Saturday, 24 December 2011

Season's greetings



I hope you have a peaceful Christmas and a great 2012. May all your field trips be productive, your restorations accurate, your papers accepted and your prep labs busy.

Best wishes,

Stu

Monday, 19 December 2011

Paleo Illustrata: 10,000 page views - thanks!



Today Paleo Illustrata had it's 10,000th page view. A very big thank you to all following the blog, those who have linked to it and everyone who's swung by to read a post. I hope to bring much more on this man's journey into palaeontology and have lots of ideas for future posts, as swell as continuing the occasional series I occasionally get around to, er, continuing.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The SVP 2011 field trip to Utah; dinosaur footprints in the desert.

Some years ago I attended a day class at Manchester University taught by Peter Falkingham entitled 'Palaeontology - Biomechanics, Tracks and Traces', which looked at dinosaur tracks and the variables involved in track formation, as well as interpretation and biomechanics. We spent a very informative day experimenting with sand trays, looking at the museum's collection of prints and learning how to interpret them and looking at how limb morphology and substrate elasticity affects trackmaking. It was all good stuff. So when my wife Ann-Marie and I decided to attend the 2011 SVP meeting in Las Vegas a certain field trip caught my eye: Tracking Early Dinosaurs Across Southwestern Utah and the Triassic-Jurassic Transition. Dinosaurs? Check. Tracks? Check. Utah? Check. What's not to like?

Skip forward some months later, it's early morning and we're both in full field gear weaving through the somewhat surreal surroundings of slot machines and tables of all-night poker players under the painted sky of the Paris casino, heading for the north entrance near the sports book. Odd groups of incongruous-looking individuals are clustered here and there dressed not for gambling but for the wilderness, and outside we find a row of gleaming SUV's ready to take us out of the city and into the desert to track dinosaurs. We saddle up and off we go, off to track dinosaurs on our first ever SVP field trip.

Leaving Las Vegas. Gathering outside the Paris before heading into the desert.

We had an excellent group of leaders to guide us through our three days exploring tracksites in the desert, and they had done a fair amount of work before we all turned up. They were:

Andrew Milner - St George Dinosaur Discovery Site
Tylor Birthisel - Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Jim Kirkland - Utah Geological Survey
Brent Breithaupt - Bureau of Land Management
Neffra Matthews - National Operations Centre, BLM.
Martin Lockley - Dinosaur Tracks Museum, University of Colorado
Melinda Hurlbut - St George Dinosaur Discovery Site

Part of this prep work were the field guides we were all given when we arrived at the pick-up point, and these were works of scholarship in themselves. As well as in-depth information about the sites we visited, complete with stratigraphic sections, site maps showing trackways, photos etc, there was a guide on the subject of photogrammetry to supplement what we were taught, and the route taken between sites had detailed notes on the various formations and other geological features we could see from the trucks. It was fully referenced and a superb document to have to hand whilst we were travelling, and useful for re-reading and checking information after the trip.

The main track layer in the St George Dinosaur Discovery Centre. Palaeontologists for scale.

Our first stop was the St George Dinosaur Discovery Centre in the city of St George, Utah and which is built over an in-situ multiple trackway located at the top of the Johnson Farm Sandstone Bed in the Whitmore Point Member of the Moenave Formation. The site has been interpreted as being on the western margin of Lake Dixie as the deposits here are predominately shoreline in nature and at this point in the Whitmore Point Member represent transgressions and regressions of the lake (Milner 2011). The museum is small but perfectly formed and is dominated by the huge multiple trackway surface preserved within the building and as well as the in-situ surface many more blocks containing either multiple or single trackways and individual foot impressions are displayed within as well as various body fossils. The site has produced plant fossils, abundant fish remains, tetrapod material and various ichnotaxa including theropod swim tracks. The museum has done and continues to do vital work in the Upper Triassic and Lower Jurassic of Southwest Utah, and has mapped multiple sites in the region. If you're in the area it is well worth spending some time there as the collection is really impressive. Jim Kirkland then took us across the road where we inspected other beds containing fish fossils and what have been interpreted as fish nests in a rippled surface.

Neffra Matthews demonstrates the technique of photogrammetry using a print on the main track layer.

It was at the museum we were also introduced to the technique of photogrammetry, with a detailed explanation by Neffra Matthews on the principals and methodology of this exciting technique of recording fossils in 3D. Most of us don't lug Lidar units with us into the field, but we pretty much all take digital cameras of one sort and another and Neffra demonstrated how we can photograph tracks that can be fed into software to create measurable 3D-models. This has several advantages over other techniques: it's cheap, very portable, it's very accurate, it creates data sets that can be examined in the lab/on a train/on your iPad/pretty much anywhere, plus the information can be easily exchanged via the internet. perhaps most importantly photogrammetry is a non-destructive way of gathering 3D data and rapid prototyping allows the creation of highly accurate physical models suitable for study which are scaleable too.

A well-preserved Eubrontes track seen on the underside of a slab in the museum.

From the museum we headed out into Utah, eventually arriving at Zion National Park and meeting up with the others (after a slight detour around the campsite, where we saw mule deer) at Black Canyon for a look at the section visible there, revealing as it does a sequence from the Petrified Forest Member of the Chinle Formation (Upper Triassic) rising vertically to the spectacular cliffs of the Navajo Sandstone (Early Jurassic). We preceded to drive throughout the park and up past Checkerboard Mesa, a heavily jointed and cross-bedded outcrop of Navajo Sandstone. We passed grazing Bighorn Sheep and headed out of the other side of the park to spend the evening at Thunderbird Lodge, Mount Carmel Junction, east of Zion. An enjoyable meal in the attached restaurant, with good beer and chat followed by an early night in preparation for day two.

The next morning after breakfast we headed in convoy to the Mocassin Mountain tracksite which had been discovered in 2007 by hunters who reported the find to the BLM Kanab Field Office. The site contains multiple layers in the Navajo Sandstone and is in an area frequented by off-highway vehicles (OHV) and the BLM is currently engaged in managing sites like this to preserve the resource for both OHV users, palaeontologists and the public. The site has been vandalised with attempts at casting footprints leaving traces of sealant from what was possibly a pre-constructed form and this activity damages the footprints and information is lost to science because of traces left by the process as well as the removal of grain layers when the cast is removed. This problem reminded me of the appalling destruction of a trackway on the Isle of Wight where some bright spark tried to extract an individual print from a trackway in the Wealden shale; the matrix is far too unstable for this to work and the footprint was heavily vandalised.

Not just Utah: dinosaur footprint destruction in the Wealden of the Isle of Wight.
There is a global issue with the vandalism and theft of trackways.


After a brief introduction by BLM rangers Misty and Alan we set off to inspect the multiple trackways at Mocassin Mountain, which contains multiple trackways from diverse ichnogenera. This site contains a variety of preservation styles and the environment of deposition being dune sets means there are unique morphological characteristics to many of the tracks. With the usual excellent explanations by our leaders we spent some time examining the site before took a group photo and had lunch, then setting off to the nearby Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park where we viewed the dunes and got happily distracted trying to identify the tracks left by extant organisms in the sand, ably helped by leading ichnologist Tony Martin.

Potter Canyon over the state line in Arizona was our next stop to examine the section there which represents part of the Whitmore Point Member and anther part of the margin of Lake Dixie. We trekked up to the cliff face and got stuck into a bit of prospecting. Jim Kirkland explained the member was deposited on the edge of a large lake (Lake Dixie) and we found ostracods, conchostracans, stromatolites and petrified wood. We then moved on to two localities situated in the Kayenta Formation. The first, the Hamblin Tracksite is due to be destroyed as part of the Southern Parkway Project and efforts are underway to save as much as possible of the website (however in a different location the road is being diverted to preserve the local golf course). The second was an unnamed site with abundant plant remains and a broken trackway surface and as well as gathering plant fossils here one of the crew found a slab with both Grallator tracks and arthropod tracks on the rippled surface.

The evening of the second day was spent back at the museum in St George, where we enjoyed an excellent meal and were guided expertly around the museums collection by Andrew, where we saw coelacanth fossils, exquisite fish specimens and a large phytosaur skull that is still in prep. We also got a close-up look at the smallest Grallator trace in the collection, a wonderful ichnofossil. We retired to a Best Western in St George for a good night's kip.

The smallest Grallator print in the collection. SVP scale bar for scale. How cool is that?

The final day was ushered in with a make-your-own-waffles breakfast, a novelty for those of us visiting from other countries. The train of by now quite dusty field vehicles set off for the Warner Valley to visit an important track site on BLM land. The area is very popular with OHV vehicles and tyre tracks are everywhere . . . however the site has been protected from both OHVs and the weathering of the track surface by water action by a low metal wall to divert the runoff. It's a spectacular locality, looking out across the valley floor towards the hills in the distance with no sign of mankind's hand on the landscape (apart from the car park and a couple of information panels, but let's assume you've got your back to them).


An exceptional Eubrontes track in the Warner Valley. This is the print traced by Martin (see below) and recorded
using photogrammetry (see above).


The trackways are equally impressive and Martin Lockley, Andrew and Tylor gave us a detailed overview of the history and research done at the site as well as pointing out the main features, amongst which were the best Eubrontes tracks we'd seen so far (the maker of Eubrontes tracks is thought to be a Dilophosaurus-sized theropod, Grallator by a smaller theropod dinosaur). We recorded the site using photogrammetry and Martin demonstrated the more traditional technique of tracing which many of the crew then tried out; it's a wonderful way to really study individual prints in detail and consider their morphology.

Dinosaur tracker Martin Lockley traces a Eubrontes print.


A looping 360˙ animation of the same Eubrontes track (see above) from the Warner Valley.
The data was gathered using photogrammetry techniques learnt on the SVP field trip to Utah,
processed in the field on a laptop and animated back here in England.


After that we headed down the road (in our truck Neffra demonstrated how to use the photogrammetric data we collected to reconstruct a footprint in 3D for study later on her laptop - brilliant!) to inspect the Triassic-Jurassic transition, which occurs as an unconformity between the Chinle and the Moenave Formation. Jim Kirkland explained the section to us and the significance of the anhydrite nodules in the Chinle (an increase in arid conditions), and we observed the pebble lag which sits unconformably on top and is present at the base of the Moenave Fm. throughout this part of Utah. Here we a saw a large bird of prey which was possibly a juvenile Bald Eagle.

We then headed off to Fort Pearce for lunch. Fort Pearce was built by Mormons during a period of conflict in the 1880's when the Ute and Navajo objected to their presence. Below the outcrop the fort is perched on lies boulder with petroglyphs etched into the desert varnish and there were more on the valley floor. We heard a very loud boom that could have been mining, or a sonic boom.

A Grallator print on a rippled surface. This print is an impression as viewed from the underside.

Time was pressing so we moved on down the valley to a small canyon where we found tracks and bioturbated surfaces on the underside of in-situ beds on the cliff, and a new and potentially significant Eubrontes print was found, as well as Grallator tracks galore. Our final stop was at the foot of a cliff we subsequently hiked partway up. On our ascent we looked at the lacustrine layers of the Whitmore Point Member with it's abundant fish remains (many in concretions), and then up the trail and into the Kayenta Formation where we studied the limestone fish beds below the distinctive red cliffs of the valley. The view from here was incredible and it was with mixed feelings we hiked back to the trucks below. Our leaders had really brought this area of Utah and Arizona alive and now we understood the fossils, their context and their global importance.

Prospecting in the Kayenta of the Warner Valley. Does it get better than this? I'm not sure it does.

We eventually got back to Vegas in the early evening and after being dropped off and picking up our luggage went to check in. It was an odd feeling walking across the casino floor underneath the painted sky in full field gear, covered in the red dust of the Kayenta with my head spinning with ichnology and the quite incredible landscapes we had seen in the past three days. The contrast between environments couldn't have been greater.

We made it back to the Paris in time for a shower, quick beer and into Concorde A/B to see Jack Horner's address to the meeting, one of the highlights of the SVP 2011. The real highlight was the field trip though, no doubt.

The SVP field trip to Utah at Mocassin Mountain with all leaders, rangers,
Paleo Barbie and other participants present. Scale bars for, er, scale (and photogrammetry).

Thanks once more to the leaders of the field trip, who not only gave us food and tipped us off where to buy beer but also made the whole experience so fascinating and productive; I've only scratched the surface of the content of the trip here and there was so much more to tell than my necessarily simplified account does. In the end apart from the not inconsiderable value of the knowledge gleaned and the new field techniques learnt the great thing was the new friends made as everyone on the trip, leaders and participants alike were wonderful company and it was a joy and honour to spend those three days with such interesting folk. Viva palaeontology!

References:
Tracking Early Jurassic Dinosaurs Across Southwestern Utah and the Triassic-Jurassic Transition. Milner et al. 2011. Nevada State Paleontological Papers No. 1.


Special thanks to Andrew Milner for providing extra information on some of the localities we visited, and Neffra Matthews for providing the photogrammetrical data used in the animation.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Iguanodon vertebra - drawing.



Work has been keeping me very busy since returning from Las Vegas earlier in the month, so a quick post this time. If I met you at the SVP, then you there's a fair chance you've seen this drawing before as it's the one I use on my business card, and I handed out a fair few. This is a stipple-style pen and ink drawing and was produced specifically for the card. It's an Iguanodon sp. vertebra, chosen because this dinosaur is part of the Wealden fauna of the Isle of Wight and therefore holds a special place in my heart.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The SVP and the surreal world of Vegas: a first-timer's perspective.

I haven't posted for a couple of weeks but think I have a valid excuse, as Mrs Stu and I boarded that crazy bird and flew out to Las Vegas and the annual SVP meeting for the first time ever.

Wow! Where to start . . . Sereno's trampolining elephant? Fred, Barney, Wilma and Betty plus a bizarre assortment of dinosaurs selling us stuff? The spooky piped voices in the venue loos? Nope . . . it has to be the field trip.

SVP Fieldtrip: examining a track site in the Warner Valley, Utah.


We were lucky enough to be able to attend the field trip to Utah and the Arizona Strip to look at dinosaur trackway sites from the Early Jurassic, and looking at the Triassic-Jurassic transition. The trip was led by a group of excellent palaeontologists: Andrew Milner (St. George's Dinosaur Discovery Site); Jim Kirkland, State Paleontologist for Utah; Neffra Matthews and Brent Breithaupt of the Bureau of Land Management, Martin Lockley, Professor of Geology/Paleontology at the University of Colorado and Tylor Birthisel, Grand Staircase-Escalalnte National Monument. We spent three busy and exciting days visiting dinosaur trackway sites, learning the technique of photogrammetry to gather data and spent time at the small but perfectly formed St. George's Dinosaur Discovery Site, which has been built over an in situ track site in the Lower Jurassic Moenave Formation and boasts a world-class collection of trackways and footprints, as well as body fossils.

The field trip took us to Zion National Park, Moccasin Mountain as well as sites in Arizona and the spectacular Warner Valley, amongst others. The whole excursion was well-organised, enjoyable and above all informative, with the leaders being excellent guides and the other participants being great people to be on the road and in the field with. I could bang on for hours about how much I enjoyed these three days but I'm sure you get the gist.

Returning to Vegas we got back in time for Jack Horner's address to the meeting on Tuesday evening and then a beer or two before the meeting started in earnest the next day. As first-timers to the SVP Mrs Stu and I took some time in getting up to speed on the finer points of how to get the best from the meeting, although we'd got it sussed by the final day. The hub of the meeting is the room with the registration, stalls and where the poster sessions are held; refreshments are served here and tables are available for the delegates to sit and talk. It's where everyone meets, networks and takes a break from the presentations, where the noticeboard is and later in the day, where the beer is.

It soon became apparent there was far too much happening to be able to see and hear everything we wanted to hear, so it became a case of pouring over the programme and checking abstracts on the iPad to get some sort of schedule. I still feel we missed so much, yet we were busy every minute of every day of the meeting and saw some excellent, exciting presentations, many of which have been discussed elsewhere, but I particularly enjoyed Cutler's presentation on saurischian death poses, Allain's report on a new site in France with a fauna that corresponds to the Wealden of Western Europe and contains a new taxon of ornithomimosaur, Van Buren's work on ornithischian front limb posture, Goodwin's conclusion that T. rex was an endothermic heterotherm and so much more . . .

If I had any criticisms they would be that Vegas was rather costly to say the least (hooray for Walgreens, Bill's and Denny's!), and free wi-fi really should have been made available to attendees gratis; the cost for the service provided by the hotel was ridiculous. But then that's Las Vegas in a nutshell: a huge grinding machine dedicated to reliving you of your hard-earned. It's huge (Caesars Palace alone takes up 33 acres), tasteless on a scale I never thought possible (Blackpool's lights look positively anaemic in comparison), windowless inside the resorts, impressive at night and boasts 24-hour noise being piped from every direction, even in the open air. But it's a sight to see, to be sure.

The really great thing about the SVP was meeting so many people I wanted to talk to, to be amongst people whose passion and knowledge was an inspiration to those of us who wished we were more involved in the field. It was great to meet other bloggers and artists whose work I respect enormously, palaeontologists whose work I had admired for many years and whose books I have avidly read and learnt from and the many volunteers and researchers who work in the field not for financial gain or as a career but give up their own time because they are passionate about the subject. I'll resist the urge to name drop but just say it was an pleasure and an honour to meet everyone.

Stu and Scott Hartman ponder the finer points of skeletal reconstructions,
dinosaur locomotion and whether to have a Heineken or a Corona Light.


At the SVP we met old friends, renewed friendships formed in the brotherhood of the field and made new friends I hope to keep in touch with for years to come. Needless to say there were plenty of people I'd like to have spoken to but missed. It was a week of paleo-heaven and as I write this my mind is already straying to the subject of costing out next year's trip to the meeting. All being well, in a year's time I will be writing about how brilliant Raleigh was.

Ah, the fabled SVP scale bar! Here shown putting it to good use as Stu makes sure he has something
in shot to illustrate the scale Grand Canyon on a trip there a few days after the meeting.
After analysing this and other data gathered at the site, he came to the considered conclusion
that the canyon is "bloody huge, and no mistake".

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Portrait of a T. rex, or why I love Stan.

It's strange how you can develop an attachment to an animal that lived on another continent 65 million years ago, but I've done just that with a Tyrannosaurus rex called Stan.

Stan seen from head-on.
Illustration © Stuart Pond. 2011. Stan is a trademark of the Black Hills Institute.


Some years ago palaeontologist Dr. Phil Manning arrived at Manchester Museum and set about re-invigorating the fossil galleries. The centrepiece at that time was a Tenontosaurus skeleton which had seen better days; it was in need of a a bit of t.l.c. and had some dodgy restoration on it, so off to the lab it went. With characteristic vision and enthusiasm Phil decided to replace the old ornithopod with something altogether more dramatic, a full-size Tyrannosaurus rex in a controversial running pose. So a cast of Stan, a nearly complete T. rex from South Dakota was installed into the fossil galleries, posed so when you round the corner into the hall the beast looks like he's about to run you down (we assume Stan is a 'he' as he is the gracile form of the species, and with T. rex the robust morphotype is considered the female); A T. rex at full-tilt. Over the years Mrs Stu and I have often gone up to the museum to see Stan, to gain inspiration in the long months between actually getting out into the field, and dreaming of visiting the Hell Creek where he was found to see for ourselves this great fossil locality.

The Black Hills Institute, Hill City, South Dakota.

Stan was named after Stan Sacrison, an electrician and long-standing collector who found him in S.D. in 1987. Although he wasn't excavated until 1992, Stan turned out to be the most complete male T. rex ever found. The original fossil now resides with the Black Hills Institute (who found Sue, now located in The Field Museum, Chicago after a traumatic and protracted legal battle now famous in the annals of palaeontology), located in Hill City, S.D. As we were in the area last year after spending a week in the field in the Hell Creek we had to make the pilgrimage to see the original fossil from which the Manchester cast was taken. Sure enough, we rocked up in Hill City one bright sunny July morning and proceeded to the BHI museum. To see Stan in the, er, flesh was a surprisingly emotional experience; it was like meeting a famous artist or musician who you'd long admired and found inspirational. We spent a very happy couple of hours in the BHI's small but perfectly formed museum, carefully studying all the exhibits we had travelled so far to see, but paying special attention to the star of the show, the mighty Stan.
The Tenontosaurus that once held pride of place in the fossil
gallery at Manchester Museum. Note no Deinonychus present.

So at the top of the post is an illustration of Stan by myself. It's taken from a photo of his skull which I took whilst at the museum, and was created entirely in Adobe Illustrator, the vector graphic programme. This is obviously a simplified image, really meant to try to communicate the dramatic experience of standing eye-to-eye with that most iconic of dinosaurs, T. rex.

If you're any where near Hill City I would highly recommend a visit to the Black Hills Institute to visit Stan. In the meantime, we'll be off to Manchester any day now to see him dominating the fossil hall, bearing down on the awestruck visitors come to gaze at his mighty self.

Please note that Stan is a trademark of the Black Hills Institute.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Pachyryzodus illustration at the GSA Annual Meeting 2011

Last week saw a milestone in this man's journey into the art and science of palaeontology as one of my illustrations was used in a poster presentation at The Geological Society of America's annual meeting. The poster was presented by Douglas Hanks, Bruce Erickson and Scott Haire and is entitled 'Vertebrate Remains of the Late Cretaceous of South Dakota and Minnesota'. Abstract is here.

Image © Stuart Pond. 2011



The illustration was completed under the direction of Doug Hanks, palaeontologist with the Marmarth Research Foundation and Science Museum of Minnesota, and is the skull of the fish Pachyryzodus. The image is rendered in graphite.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Palaeontological Illustration: Petrifications And Their Teachings

One of my favourite palaeontology books was a gift from my wife for my birthday, an original copy of Gideon Mantell's handbook and explanatory catalogue of the Gallery of Organic Remains of the British Museum where these specimens were originally house before the construction of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington (Owen's edifice being completed in 1881, some thirty years after this book was published). Mantell is one of my personal heros and this marvellous book is a fine tribute to his ability and insight as well as his passion for his subject.

The illustrations are all black and white and no credit is attributed to the artist, however as the book was published by as part of Bohn's Scientific Library it's possible they had their own illustrators work on the plates, or they were sourced directly from the British Museum itself - more on that subject later. The images are all line work and are crisp and clear, with the details of fossils picked out and unfussy diagrams and reconstructions. Here is a small selection of the images I find particularly inspiring:


Skull of the Moa, excavated by Mantell's son, Walter in New Zealand.

Iguana lower jaw and teeth. This was part of the section on Mantell's beloved Iguanodon in which he compares the teeth of the reptile with those his wife Mary (so the story goes) found near Cuckfield. The specimen illustrated was presented to Mantell by Baron Cuvier.


Plesiosaurus hawkinsii. This specimen was recovered from a quarry in Street, Somerset by Thomas Hawkins after he had fled London in 1831 when Cholera arrived in the city. He gives a harrowing account of the situation in the capital ("what havoc and death!") before detailing his trip to Somerset across the Mendips (which he endearingly describes as "The British Alps", presumably having never seen Snowdonia, the Highlands or the actual Alps) on the Bath Mail coach. Much to his intense annoyance he found the specimen had been smashed to pieces by the quarry workers despite giving a quarryman named Creese a retainer to keep any bones he discovered with whilst quarrying. Several pieces had been lost, but Hawkins gathered the remainder up, "forgot the pestilence" and spent the next two months day and night prepping the piece, which he called his "hewn-god".

The superb Belemnoteuthis antiquus (modern spelling is Belemnotheutis) illustration, showing the soft tissues of this specimen. In 1843 Richard Owen misinterpreted some of the structures of this fossil, and concluded that this was a belemnite and not a separate genus. He then wrote a paper, named the species after himself and failed to credit the original amateur palaeontologist (one Joseph Channing Pearce) with the discovery. Five years later Mantell presented a description of Belemnotheutis fossils recovered by his son Reginald (who had been involved in the construction of the Great Western Railway) to the Royal Society proposing that Belemnotheutis was indeed a separate genus as originally thought, and Owen had got it all wrong despite receiving a Royal Medal for the paper (information gleaned from wikipedia). Unsurprisingly, Owen was unimpressed and Mantell was forced to defend himself publicly and Mantell alludes to this in a footnote in Petrifications and Their Teachings. Interestingly, the wikipedia page for Belemnotheutis credits this drawing to Samuel Pickworth Woodward, but I have not been able to verify this is correct. Woodward was First-class assistant in the Department of Geology and Mineralogy at the British Museum between 1848 and 1865, so all these illustrations could conceivably be attributed to him.

Mantell's footnotes provide wonderful insights into his life and the life of those collectors and scientists he so admired. His feud with Owen (at one point Mantell states "but alas! to doubt Professor Owen's infallibility was a deadly sin, and I have no hope of forgiveness!") was one of the great clashes of personality in the history of palaeontology.

Pterifications and their Teachings was published in 1851 and a year later the 62 year-old Mantell, disabled and wracked by the pain of injuries sustained in coaching accident years before, died of an opium overdose. Owen had part of Mantell's spine removed, pickled and stored at the Royal College of Surgeons. It was destroyed in 1969 for lack of space.

The wonderful illustrations in this book are a fitting tribute to one of the fathers of modern palaeontology, and should provide continuing inspiration to those who hold the craft of scientific illustration close to their hearts.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Atlas Vertebra drawing



This is a drawing I intended to use in a publication but wasn't submitted for reasons beyond my control but I thought it worth posting as it's pure scientific illustration.

The figure is of a partial atlas vertebra, probably from a large Iguanodon bernissartensis and was found on the foreshore of Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight, UK. My wife and I went onto the beach one morning and she set off to walk the dog whilst I mooched around the rock pools looking for dinosaur bones. After an hour or so of fruitless searching I espied them coming back, and I walked out to greet them. Just as she stopped, she bent down and picked this fossil up at the same time asking "Is this anything?". She always finds the best fossils, seemingly without looking too hard.

I must revise my search image.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

BBC - How Do You Build A Dinosaur?

Just a heads-up about this programme that is being shown on BBC4 tonight which is discussing how dinosaur restorations and displays are constructed and the science behind them. Sounds interesting!

How Do You Build A Dinosaur?

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Planet Dinosaur producer interview

The BBC website has a short interview with Nigel Paterson, producer of Planet Dinosaur talking about the science behind the programme. Nothing revelatory here but a chance to get a glimpse of the production process and the work done by the 3D artists.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Planet Dinosaur stomps into view

As I'm the only person in the paleo blogosphere not to have seen Dinosaur Revolutions and feeling somewhat left out of the whole 'new dinosaur programme on telly' vibe of the past few weeks, I was pleased to settle down last night and watch the first episode of the BBC's new offering, Planet Dinosaur.

More knowledgeable people than I have commented on the accuracy and behaviour depicted elsewhere so I'll concentrate more on the work of the artists. Suffice to say the mawkish anthropomorphism that pervades many of the recent additions to this genre was not evident here much to my relief, and there was science behind the displayed behaviour for the most part. For a fine review and discussion on the morphological details head over to Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs which has a good debate going on, including input from one of the production team.

As commercial artist and animator myself I was watching with one eye on the 3D and motion graphics all the time, and I thought these were both excellent. There were some issues, such as the time-traveling Ouranosaurus looking a little lacking in mass when walking on all fours (not too sure about the skin texture, which looked a bit plasticky), and the occasional odd footfall but these are minor niggles. For the most part the CGI was a joy to watch, with skin following muscle deformations and wobbly bits looking, er, wobbly. The close-up shots were outstanding and I really enjoyed some of the particle effects (many presumably done in post), and a big shout out to whoever did the sand particles when the feet came down - very effective indeed. The theropod's heads were suitably scaly and battle-scarred and the excellent Spinosaurus was a good choice for the episode's main protagonist. Highlights were the shots of him swimming and his tug-of-war with the Carcharodontosaurus for the hapless herbivore's carcass and the attack on the pterosaurs (who were in the nip! Whither fur?).

The camera work was of the hand-held-in-a-battlezone type so beloved of gamers and producers of CGI these days and although no wildlife cameraman would ever film a subject like that for fear of inducing motion sickness in his audience it added to the sense of drama, as did the camerawork during the fight sequence with it's slow-mo/hard cuts/bullet time feel. As ever, the devil is in the detail and the detail was not ignored; camera lenses were splattered with blood and drool (often at the same time - good call whoever thought that one up) and debris flew from the feet of running dinosaurs.

All of this was backed up with motion graphics explaining the rationale behind the behaviour shown and showing - gasp - actual fossils. Deep joy! John Hurt's narration was pitch perfect as you'd expect and added a certain gravitas the the proceedings.

One thing though - we really need to come up with some new sounds for dinosaurs. The Ouranosaurus were portrayed making ungulate-like vocalisations and the predators growling with lion/croc/bear style mashups. This is fine, but I can't help thinking that perhaps we could move this on a bit now.

The firm who created the shots for the programme, Jellyfish Pictures worked very closely with experts (including Scott Harman and one of my old tutors from Birkbeck College, Charlie Underwood), which I think is reflected in the quality of the models. Reading the article in 3D World magazine, it becomes apparent that the team worked hard to get as much of the science in whilst making the programme interesting, and on time and within budget too. This sort of work is not cheap, and is time-consuming and I think the team have made an excellent programme given the constraints; 2,100 CGI and 700 mograph shots in 17 months, to this standard is impressive stuff and we should be applauding the BBC for commissioning this sort of science programme.

So, much to look forward to in the next episode.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Building a dinosaur - pulling polygons and symmetry

You'll recall from the last installment of this occasional series that before starting any actual modelling we needed to do the research. With that done, we can now start modelling Triceratops in earnest.

I use Cinema 4D for all my 3D work but the techniques I use are common to most major 3D modellers, with one notable exception, the mighty ZBrush which we'll cover later in the series. How you set up your production pipeline is personal to each individual and company, but mine is as follows:

Basic Modelling: Cinema 4D

Refinement and adding detail to model: ZBrush

Texturing: Bodypaint, ZBrush, Photoshop

Rigging: Cinema 4D

Animation: Cinema 4D

Rendering: (you guessed it!) Cinema 4D Advanced Renderer

Post production and compositing: Adobe After Effects

Before starting modelling I set up Cinema 4D (c4d) so I can model without having to stop and fiddle with lights etc along the way. So I create a basic matt pale grey texture, construct a standard 3-light setup (I actually have a master file I can import these elements from each time I start modelling) and finally add a floor for the model to stand on.

I then import any images I am going to use as reference for the model. This could be sketches, photos etc but in this case it's the skeletal Scott Hartman kindly gave me permission to use. I set this up in one of the views (in this case front) and use this as a guide to the proportions of my model.

Figure 1: The modelling environment; now all I need is a dinosaur to go in here . . .


Now we can start modelling. Luckily for us 3D modellers tetrapods display bilateral symmetry, which means they are they have the same layout on either side of the sagittal plane (see fig. 2). We too can use the sagittal plane as the axis for generating the mesh that will make up our model.

Human anatomical planes. As humans and dinosaurs are both tetrapods we can use
this scheme to assist in modelling our Triceratops. From here and used under
Creative Commons Licence.

To do this I use a symmetry object in c4d. This means any geometry created or modified is reflected along the chosen axis to create a whole model. By positioning a cube primitive with one side along this plane we can model one side of the dinosaur and the other side will be created automatically. Figures 3 and 4 show how this works.

Figure 3: A cube primitive aligned along the X-axis in c4d. The polygon against the axis
has been removed to make sure hypernurbs work correctly.

Figure 4: Drop the cube into a symmetry object, adjust the mirror plane to XY and viola!


Finally, the symmetry object containing the cube is dropped into a hypernurbs object, which automatically subdivides the geometry interactively to create organic forms; points and polygons can be weighted to adjust the influence the hypernurbs object has on the mesh.

Figure 5: The basic cube shifted so one edge aligns with the XY axis, dropped in a symmetry object
which is then dropped into a hypernurbs object.

Figure 6: The hierarchy of the basic starting mesh.

The hypernurbs and symmetry object can be turned off and on to help with modelling and previewing and you'll find yourself doing this constantly as the model progresses.

The technique I use for modelling is very simple. Extrude a polygon, adjust the points, extrude another and so on. Starting from this five-sided cube (remember we deleted the poly that is flush to the sagittal plane) we can create any shape we want. In the case of virtually all models including our dinosaur we want to rough out the body shape before we start getting to involved in detail. This basic rule of thumb, start simple and refine down gradually, and this needs some careful forward planning. Our dinosaur is basically one large, complicated shape and our mesh will end up as one large, complicated shape too. So we don't get lost, we need to pay close attention to the anatomy of our subject. We need to allow for the head and it's appendages, the limbs and their morphology and such details as the number of toes, the shape of the tail and so on. Where do the legs join onto the body? How does the neck articulate? How does the tail move? Think of these things before you start and the whole mesh as being divided down into ever smaller boxes and that's pretty much how the modelling process for this stage works.

Figure 6: Roughing out the body shape. This is the very basis of the model. I've extruded more
polygons from the original cube we started with and have begun to form the shape of the head,
body and tail. You can see I've not adjusted the Z co-ordinates at all, at this stage I'm only interested in
roughing out the form along the X and Y axes. The highlighted polygon will be where the shoulder
and front leg of the animal will be modelled.

So that's the start. Check out online tutorials for your specific modelling application for other techniques that will be of use as you progress, but remember the mesh has to be a single object, preferably made of polygons. Be thrifty in your use of polygons as we want to keep the polygon count as low as possible as they will soon mount up, and if we want to animate then lots of polygons could be problematic.

One more thing - don't move the points on any of the polygons on the X/Y axis (the sagittal plane) of the model, as this will create gaps in the symmetry later on, and you final model will have holes. Keep checking everything's in order by flicking on the symmetry and hypernurbs as you work, and correct any errors as you go along - do not leave them for later or you might get in one awful muddle.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Baryonyx and Caulkicephalus . . .




After a brief blogging hiatus due to workload and the fact I spent a few days in France with some friends pursuing my other great love, playing Irish traditional music (in fact, we played some traditional Breton music too with some of the excellent French musicians who were playing at the local Fest Noz), dancing, singing and drinking the rather fine Breton cider, I'm back at the helm of the good ship Paleo Illustrata.

I finally got the chance to finish the composition for my next illustration, and added the mystery animal mentioned in the previous post. This is the ornithocheirid pterosaur Caulkicephalus trimicrodon, described by Steel et al in their paper of 2005. C. trimicrodon is currently only known from the Isle of Wight, adding to the list of mesozoic vertebrates unique to the island and had a wingspan of around 4m. I've depicted C. trimicrodon being harried by an opportunistic Baryonyx walkeri and being relieved of it's catch of a Lepidotes sp. fish (see post of Saturday, 6th August).

Refs:
Steel, L., Martill, D. M., Unwin, D. M. & Winch, J. D. (2005) A new pterodactyloid pterosaur from the Wessex Formation (Lower Cretaceous) of the Isle of Wight, England. Cretaceous Research (2005): 1-13. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Baryonyx - updated sketch



After the useful comments on the morphology of my last effort (what was I thinking with that neck?) posted on the last entry, here's an updated version of my Baryonyx rough sketch, which I've managed to do whilst waiting for 3D renders. I've actually altered a few parts of the sketch, including the forearms and some skull elements as well as giving the neck the proper proportions and used Sereno's 1998 paper on Suchomimus tenerensis, which as mentioned in the last post is now considered a junior synonym of Baryonyx walkeri. Sorry for the ropey scan.

The sketch isn't actually complete, as I need to add another animal . . . who did you think me laddo is snarling at?

Refs:

A Long-Snouted Predatory Dinosaur from Africa and the Evolution of Spinosaurids. Sereno, P. et al

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Baryonyx rough sketch



Here's a rough sketch for an illustration I'm working on of the Wealden theropod Baryonyx walkeri. B. walkeri is known from the Upper Weald Clay of Sussex and from isolated bones and teeth on the Isle of Wight, and as the type specimen was found with Lepidotes scales in the stomach region (Martill and Naish, 2001) there are reasonable grounds to speculate that it was in part at least, a piscivore.

This reconstruction is based on information from the excellent book Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight although I've made alterations to the back which reflects findings by Hutt and Newbery (2004) which describe a large theropod vertebra with a tall neural spine which they assigned to B. walkeri, and indicated that Baryonyx had a low dorsal sail similar to Suchomimus tenerensis, which Hutt and other workers considered a junior synonym of Baryonyx.

The fascinating vertebra mentioned in Hutt and Newbery's paper now resides in Dinosaur Farm Museum on the Military Road, on the Isle of Wight. This museum has some really excellent specimens but last time I was there suffered from uninformative labelling and a general lack of consistency in the way the fossils were presented, and the whole impression was rather slapdash. Hopefully it's improved and is still worth a visit.

Martill, D. M. and Naish, D. (eds). 2001. Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight. The Palaeontological Association, 9, 252pp.

Hutt, S. and Newbery, P. 2004. An Exceptional Theropod Vertebra from the Wessex Formation (Lower Cretaceous) Isle of Wight, England. Proc Isle of Wight nat. Hist. Archaeol Soc. 20, 61-76.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Shoulder to the wheel . . .

. . . nose to the grindstone and any other hackneyed old idioms I can think of to explain why things have gone a bit quiet around here recently. Lots of work and trying to finish the EMA I need to submit for my OU course means I haven't got the time to write on the subjects that are stacking up in my head, as well as continuing my occasional series. Keep checking back, because progress is being made on the 3D dinosaur series, albeit slowly.

Books, computers, papers and snails.
This is what I'm doing instead of blogging.


Speaking of slowly, part of my OU course has involved studying evolution in Capaea (banded snails) via Evolution Megalab. This involves rooting around in soaking wet undergrowth and soil looking for the two species under study (Capaea nemoralis and Capaea hortensis), collecting them in a tub and then counting the various polymorphs of each species - wonderful stuff! They kept making frequent escape attempts as I looked for their mates, and had a surprising turn of speed. The sample results were interesting, with three polymorphs of C. nemoralis being found and none of C. hortensis. Of the three polymorphs found all but one belonged to two groups displaying the same alleles on their shells and these were both totally unbanded with the loner being single-banded. For ease of identification I'm calling the pink unbanded polymorphs Stan, and the yellow ones Ollie (the individual snails are virtually indistingushable when encountered alone so I don't think it matters they're not individually named). There are various theories as to why the snails have these patterns and colours on their shells, although bird predation is thought to be one of the main agents of shell pattern evolution in banded snails.

Of course this is all very relevant to palaeontology, and the next post will be back to that very subject.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Science and Communication 2: Museums

Sometime in the late seventies, a small boy who was visiting his grandparents in London was taken on a red Routemaster bus into the city, and guided by his Grandma into a cathedral-like building standing on the buys road where the bus dropped them off. Walking up the steps, into the vast atrium he was confronted by the sight of a giant, long-dead animal. He knew what he was looking at was a Diplodocus skeleton, a type of long-dead reptile called a dinosaur (he recognised the long neck and long tail from his many books on dinosaurs).  What he had never realised however, was just how big it was. It was immense! What did it eat? Where was it from? Were they all this big? Why aren't there any dinosaurs left? He wanted to know more, and his Grandma patiently took his hand and led him into the room of giant skeletons and huge bones. Thirty-five years later, he's as interested and fascinated by dinosaurs as ever, as excited by new discoveries and the science and the fieldwork and the art and . . . this is why communicating science is massively important. It inspires, invigorates and encourages people of all ages and walks of life to indulge their natural curiosity and find out – why? how?

Many of us had our first real experience of science when as children we were taken to a museum to gaze, wide-eyed and fascinated at the various exhibits. I'm sure that I'm not alone when I say that walking through the dinosaur halls of the Natural History Museum in London was a defining part of my childhood. Dinosaurs looked great in pictures, but when you see the skeletons – wow! The seed of a lifelong passion had been planted years before, but seeing the remains of these wonderful animals up close and personal certainly made it take root beyond any doubt. The reality was better than the books.

Ornithischian Hall, American Museum of Natural History, New York.
The best museum in the world? For me, the best I've ever seen as it contains
so many iconic fossils, plus a collection of feathered dinosaurs was there when we visited in 2001.


Museums are one of the main ways scientists and especially palaeontologists, can communicate the results of their research to the wider public. Riding on the back of the public's fascination with all things prehistoric much of the knowledge teased from the bones by the long labours of workers in the field and labs is disseminated through these august institutions. But is it always effective?

The dinosaur hall at the Field Museum, Chicago.
Face to face with a Stegosaurus and Charles Knight's iconic murals,
plus Mould-O-Rama machines in the basement - what's not to like?
The prep lab was empty all day when we visited - not like Dinosaur Isle in the UK.


Although I haven't been to the NHM in London for several years, I was fortunate enough to visit The Field Museum in Chicago and The Black Hills Institute in Hill City, SD last year and the American Museum of Natural History in New York just under ten years ago. What all these museums have in common is the displays feature one thing more prominently than anything else: the actual fossils. In fact, they were by far and away better in terms of presentation and information dissemination than virtually any other museums I have visited, relying less on cheesy animatronics (although the Field Museum had a room full of these that used motion sensory technology to react to you as you walked past them - impressive to be sure but those hatchling Triceratops - ugh!) and placing the emphasis on the fossils themselves. Of course these museums represent possibly the greatest palaeontology exhibits in the world with incredible specimens and resources to match . . . except the Black Hills Institute is a small, privately owned concern and as well as excellent fossils it had the best graphic panels of any of them.

Here be dragons: The Black Hills Institute, Hill City, South Dakota.
Small but packed to the rafters with superb fossils and casts.
We went to see Stan the Tyrannosaurus rex in the flesh (er, bone) after seeing the cast many times
in Manchester Museum back in the UK. We were not disappointed.
Did I mention the gift shop? Bring mucho cash.


The BHI panels were well-designed and informative, containing photographs of the excavations and prep of the various exhibits, as well as site maps showing the distribution of bones in the bed. There was no sensationalism, just information and fossils. I can't recall seeing any interactives in the main hall and it might have been good to get some sort of visitor operated attraction alongside the fossils; these can be quite compact but contain lots of information. They needn't be just for kids either, perhaps illustrated catalogues of the museums specimens and accessions that could be accessed in the fossil hall by researchers and public, complete with description, acquisition and provenance data for example. Combine this with reusage applications on the internet and a powerful new tool will be at the public's and academic community's disposal.

Over here in the UK, outside of the capital our dinosaur museums are altogether more modest but no less interesting. Leading the way in recent years is Dinosaur Isle in Sandown, on the Isle of Wight. Under the curation of Steve Hutt the museum has emphasised the fossils themselves rather than simply animatics (although the kids love 'em!) and through the combination of information-packed graphic panels and an interactive kiosk they communicate the science of the island's dinosaur species very effectively. More than that though, the public can look directly into a working prep lab and talk to the preparators and bring in their own fossils for identification without having to leave them and come back. This direct interfacing with the public is a strength other museums could do with taking note of.

The primate case in the newly refurbished Life Galleries at Manchester Museum, UK.
One of my favourite displays ever. I want this in my house.


My nearest large museum is in Manchester and has a wonderful old Victorian fossil hall, which houses a cast of the BHI's Tyrannosaurus rex Stan, controversially positioned in full running pose. This magnificent mount (I sometimes go up to gaze in slack-jawed awe at it like the small boy I was thirty-five years ago at the NHM) is surrounded by a small but perfectly formed collection of excellent fossils, including specimens from the Burgess Shale, Wigan and some superb marine reptiles from the south coast of England. There are some gems in here and I especially love the dinosaur footprints which show the texture of the soles of the animals tridactyl feet. The life galleries have been recently re-jigged with the old cases of stuffed animals removed and replaced by cases with a more considered thematic thread running through them. In truth, I'm not overly fond of these as I think one or two are a tad abstract (featuring origami birds rather than, er, stuffed birds) and I would prefer seeing actual specimens being displayed; if it comes to science over fuzzy concepts of 'life' I would suggest the science speaks for itself. The primate case display is utterly brilliant though and thankfully the Cassowary skeleton is still there (I can't help thinking that now there is a back room in the museum that contains some wonderful specimens I'll never see again . . . sigh), albeit the lighting's a bit gloomy. Looks like those skeletal reconstructions are going to get ever more difficult to do.

Screen grab from a proposal for a touch-screen museum interactive on my favourite subject, dinosaurs.
The large icons on the left-hand side were designed to be easy for little fingers to press.
Note: The 3D models dinosaur models used here were stock ones, the hammer and microscope my own.


Of course, much of what was written in my last post regarding the advantages of working with science-literate designers will is relevant for museum work too. To avoid repeating myself I'll assume you've read my previous post on the moving image. In that post I suggested working with science-literate creatives can enhance and improve the communication of concepts and current research because these creatives understand the science and can assist in the creation of effective and cost-conscious information delivery methods (there, I repeated myself). Many museums have their own in-house graphic units (perhaps shared with a university) that have designers who understand the subjects they are communicating. In this case, 'understand' means some knowledge of the subject and scientific methodology; this knowledge doesn't have to be extensive but it should be enough that the commissioning expert doesn't have to re-educate the designer whilst delivering a brief - this is important. However, there is a move towards outsourcing as the austerity measures we are experiencing at the moment begin to take effect. Once more, it's worth considering using independents rather than large studios as they will make your budget go much further with no loss of quality; if a larger team is needed to complete a project an independent can organise one or recommend another.

I was going to address symposia and other meetings in this post, but as this has gone on far longer I'll write a separate post for that subject. For now though, ponder over this concept: reusage.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Science and communication 1: The Moving Image

As I've mentioned on this blog before, for my day job as a graphic designer and animator (2D and 3D) I spend a fair percentage of my time working on drug mechanism of action animations for various medical communications agencies. This work consists of liaising with scientists, editors and project teams to create visualisations of how various in-vitro processes occur, from viral replication to signalling cascades and how various drugs in development or coming to market affect the relevant molecules. Despite the controversy surrounding modern drug development, some of the research being done in the private sector is quite incredible, and I always really enjoy learning about the science when working on these projects (I mean, this stuff is all sooooo tiny and gloopy - what's not to like?).

Over the years I've been following my passion for vertebrate palaeontology (especially dinosaurs) I've become more aware of the vast difference in the way communicating the findings of science varies between the commercial sector and those engaged in non-commercial research, i.e. palaeontologists. Is it possible, despite the difference in resources for the results of palaeontology research to be disseminated in a way that takes some of it's cues from commercial graphic design and animation? I've been pondering this for a while and I think it can.

Image from a proposed video for a museum. No CGI here!
© Stuart Pond 2011

There's been some interesting discussion on the dinosaur mailing list recently regarding the current state of TV programming of paleontological subject matter, especially with regard to dinosaurs and this has prompted me to post on this subject (I've been meaning to post about the role of graphics and animation in scientific communication for a while and there will be two posts on the subject pertaining top different delivery methods). As most of us with an obsession with dinosaurs know this area of programming is suffering from a distinct lack of integrity and imagination at present. It seems most of the current crop of dino-related programmes at the moment either interview experts then edit the resulting footage to alter the meanings or simply have a voice-over that contains little or no information. The images are often based on regurgitated, outdated old palaeontological tropes and are quite inaccurate. The same pieces of footage are played again and again within a single programme, perhaps tinted various hues or horizontally flipped to give the impression it's not the same clip. On the whole they're tedious, repetitive and don't convey any real information, and their reconstructions are woefully inaccurate. In short, they're complete crap. There are exceptions of course, as Phil Manning's recent series Jurassic CSI demonstrates; it contained actual science and actual scientists talking about their research. How refreshing was that (paleoartists take note, check out the episode where Phil reconstructs the leg of an Edmontosaurus - excellent stuff)? Also, take a look at David Attenborough's superb First Life series to see how palaeontology can be exciting and interesting. Both these programmes have knowledgeable and enthusiastic scientists presenting them; that they are a cut above the rest is not a coincidence. So what can be done to improve the quality of programmes and get the results of research out to the public?

Although modelled in 3D, this is from a series of 2D stills that created an animated sequence.
Cheaper than animated 3D, but just as effective and you always have models if
you decide to animate later. Result!


There are several issues here that need addressing, but to me one stands out more than the others. Commercial production houses are where the majority of these programmes are made and they often have large overheads and are not specialists in the fields of the programmes they produce; they might have talented staff but these people are not well-versed or even interested in the subject matter and may never even meet an expert. Some, like Framestore who created the memorable footage for Walking With Dinosaurs has developed some expertise in this area, however the programmes they make are often funded by public broadcasting bodies such as the BBC and the budgets can be huge and almost certainly out of the range of smaller commissioning broadcasters.

One of the reasons I do motion graphics for medcomms is I have developed some understanding of my field of work over the years. Whilst certainly not anywhere near to understanding the complexity of some of these processes (there is always learning to be done for each new animation) I do have enough of a grounding to allow the scientists I work alongside to impart information quickly and with minimal recourse to lengthy explanations to how and why this and that occurs, the role of proteins in signalling, the replication of viruses and RNA etc. This enables accuracy and efficiency in production, with minimal downtime as artists struggle to come to terms with the science. So finding artists familiar with the subject matter is essential in my opinion; many of the woefully inaccurate representations of morphology and behaviour could be avoided if the people creating the animation knew what was accurate from the beginning.

Cost has also been citied as a reason why creating this sort of programming is not practical. Here I think a new business model might wrest some of the control back into the hands of the scientists and other workers. It might seem there is no real alternative to large, established production houses but there is: independent specialists.

As I said earlier in the post these large production houses have big overheads and often big mark ups. Their staff, whilst extremely technically proficient at their chosen skillset are not necessarily that interested in the subject matter (and why should they be? they might work on a dozen programmes a year) and tend to be part of a larger team, including admins and generalists and they all need to be paid. But individuals can be found that are interested in the subject matter and these are the people that need to make themselves known to the palaeontology community. There are so many artists and designers out there that would be excellent choices for this sort of work as can be seen by the number of paleo artists on the web.

Of course some knowledge and experience is needed to create successful programmes but like science this is a collaborative effort. Teams of independents can be organised by a producer (also an independent, sometimes an experienced artist or camera person) who will personally know, trust and have worked before with these specialists; far more efficient and cost-effective level than dealing with a production house. Scientists could have direct access to the writers, artists, producers and directors and thus far more input and influence on the final product than previously - far better than handing over control to an in-house editor you've never met in some dark Avid suite somewhere out there. . .  Voiceovers, shoots and animations can all be sourced and created without the involvement of a commercial studio which will mark all of these assets up; everyone gets paid for their time worked without bunging a few quid more to fund the bosses golf holiday.

Concepts, scripts, storyboards, rough edits, finished edits, animatics, voiceovers etc are all sent for approval via the internet, so geographical location is no object to the efficiency of the production process. Without the overheads of big companies, teams of self-employed professionals now work from their own homes and drastically reduce the cost of creating meaningful, quality programmes which tell a story in an engaging and informative way. This means more control of the production, for budget-strapped customers alternatives to tacky 3D CGI can be found that won't make the final result look like it was churned off a virtual production line by a disinterested hack.

I am aware this could look like some big advert for the work I do but it isn't, that's here. I have never animated a dinosaur in my life (although it's coming - a new post soon in the 'Building a 3D dinosaur' series); there are plenty of independents out there far more expert than I at that. What I'm proposing is that people commissioning programmes look at a different way of making them, of giving the research the platform it deserves and eliminating the sensationalist nonsense that passes for the majority of paleo-programming these days.

It is not a cheap business (especially where 3D is concerned), but there is an alternative that might bring in better quality programming at less cost. And who knows, the public might get programmes that actually teach them something.

Next: Museums, symposia and graphic design.