Short Ends: Dear Filmmakers, Update the Dinosaur

Like millions of kids in 1993 Jurassic Park made a huge impression on me. I became obsessed with dinosaurs, collecting toys, collecting pieces of a T-Rex skeleton in a magazine (I never did finish it), and searching out other movies that featured the prehistoric beasts. Before Jurassic Park’s CG and animatronic creations most dinosaurs on screen were pretty shoddy. In the 1960 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World the filmmakers glued horns and fins to lizards and crocodiles, whereas other movies put men in rigid rubber suits that looked worse than Godzilla. The best dinosaurs before 1993 were stop motion puppets like Ray Harryhausen’s Allosaurus from The Valley of Gwangi, but even they had problems.

As paleontologists discovered more about how dinosaurs lived and moved, their on-screen counterparts were slow to change. T-Rexes and Diplodocuses were shown with their tails lying flat on the ground like present day reptiles, and bipedal species stood upright like humans. They moved slowly like cold-blooded animals. It wasn’t until the late 80s that cinematic dinosaurs started conforming to the latest discoveries in paleontology, and in 1993 Jurassic Park redefined our popular vision of them.

In the 20+ years after Steven Spielberg’s worldwide sensation new discoveries have been made about the long extinct species, but filmmakers haven’t moved past Jurassic Park’s iconic designs. One discovery in particular has yet to be integrated into the cinematic dinosaur: feathers.

There’s no doubt from paleontologists that hundreds of species of dinosaurs had bird-like feathers. The Velociraptor had feathers, the Tyrannosaurus had feathers. So why don’t filmmakers adjust their vision of the dinosaur to the latest science? Why are they still being depicted as having scaly and leathery skin?

I can think of two explanations: first, the Jurassic Park image of what a dinosaur should look like is so deeply ingrained in us that filmmakers are still wary of deviating from its example. Second, more people are afraid of reptiles than they are birds — if a film was to reflect the latest ideas about what dinosaurs are thought to have looked like people may react to them negatively. The majority view is that birds aren’t imposing or scary. (Have you ever seen a cassowary?)

As influential as Jurassic Park was to me and millions of others it shouldn’t be stopping new filmmakers from updating our cinematic vision of what dinosaurs should look like. It’s time they were given a makeover.

Give dinosaurs their plumage.