How to Build a Dinosaur

I loved Dinosaurs when I was a kid. I read books on Dinosaurs. I had a View Master set with great pictures of Dinosaurs. For a while, I even planned to be a paleontologist when I grew up. But Dinosaurs were much different creatures back in the 1960s then they are today. Dinosaurs, back then, were portrayed as big, mean, slow, and rather stupid. And they were all, even plant eating Dinosaurs, seen as aggressive and rather…monstrous. Rather like super large and very hungry Crocodiles on steroids.

Then the original Jurassic Park movie premiered in 1993 and the depiction of Dinosaurs changed forever. For months there had been a mysterious billboard advertising the film that simply proclaimed “An adventure 65 million years in the making”. No one knew what Jurassic Park was really about. No one had really heard of author Michael Crichton. He was mostly known only for a medical SciFi thriller titled The Andromeda Strain which was made into a movie in 1971. And when I first saw the movie Jurassic Park – wow! Remember the expression of awe on the faces of Dr. Alan Grant and the others when they saw their very first living Dinosaur? That was me, totally awestruck. For the first time, Dinosaurs were not just interesting yet awkward monsters. For the first time, they were actual living animals. As Dr. Alice Roberts says in the BBC documentary How to Build a Dinosaur, “They were not imagined creatures at all. They were real”.

View Master T rex                  vs                  Jurassic Park T rex

Since the first Dinosaur exhibit way back in 1854 at the Crystal Palace in London, England, we have learned a huge amount of new information about Dinosaurs. We have learned an awful lot just since the original Jurassic Park movie premiered in 1993. Paleontologist Dr. Darren Naish of the Natural History Museum in Oxford, England has said, “We’re in a Golden Age of Dinosaur discovery. There’s about 50 new species of Dinosaurs named every year. About 90% of all named Dinosaurs have been named since about 1990”. The documentary How to Build a Dinosaur takes a behind the scenes look at how some of that new information is used to assemble a modern Dinosaur exhibit using state-of-the-art techniques.

How to Build a Dinosaur was originally shown on BBCFour on September 11, 2011 (so actually we have discovered lots of new Dinosaur information just since this documentary premiered). Dr. Alice Roberts is the presenter and narrator of How to Build a Dinosaur. She was born in Bristol, England in 1973 and is a clinical anatomist and osteoarchaeologist and a Senior Teaching Fellow of anatomy at Bristol University. How to Build a Dinosaur was originally meant to be a companion piece to a six-part television documentary series, Planet Dinosaur, shown on BBCOne in 2011. While Planet Dinosaur uses CGI to look at life back in the Age of Dinosaurs, How to Build a Dinosaur looks at modern efforts to use the newest information and the best technology to build as realistic as possible Dinosaur exhibits. How to Build a Dinosaur travels from Los Angeles’ Museum of Natural History to a fossil dig in Utah to the Natural History Museum in Oxford to an Ostrich farm at the Royal Veterinary College outside London to a New Jersey workshop to the University at Bristol and back again as it shows all the various elements that go into creating a scientifically up-to-date exhibit. Dr. Alice Roberts talks to various experts such as paleontogists, anatomists, artists, and museum exhibit fabricators to put a personal face on all the various experts working together to make the Dinosaur exhibit a success.

How to Build a Dinosaur runs just short of 59 minutes and makes for an extremely interesting journey. It is exciting to see all of the work involved in making a Dinosaur exhibit come to life. I knew something of how Dinosaur bones are displayed but the documentary shows how the metal support structures are made and fitted and even how missing bones are recreated. It also shows how some of the newest info is used. For instance, scientists are now able to tell the possible colors of some of the feathers that some Dinosaurs sported by looking at microscopic structures in the fossil feathers. Professor Mike Benton of the University at Bristol proudly demonstrates how his sophisticated new techniques have proven that older depictions of the colors of some Dinosaurs are completely wrong. He can identify some colors like black and brown and ginger in the fossil feathers and he shows how his analysis has changed the way we see some Dinosaurs. The documentary also takes a close look at how some modern animals, specifically Ostriches, can be examined and compared to Dinosaurs. Dinosaur fans with sensitive dispositions might want to beware of a very interesting, but slightly graphic, segment of the documentary that begins about 30 minutes in when Dr. Alice Roberts travels to the Royal Veterinary College. Dr. Roberts and Dr. John Hutchinson examine an Ostrich cadaver for similarities to possible Dinosaur appearance. They look at the Ostrich cadaver’s feet and the tiny claw on each wing tip and they also do some cutting to take a closer look at the muscles of the cadaver.

Overall, I loved How to Build a Dinosaur. I learned some new information (ginger Dinosaurs!) and got a close up look at a terrific Dinosaur exhibit. And the centerpiece of the exhibit is truly terrific: a trio of Tyrannosaurus rex Dinosaurs. Since there has never been a complete T rex skeleton found, the best T rex specimens are only about 70% complete, the exhibit used 30 different partial T rex remains to create the exhibit trio. The trio includes a young juvenile about 13 years old when it died and a much much bigger juvenile, named Thomas, who was about 17 years old when it died. The size difference  between the 13 year old and the 17 year old is enormous. And 17 year old Thomas is not even a full grown adult! But the highlight of the display is the third member of the Tyrannosaurus rex trio: a baby only about two years old. This is the first ever reconstruction of a baby T rex. As Dr. Luis Chiappe, in charge of the new exhibit, says, “It’s much harder to recreate a baby than an adult. Only a few tiny fragments of a skeleton have ever been found.” How to Build a Dinosaur in a very interesting documentary that manages to keep interest perked by going to different locations and looking in depth at different aspects of an exhibit and the finished exhibit is just mind blowing. The audio and video of the documentary is also excellent and Dr. Alice Roberts makes for a very engaging host.

For a complete change of pace, I am also including two very different animated shorts to go along with How to Build a Dinosaur. The first cartoon a 1939 Merrie Melodies short titled Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur. This was the first ever Daffy Duck cartoon directed by the imaginative artist, animator, screenwriter, producer, and director of animated shorts Chuck Jones. Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur runs just over eight minutes and goes back in time to the “Stone Age” to show the adventurous meeting of a caveman named Casper and a wacky duck named Daffy (voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc).

Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur is a fast paced bit of fun with absolutely no basis in reality. Casper the Caveman is bent on eating Daffy and Daffy is bent on total mischief. This cartoon is actually an “important milestone in the evolution of Daffy Duck’s personality”. Earlier Daffy Duck cartoons had depicted the duck as completely insane and totally uncontrollable. But Chuck Jones tones the insanity down quite a bit and makes Daffy, while still daffy, more sane and calculating. Casper the Caveman is a parody of comedian Jack Benny, not in appearance but in tone of voice and some mannerisms. Casper complains that he is extremely hungry, “Gee, am I hungry. I could eat a saber-tooth tiger. Well, anyways, half of one”. And he is determined to have a duck breakfast, “Yum, yummy! My favorite vegetable: duck!” Casper also has a dipsy Dinosaur pet named Fido who adds to the hilarity. Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur runs just short of eight minutes and is in brilliant and vivid color. Audio is also loud and clear.

Our second animated short is completely different. The Case of the Screaming Bishop is a 1944 black and white bit of total nonsense. This cartoon is a parody of Sherlock Holmes (although the title is a parody of a Perry Mason title: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop) and features the silly duo of Hairlock Combs and Dr. Gotsome as they try to track down a huge missing Dinosaur skeleton that was mysteriously stolen from a museum. Combs and Gotsome go to ridiculous lengths including disguising themselves in a horse costume and building a complete wooden replica of the Dinosaur skeleton and then trying to get it out of the exhibit room. While the brainless detectives have no idea who the culprit is, we, the viewers, do – well, sort of. A zany crazy character runs around spouting nonsense “The best bones of all go to the Symphony Hall!” over and over again. But, at the very end, there is a laughable twist. The Case of the Screaming Bishop runs six minutes 37 seconds. The black and white video and the audio quality are both excellent.

If you are a fan of Dinosaurs or just in the mood for more Jurassic Park and Jurassic World style fun, How to Build a Dinosaur and the two cartoons make for a perfect afternoon’s viewing. All three are FREE in the Public Domain and all three can be downloaded or watched online at the Internet Archive. Click here for How to Build a Dinosaur. Click here for Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur and here for The Case of the Screaming Bishop. Enjoy!

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