Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What despair, pterosaurs and David Attenborough have in common


We all have our own little guilty pleasures amongst our DVD collections, films that we watch when we’re glum or tired and very, very much on our own. You don’t want to watch these things with your buddies, see, because they’re massively embarrassing for one reason or other. They may have really crappy plots or autopilot scripting, or perhaps more emotional mush than the output of a flood at an instant mash potato factory. The acting may be so wooden that, with only a little sawing and polishing, you could easily fashion it into a neat bedside table and, in effects-laden films, we may find The Muppets or Button Moon more convincing depictions of reality than the cheese being touted onscreen. Sensible souls keep these discs in the same place as their prophylactics and haemorrhoid creams, the sort of nooks and crannies that friends and casual visitors won’t happen to chance across when visiting, and daren’t defend them when they’re rightly ridiculed in conversation. We keep our thoughts on them private, see, and daren’t tell anyone how we spend our guiltiest filmic moments. Well, mostly: my personal guilty pleasure is the 1992 Tim Burton movie Batman Returns, a flick I fondly remember watching over-and-over as an kid for its dark, twisted visuals, fantastical plot and (for an eight year old) complex characters: how could the good guy fall in love with a baddie, after all? The shots of Michelle Pfeiffer wielding a whip in a PVC catsuit, sparking all sorts of previously unknown and confusing thoughts in my eight year old brain, had nothing to do with my repeat watching at all. And they certainly don’t factor into any decision I may make into watching it now.

Thing is, I know when putting the disc into my DVD player that I need to switch my brain off to enjoy it. I’m not watching it to be intellectually stimulated: it’s pure bumph and mental comfort food. Thinking about the silliness of it all too much will just ruin it, so best to sit back and let it wash over you like the celluloid bubblebath that it is. For other films or programmes, though, you don’t expect to do this, and particularly so for documentaries. Their whole purpose, after all, is to present factually informed opinions and data: they exist to educate and stimulate us with new information. What then, should we make of a documentary that has less in common with an educational experience and more of a guilty pleasure, the sort of thing that hardcore documentary-aficionados will scorn and only the bravest admit to truly liking? The kind of documentary that asks you to kindly switch your brain off before you’ll be able to enjoy it?


You can see where this is going
Call a spotlight, please, on the new Atlantic Productions/David Attenborough pterosaur documentary, Flying Monsters 3D (cropped promotional poster and trailer shown above. All images used in this post are (c) Atlantic Productions). Hyped across the UK through a pretty extensive media campaign featuring articles in newspapers, TV guides, the Internet, television and even adverts on the London Underground, it’s a flagship show for Sky TV’s (the major subscription satellite TV company in the UK) new 3D channel, an attempt to show people that they should fork out for a 3D TV and Sky subscription even if they’re not interested in the major component of Sky 3D’s output, football. Much of the excitement about the programme has focused on its use of 3D technology, but there’s good reason to be excited about its content, too. The programme’s lead, Sir David Attenborough (shown below in a glider alongside the FM3D Quetzalcoatlus), needs no introduction to anyone reading this and the producers, Atlantic Productions, are veteran CG palaeodocumentary makers that have cut their palaeodoc teeth on the pliosaur-based Predator X, the Darwinius feature Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link and Attenborough’s recent tour through the origins on life, First Life. And it exclusively features pterosaurs for chrissakes, fantastic animals that have been begging for their own CG-laden documentary since Walking with Dinosaurs demonstrated that photo-realistic CG creatures were not just the claim of Hollywood blockbusters. A handful of pterosaur researchers were consulted in the making of the film, too – David Unwin, David Martill, Michael Habib and myself were all involved to ensure the science was on the money. With credentials like that, it’s understandable that expectations were higher for this than for many palaeodocs and, indeed, the programme has caused a stir around the world with palaeobloggers-a-plenty eager for it to land on their cinematic shores this Spring. The press reports have been positive too, with Attenborough and the technology of the film being highly praised in several articles.

Not having any of the necessary kit to see the show, I didn’t see the programme’s premiere at Christmas but, happily for me, my involvement as a technical consultant landed me and my other-half the chance to see a screening of the full length 70-minute version last Thursday (the upcoming cinema release is only 40 minutes). With such a stir around the film already, my hopes were high that everyone’s favourite leathery-winged beasties were about to get their moment in the media sun. Problem is, while some people are going to love this film - they're going to lap up the effects, the bizarreness of pterosaurs and the whispered Attenboroughness of it all, they won't be the people who're most excited about seeing it. No, I reckon that anyone with a real interest in palaeontology or pterosaurs, the sort of people who tune into this little corner of Hardcore Pterosaur Blogging, for instance, will be pretty underwhelmed with the whole thing. Indeed, it's not going to blow away anyone who, you know, actually pays attention to the film. And here’s why.


You look so fine
First up, credit given where it’s due: much has been made of the technology fuelling the 3D-enhanced presentation of Flying Monsters 3D, and for good reason: the presentation is stunning (FM3D Tupandactylus above). Most scrutiny will undoubtedly focus on the computer generated pterosaurs and – regardless of their scientific merit (we’ll get to that later) – they look dead impressive. Their fuzz and wing membranes ripple in the wind, their animation is smooth and their (entirely CG) environments look rich and convincing. As with most films of this kind, the lack of other animals in the CG scenes is notable, but given the time and expense it would take to render such effects, this is forgivable. The traditional photography is nicely done, too, with plenty of dramatic shots of fossil sites from helicopters, some fantastic close-ups of well-known pterosaur specimens and a suitably stirring, Thomas Newman-esque soundtrack overlying the whole thing to get the attention of your neck hair. The 3D, perhaps the most hyped component of the whole film, works well and, happily, isn’t gimmicky: there’s no cheesy 3D money shots to make audiences lurch about their seats and, instead, it only serves to add depth of vision to the pictures. Personally, I’m not sure the 3D really made the film a whole new visual experience: while impressive for the first five minutes, it quickly becomes par for the course, aside from the need to continuously push oversize 3D specs up your nose. Still, it all adds to the excellent presentation served up by Atlantic, and their cinematographers and computer wizards deserve several pats on the back for their work. Problem is, once you’ve taken in how nice everything looks, you start to focus on the story you’re being told and the content of the programme, and that's where the issues begin.

Psuedopterosaurology
As a documentary being presented by one of the most respected television natural historians of recent times, the content of FM3D has to match up to it’s presentation for it to be considered a real success. Alas, Flying Monsters 3D is a bit of a letdown here: I need to be careful with my own impressions here as, being a chap who’s been called a ‘pterosaur expert’ more than once, I may be more critical of the programme’s content than most. Thing is, this background means that I spent a lot of the film noting gross inaccuracies and misrepresentations of pterosaur knowledge, and this is surely a major failing of anything programme pretending to be a fact-based documentary. Take, for instance, the way that we’re explicitly told that pterosaurs were out-competed by birds and their ability to adapt to new ecologies, thus sealing the extinction of the more evolutionary-stagnant pterosaurs. Detailed analyses of bird and pterosaur diversity have either proved inconclusive on this issue (as in, we don't have enough data to say either way) or categorically stated that there's no evidence for bird-driven pterosaur extinction (Buffetaut et al. 1996; Slack et al. 2006; Butler et al. 2009; Dyke et al. 2009): claims like this really don’t reflect consensus opinions in the pterosaur scientific community. Elsewhere in the programme, we’re told that aktinofibrils – the stiffening fibres of pterosaur wings – enabled them to mould their wings in a very refined, precise way. These have been confused here with the muscle layer thought to be running through pterosaur wing membranes (Unwin 2005): aktinofibrils likely stiffened the wing or served as folding aids (Padian and Rayner 1983; Bennett 2000). Roborhamphus, the digital walking non-pterodactyloid pterosaur, is presented as strict fact despite still not being peer reviewed (and contradicting other evidence – see Bennett 1996) and the large tapejarid Tupandactylus is consistently called Tapejara despite being separated from this genus four (yes, four) sodding years ago (Kellner and Campos 2007). I mean, if you can't even be bothered to give them the right names...


Many sequences of the programme also shake the wrong end of the pterosaur stick, giving a rather inaccurate portrayal of pterosaur research and its history. A good chunk of the programme is given to the discovery of the Dimorphodon holotype, a partial skeleton found in 1828 in Dorset, as if it were pivotal in revealing pterosaurs to the world and understanding pterosaur morphology. This just isn’t the case: the first pterosaur fossil known to science, the complete skeleton of Pterodactylus antiquus, was found in 1784 and was a far more important specimen to our initial appreciation of pterosaurs. Not only did this fossil give pioneering scientists like Georges Cuvier the ability to interpret pterosaurs as extinct flying reptiles, but it was also a cornerstone for demonstrating concepts such as life before man, the use of comparative anatomy in identifying fossil animals and even extinction itself (Taquet and Padian 2004). While Dimorphodon was an important contribution to our knowledge of pterosaurs in 1828, it really did little more than demonstrate the temporal, geographic and morphological range of pterosaurs: it had nothing to do with discovering what pterosaurs actually were (and, besides, we didn’t see what Dimorphodon really looked like until the latter half of the 1800s, almost 100 years since pterosaur research began [Owen 1870]). Indeed, the programme’s emphasis on Dimorphodon as a completely known early pterosaur isn’t entirely clear: other forms (e.g. Preondactylus, Peteinosaurus and numerous campylognathoidid-like things) are as completely known and much older. (FM3D Quetzalcoatlus shown above)

It gets worse. For some reason, considerable screen time is given to the idea that Tupandactylus (sorry, ‘Tapejara’) had an ultra-sensitive headcrest capable of ‘autopiloting’ it’s flight. What’s more, we’re told that with backswept-wings, the same ornament would enable Tupandactylus to sail through water like a reptilian trimaran (as in, with it’s belly and legs acting as a hull and the wings and crest posing as sails). These ideas come courtesy of biomechanicist Sankar Chatterjee, who’s work builds upon minor statements about the sailing potential of other tapejarids made by Dino Frey and colleagues in 2003 (note that other discussions of sailing pterosaurs primarily focus on the antler-crested form Nyctosaurus: we don’t have time to go into them here). The science behind these claims has yet to reach the peer-reviewed press, however, and the idea of pterosaurs sailing in this manner has not gained any acceptance in mainstream pterosaur circles: with all due respect to Professor Chatterjee, I’m surprised the programme makers gave so much screentime to an idea that has such a long way to go before being accepted by the pterosaur community when there are other, equally interesting and far less controversial ideas they could have explored. They could’ve, for instance, demonstrated far more concrete ideas about crest dimorphism: virtually every animal in the film has a headcrest, giving the impression to pterosaur-savy individuals that the pterosaur social scene was something of a sausage fest. One sequence in particular stands out as the pterosaur equivalent of Brokeback Mountain.


Subjackanory
These problems – and I’ve only listed a few - are bad enough, but the most surprising letdown of all is that the show lacks good narrative, a shock considering the involvement of the Godfather of natural history films. We’re taken through a simplistic version of pterosaur evolution, looking at Dimorphodon, Darwinopterus, Pteranodon, Tupandactylus (sorry, ‘Tapejara’), and Quetzalcoatlus, a sequence that takes us from the early Jurassic to the late Cretaceous. Along the way we’re introduced to some different species and concepts of pterosaur locomotion and anatomy and, in theory, this should work fine. In actuality, though, it’s rather clumsily handled. We’re told at the film’s midpoint that Tupandactylus had fur (a claim based on fossils, apparently, but the only Tupandactylus I know of with an alleged ‘beard’ has not been studied nor even mentioned in the technical literature. Having seen photos, I’m not sure that the alleged beard isn’t actually an errant plant fossil) and that this suggests it’s able to control it’s body temperature. It’s pretty accepted that most – if not all – pterosaurs were covered in fuzzy pycnofibres, and it’s not at all unreasonable to assume this may have been important to their ability to fly: why is this specifically mentioned for Tupandactylus but no other pterosaurs, then? (Scavenging FM3D Quetzalcoatlus shown above. Note that scavenging habits for these animals has never really gained much acceptance amongst pterosaurologists - see Witton and Naish [2008])

Often, the narrative feels entirely ad-libbed. The discussion of the concept that pterodactyloids represented a significant upgrade in terrestrial capability from their ancestors brings in the discussion of the split uropatagia in pterodactyloids when, prior to this point, viewers had not been introduced to the idea that there was any sort of hindlimb-anchored membrane at all (well, unless they’d been paying close attention to the CG sequences). Later, Douglas Lawson talks us through estimates of how large Quetzalcoatlus northropi was thought to be in the 1970s (about 17 m across the wings – see Greenewalt 1975) but the producers keep any subsequent size estimates (more like 10 m - see Witton and Habib 2010) to themselves: the point is set up, but never finished. There’s a massive contradiction, too, the bristle-toothed ctenochasmatoid Pterodaustro is identified halfway through the film as a filter feeder, only for Attenborough to close the film in front of a flamingo flock and inform us that pterosaurs never achieved the diversity modern birds have, including never evolving filter feeding forms. All told, it seems like this was a story told on the fly with little continuity checking between scenes. Indeed, we left the theatre wondering if anyone with access to the script, let alone someone with a background in pterosaur research, had read the narrative from beginning to end or really had a good, solid grasp of what they were trying to say.


All down to the 1s and 0s
It’s left to the CG pterosaurs to justify your subscription to Sky 3D or IMAX theatre ticket, then, but they’re not quite strong enough to support the whole thing alone. They are lovingly rendered and, anatomically speaking, not too bad (though there were a whole load of suggestions made that were rejected for aesthetic or economic reasons - FM3D Dimorphodon, shown above, has suffered a lot in this regard), but their flight animations – the main way we see them - are too sinuous and, like most prehistoric beasties on film, they scream and wave their heads around far too much. Overall, the Tupandactylus and Darwinopterus probably come out best, though some scenes, such as the sailing tapejarids, hawking Darwinopterus and crashing Dimorphodon aren’t convincing at all. Two of these instances are actually laughably bad (apologies to the animators, but the Dimorphodon sequence is begging for a WWII plane crashing sound effect to be added over the top: seriously, animals just don’t spiral out of the sky like that!). As such, I’m not sure they’ll come across as convincing to anyone who’s familiar with actual animal movement and behaviour, and folks who know pterosaur anatomy will wince at the flexibility of their backs and tails, the floppy-curtain effects of the wing membranes on the grounded animals and the stiff, perpetually-forward facing heads. They have got a lot right: their feet are plantigrade, they launch quadrupedally and their limbs held are positioned parasagittally, but their movements are too exaggerated. CG animators will do well to learn that animals don't move like they’re acting in silent movies. Plus, Attenborough actually interacts with the CG models in some scenes and, call me boring, but these come across as pretty trite and nuke FM3D’s fridge: the models aren’t really convincing enough to stand up to their real-world surroundings, and they come worrying close to turning Attenborough from respected educator into a children’s performer (see image, below, of the FM3D Quetzalcoatlus soaring alongside Attenborough's glider).


So... you didn't like it then?
Not really. As a pterosaur documentary it's probably the best one yet - though that's hardly a mean feat - but it's a pretty sub-par programme in it's own right. Thing is, I wouldn’t normally care: most palaeodocs are, unfortunately, pretty terrible at the best of times, but this one could’ve been so much more. Why so many silly mistakes? Why such chaotic narrative? Pterosaurs are awesome animals: the fact that they formed the focus of such a prestigious documentary shows their public appeal and the numerous articles, webpages and books written about them denotes their hardcore interest. Alas, the media hype for the film betrays the real interest of the filmmakers: the technology behind the film. Indeed, search the websites associated with the flick and you’ll not find any mention of the science behind the piece: there’s some basic facts about pterosaurs, but the vast majority of the hype concerns the involvement of David Attenborough and the details of making a film in 3D. As mentioned above, this will be enough for some who're bowled over by the snazzy visuals and polish, but anyone who doesn’t knock their brains to ‘off’ when slipping the 3D glasses on will find it disappointingly empty. It really seems that, with a bit more care, this could’ve been as much of an achievement for effective scientific communication as it has been for 3D technology, but it’s really an enormous missed opportunity. The kind of thing, in fact, that makes a technical consultant want to grab a beer or two and reach for that guilty pleasure DVD. Despair, despair, despair.

References

  • Bennett, S. C. 2000. Pterosaur flight: the role of actinofibrils in wing function. Historical Biology, 14, 255-284.
  • Buffetaut, E., Clarke, J. B. and Le Lœuff, J. 1996. A terminal Cretaceous pterosaur from the Corbiéres (southern France) and the problem of pterosaur extinction. Bulletin de la Societe Geologique de France, 167, 753-759.
  • Butler, R. J., Barrett, P. M., Nowbath, S. & Upchurch, P. 2009. Estimating the effects of the rock record on pterosaur diversity patterns: implications for hypotheses of bird/pterosaur competitive replacement. Paleobiology 35, 432-446.
  • Dyke, G. J., McGowan, A. J., Nudds, R. L. and Smith, D. 2009. The shape of pterosaur evolution: evidence from the fossil record. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 22, 890-898.
  • Frey, E., Martill, D. M., and Buchy, C. C. 2003. A new species of tapejarid pterosaur with soft tissue head crest. In: Buffetaut, E. and Mazin, J. M. (eds.) Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs, Geological Society Special Publication, 217, 65-72.
  • Kellner, A. W. A. and Campos, D. A. 2007. Short note on the ingroup relationships of the Tapejaridae (Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea). Boletim do Museu Nacional, Nova Séroe, Rio de Janeiro - Brasil. Geologia, 75, 1-14.
  • Greenewalt, C. H. 1975. Could pterosaurs fly? Science, 188, 676.
  • Owen, R. 1870. A monograph of the fossil Reptilia of the Liassic Formations Part Third. Plesiosaurus, Dimorphodon, and Ichthyosaurus. Palaeontographical Society Monograph, 41–81.
  • Padian, K. and Rayner, J. M. V. 1993. The wings of pterosaurs. American Journal of Science, 293, 91-166.
  • Slack, K. E., Jones, C. M., Ando, T., Harrison, G. L. (A)., Fordyce, R. E., Arnason, U. and Penny, D. Early penguin fossils, plus mitochondrial genomes, calibrate avian evolution. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 23, 1144-1155.
  • Taquet, P. and Padian, K. 2004. The earliest known restoration of a pterosaur and the philosophical origins of Cuvier’s Ossemens Fossiles. Comptes Rendus.Palaevol, 3, 157-175.
  • Unwin, D. M. 2005. The Pterosaurs from Deep Time. Pi Press, New York, 347 pp.
  • Witton, M. P. and Habib, M. B. 2010. On the size and flight diversity of giant pterosaurs, the use of birds as pterosaur analogues and comments on pterosaur flightlessness. PLoS ONE, 5, e13982.
  • Witton, M. P. and Naish, D. 2008. A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS ONE, 3, e2271.

22 comments:

  1. And the trailer looked so nice, too, with the quad launch and pycnofibers. How disappointing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My condolences. The fact that so many knowledgeable consultants were involved had made me optimistic... I'm too involved in 3D animation to have expected much there.

    And yeah, Attenborough. Somehow I figured he'd have some draconian fact-checking assistant proofing anything with his name and face on it.
    Sigh.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Well, bear in mind these are only my opinions: other people may disagree with my thoughts once they've watched it. At the moment, there's not many other opinions to read: ao far as I'm aware, this is the only real review of the film available so far, with everything else written on it has been very focused on the 3D technology and whatnot. Hopefully, other authors will give some thoughts on the show once it's got about a bit more.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I can't figure out why David Attenborough let himself get sucked into this, having apparently refused an offer to narrate WWD because it was too speculative.

    *sigh*

    ReplyDelete
  5. That's too bad. Fortunately, I had low expectations, based on other paleodocs, thogh I'll certainly see it if I get the chance.

    I'll have to be content to have my interest in pterosaurs satisfied by a new and very spiffy book rumoured to be in the works. :-)

    Mike from Ottawa

    ReplyDelete
  6. At the risk of exposing my ignorance, at 19 seconds into the clip it shows the small pterosaur with the tail entirely free of and above the uropatagium. Am I just out of date thinking that's wrong or is it a matter of controversy that they graphics folk chose one side of?

    The film succeeds in one measure you didn't mention, Mark. It's got more information out about pterosaurs in your critique.

    And as someone who's not a pterosaur expert, I might not have spotted things like the 'Tapejara' but as someone who's just a fan of pterosaurs, they bug me as much as they bug you. Especially since it sounds like at least the problems with the narrative would have taken a day or so to resolve if they'd run the script past you or one of the other pterosaurologists they had onboad.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I expect Dimorphodon was focused on because it was British.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "I can't figure out why David Attenborough let himself get sucked into this, having apparently refused an offer to narrate WWD because it was too speculative"

    Maybe Attenborough knows enough about dinosaurs to know what is unwarranted speculation there but didn 't know enough about pterosaurs to make the same judgement here.

    Mike from Ottawa

    ReplyDelete
  9. mOOm: Yeah, I wondered if the patriotism card was being played too. Doesn't make it right, though: they missed out a massive and critical chunk of pterosaur research history.

    Michael: The uropatagium seems right to me (well, I told them to do it that way, so that's not surprising). Other people may disagree, though. And WWD did present everything, even blind speculation, as fact: maybe Attenborough wanted to avoid going down that route. To be fair to FM3D, they did add some caveats to their narration.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Mark,

    What's the basis for thinking the tail in that pterosaur (what is it?) was free of the uropatagium?

    I'm not having the effrontery to question your opinion, but figuring to learn a bit.

    Mike from Ottawa

    ReplyDelete
  11. Mike,

    I think this will make a good topic for a blogpost, actually: stay tuned (and, er, give me a week or two).

    Mark

    ReplyDelete
  12. Bear in mind that this programme was not made for 7 pterosaur experts but about 10 million kids who won't care too much about 95% of the stuff that grates on you. It sounds as if they did a fairly good job overall apart some clumsy scripting. Hopefully a few of those 10 million kids will get interested in getting involved and a whole lot more will have their eyes opened to a whole new world beyond T rex and Triceratops...

    ReplyDelete
  13. Reprobus,

    I don't disagree that it's great to have a programme on pterosaurs themselves, and especially one with such a high profile. It will, as you say, make people far more interested in what are classicially treated as background characters in Mesozoic scenes. No complaints there, then.

    As an academic working in pterosaur research, though, I think it's a crying shame that the programme conveys inaccurate information that doesn't even reflect the opinions of the scientists involved - why bother getting them involved in the first place if you're going to ignore them and pilot the whole thing yourself? It smells of laziness, arrogance or indifference to the content from the script-writers. To be fair, I was, along with others, asked numerous questions about various parts of the programme during it's production, but was largely uninformed about the overall content of the show. Given what was said, I wonder if any experts were informed in detail about this at all.

    As mentioned in the review, some people won't notice or care about the content, but the people who do care - anyone who likes to be well informed, not just pterosaur experts - shouldn't have to settle for lacklustre programming just because of the palaeontology subject matter. For some reason, we seem to have very low standards for this kind of programming despite other documentaries being both drammatically and academically excellent. I genuinely believe that anyone with a critical mind will spot the narrative issues (my girlfriend did, and she's not a pterosaur expert - she's just an intelligent, thinking viewer) and these undermine the whole show. After all, if even their narrative isn't flawless, it's going to make people wonder what else may be wrong.

    Oh, and I'm not sure I agree that this movie was aimed at kids, either: Attenborough's name will be forever associated with documentaries that appeal to a huge demographic range, from people only interested stunning photography to professional academics and natural historians: the ambience and delivery of this film didn't suggest it was meant to be anything different. It's not not been marketed specifically at kids, either: why bother advertising to kids on the Sky News channel? No kids are watching that. And more to the point, even if it is aimed at kids, why should we lower our standards for them? Isn't it just as important to be informing them with accuarate information as it is their parents?

    ReplyDelete
  14. "We’re taken through a simplistic version of pterosaur evolution, looking at Dimorphodon, Darwinopterus, Pteranodon, Tupandactylus (sorry, ‘Tapejrara’), and Quetzalcoatlus, a sequence that takes us from the early Jurassic to the late Cretaceous."

    You know, isn't this the exact same complaint Unwin made in "Pterosaurs: From Deep Time" about pterosaur portrayal in media? All you have to do is take out Darwinopterus and throw in the "fish-juggling routine of Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhyncus".

    ReplyDelete
  15. Well I understand your pain. My experience so far has shown that scientists involved in TV are interested in *communicating science* amd documentary makers are interested in *making TV programmes* and that, like the english and the americans, the two are "separated by a common language". You think you've agreed on something but in fact both parties come away with quite a different understanding. It takes a great deal of skill to reconcile the two viewpoints and even 'the greats' aren't always successful (even our Dave).
    Still, if this one's a success, and you stay positive, maybe you'll get to do another one that will be better.

    ReplyDelete
  16. @Reprobus... I can't disagree more strongly with the idea that "10 million kids who won't care too much about 95% of the stuff that grates on you". In my experience, it's the kids who DO care. They bore into you with questions, and its our job as adults to guide their ability to formulate and propagate these questions with logic and understanding of underlying issues.
    Kids will immediately pick up on conflicts within one show. They may not understand how to interpret the discrepency, but they'll pick up on it 100%. They'll feel robbed - correctly - and instead of being propelled into new layers of questioning and an understanding of science, they'll resign to accepting authority-arguments and conclude that scientists are not all that more knowledgeable than the normal Joe.

    I also disagree with the comment "if this one's a success, and you stay positive, maybe you'll get to do another one that will be better". Why should one believe that the next one will be better if this one was successful?

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hi David, I'm no expert on other people's kids, but my wife runs science events for kids aged 14-17 (roughly). One of the things she consistently notes is that a large proportion have a very short attention span indeed. Part of the problem - she thinks - is that our media world is so rich in distractions that it's difficult for them to stay focused. So maybe one in 10 would watch a programme like this straight through, most might browse, go Wow for 5 minutes, and move on to another channel, their phone, facebook, twitter, or whatever else.

    As for my last comment, well, if shows like this began to make pterosaurs, you know... popular, instead of being largely sideshows to dinosaurs in the media, then maybe another film wouldget made that is better funded, better scripted, with fewer quality corners cut etc. However if I were I director I wouldn't necessarily be running back to scientific advisors who go out of their way to slag off the final product, at length. I might well go back to the cranks who give me crrrrrrazy stuff like the "sailing Tapajera".

    Yes, in a nutshell, I guess I'm annoyed that Mark is in "despair, despair, despair", when a very large sum of money indeed has been spent making a largely decent film about his chosen field of interest, which is likely to inspire and entertain the next generation of palaeontologists and make at least 99% of adult watchers learn something new. So mistakes were made. It's *TV*, not peer reviewed science - get over it. Most people would kill to have 1/10th of the attention and publicity for their research.

    ReplyDelete
  18. "my wife runs science events for kids aged 14-17 (roughly)."

    This show isn't just being aimed at kids or teenagers: Attenborough's appeal is universal. A lot of people will watch this thing through, beginning to end, because it's being shown in cinemas and on premium channels. Very few people are just going to be able to flick onto this, and then flip off. But even if they did only see it for a second, why should that mean it can get away with presenting inaccurate science? Can we start making physics documentaries that deny the existence of gravity because no-one is going to watch them in entirety? Besides, there is a genuinely interested market for this sort of thing: what about them? Don't the filmmakers have some responsibility to be factual for people who would actually like to learn something from the programme?

    "if shows like this began to make pterosaurs, you know... popular, instead of being largely sideshows to dinosaurs in the media, then maybe another film wouldget made that is better funded, better scripted, with fewer quality corners cut etc. "

    This thing was filmed in 3D, will be played on IMAX screens across the world and is helmed by the leading natural history documentary maker in the world. How much bigger are you expecting the production values for a palaeodocumentary to get?

    "However if I were I director I wouldn't necessarily be running back to scientific advisors who go out of their way to slag off the final product"

    Hmm. To me, slagging off this show would be akin to saying the programme was a steaming pile of poo and insulting it's mother. I figured this was more of a structured critique of the sicence presented in the show: virtually everything I've said, aside from my own opinions about some of the presentation of the programme is supportable by evidence in the technical pterosaur literature. Their gaffs would've been avoidable if the filmmakers had made better use of their advisors.

    "I guess I'm annoyed that Mark is in "despair, despair, despair", when a very large sum of money indeed has been spent making a largely decent film about his chosen field of interest... Most people would kill to have 1/10th of the attention and publicity for their research."

    Should the degree of investment really correlate with how open to criticism something is? Are you saying, for instance, that we can applaud Nicolae Ceauşescu for flattening hospitals, homes and churches in the centre of Bucharest to build his grand palace and plaza while his people were starving and homeless, just because he invested a lot of money on the project? I can't see what your point is here.

    Besides, no-one is losing any sleep over this programme: we all agree that it’s great pterosaurs are getting more exposure. I'm disappointed with the show, though, because my colleagues and I A) sunk hours of your life into it for very, very little reward or acknowledgement (many contributors were left off the credit reel, virtually no-one received any compensation for their time); B) found that the programme makers had ignored much of what we told them anyway; C) found that the programme presents 'facts' that don't really reflect consensus views in our science anyway. It's a bummer, and means I can't really bring myself to recommending the programme to anyone, but that's all I'm saying.

    Plus, bear in mind where you've read this piece: Pterosaur.Net. This is surely the geekiest corner of pterosaur interest on the entire Internet, so it's only natural that the contributors are going to be interested if a high-profile show about their favourite animals/research interest is any good or not. As pointed out in the review, most laymen will love the show but, for the sort of people who're reading this blog, they may find it disappointing. What’s wrong with that?

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hi Mark - like I said, I understand your frustration, but fundamentally, TV makers and scientists don't have the same prerogatives. The sooner you get over that, the happier you'll be. Pretty much every single factual programme you'll ever see is stuffed with mistakes, discarded caveats, exaggerations and downright lies (yes that includes physics chemistry natural history and biology).

    And the Ceaucescu simile...ayyy. Can I invoke Godwin's law on that one... :P

    Keep up the good work :)

    ReplyDelete
  20. I may be playing devil's advocate here, but I have to call you out on the so called "contradiction".
    Attenborough NEVER said that pterosaurs didn't evolve filter-feeders; what he actually said was that pterosaurs couldn't WADE like flamingos.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Atlantic Productions came to me at NHM initially, with a list of pterosaurs that they wanted to use in the film. I think the bias towards Dimorphodon might have crept in because we have the holotype. But eventually I had to stop talking to them for free, every day and night (I don't make the rules!) and they went to Mark instead. Sorry Mark. I just got this DVD for Christmas and now I'm dreading watching it!

    ReplyDelete