at museums, having to reverse some of the preconceived notions that originated in a 22 year old movie. On the other hand, I've also seen my own art influence young minds, where they were able to quickly comprehend the subtle scientific bits I bothered to put into my work. I even watched as they excitedly ran to their parents to describe information they had just seen ten seconds earlier - which just so happened to be based on actual scientific papers rather than whatever I might have felt like doing at the time. It was a rewarding feeling to think I did right by those kids. And sure, some new data may come along that could make my work inaccurate, but at least I did the best I could with the available resources. 

Kids learning about ancient Crocodiles - Through Art!

So no, there's no reason technically why Jurassic World needs to be an even somewhat educational film. But the sad thing is there's no reason why it can't be. And with how imprinting mass media, particularly blockbuster movies, can be, this whole situation can only be described as a missed opportunity. 

I will continually be looking for that rich, entertaining, thematically moving, and scientifically inspired Dinosaur film that I've always wanted. The film that can be to this generation what the original Jurassic Park was to me and so many others (Will Pixar's upcoming The Good Dinosaur be it? Right now I'm suspecting it won't, but my fingers are crossed). Although based on the disappointments from the last few years, maybe I'll just have to make it myself...


P.S. Thanks for staying with me to the end. I warned you it was long! Here's a baby pygmy hippo to reward you for your patience: