Scott Hartman has launched a valuable discussion about skeletal reconstructions, to which this post is more or less an illustrated comment. So – if you haven’t already – you should check out his blog, and particularly the last posts about skeletal poses, reposes and style (parts one and two).
First off, there’s the discussion of what might be a standardized pose to replace the one claimed by Greg Paul. Above I’ve taken Scott’s Majungasaurus and fit him to the implausible running pose. (Sorry Scott.) Everyone agrees that that’s not good. But if other theropods are shown in the extreme locomotion gait while Majungasaurus alone is left to walk, that is information. namely, it communicates that Majungasaurus couldn’t run, ie. the walk gait was its extreme. I won’t get hung up on this, but assuming the goal of a skeletal reconstruction is to communicate maximum information, establishing an across-the-board walk pose seems to weaken this objective.
What IS the goal?
Scott’s posts are already leading up to this conclusion, but I’ll try to state it plainly. Skeletals should fulfill their function, and as there are numerous functions for them, there should be numerous ways of doing them. The exploded view seems ideal for those presenting an analysis of the bones themselves, while a posed reconstruction would better suit someone analysing biomechanical features. Problems occur when the presentation seemingly lays claim to information that isn’t in the model, so its great to see Scott point to this so directly. Really good stuff. It feels like those 3D skeletals on low-budget TV shows… they look like bones that have just been dug up and prettied. But they’re not at all like the bones that specialists know they should. Result: disconnection.
What is my goal?
I’ve been exploring the creation of just such 3D skeletals and have a couple of observations to contribute from the point of view of a 3D animator not all too far removed (approximately 1 1/2 years) from those clueless artists from the above-mentioned TV shows that you scientists, justifiably, criticize.
I want to create interactive, 3D skeletal/life reconstructions that are interlinked to biota profiles and phylogenetic timelines so that important concepts like deep time, evolutionary relationships and ecosystems are communicated passively, like a background tapestry while people satiate their fascination for Trex. Or Kentrosaurus.
Eye candy: here’s an Archeopteryx reconstruction as a walk-cycle animation consulted by Scott himself. It blends from stylized life-reconstruction to stylized skeletal. Or more exactly, an abstracted skeletal. I’m not trying to make something that looks like bone or stone, but rather something that conveys those features that makes these bones identifiable as belonging to Archeopteryx. I know that many viewers will find it odd, but I like the fact that it looks sculptural and not at all like bone. The look of bone is easy to achieve, and uninformed viewers immediately assume it to be bone, which lends it a superficial authority. Ah, that’s a bone! It must be the bone.
In this specific context of continuously progressing scientific results, it must be a good thing to communicate that this creature must have been so – not that it was so.
The thing is, I look at the scraps and shards that capable scientists puzzle together into what most people think is directly dug up out of the ground and I recognize next to nothing. I look at interspecies diversity and am grateful that I’m not the one determining where the line between species is to be drawn. The more I learn the more I understand how much interpretation is involved in each step along the way, from lump in the ground to a bone reconstruction, a skeletal reconstruction, a life reconstruction.
Instead of being put off by this, I find myself fascinated by it, and I want other people to be fascinated by it too. That requires an understanding of the scientific process… ie. an awareness that there are many interpretive steps involved in that visual.
In the Archeopteryx animation, the spine is a volume study without individual vertebrae. In this sketch (blatantly copying – once again – Scott’s lead) I’ve depicted Silesaurus as a sketch. It’s interesting to see how reactions vary and, unfortunately, I fear that it would be taken less seriously. The scientist interested in exact numeric counts of caudal vertebrae will be disappointed, of course, but to the interested layman, it otherwise conveys a large portion of the same information correctly. Just – it looks unfinished. It surrenders authority for the author’s signature, together with the implied fallibility that goes along with having been authored. Fallibility is an assumption that leads to independent confirmation of results… a key part of the scientific process?
Scott’s discussion has prompted me to more precisely wonder what style would best suit a skeletal reconstruction for popular, interactive publications.