Thursday, April 4, 2013

Jurassic Park and a Career 20 Years In the Making

I didn't always want to be a paleontologist, despite what those who have known me for the last 20 years may say.

Before my fascination with ancient life, I was still interested in strange creatures - the ones from the movies. Before I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist, I dreamed of being a special effects and makeup wizard like Stan WinstonRick Baker, and Tom Savini. This obsession started with a viewing of "An American Werewolf in London" when I was...probably too young. The groundbreaking special effects in that film (the shockingly realistic transformation scene in particular) instantly had me hooked.

Whenever a new horror or sci-fi film came out, I read as much about it as I could. How did they make that? How did they come up with the design for that creature? How did David Naughton go from being a "Pepper" to a monster rampaging through Piccadilly Circus?

I've written about this topic a little bit in my post on the dynamic status of Archaeopteryx, but this is where my person shift took place. Walking in the door from school and seeing the April 26, 1993 TIME magazine sitting on the table, the cover showing the reconstructions of bizarre new dinosaurs and the headline "The Truth About Dinosaurs" with the tag "Surprise: Just about everything you believe is wrong".
Eye-catching, to say the least.

TIME Magazine Cover: Dinosaurs -- Apr. 26, 1993
This is the initial catalyst that started a series
of headaches for my parents throughout the 90's.
However, it wasn't just the cover story that caught my attention. The teaser in the upper right corner - "Plus: The Making of Spielberg's Jurassic Park" also piqued my interest. Also, embedded in this issue was an impressive two-page fold-out advertising the film; the classic T. rex logo opening up to a vast jungle canopy with tiny helicopters flying low among grazing sauropods.

While the feature article discussed new evidence for an evolutionary relationship between modern birds and extinct dinosaurs, the "making of" article was impressive as well.

However, I must at admit that I was a bit lost. The article talked about the animatronics and computer animation advancements engineered for the film, and discussed a film plot about "genetically engineered dinosaurs". I was in 5th grade. I didn't know the meaning of "genetic engineering". The word "engineering" in context of movie special effects gave me the following impression: This movie was going to be about a park of robotic dinosaurs that go haywire and run amok. (Ironically, at this point I was not yet aware of Michael Crichton's Westworld and the Simpsons had not yet done the famous "Itchy and Scratchy Land" episode...).

The title "Jurassic Park" sounded familiar as well. I vaguely remember seeing the book being sold in stores in 1990. Upon reading the TIME magazine issue, I asked my mom if she had ever read the book. While she hadn't read it, we did own a copy that she received as part of a "book of the month club"; destiny sat on our bookshelf and I didn't even know it.

Crichton's novel is a bit daunting to an 11 yr old 5th grader. I won't pretend I understood every single word or the various discussions taking place in the numerous "Control" chapters upon my first reading. At the time I was more focused on the dinosaur descriptions anyway.

Upon seeing the movie on June 11th, 1993 (first of four screenings) I was completely blown away. It became the only thing I talked about for the next few years, much to my parent's and friend's annoyance. I collected the toys. I had the posters. I had the bed sheets. My April 26th 1993 issue of TIME became a tattered and wrinkled passport that I read over and over again. My fascination with Jurassic Park started like my fascination with all monster movies; how did they do that? However this time as I researched the science behind the effects, I became entranced with the fascinating science more than the effects themselves.

While I had always been marginally interested in dinosaurs, this was the tectonic shift that changed everything. I started collecting books on dinosaurs, collecting local Ordovician fossils from the dolostone quarries in Pecatonica, IL, and even started to harass the "famous" paleontologists I had read so much about. I was able to reach many of them by phone during their office hours, asking them questions for a few minutes about how they became paleontologists, what they studied, etc. As I had these brief conversations with John Ostrom, Jack Horner, and Robert Bakker, my excitement grew more and more.

Of all the conversations I had, Bakker was by far the most outgoing and talkative. He was encouraging and happily provided information on coming out on a dig at Como Bluff. In the summer of 1996 I went on my first dig at Como with Bakker and the Dinamation crew through the Tate Museum at Casper College.

Would you trust this man around
your son in the badlands of Wyoming?
I have heard rumors that astronauts who went to the moon found it difficult to top that experience when they returned. Regardless of the validity of this anecdote, I can relate. After discovering Apatosaurus nun-chucks, excavating a chewed megalosaurid femur, and finding shed baby theropod teeth, how do you go back to school and say "I'm not sure what I want to do when I grow up"?

At least once a year I revisit the Jurassic Park films and books. They have become a little dated, to be sure, but this is to be expected; while the science continues to advance, the films and books remain the same. No amount of updated CGI or 3D enhancements can really change them (you hear that, George Lucas...?). Divergences in the books and films are commonly critiqued, which is also to be expected. The JP movies are fun popcorn adventures. The books (at least the first one) actually have some compelling ethical philosophies that are lost in the film versions. However, as time goes on and we learn more about dinosaur biology, the "dated" status of the films are upheld and the true philosophy of the story comes out - these aren't really dinosaurs - they are genetically engineered animals made to look like our interpretations of dinosaurs at a given time. With the numerous discussions currently happening regarding "de-extinction", this concept is more relevant today than it was in 1990 or 1993.

Upon its release 20 years ago, Jurassic Park inspired a whole new generation of future researchers that have explored deeper into the geologic past. Given the amazing discoveries made by previous Jurassic Park-inspired paleontologists over the last two decades, imagine what we will know in another 20 years from the kids who put on their 3D glasses and experience this film in 2013.