The State of Paleo-Documentaries | Editorial

The State of Paleo-Documentaries | Editorial


*Whimsical Tune* *Thumping * The year is 1999. The BBC has just aired its landmark series Walking with Dinosaurs. This 6 part documentary is the first attempt
by television to recreate the lives of prehistoric animals using CGI and animatronics. National Geographic and The Discovery Channel did not hesitate to create similar programs presenting extinct creatures as if they were eating running and playing right in front of the camera. Flash forward 16 years later and the paleo-documentary has become one of the most important and popular forms of palaeontology communication- -regularly reigning in high viewership and even responsible for creating a few of their own paleo-celebrities. “It’s a Leo-pler-o-don, Charlie!” From an artistic standpoint, dinosaur documentaries have a lot going for them. Most paleoart is limited to a static snapshot with no ability to portray true sound or movement. The medium of film allows paleoartists to go the distance when reconstructing the ancient world in all of its facets. Cinema is easily one of the most collaborative art forms requiring a variety of artistic talents to create a cohesive piece. Now, unite that with the scientific rigour required to required to reconstruct prehistoric life and documentaries could be one of the most all encompassing forms of paleoart. So if the paleo-documentary is so important both for palaeontology communication and as a paleoart Why are they all so…not…good? And I don’t say this lightly; most dino-documentaries are not doing a good enough job. Dinosaurs and other extinct animals are being reduced to stereotypes and caricatures. Bad CGI, poor writing and and a lack of research are the norm in this genre. These aren’t unfixable problems though and here are my ideas as to how we can improve the paleo-documentary. Number 1:
Speculation Modern dinosaur documentaries are behind the times. This is a topic we get in to in our third History of Paleoart but the long and short of it is in the last few years, paleoart has become more and more speculative. Good science is still at the heart of all good reconstruction but paleoartists are no longer bound by the conservative methods of the past. This has allowed for some truly bizarre interpretations of prehistoric animal appearance and behaviour that stays true to the fossil evidence. Current paleo-documentaries on the other hand stick to traditional routes. Dinosaur behaviours are limited to predation and fights for mates and resources. Pretty basic stuff. Hardly any focus is given to herbivores and their adaptations for feeding and raising their young. Physical reconstructions are similarly dull, no real creative risks taken. Putting confines like these on extinct animals is simply unrealistic. Modern animals, even ones that are really well known are constantly surprising us with weird anatomies and behaviours. It’s time for paleoart on screen to get with the times and reflect modern ideas of how these fossil animals Number 2:
Structure Paleo-documentaries must perform a balancing act between the communication of science and telling a compelling, but fictional, narrative. And most docs lean more to one side or the other. On one hand you have Planet Dinosaur which sacrifices story structure and pacing to give constant scientific reasoning as to why their dinosaurs are doing certain things. On the other extreme are series like Dinosaur Revolution and March of the Dinosaurs which are more like cute stories featuring dinosaurs than actual educational documentaries. In order to strike a balance between education and narrative I suggest going back to the original inspiration behind Walking with Dinosaurs- -the nature documentary. Good natural history filmmakers have an impeccable understanding of film structure. They recognize pacing, arcs, setups and payoffs. And most importantly they have a message that draws on an emotional core but is delivered through the communication of science. These subtle ways of introducing ideas into the audience’s mind are hallmarks of good storytelling. If the genre is going to progress in any way the creators of paleo-documentaries need to start taking writing seriously. Number 3:
The Details Great filmmakers think about every aspect onto screen. Every prop, every costume, every piece of furniture is heavily scrutinized to be the perfect choice for that scene. And all of this attention to detail deeply enhances the story being told. I don’t know exactly why, maybe it’s the budget constraints but dinosaur documentaries rarely have this eye for detail. Animals have stock sound effects they’re placed in environments that don’t make any sense and their animations can be more than a little bit awkward. One of my pet peeves is when the bit players animals that aren’t the star of the show, but still have a role to play are treated like an after thought and rendered with little care or research. Probably worst of all though, is when documentaries completely make things up treating fictional ideas like scientific facts. How do we fix this one? Like I said, I’m not exactly sure why these mistakes are being made. Especially considering most of these works had the palaeontologists and artists working side by side. All I can say is, if you are going to make a project like this, paying attention to the details can take you from adequate, to good, maybe even to great. Even with all these problems I still have hope for the paleo-documentary. The genre is still very young, it’s only been around for less time than I’ve been alive so we’re bound to have some growing pains. These are only my thoughts on how the paleo-documentary could be improved, let us know your ideas in the comments or hit us up on Facebook, tumblr, or Twitter.