Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mesozoic Movies: The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1915)


Today, Thomas Edison’s fingerprints are everywhere. Yet his legacy’s loaded with asterisks. As many people know, the man’s business tactics were often despicably underhanded, leaving a trail of alienation and resentment in their wake. However, nobody can dispute the awesome impact this amazing tinkerer’s had upon modern life as we know it. Paleontology fans are particularly indebted to his storied career. Why? On top of his better-known accomplishments, Edison—it turns out—helped introduce dinosaurs to the silver screen.  

Here’s a delightful short released by Edison’s film company that’s available freely online through the miracle of public domain. So heat up some microwave popcorn & enjoy 1915’s The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy


Despite the title, this flick’s only dino gets little more than a brief cameo during its climax. Instead, most of its runtime is dedicated to a razor-thin love story which happens to get rudely interrupted by an obnoxious hominid and some no-nonsense sauropod.

Our tale begins on a quiet, prehistoric morning. Miss Araminta Rockface (an eligible bachelorette) suddenly finds herself surrounded by hopeful suitors. There’s a clumsy oaf simply called “The Duke”, his boorish rival Stonejaw Steve, and one Mr. Theophilus Ivoryhead, whom the film cites as its designated hero. At this point, I should note that the short’s sense of humor might fall flat with modern audiences. Consider, for example, this timeless thigh-slapper Araminta delivers at the 1:43-mark:

“Won’t you come into the drawing room? I should offer you tea, but tea has unfortunately not yet been discovered.”

Oh, my sides. Anyway, we’re then introduced to the “Missing Link” known as Wild Willie: a scrawny, bad-tempered ape-like beast who closely resembles another, far more famous simian.  More on that later.

Willie busies himself by making off with Araminta’s hard-earned supper. She responds by informing her male guests that if they’d like any dinner, they’ll have to “go out and get it” themselves. Meanwhile, Willie’s appetite remains unquenched. Regrettably, while hunting near the local river, he winds up mistaking a distracted sauropod’s writing tail for a tasty snake. After bashing it with a rock, the enraged dinosaur attacks and—after a brief scuffle—kills poor Willie.

A few moments later, who should arrive upon Willie’s broken corpse but the dashing Theophilus? When everyone else shows up at the crime scene, our hero boasts “Yes, yes—a mere trifle. He irritated me and I was forced to kill him!” Apparently, Araminta finds this swoon-worthy, showering him with kisses as the screen fades. The end.  

To be sure, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link is a silly piece of entertainment. And, though cinematic dinosaurs weren’t exactly common at the time, this certainly wasn’t the first short film that starred one. Vaudevillian Winsor McCay’s hand-drawn cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) had delighted audiences the previous year with its personable titular “Brontosaurus”

But, having said all this, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link nicely foreshadowed the next twenty years’-worth of dinosaurian filmmaking. This is largely thanks to its innovative animator, Willis O’Brien (1886-1962).

Genius is rarely celebrated in its own time. Stop-motion animation had been in existence since the 1890s, long before O’Brien started tinkering with it. However, this talented California native can be credited with inventing the technique independently as a young man. O’Brien discovered, quite by accident, that by systematically projecting still images of stationary models in various positions, he could create the illusion of movement.

Naturally, O’Brien adored sculpting. A very different subject also enamored him, one which would—in almost equal measure—help guide his new career path: paleontology

The Dinosaur and the Missing Link ranks among the first of several prehistory-themed projects O’Brien added to his resume. Completed in 1915, it greatly impressed Edison, who decided to redistribute it two years later and eventually collaborated with O’Brien on many subsequent short films, including 1917’s Prehistoric Poultry


O’Brien quickly transitioned into feature-length movie-making and brought his love of dinosaurs along for the ride. Filmography highlights include The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918), The Lost World (1925), & The Giant Behemoth (1959), all of which pitted human characters against Mesozoic monsters.

And then there’s King Kong (1933). Notice that, decades before the eighth wonder of the world arrived, O’Brien was already experimenting with fights between dinos and scrappy simians. Furthermore, Willie’s on-screen death in The Dinosaur and the Missing Link indirectly sets the stage for Kong’s iconic demise.

All things considered, despite its campy dialogue, this short stands as an invaluable prelude for what was to come. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Neochoerus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week we will be looking at one of the largest rodents to ever live.  Check out Neochoerus pinkneyi!  Neochoerus was a species of giant capybara that lived during the Pleistocene epoch, as recently as 11 thousand years ago, in what is now the Southern United States.  Like its modern relatives, this massive rodent would have probably eaten water plants.  It measured about six feet long from snout to rump and could have weighed as much as two hundred pounds!  The genus name, Neochoerus, translates to "new pig".  It wasn't a pig though...it was a rodent...like I already said.

Neochoerus herd.  Reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Even though the Pleistocene is famous for being an ice age, filled with woolly beasts majestically roaming snowy tundras, parts of the world, especially near the equator like Neochoerus' habitat, were still relatively warm.  In fact, the area of the Southern United States that Neochoerus was roaming around in at the time was mostly floodplain, similar to the everglades in Florida today.  This makes sense for a giant capybara since we know their modern relatives thrive in wet environments.  They are adept swimmers and even have semi webbed toes.  Neochoerus would have coexisted with many other giant beasts like Glyptodon, giant ground sloths, mammoths, giant bison, a species of giant beaver, and even humans!  Back in the Pleistocene, seeing a R.O.U.S. wouldn't really have been unusual at all!




Modern capybaras are known to be social animals and are often found in large groups.  Unlike those of many animals, capybara jaws can chew side to side, which helps since they eat so much tough plant material.  Capybaras are also commonly hunted by all sorts of predators.  Jaguars, anacondas, and even humans frequently rely on the large rodents for food on a regular basis.  Back in the Pleistocene, Neochoerus may have been preyed upon by many predators as well.  Pumas and sabre-tooth cats are known to have lived during that time.  Prehistoric humans also likely hunted them.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment on our facebook page or below.

References

Baskin, Jon A.; Thomas, Ronny G. "South Texas and the Great American Interchange". Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies Transactions 57: 37–45.

Kurtén, Björn and Anderson, Elaine. 1980. Pleistocene Mammals of North America. Columbia University Press, New York, p. 274. ISBN 0-231-03733-3

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reunited: Crested Dragon Hidden Dragon

Remember on Sunday we noticed that that my Guanlong painting appeared to be searching for something?  Here he is again.


Well here it is!  It's the Yinlong I painted that was Prehistoric Animal of the Week last year!  She has some babies with her too!


If you have not figured it out by now, they are actually from the same painting.  Mystery solved!


Jeez, Guanlong, it's taking you a over a year to find those guys.  I guess they're called "Hidden Dragons" for a reason!  SEE WHAT I DID THERE??? 


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Guanlong: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Guanlong wucaii was a meat-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now China during the Late Jurassic Period, 160 million years ago.  It measured about ten feet long from snout to tail and would have sported feathers in life.  The genus name, Guanlong, is Chinese for "crested dragon" in reference to the animal's bony crest and the fact that dinosaurs are commonly referred to as dragons in China.  ("long" is basically the Chinese equivalent of "saurus".)  The species name, wucaii, translates to "five colors" in reference to the multi-colored rock formations where this dinosaur's remains were unearthed.

Life reconstruction of Guanlong wucaii by Christopher DiPiazza.  It appears as if he is looking for something...but what?

Guanlong became very popular when it was first discovered in 2006 because of where scientists believe it is placed on the dinosaur family tree.  At first Guanlong is pretty unique looking.  It was small for a dinosaur, and had long arms with three fingers with curved claws on each hand.  Its head was adorned with a flat oval-shaped crest that ran from its nose to just before its eyes.  The crest was too thin to have been a weapon and was likely a display adaptation within the species.  When scientists examined the teeth of Guanlong, they realized that this dinosaur was actually a kind of tyrannosauroid, and thus the earliest known relative of the famous Tyrannosaurus.  Tyrannosaurid teeth are more curved and D-shaped than those of other theropods.  Guanlong shared more in common with more basal tyrannosauroids that sported longer arms like Dryptosaurus, however.

Part of a Guanlong skull.

Guanlong is known from two well preserved specimens that scientists believed to be of different stages in life.  (An adult and a juvenile most likely.)  They were both found practically on top of each other along with a few other kinds of dinosaurs that would have coexisted with them in life, including the oldest known ceratopid, Yinlong.  160 million years ago, the site of these fossils was a pit of loose mud that would have trapped small animals like Guanlong and Yinlong.  As the they struggled to escape, the poor little guys would have been sucked deeper in the mud and eventually died.  Sad for the individual dinosaurs but great for fossilization!  These pits are a rich source for dinosaur fossils in China and have provided paleontologists with a lot of important information about what animals used to live there and where they fall on the dinosaur family tree.  I personally think it's really cool how the oldest members of the two most famous dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops, were both found at the same time in the same place over 90 million years prior to the Late Cretaceous.  Those tyrannosauroids and ceratopids just can't seem to get away from each other!  Late Jurassic, China was ground zero for the most well-known evolutionary arms race in dinosaur history!

That is all for this week!  Feel free to comment below or on our facebook page as always! 

References

Eberth, D. A., X. Xing, and J. M. Clark. "Dinosaur Death Pits From The Jurassic Of China." Palaios 25.2 (2010): 112-25. Web.

Xu X., Clark, J.M., Forster, C. A., Norell, M.A., Erickson, G.M., Eberth, D.A., Jia, C., and Zhao, Q. (2006). "A basal tyrannosauroid dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of China". Nature 439 (7077): 715–718. doi:10.1038/nature04511. PMID 16467836.



Friday, August 15, 2014

Interview with Artist: Luis V. Rey

Luis V. Rey is a Spanish-Mexican artist residing in London. Visual Arts MA from San Carlos Academy (UNAM), Mexico. Professional Surrealist multi-media illustrator and also amateur paleontologist for more than 35 years. He is currently devoting most of his time to accurate but daring paleontological reconstructions. He has recently collaborated with authors like Henry Gee ("Field Guide To Dinosaurs") and Palaeontologists Thom Holtz (Random House’s “The Most Complete Up To Date Dinosaur Encyclopedia") and Robert Bakker ("Golden Book of Dinosaurs").

Luis V. Rey has been one of my favorite paleo-artists since I first saw his work.  He could always be counted on to reconstruct dinosaurs in a totally unique and out-of-the-box way yet still staying within the realm of scientific accuracy.  Icing on the cake is his work is freakin beautiful.  Nobody uses color like Luis V Rey.  He was definitely a big inspiration for me when making my own art and serves as a beautiful example of how paleo-art is a perfect marriage of science and imagination.

 
At what age did you become interested in dinosaurs?  Were they always a subject of your art?

LR: I was interested in dinosaurs all my childhood (to start with)… but I didn’t really get into serious dinosaur restorations until the Dinosaur Renaissance (specifically end of the 1980’s)…. and no, they were not always a subject of my art. Being what they were (part of my childhood), at the beginning I integrated them in my surrealism once in a while!
Only later I decided to study palaeontology and get serious about it.

Luis V. Rey's rendition of a happy Carnotaurus couple.

Is there any particular artist who particularly inspired you growing up?  How about today?

LR: If you talk about “paleoartists”(a term unknown until fairly recently)… I would have to say that Burian and Zallinger were my main inspiration… but during the Dinosaur Renaissance that switched me to Robert Bakker, Greg Paul, John Sibbick… and the lot!

Luis Rey's rendition of the famous theropod, Spinosaurus, based on the most recent discoveries made about the animal.

When did you decide to pursue a career in illustration?

LR: When I was 21 I took my leave from being dependent from my father and became full time professional illustrator. That was after I started  three years earlier studying in the San Carlos Art Academy in Mexico (when I was 18). But the Art thing was always running high in the family’s father side. I’ve been painting, sculpting and drawing all my life.

Luis Rey's recent depiction of Triceratops.

What medium do you most prefer to use for your art?  Any particular reason why?

LR: It has changed through the years. Now I combine drawing with pencils on paper and finishing the whole thing in veritable “orchestra mood” in the computer.

Luis Rey's depiction of Protoceratops and Velociraptor based on a real fossil found of the two in very close quarters to one another.
  
You recently started working a lot more with digital media.  How do you like that compared to actual paints?  Is one particularly better than the other in your opinion?

LR: They are completely different mediums. And as long as you have developed you own style you can use both without any problem… it has been almost a “prefect” sequence. The main thing is tho continue to be “you” and don’t let the tools take over..,. that is a danger with computers… if you haven’t developed a style beforehand you become victim of repeating what the computer tells you.
Everything I do is “handmade” one way or another!

Ouranosaurus being threatened by the large crocodile, Sarcosuchus.  This scene was created with the help of a computer but the artist's work still shines through clearly.

Your paleo-art has always known to be bold and certainly unique.  You are not afraid to think outside the box on a lot of reconstructions.  What is your mentality behind this?

LR: Apart from the obvious influence that my upbringing and my cultural background has provided me, my main inspirations are  the natural world and  thorough  research to back my restorations. It is important to build your own criterio and style based on these two things.

Luis Rey's portrait of a dynodont, a reptile with some mammalian features.

Have you ever received any negative feedback on any of your work?  How do you respond to that?

LR: I’m used to it. The only thing I can say… there’s no obligation to like what I do! But I can’t let that put me down… and I have had PLENTY of criticism all these years! As long as my “homework” is done (that is, the anatomy of the animals is correct)… at least I can’t be accused of not trying to do my best !

Luis Rey's rendition of a Tyrannosaurus family enjoying Sunday dinner.

Art and illustration is such a diverse field.  It has also changed dramatically within the past decade or so.  What advice would you have to give an aspiring artist today?

LR: The same I was talking before: develop your own style and be passionate about what you do. Be bold and try to think out of box… never try to copy for the sake of copying. Be original in your approach!

What is your favorite part about creating paleo-art.  Is there anything you don't like about it?


LR: Favourite things? Well, the thrill of doing a new reconstruction like nobody has done before for starters…
And the main thing I don’t like is bureaucracy.  In the late nineties I put a stop of being handled by publishers or academics. If they wanted to blacklist me, go ahead… but I’m not painting my Deinonychus without feathers or compelled doing things in “John Sibbick's Style” (for good or bad I have my own)! Yes, I understand that I’m never going to be “rich” in this profession!

Luis Rey's depiction of Deinonychus with a strong turkey influence which is perfectly plausible much to the dismay of all the Jurassic Park fanboys.

You have illustrated some great dinosaur books written by very knowledgeable paleontologists like Dr. Thomas Holtz's dinosaur encyclopedia or, more recently, Dr. Robert Bakker's remake of the Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs.  How much artistic freedom do you usually have working with scientists like them?  Do you ever bounce ideas off each other or collaborate?

LR: We try as much as possible to collaborate… but there were moments that each side just went on “our own”… sometimes It was chaotic (special with Dr. Bob)… but he is also an artist… and at the end we understood each other. Academics are difficult to pin down because they are always busy with their own things… tell that to Dr. Holtz… we have TWO great projects hanging in there for at least four years! ... One day they will happen.

Luis Rey and the DOCTOR Thomas Holtz showcasing their wildly successful book, Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages.  This book is also one of my favorites to the point where I drove down to Maryland to have Dr. Holtz sign it in person back in 2012.

What was your favorite dinosaur growing up?  How about today?

LR: Obviously it has to be Tyrannosaurus rex… today there are too many to count… most of the feathered!

Luis Rey's rendition of a pair of Tyrannosaurus (feathered as they should be) making some new Tyrannosaurus.

Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?

LR: Jurassic Park was obviously the catalyst, but suddenly I understood that dinosaurs were NOT monsters of film land as Spielberg would try to show… too many mistakes and too much fiction. I like TV series best… and there have been some good recent ones. I simply adore the work of David Krentz (but NOT with Disney!).

Allosaurus feeding her family a sauropod leg.

Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

LR: We all have a child inside and the first thing those skeletons in the museums do to you is to fill you with awe. The next thing is: how did they look? How did they live and where and when. The detective inside is immediately triggered. Then there’s the other factor (that I talk quite a lot about in my presentations), the “Icon” factor. We have certain images that go beyond time and space and become symbols in the collective mind. Dinosaurs are one of these. To change these images (that in time foster prejudices) and give them different meanings and ways of looking at them is also a task and a challenge for the artist, specially considering you are depicting REAL animals… not just icons in a museum.
How  do you convince people that dinosaurs are NOT extinct? A marriage of Science with Imagination is the key.


Utahraptor and Troodon from Dr. Robert Bakker's book, Raptor Red.

What is your favorite time period?

LR: If you count the amount of dinosaurs that exercise more fascination in me, it has to be the Cretaceous… but the Jurassic is perfectly OK too!

Deinocheirus and Tarbosaurus.  Luis Rey did NOT make up the spoon bill nor the hump, by the way.  The animal actually had those.

Do you have any other hobbies or interests (paleo or non paleo related)?

LR: All sorts of Arts and art crafts, Psychology, Social Sciences and… Music… specially Music!

and don't forget dinosaur cosplay!

Thank you so much Luis V Rey!  Be sure to check out Mr. Rey's blog and online gallery.