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NPR and Paleoart

npr_paleo-mammoth

Here you see 3 mammoths… from Prehistoric Park, 2000 BC and Carl Buell. The first two are 3D visualizations and the last is hand-painted. It’s also a differnet species, a Columbian Mammoth… but what’s interesting is the differing intentions of these works. The first intends to be scientifically accurate as well as entertaining. The second just wants to entertain, servicing the image we all already have in our heads as to what these creatures did and dramatically upping the ante.  The third also dramatizes, but it is prime pursuit is accuracy. Of course, the process and budget also play a role: the first two approach the process of generating a visual image as a chain of re-usable assets and are the result of teams of artists. Carl creates this one image by himself, perhaps in dialog with specialists… its volume and form exists as an asset only in his head. A further illustration would be starting all over again, except for this (considerable) knowledge, and an animation would be unfeasible.

Of more direct interest here is the way the first two are presented; as “real” elements within the context of their respective fictions. As such, they represent an actual (albeit fictional) reality – this is what a mammoth looked like, this is what it moved like. You can see people interacting with these creatures, supporting the visual claim.

Carl’s piece is hand-drawn. Despite the high level-of-detail, it displays the artifacts of human creation – zoom in on the larger resolution graciously offered at his site and the hair-covered skin gives way to individual strokes of paint. Carl’s hand is there, and thus we know this is a construction. Even at reduced scale, we feel this fact.

npr_paleo-trex
In paleoart, this is an important differentiation. The above Trex portrait by Demetrios Vital inherently communicates that it is an idea… whereas BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs presents itself as real. I’m always amazed at the amount of information that paleologists gleen off of lumpy, crushed bits mineralized bone and find their sleuthing and debates at least as fascinating as the creatures that they are trying to understand. As an artist, its all too easy to slip into what looks cool, what seems right. I respect the dogma of the scientist who has to restrain these urges in favor of factual support. I also respect those artists and artist-scientists – and there’s an incredible wealth of artistic talent and experience out there!
So, while I love the Walking with Dinosaurs series and what its done for the genre, I eye warily its heritage and hope to present a technical groundwork that will make a constructed ‘hand-drawn’ alternative viable – and bind the many artists into the animated formats. For me, Prehistoric Park has placed itself precariously close to losing its educational ambitions and its necessary to question the goals of the format and the implications of the technical processes used.

There are 3 Comments to this article

Traumador the Tyrannosaur says:
10/13/2009

very good points.

it is interesting having worked with two scientists lately. they have a real disregrad for digital art as a default. luckily i’ve been able to turn one of them around. yet the dogma is entrenched that having that human hand is important.

i wonder if it is due to the public’s response to CG. i have encountered the average person’s belief in the “real” of CG programs. due the believablity of the images they take what they are seeing a lot more seriously.

so on the one hand i begrudge the impossible pictures projects for the totally fictional behaviour they stick into their programs as everyone, kids especially, think that is “true”… at the same time even prehistoric park is far from the worst of these.

jurassic park has been the worst spreading of misinformation, but the walking with dinosaur knock offs have some equally bad material. dinosaur planet has even worse over the top “palaeo-zoology” then the BBC episodes. i’m glad i’m not handling questions at the museum that will be spurred by the recent jurassic fight club. oh man it was just awful for the making up bull shit in a “factual” manner.

out of all the palaeo documentaries i have watched (often with a palaeo grad student present) the ones WITH nigel marvin have proven the best. with nigel in the show there is a narrative structure and emotional hook for the audience not requiring the dinosaurs to do all the work, so the producers put less emphasis on the dinosaurs behaviour. this means they don’t need to inject quirky (fictional and not scientifically based at all) behaviours or conjecture into the show.

i found prehistoric park and sea monsters as presenting very subdued and fair palaeo restorations of creatures. they were good CG, but also behaving like real animals (as nigel no doubt injected some of his real life animal experience into the shows creative process). sure the park side of things was a little over the top at times, but the dinosaurs themselves (and other critters) weren’t doing anything that wasn’t scientifically possible… walking with dinosaurs had more

admin says:
10/13/2009

Oh yeah… there was lot of goodness in ‘Prehistoric Park’. I tend to crit the good things and ignore the horrendous. The animation was mostly good, sometimes great. For the budget, production quality was quite good (though those ornithischian eyes still give me nightmares).

I’m sure this direction has lots to offer… I’ll call it the “experiential paleology” where its more about identification with a human who has “dino-adventures”. This is fine and good and will continue to be so; real-looking reconstructions composited in with real sets and humans. I just hope to enable a ‘hand-drawn’ stylistic approach as an alternative: this would expand the camera’s view beyond the animal being reconstructed to include the process of its reconstruction – which I find most exciting of all. (Well, not exciting as in real-time, but in concept. /me imagines a documentary of some patient soul prepping stone.)

Jurassic Park did wonders for fascination of dinosaurs in the public mind… and it did so with a quite modern interpretation. Don’t forget when it was made. Of course, I’d love to see future efforts restrict their creative freedoms to presentation and not irreal lizard frills.

Traumador the Tyrannosaur says:
10/14/2009

JP 1 and 2 did more good than bad in my opinion.

JP3 is a totally different story… they didn’t get much if anything right, and most people have no clue. many people who visited our palaeo museum thought it was a documentary… *shiver*

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