Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jurassic Park 3D: a beleaguered novice's view

For some reason or other, the UK release of Jurassic Park in 3D has been pushed back to August - in spite of the fact that it's been out in mainland Europe for a while now (as it has been in the US). Fortunately, my girlfriend Nicole - who is Dutch - offered to go and see it with me over there. Unbelievably, Nicole had managed to avoid ever seeing Jurassic Park - save the occasional snippet while flicking through TV channels - and so the 3D screening in Amersfoort would be her very first time. Naturally, this made us quite the contrasting pair, what with my childhood obsession with and gratingly geeky adult ability to recite lines from the movie.

Therefore, rather than produce yet another gushing retrospective on the awe and the majesty and the dinosaurs truly being brought to life and that amazing range of huge, rubbery toys, etc. etc., I thought it would be a lot more entertaining for the dino-geek-o-blog-o-sphere to hear what it's like for an outsider to see Jurassic Park for the first 2013. With an enthusiast in tow. Oh dear.

"WHAT?! You haven’t seen it?!" 

No. I had never. I admitted over and over again. "Why haven’t you seen it?" I don’t know. My parents never watched it and as I was just an annoying four-year old toddler at the time it was released, I hadn't either. They probably wouldn’t have allowed me to anyway. All those scary animals. No, I had a safe childhood with my Disney films and Lego and such.

So, yes. YES. I had never seen it - the big movie - ever in my life. It must have been one of the biggest disappointments that my coughdinolovinggeekyboyfriendcough (no offence, my dears. Nor to everyone who reads this) had experienced since he was going out with me.

No. NO. I had never seen Jurassic Park.

So a long period of convincing the girlfriend started. Even though he didn’t nag, there were slight but clear signals that I should give in and watch. Sometimes he would say: "They're expensive, they're noisy, they smell..." when I was once again pointing out a sweet, beautiful, little baby two metres away from us. I felt offended and started a ramble about why babies are nice and that he was one once as well. Well, I guessed the latter.. More of those quotes which made me frown followed in his apparently 'convincing girlfriend period'. "Nice hat. What are you trying to look like, a secret agent?", " man. Woman inherits the Earth". WHAT THE….?!  Ever since Jurassic Park 3D was about to be released, the pressure got higher and higher...

So last Saturday, the unforgettable 25th of May 2013, we took the train to a city nearby to watch the afternoon show of Jurassic Park 3D in a very quiet cinema. I was all geared up but still didn’t really know what to expect. I was about to watch THE movie while being a complete noob on the topic. In my opinion, it started rather nicely. As you all know palaeontologist Dr. Alan Grant and the lovely Dr. Ellie Sattler find an amazing skeleton and are overwhelmed. Dr. Grant scares the child very well and makes the not so full cinema laugh (they all probably knew this bit). Good start. But suddenly a prick – called John Hammond – decides to fly into the area with his fat ass helicopter to convert them to go over to his fancy theme park. OK, you probably all know this scene. They were converted very easily – too easily - and so it all began.

Palaeontologists: they just want your money.
The film went on and I started to wonder when the real dinosaurs in this blockbuster movie would appear. It was Jurassic Park after all. But just as I was thinking that, I got pleased by Mr. Spielberg.  The car stopped and Dr. Grant saw something he could only dream of. While struggling to take his glasses off and trying to turn around the head of his girlfriend, he sees a giraffe-like dinosaur. He's overwhelmed and so is Dr. Sattler. Where I would run away out of fear, the pair easily steps out of the car, as if they see a not so dangerous dog wandering around. Oh, little note: I know now that you don’t have to feel fear for this brachiosaur, as it only eats veggies.

The story continues. With bombastic (but lovely) music, the cars arrive at the visitors’ centre and we get to see a long long explanation of how the dinosaurs came into the park. From finding the mosquito to the breeding and feeding. Of course, it’s quite important to know. You can’t miss it. But where’s the action?! In the meantime I started to feel some affection for the bad ass but very clever Dr Malcolm. Rrrrr. Good for the ladies [I think The Fly remake is next on the cards - M] Anyway, they go on and on and finally they're in the cars, heading for the T. rex area. THE MONSTROUS T. REX! Of course the insidious Mr. Nedry aka Wayne Knight (oh yes, you’ll already know) has sabotaged the whole system. This is where I thought the proper tension finally began. And yes: the T. rex was huge and was going for the kids (of course, the poor kids!) and proper fear was speeding through my veins.

It was only after this T. rex encounter that I thought the film was about to start. Excitement, compassion, anxiety and sometimes a slight feeling of terror was felt in my fingertips and toes. It helps that there were children involved and that the man with the biggest aversion to kids had to deal with them. Poor kids. Or poor Dr. Grant.

At one point Nedry gets attacked by this dinosaur which looked lovely but wasn’t so lovely after all. At that moment I had to ask the boyfriend which species this was, but he shushed me. Finally I had proper interest in his subject and then all he did was shushing me. As you might understand: I am still offended.

I especially liked the bit where Dr. Grant and the children are sleeping in the tree and suddenly there’s a brachiosaur eating the leaves nearby. Personally, I thought this was a bit for the ladies (which may be sexist. My apologies girls! Girls like dinosaurs too!) who were dragged along with their geeky boyfriends. It was like some sunlight was shining through the film and everything seemed happy in the terrible situation they were in. Somehow I did expect the girl to fall out of the tree though, which – fortunately for her, but slightly disappointing to me – did not happen.

Quickly after that lovely part, we had to go back to the dinosaur terror. The part where the Velociraptor comes through the wall where Dr. Sattler had just switched on the electricity especially scared the blubbers out of me. It didn’t help that Mr. Boyfriend knows the film by every scene and grabbed my arm at the same time as the dinosaur was suddenly appearing.

Anyway, we know how it goes (if you don't then I just don't want to spoil it all) and the children and doctors escape luckily from the Velociraptor because of the scary but now slightly friendly T. rex.

To make a long blog post short: I thought the film was OK, but not too good. I speak from an entirely subjective point here, of course. There was a pretty good story and I think it's a much better Spielberg film than for example War Horse. But I have to admit that the dinosaurs didn't grab me at all. Maybe it's because I am already used to big big animals in films (Life of Pi – to name one) and the dinosaurs weren't CG exceptionnel. I can imagine why this film was such a hit in the '90s though, as animals – and especially dinosaurs – weren’t shown on the big screen like this before. The film was all right, but I am not entirely sure if I will ever buy the DVD, if you get what I mean.

Still I am happy that I have finally, properly, entered the world of the boyfriend now. I don't regret it. Besides that I feel very obliged – as I am the biggest noob in the Universe on this topic - to write a post on this blog. Which by the way is very, very precious to him, dear readers.

Oh, I shouldn’t forget this: the music in the film was great!

A big thanks for reading and well done if you have made it to the end of this post! -- Nicole Heins

Nicole, recently.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs (a Little Golden Book)

After so many trips back to the '80s and '90s, it's good to return to a book that's properly vintage. Dinosaurs was number 355 in the impressively diverse Little Golden Book series from Golden Press of New York, and was published in 1959. It was a simpler time, when a kids' dinosaur book could be purchased for a mere 25 cents, and palaeoart consisted of lush forests, erupting volcanoes, and giant lizards...all too literally.

For you see, while the illustrator William de J. Rutherfoord was clearly an immensely talented individual - just take a gander at the beautifully painted cover art, with its murky, ashen sky and vibrant, surprisingly dynamic dinosaurs - he was a little prone to quite literally applying lizards' heads to dinosaurs' bodies. The cover provides one such illustration, with the noggin of a slightly perturbed-looking small lizard grafted atop the body of a generic sauropod. It looks bizarre to say the least, especially given that the chasing tyrannosaur appears to have the head of, you know, a tyrannosaur. The anatomical mash-up makes the book an entertaining read, though, as you can never quite be sure when a lizard-headed beastie will pop up next.

In the tradition of countless dinosaur books before and since, the reader is taken on a (mostly) chronologically ordered trip through the ages, with illustrations of and snippets of text on the various animals to be found at different points in Earth's history. As such, the crocodylomorph Saltoposuchus makes an appearance early on - slightly ill-proportioned, but with lovely skin textures and patterns. For whatever reason, it's depicted standing next to the much later dinosaur Compsognathus, itself sporting a shrunken head and extra lizardy digits; it may be that the illustrator intended the animal to be Procompsognathus, but it ended up mislabelled. Regardless, these are very conventional depictions for the time, which makes what follows all the more baffling...

Now, prior to the Dinosaur Renaissance, artists had a habit of interpreting dinosaurs' anatomy somewhat...loosely. Not only were the dinosaurs' obviously mightily muscular limbs reduced to weedy stilts propping up exaggeratedly blobby frames, but features like skulls were often smoothed over or their shapes changed in order to be closer to living reptiles, and in particular lizards like monitors. In this sense, Rutherfoord's approach can be seen as a particularly extreme example of an artistic convention, but...really? An iguana? For Allosaurus? Really!?! As already noted with the cover, what's strangest of all is the lack of consistency - even in the very same illustration, as the wonderfully knobbly Stegosaurus is entirely normal (even rather good) by contemporary standards. On the other hand, images like this wouldn't be so fantastically bizarre if Rutherfoord wasn't so good at painting, well, lizards - it's the realism evident in the iguana head that makes this image all the more amusing.

Continuing with the theme, we see here two suspiciously serpentine sauropods - the Diplodocus in particular looks like a snake that's swallowed a decapitated elephant. That said, the vibrant skin patterns - at a time when sauropods were inevitably depicted as dull in every sense - are a very welcome change from the norm, and really help enliven this otherwise quite static (and somewhat familiar-looking) scene. And speaking of the familiar-looking...

It's good ol' snorkelling Brachiosaurus again, here described as having the evasive habits of a cartoon ostrich - again, though, the bright-green-with-yellow-stripes look is just fabulous. Darling. I can't help but feel that an opportunity was missed for a rhyme here...
There was Brachiosaurus, biggest of all.
Massed fifty tons and was forty feet tall!
But he couldn't run. He couldn't fight.
Instead he went waltzing, all thro' the night.
Or, you know. Something like that.

Entering the Cretaceous, we encounter the usual suspects, all of which look rather conventional - there's a none-too-shabby Triceratops, an ever-so-slightly creepy "Trachodon" (and yet certainly nowhere near as creepy as it could be), and a gleaming Struthiomimus being impolitely hassled by the only large pterosaur that anyone knew about until the 1980s, Pteranodon.

Tyrannosaurus rex killed small animals for fun,
Not unlike an old man wearing tweed with a gun.
But thwarting his plans with a wry little smile,
Was Ankylosaurus, who went clubbing with style.

I'm so sorry. But Sexy Rexy's appearances in this book really are marvellous. Just as the coolest action movie stars walk calmly away from the searing heat and eardrum-threatening sound of dramatic explosions, so the awesomeness of T. rex is emphasised by its standing proudly, resplendent with its glowing yellow head, in front of a very violently erupting volcano. But, glorious though it is, such an illustration is not enough to firmly establish the animal's infamous belligerence. Fortunately, then, Rutherfoord provides another T. rex showcase.

What this plesiosaur was doing on land is anyone's guess - and so far from the sea! - but T. rex is having none of it. Yes, I know, it was once thought that plesiosaurs might have come on to land to lay their eggs etc. etc., but to modern eyes this image is still fantastically deranged-looking. It has a faint 19th century air about it - it's reminiscent of those early etchings in which Iguanodon and Megalosaurus cheekily grabbed each other by the rump, and plesiosaurs and mosasaurs had bloody, eye-gouging battles out in the surf while bat-winged pterosaurs watched. The only way this could possibly have been improved would be if T. rex were to have the head of a bearded dragon. I suppose this will have to do.

Plesiosaur fans will be happy to learn that their favourite sauropterygians aren't just unlikely tyrannosaur fodder in the Little Golden Book - they also get to happily splash about and, er, bask on the grass. The water is beautiful - Rutherfoord has clearly taken great care over the reflections on the gentle waves and the wake and splash left behind by the elasmosaur and ichthyosaur, respectively. I'm also very fond of the unusual python-like colouring of the smaller plesiosaurs...although perhaps not the python heads. The text, meanwhile, is rather rude about our saurian friends. Tiny brains? Whenever did that matter...?

Don't you hate it when you head out for a picnic close to your favourite spot in your home town  - next to the river, with a picturesque view of the hills and the old willow trees - only for it to be spoiled by a group of phantom dinosaurs? The last thing you need on your day off is to be swatting at the ghostly noggin of some dino-geist as it vainly attempts to swipe the pastries from your pick-er-nick basket. In all seriousness, though, this is a wonderful image - show this to a kid, and after they've pointed out how outdated the restorations are because all kids these days are such precocious know-it-alls, damn them, they'll be entranced. It's an enchanting way to link the present with the distant past, to connect the vanished Mesozoic with the now - after all, both we and the dinosaurs are part of the history of life on Earth, and one day we'll be as utterly dead as they are (er, except birds, of course). 


After my usual Facebook preview, many readers expressed how fondly they remembered this book from their childhoods. Among them was Terry N Thielen, who received it as a Christmas present back in 1984...

Thanks Terry!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Carl Zimmer's Feather Evolution video

Science writer Carl Zimmer narrates a recent TED educational video summarizing our knowledge about the evolution of feathers. Part of a lesson at the TED-Ed site and animated by Armella Leung, it's a really well done crash course in current thinking on feather origins.

Did you note the derivatives from different pieces of paleoart? The Epidexipteryx is clearly based on the Qiu Ji and Xing Lida reconstruction, and the displaying Caudipteryx is Sydney Mohr's.

Those bits aside, I love the way the idea of deep time's mysteries and evolution's imperfect and haphazard processes are illustrated with the sketchy illustration style, and the use of the white feather silhouettes when Zimmer discusses the early functions of feathers is inspired.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs - A Picture Dictionary


Today's featured book is 1990's Dinosaurs: A Picture Dictionary. Featuring evocative artwork by Tessa Hamilton, it features a welcome variety of animals due to its alphabetical imperative - an organizing theme which also forgives some temporally and geographically questionable pairings of animals. It also just so happens to be the book I chose for Mike Keesey as his prize for his second place showing in the LITC All Yesterdays contest.

It begins with a brief introduction to dinosaurs, set against a landscape populated by some of the usual suspects, as well as an odd theropod that may be Monolophosaurus, as it had been described not long before this book was published. Or maybe it's just an oddly rendered Allosaurus or Ceratosaurus. Since the fauna has been run through a temporal blender, it's hard to tell; what seems at first to be a Jurassic scene is confused by what seem to be ornithomimosaurs in the distance, an anachronistic assortment of pterosaurs, and what may be a dead Corythosaurus. My favorite bit is the elasmosaur carrying a huge turtle in its mouth as it glides through the lagoon. Don't let its scrawny profile fool you. This is the strongest elasmosaur ever known (reminds me of this old Mohler rendering, use over at Oceans of Kansas).

Jurassic scene

I especially appreciate Hamilton's color treatments throughout the book. Expressive but not outlandish, the artwork reflects the livelier dinosaurs that were becoming more and more acceptable in the late 80's. In the below spread, typically drab Pachycephalosaurus bears a vibrant diamond pattern. It's also a good example of the sidebars employed throughout the book, here sticking to the alphabetical scheme.

Pachycephalosaurus & friends

They may not get the colorful garb of Pachycephalosaurus, but a welcome inclusion is the oft-overlooked Nodosaurus. Here, the supplemental material strays from the alphabetical order to show a variety of other armored ornithischians, including the dubious Palaeoscincus and a lively Scutellosaurus. The lavender flowers in the background are a nice touch. One of the common bugaboos in Mesozoic illustrations is the depiction of grasses as in this and other scenes in the book. Though there were some grasses around in the latest Cretaceous when Nodosaurus shuffled about, they were probably not present in wide areas as depicted here.

Nodosaurus & friends

Hamilton's skill is well-demonstrated in the closer views she gives us of many of the animals, displaying fine detail of skin texture and coloration. I love her Lambeosaurus in its mud and clay colors, barely tolerating the annoyance of a Lesothosaurus, seemingly leaping into frame, demanding to be given attention in a popular dinosaur book. Hypsilophodon is given a similar treatment with bright green scales and a humorous "bag" under the eye that reinforces the grim expression on its face created by the prominent brow.

Lambeosaurus & Lesothosaurus


More obscure denizens of the Mesozoic get time in the foreground, such as Leptoceratops and Heterodontosaurus. I appreciated the inclusion of the line art rendering of the latter's skull, as it illustrates the varied dentition which gave the critter its name. These lateral portrait views invite the reader to imagine that these are puppets, with human arms cropped out of the frame.

Leptoceratops & friends


The "E" spread offers more thyreophoran fun in the form of Euoplocephalus, which is quite well-done in its arrangement of knobs and spikes (though Victoria Arbour has written a bit about the popular ankylosaurid lately which begs your attention). Edmontosaurus is similarly well-rendered, though it does sport the odd human-style hands so often drawn by uncertain illustrators. The noggin is suitably elongated, though. Elasmosaurus is a bit of a stretch, curving its neck in what appears to be a painful contortion. It looks like it saw a pile of discarded fish on the shore and decided it simply could not leave them be.

Edmontosaurus, Elasmosaurus, & Edmontonia

"C" gives us a familiar trope, somewhat modified. The famous "bird-hunting" Ornitholestes part here is played by Coelophysis, evidently modeled on the "robust" form of the animal. Her hands are almost right, with a reduced fourth digit which should nevertheless not be visible to the viewer. Coelophysis is accompanied by Compsognathus and Coelurus, fulfilling the "not all dinosaurs were huge" requirement of the book. To drive the point home, a single forelimb of Camarasaurus just barely enters the frame on the left, elephant toes and all. The delicate treatment of the flora make this spread one of my favorites in the book.

Coelophysis & friends

Not much of a surprise when we visit "T," is there? Torosaurus gets to do the dirty work here, and seems to be doing a competent job of scaring the tyrant lizard off. Triceratops hangs out in the background, its frill proportionately smaller than Torosaurus's. While the head of the Tyrannosaurus is clumsily rendered, reminding me of a carcharodontosaurid, its coloration is beautifully done, with lurid splashes of orange mingling with contrasting greens.

Torosaurus v. Tyrannosaurus

Hamilton is not well-represented on the web, though you can see a few of her illustrations for Tales of the 1,001 Nights. Her nuanced artwork is a nice match for a title that aims to give more than a red-in-tooth-and-claw look at the Mesozoic, taking time to point out evolutionary trends and present dinosaurs that are too often forgotten in a way that gives them equal footing with the superstars of the era.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mesozoic Miscellany 59

Plenty of news about Jurassic Park 4 lately, with the latest latest news being that it might not be happening any time soon. Still, it's inspired a nice flurry of writing among our blogging comrades, and that's a good thing.

Matt Martyniuk at DinoGoss wrote about it, with this nice turn of phrase: "it's a bit sad that JP has eaten its own tail and become the self-perpetuating font of inaccurate science the original film was designed to destroy."

Andrea Cau doesn't really care either way, and invites those who might be losing sleep over scaly raptors to worry about more important things.

At the increasingly super Walking With Dinosaurs blog, Mike Taylor offered his opinion on what might make for a more interesting sequel than another trip to Nublar or Sorna.

Michael Marshall at New Scientist wrote a summary of the news, with a perturbed quote from Tet Zoo's Darren Naish, which I saw pop up in a few places going for the "paleontologists' reaction" angle.

John Conway wrote a great piece at his blog on Jurassic Park 4 and "AWESOMEBRO!" culture, which I'm sure we'll all agree is typified in John's lurid and gory work.

I'll wrap up this section with Mark Witton, who wrote about the resistance to feathery dinosaurs at his blog, doing a nice job of explaining how feathery integument might undercut an animal's monstrous nature.
"If popular depictions of dinosaurs are anything to go by, they were only vulnerable to two things: other dinosaurs, and giant rocks from space. Anything else can bugger right off: they're that freakin' hardcore. Modern animals, by contrast, struggle when someone redirects a river or we drive our cars too much. Dinosaurs could take that, and they'd eat your mother just for even suggesting otherwise."

Friend of LITC and super-terrific artist Sharon Wegner-Larson has added some super-terrific art prints to her Etsy store, including her incredible Dimetrodon piece entered in our All Yesterdays contest.

At The Bite Stuff, Jaime Headden wrote about the twin sides of his brain, the artist and the scientist, and how they work together in the process of reconstructing prehistoric forms.

You've surely seen it all over, but hear straight from Emily Willoughby the story of her fish-eating Microraptor illo.

Darren Naish visited the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, and brought us the skinny at Tet Zoo.

At the Dinosaur Toy Blog, our own Niroot covered the new Collecta Diplodocus figure. And Marc wrote about that popular newish ceratopsid, Diabloceratops.

In response to the passing of Dr. Larry Martin, both Jason Brougham and Mickey Mortimer have written posts about his legacy in paleontology.

Happily having joined up with ART Evolved, frequent LITC commenter Herman Diaz as been writing some great stuff, including book reviews and a piece on his fun alvarezsaurid for our contest.

Marc and Niroot are admirers, and Trish Arnold also implores you (and me, I'm afraid), to get off our duffs and pick up Katrina Von Grouw's The Unfeathered Bird.

We've had notice of some dinosaur-related Kickstarter projects in the last week, and I share them here for your consideration. First up, Andy Nguyen's Dinosaur Poster project.
See more at the blog dedicated to his project.

Next, a short film called "Dino Hunt" has an Indiegogo campaign running.

You can keep up with the campaign and production at the official Twitter and website, as well.

Finally, check out a Kickstarter by the More Dinosaurs folks to fund a new dinosaur art website.

If you've got some spare nickels knocking around your pockets, there's never a shortage of dinosaur goods at which to pitch them, is there?

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Valley of Gwangi

Ray Harryhausen died May 7th, 2013, at the age of 91. This is one of the things he left behind.

The year is 1969. America's long love affair with western movies is ending, and its tolerance for rubber creature features is waning as well. A middle-aged special effects technician named Ray Harryhausen has put together a film that, unfortunately, falls squarely in the middle of these two genres; a tale of cowboys and dinosaurs, of lassoed monsters and breakneck chases across the dusty desert. It is released to little fanfare and rapidly sinks into obscurity, just as its fellow westerns and monster movies have done. It's about to be the 70's, after all. America has weightier things on its mind. But The Valley of Gwangi, as it turns out, has charms of its own; charms enough to keep it from disappearing completely into pop culture oblivion.

Our story begins somewhere south of the Mexican border, around the dawn of the 20th century. T.J Breckenridge, a young woman of surpassing loveliness and somewhat wooden affect, is in deep water. Her traveling western circus has fallen on hard times, but T.J is still doing her best to make a go of it, touring small Mexican towns who are sure to be entranced by their increasingly shopworn acts. But circumstance throws two different twists at this fragile state of affairs. The first comes in the form of the dapper, fast talking Tucker, an independent operator (and T.J's former fiance) looking to buy up bits of the Wild West show's act. The other is altogether stranger; a mysterious little horse from a forbidden valley off in the desert, which has the potential to save the struggling circus.

Enter Professor Bromley, an English paleontologist of dubious morality. He's working out in the desert searching for remains of Eohippus, a tiny prehistoric horse, and he thinks he's found the fossil of a lifetime: a human leg bone with tiny horse tracks set in the matrix. Such a find should be impossible, which is why he flies into such paroxysms of glee when he sees the circus's newest attraction: a real, living, Eohippus! 

Not everyone is so thrilled, however. The town's Roma (which, incidentally, are not as out of place as you might think) are deeply worried by the appearance of the tiny horse. They are the ones who declared the forbidden valley off-limits, in fear of the ferocious and vindictive spirit that guards it--a spirit known only as Gwangi. If they don't get the little horse back to the valley soon, their matriarch warns, then the wrath of Gwangi will fall upon them all. So saying, the gypsies steal the Eohippus from T.J's circus and flee, making for the distant mountains that mark the border of the secret valley. Tucker, the Professor, and T.J's crew of carnies  all race after them, vying with each other for who can capture the precious little horse first.

But what waits for them beyond the mountains is far more impressive than any horse, tiny or not...


The Valley of Gwangi is clearly a direct descendant of King Kong. The requisite check marks are ticked off; superstitious locals? Yep. A prehistoric monster with a savage name? Check. A public escape, rampage and subsequent poignant death? Of course. However, it comes by the similarity honestly; Willis O’Brien himself, the stop-motion guru behind The Lost World and King Kong, came up with a rough treatment for the idea that he never managed to get off the ground.

Copyright Willis O'Brien

O'Brien's conception of Gwangi was apparently deeply old fashioned, as the above concept art attests, and not many details of what he had in mind have survived. Harryhausen, a protégée of O’Brien’s, was the one who got the film made, and he himself was hugely influenced by King Kong. The finished film is thus a union of two fairly similar sensibilities, and it shows. 

Copyright Ray Harryhausen

Both Kong and Gwangi fit comfortably into a tradition you might call the “lost world” narrative; they focus on the discovery of an isolated prehistoric ecosystem, and the immediate consequences to life and limb for bringing a piece of that ecosystem back. Yet while the original Kong played the idea for as much fantastic horror as it could muster, Gwangi is much more understated. The nightmare jungles of Skull Island are replaced by the barren wastes of the desert, and where Kong scaled the heights of Manhattan, Gwangi’s rampage is limited to a little town of white adobe and a cathedral. Kong’s death requires airplanes at the heights of the world. Gwangi is killed by fire and a falling ceiling.

The end result of this is that The Valley of Gwangi feels weirdly believable. Yes, it centers around a lost valley of dinosaurs out in the Mexican desert, but if you’re willing to accept that (and if you’re reading this blog, it’s a good chance that you are) then the central plot of the film is filled with the kind of stumbling and foolishness you’d expect from real people placed in extraordinary circumstances. Guns are useless, for example, against the primeval might of the valley’s inhabitants–until one of the circus cowboys checks the cartridges and discovers, to his consternation, that whomever grabbed the rifles didn't bother to take the blanks out first. The Roma, for their part, are so affected by terror of Gwangi that they attempt to get rid of him as soon as possible–even though that entails freeing him in the middle of a packed stadium.

Even when Gwangi is released onto the dusty streets to wreak havoc, the vast majority of the damage is done by the fleeing crowd, with only a few people falling prey to the dinosaur’s jaws. The whole plot has the feeling of something that could actually have happened; a backwater little disaster unfolding out of the public eye, with no official authority to witness and record it. Unlike Kong, whose very public rampage and death must have shocked the world, the escape and subsequent death of Gwangi the Great seems destined to be ignored. An interesting bit of local folklore, perhaps, or a footnote buried in an obscure text.

Gwangi himself is a fantastic creation. Sculpted over an armature of ball and socket joints, moved minute centimeter by minute centimeter, the flicker of the camera breathes into him unbelievable vitality. Gwangi arrived in theaters in 1969, as the fabled Dinosaur Renaissance was beginning, and in many ways its title character embodies the changing times. While he is shaped in the mode of classic tail dragging carnosaurs, he moves with deceptive speed, trotting and even leaping across the screen. There is little of the reptilian stillness about him: even at rest, his tail slithers and twists in the air, dancing with malignant energy. He snarls and sneers in expressions that don’t quite reach his mad little eyes, his fingers twitching as he contemplates his prey. He could never be mistaken for accurate, now. There’s something vague about the specifics, his form a mix of the tyrannosaur and the allosaur, his tail too flexible, his form too hunched. But it doesn't matter. Gwangi may not look real, but by god, he looks alive.

This was the genius of Ray Harryhausen, of course. He poured his heart and soul into his rubber creations, and it shows; nothing in Gwangi seems as carefully labored over as the creatures of the forbidden valley, and nothing else in the film holds up quite as well. The Styracosaurus is bullish and stubborn, the Pteranodon a flapping menace, the Ornithomimus jumpy and comical. The human actors of the film acquit themselves acceptably, but Harryhausen's creations are indisputably the stars of the show. In a lot of ways, The Valley of Gwangi is representative of Harryhausen's life and work: a solid, unpretentious film, filled with unexpected charms and wonderful special effects. What more fitting tribute to the master could there be?

Ray Harryhausen died May 7th, 2013, at the age of 91. Gwangi, as always, abides.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Thecodontosaurus that Didn't

This was originally conceived around this time last year as my entry for Bristol Dinosaur Project's Thecodontosaurus Illustration Competition. Sadly (though perhaps predictably), I failed to make the competition deadline.

Thecodontosaurus (with sphenodont). Sepia ink on Saunders Waterford hot pressed watercolour paper; 150 x 280mm. I've decided that her name is 'Thesis'. Yes.

Details. Unfortunately, this illustration suffers somewhat from reduction, though it seems to withstand considerable enlargement. Opening the images in a new tab is recommended for best viewing.

My many thanks to Jon Tennant of Green Tea and Velociraptors for very kindly supplying me with the Thecodontosaurus paper (Adam M. Yates (2003)) and Dr. Heinrich Mallison of Dinosaurpalaeo for his input during the progress. I still didn't get the tail quite right, and it is on the whole considerably leaner than I would restore it now. Though as I said at the time: 'I felt like quite the grown-up palaeo artist'.

In the event, Fabio Pastori won the first prize in the professional category with his piece. Though it looks curiously as though his was the only entry in the category, judging by the gallery of entrants and winners; but please do correct me if anybody knows otherwise. Still, I should not have minded coming second to him. Ahem.  


In an attempt to present a little more of my 'serious' palaeoart -- I mean, palaeontography -- to LITC readers, this entry has been re-posted, slightly amended, from Himmapaanensis, with our great Solomon's sanction (if you miss this joke, why then, you haven't been paying attention, for shame). The mercenary part: prints of this illustration are available. Help a fading little Djinn continue producing its meagre magic. I shall be enormously grateful.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaur Dream

In my last-but-one Vintage Dinosaur Art post - about three years ago now - I reviewed a book entitled Dreaming of Dinosaurs. While some commented that it wasn't very vintage, others (on Facebook, mostly) noted how its title reminded them of a different book that they treasured as a child - Dinosaur Dream. Well wouldn't you know, I've only gone and procured that one too! And no, as it's from 1990, it isn't very 'vintage' either. However, hopefully this will be forgiven on the grounds that it's really quite beautiful.

Both written and illustrated by Dennis Nolan, Dinosaur Dream is the charming story of a young boy's journey back through time, dressed in his snappy red pyjamas and accompanied by his juvenile sauropod friend. Whether or not the trip really was just a dream is, happily, left ambiguous. The boy - Wilbur - is disturbed in the night by a baby apatosaur's approach outside his window, shortly after he has put away his favourite dinosaur book and settled down to sleep.

Wilbur's room betrays Nolan's primary paleaeoartistic influences - and they are most definitely vintage. Wilbur not only has a poster of Knight's famous Tyrannosaurus v Triceratops piece on his wall, but an enormous great frieze of the Zallinger Age of Reptiles mural. Anyone who was obsessed with dinosaurs as a child will recognise that fundamental need to have absolutely everything they owned adhere to a prehistoric theme, right down to their duvet cover (I've got to say that my Jurassic Park example didn't quite have the timeless, graphical appeal of this one). If it seems a little odd that a child in 1990 would have a Knight poster on their wall, well, I imagine that's a little nostalgia on the author's part, which I certainly won't begrudge him.

When Wilbur first meets the young Apatosaurus, he immediately decides to name his new saurian friend 'Gideon', after Gideon Mantell (which is lovely - I might have felt rather differently had he named it 'Richard'). Rather less cleverly, he decides to try and stash the dinosaur away in a barn with a gaggle of disgruntled farm animals. Realising his error, Wilbur elects instead to try and get the Apatosaurus back to the Jurassic where it belongs, and the two set off on a long walk back in time. At this point, connoisseurs of dinosaur art will have already noted that Gideon has a distinctly retro appearance - rather portly and wrinkled, with inaccurate plantigrade hands and feet and a highly arched, humped back. Nevertheless, Gideon's a very active little beast, not only harassing livestock but easily keeping pace with his smelly mammalian charge, even through thick snow. Retro in appearance, but definitely Renaissance in habits.

While wisely keeping their distance from a herd of mammoths, the bumbling pair somehow end up alarmingly close to the business end of a Smilodon, and are forced to clamber up a cliff face to safety. The appearance of the toothily endowed moggy owes much to Knight, but definitely falls on the right side of the 'loving homage/lazy rip-off' divide. The composition of this illustration is beautiful, with Gideon's back and tail forming a wonderful, sigmoid shape opposite the near-geometric peaks of the distant mountains. All right, so Niroot may have pointed that out to me, but the point stands - Nolan is a superb illustrator with a keen eye for an excellently arranged scene.

The two go on to find a 'dawn horse' (presumably Eohippus), frolicking atop a suitably picturesque waterfall, and Wilbur realises that they are indeed travelling far, far back in time. Before too long, they pass through the Mesozoic border - thankfully rather lax on security measures to prevent the entry of temporal migrants in nightwear- encountering flocking Pteranodon as they go.

While the above illustration may give the impression that the pair are passively observed by Triceratops as they pass, the text describes Wilbur walking up to the sleeping ceratopsians, disturbing them, being charged and making a rather narrow escape. The use of perspective in this picture is wonderful, making ol' Pointyface look suitably massive and slightly sinister, if not a little retro once again. Of course, given Wilbur's predilection for getting into near-fatal scrapes with enormous, bad-tempered prehistoric creatures, it's only a matter of time before he's running for his life while a Tyrannosaurus snaps at his stupid little heels.

Sexy Rexy strikes a suitably athletic pose in Nolan's gorgeously lit scene (the sky! Look at the sky! By Bakker's beard, it's beautiful!), but again its loosely interpreted head and rather lizardy limb muscles show off his very old-school influences. Nevertheless, it's difficult to argue with something quite so fantastically painted, and I love the panicked, galloping pose of Gideon. Just as the dino-dream threatens to come to an abrupt and rather gastronomically unsatisfying conclusion, the hapless pair escape into a river...

...only to be hurled straight over a waterfall. While the characters' expressions are priceless, this painting does unfortunately reveal that Nolan really did have no idea where to put sauropod nostrils (thanks to Hugebody McTinyHead on Facebook for pointing that one out. No, I don't make these names up).

At last, Wilbur is able to reunite little Gideon with his retrotastic extended family in the Great Valley (maybe). While these humpbacked mountains of flesh are quite comically backward-looking, even for 1990, they are nevertheless possessed of a certain charm, no doubt enhanced by their gormless, perma-smiling faces and pleasant demeanour. A larger-than-usual double page illustration (detail shown above) helps emphasise the sheer size of these nostalgia-tinged brontos, with the entire left hand page being dominated by the Burianesque body of one of the beasts. This is further enhanced by the perspective, which is at Wilbur's level; from here, the sauropod necks crane up very high indeed.

Finally, an exhausted Wilbur is given a lift back home by the largest Apatosaurus of the herd, falling soundly asleep in the many folds of its gigantic hump. Another ludicrous-looking dinosaur (who else is reminded of the Dino Riders toy?), but a sumptuous illustration boasting an expertly painted and highly evocative skyscape. It's a fittingly warm conclusion, in every sense, to such a deservedly adored book. Dinosaur Dream really is the cat's snappy red pyjamas.