Saturday, December 22, 2007

Get your giant robot dinosaur on

Full disclosure up front: about two months ago, someone associated with Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience got in touch with me to see if I'd be interested in blogging about the show. Tickets were mentioned.

I put him off for a LOOONG time. Mainly because the only two California shows are in late December and early January, and I thought I'd be unavailable for both. But it turns out I will be town the first week of January after all, so I'm accepting the tickets and blogging about the show.

Now that you know I'm a corporate shill, you can believe what follows or not. I'm gonna say it anyway. If you suspect contamination, feel free to compare this post with everything else I've ever said about pop-culture dinosaurs, big machines, and monster movies, and see if I'm writing true to form. To their credit, the folks at Insight Management have been tremendously patient and they haven't given me any pointers or restrictions on what to say, beyond asking that I direct folks to the official site for photos and videos. Fair nuff.

FIRST thing is that I've been meaning to blog about this anyway, because it looks awesome. Jarrod sent a link to one of the videos months ago. The animatronic dinosaurs are very smooth. I love robots. My affection for dinosaurs goes a few orders of magnitude beyond that. So I was already on board.

SECOND thing is that I am continually surprised at how unpopular dinosaur shows and movies are among paleontologists. At least recent ones. The consensus seems to be that Ray Harryhausen's work is beyond reproof (which is true, if a little patronizing given what follows), but bring up Jurassic Park or Walking With Dinosaurs or the new King Kong and it's carp carp carp carp. Some favorites:

"They're just exploiting dinosaurs to make money!"

Goodness gracious! Why, I never! Those horrible capitalists, making a killing by selling people what they'll pay for. I'm equally outraged by the science fiction workers (in any medium) who exploit my yen for creepy aliens, space battleships, and exploding planets. Which is to say, not outraged at all, and in fact quite in favor of it. I'm still a little put out about the general lack of exploding dinosaurs, which I've mentioned here twice before. What do I gotta do, write a paper about it? Oh, speaking of:

"But you're a scientist. You work hard. What if they take your work and use it to make a movie and you never see a penny?"

Yes, yes, I am put upon. But let me see if I can climb down off the Science Cross and take a stab at this one. The possibility that someone else will use my ideas without paying me is a side effect of the maxim that science should be free. Mine is. Don't get me wrong, I love consulting on media projects. Because the gig is basically answering questions about dinosaurs--something I like doing and usually do for free anyway--and the amount of money that media folks have to throw around is pretty sweet compared to what I make lecturing about photosynthesis. But better than the money is the ability to sleep the sleep of the innocent, knowing that I have given the fruits of my labor to all mankind. Sounds melodramatic, I know. But it's true. If someone uses that to make a better monster movie, that's gravy.

The granddaddy of all ex-paleo objections to pop culture dinosaurs, though, is that...

"That's so unrealistic! Why, just look at the external nostril! It must be at least two-thirds of the way back in the bony naris--it's nowhere near Witmer-compliant!"

Yes, it's true, pop culture dinosaurs always fall short of full scientific respectability. Always. If you can show me a counter-example, I can give you at least half a dozen reasons why it actually sucks. I can think of at least three reasons why this is so:

- Media folks are in the making money off dinosaurs business, not the making textbooks business. See above.

- Paleontologists rarely agree about anything. I'm not just talking about stuff like BADD vs BAND, boredothermic vs apathetothermic, etc. I mean everything, from nostril position and pupil shape and size on out to muscle mass, fat deposits, etc. Or rather, we do have broad areas of agreement where the scientific questions are pretty much settled. But those areas are generally not the ones that are of much use if you're trying to reconstruct a living critter that looks and behaves convincingly. Like it or not, the whole life restoration business has a bit of a stigma amongst some Serious Paleontologists. Even if one could generate a static restoration that satisfied everyone, as soon as it moved an inch someone would start bitching.

As a case in point, there are aspects of the WWD sauropods with which I disagree violently. And the advisors who told 'em to do it that way are friends of mine, whom I like personally and whose work I respect. But (#1) respect and agree with are not the same. And (#2) only the paleontologist part of me disagrees violently. The guy-who-likes-dinosaurs side, which has an 18-year head start, thinks CGI sauropods rock and has literally spent hours watching them stomp around.

- I don't even agree with myself. The paleontologist part of me is a bit over a decade old, and I look back at some of the stuff that came out of my word processor back then and just shake my head. There is a line from an SVP abstract that I would erase from all human memory if I could. It's so appallingly dumb I'll probably end up blogging about it. But I've made peace with all that. Scott Aaronson has opined that if you're not occasionally wrong, your science is boring (not in that specific post, I just like that one and can't be bothered to find the real one). My ambition since I started has been to push (my particular tiny corner of) the edge of the envelope. Not for fame or glory. For curiosity. As soon as I get to the top of one hill, I want to see what the view from the next one looks like. And occasionally I've been wrong. That's life. More importantly, that's also science.

This is the tip of whole 'nother rant, about how science actually works and about the entirely overdone phobia among scientists of ever admitting that we've ever been mistaken about anything, which I'll have to expand on later.

But back to task. There is the practical matter, which is that a documentary or book that followed every one of my ideas to the letter would be outdated in a couple of years even to me. And there is the not-being-a-colossal-hypocrite matter, which is that if I can cut myself that amount of slack, I should be equally easy on other scientists (not easier--birds really are dinosaurs, etc.--just equally easy). If we're all ever 100% right, then science is over and we can get back to Resident Metal HaloStrike III with a clear conscience. Or commit suicide because we're bored to tears. And if I can forgive my fellow scientists for occasionally veering away from the Word According to Matt, I should multiply that forgiveness a couple of times to non-scientists who do stuff with dinosaurs. Who, in my admittedly limited experience, usually do want to get it right and are often baffled by the contradictory cacaphony coming out of the Academy--even as those of us on the inside recognize that conflict is vital to the success of the scientific process.

And--importantly--there is the guy-who-likes-dinosaurs matter, because he doesn't really care where the external nostrils are. Hell, he's nearly cried just daydreaming about live dinosaurs (and been man enough to admit it), so he'll probably wet himself when the life-size animatronic T-rex comes out and starts wrecking shop.

I'm still not done.

The ultimate reason why I am blissfully unruffled about the perceived scientific failures of the recent CGI dinofests is that I cut teeth on Saturday afternoon reruns and 50s-vintage dinosaur books. When I was 5 I knew all about Antrodemus and Trachodon, both of which stood bolt upright and dragged their tails, just like God and Neave Parker intended. (How many of you Gen Z weenies know what the hell I'm talking about [without any help from Google or Wikipedia]?) Where I came from, you couldn't get through a dinosaur movie without a fur-clad stud chucking a spear at a carnosaur while a bat-winged pterodactyl made off with the scantily-clad object of his affection. Three-fingered tyrannosaurs duking it out with giant apes, submarines fighting Brobdingnagian cephalopods, pissed-off brontosaurs eating guys out of trees, and cowboys lassoing dinosaurs in a lost valley--we had it all.

And I turned out all right.

So I'm pretty sure that the current generation of up-and-coming paleontologists will survive near-sighted tyrannosaurs and Diplodocus ovipositors. In fact, given that many of the current (and, okay, slightly older) generation freely admit that they became paleontologists because of the efforts of Ray Harryhausen, Neave Parker, et al., I'm willing to bet that CGI dinosaurs are one of the best things that ever happened to this science, even (maybe especially) when said dinosaurs stomped in from off-campus.

That goes for immense non-CG robot dinosaurs that roam around live on stage, too.

Anyway, to reiterate the main points of this essay, WWD Live looks pretty sweet, it's playing in San Jose on Dec. 26-30 and in Sacramento on Jan. 3-6 (other cities and dates are listed on the site), and barring cosmic accidents or someone giving me the axe for overly-genocidey blogging, I'll be there. And then back here to give my honest opinion.

The first and last photos are off the WWD Live tyrannosaur, and were provided by the folks at Insight Management. The rest are screencaps from One Million Years B.C. (#2) and The Valley of Gwangi (3 and 4) borrowed from various places on the interwebs.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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