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Monday, 4 March 2013

"There's something in the mist!"

One of the most effective movies I've seen in recent years is the  2007 science fiction siege thriller, The Mist, which isn't to be confused with the considerably more forgettable eighties pirate horror outing, The Fog (which has one of the most long-winded and least suspenseful trailers ever). Like all good stories, the plot of The Mist is dead simple, with a mysterious, creature-filled fog mist descending on a small Maine town and trapping a small population of people within a supermarket, who proceed to bicker about the best response to their crisis, descend to the level of primitive savages, and throw cans of peas at each other. It also has one of the most killer endings of a movie I've ever seen. I won't ruin it for you here, but it's a terrific antidote for the sickly-sweet, rosy endings slapped onto films at the last minute to please test screens. 1986 Little Shop of Horrors, A.I., and the original cut of Blade Runner: I'm looking at you. And all your pansy-ending friends.

One of the best things about The Mist is that Frank Darabont, it's director, knew exactly what to do with his monsters, in that he shows as little of them as possible. Instead, most species (and there are many) are glimpsed in silhouette at the far reaches of the fog mist, so we're never really sure what they look like or what they might be capable of. This, and the handling of the bickering survivors in the supermarket, turns a very pulpy plot into an intelligent and tense movie, and I heartily recommend you track it down if you've not seen it.

The handling of the creatures in The Mist got me thinking about how bizarre, and perhaps how terrifying, the silhouettes of barely-glimpsed creatures in the Mesozoic may have looked on misty, drizzly days. It's not hard to think of a number of Mesozoic animals that would look downright weird when glimpsed through thick fog, but the outlandish proportions of giant azhdarchid pterosaurs, with their long necks and limbs, oversize heads and small bodies, make them unlikely animals at the best of times and truly strange when only seen in outline. The lightweight frames and long limbs of these animals would probably make them lithe and quick over land, and it's not hard to imagine these enormous carnivores giving many Mesozoic animals the hebbie-jebbies as they stalked silently across Cretaceous landscapes. And not just little animals, either: prey of human dimensions may also have been alarmed by a stealthy, fog-strewn azhdarchid.

With this in mind, I've been slowly adding to the painting above for the last few weeks in a very piecemeal, 5-minute burst fashion. It's a deliberately basic image with a limited colour palate and detail, which came from both a desire to attempt something a bit different with my art and enhance the dreary atmosphere. The intention was to make the pterosaur in the background looming and menacing, all but invisible in the dismal weather save for its treetop-scraping silhouette. The small azhdarchid in the foreground, who's giving its big relative an understandably wide berth, serves to add scale, as does the rotting log in the foreground. The taxa here are not meant to be any azhdarchids in particular, but this scene could take place in several places around the Late Cretaceous world. As pointed out by Matyas Vremir et al. (2013), several azhdarchid-bearing deposits yield azhdarchid species of vastly contrasting size, suggesting giants and diminutive species frequently lived alongside one another (see summary image, below, of cohabiting azhdarchids of distinct size, from Vremir et al. [2013], featuring Ron Blakey's fantastic latest Cretaceous palaeomap (Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc.), and my handiwork. The image features a new skull reconstruction of Quetzalcoatlus sp., which offers a sneaky peak into some of the imagery used in my book). The scant record we have of these cohabiting species indicates that at least some bore distinct jaw and skull proportions, suggesting different dietary preferences and habits which would prevent them stepping on each other's ecological toes.

Some geological units reveal evidence of two or even three sympatric azhdarchid species. Diagram produced by Mark Witton and map used with kind permission of Ron Blakey, Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc; from Vremir et al. (2013).
The result, hopefully, is something a little different and interesting, and I definitely see potential for more things like this in the future. That's all for now, though: got to head out to be social. Next week, or perhaps the week after, should see something fairly special in these quarters, so be sure to check back soon.

  • Vremir, M., Kellner, A. W., Naish, D., & Dyke, G. J. (2013). A new azhdarchid pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous of the Transylvanian Basin, Romania: implications for azhdarchid diversity and distribution. PloS one, 8, e54268.


  1. "... the sickly-sweet, rosy endings slapped onto films at the last minute to please test screens. [...] A.I."

    Wait, what?! The ending of A.I. was tragic!

    I'm not saying it was a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination -- it had a lot of flaws -- but its failings were those of over-ambition, which I always find easy to forgive. When all's said and done it leaves behind some really haunting images, which is much more than you can say for almost any other film.

    1. Should have ended after he sank.

    2. I do agree that it has one or two too many endings -- which means it scores about 150 milli-ROTKs. But you would hardly argue that the last one is "sickly-sweet, rosy", would you?!

    3. I have to side with Mike K on this one: the alien-like robot things shouldn't have swept into the movie at the end. They come out of nowhere, and seemed to only exist to save the movie from a wholly melancholy ending. And yes, it's been a long time since I watched it, but I do remember feeling the ending was overly saccharine. My Top A.I. Facts of the Day (stop me if you've heard this one before), though, is that the ending was penned by Kubrick, not Spielberg, which is surprising considering their reputations as movie makers. Also, problems with the ending is one reason the movie spent so long in Development Hell. I think drafts of the script had been knocking about for well over a decade before it was put into production at the end of the 1990s.

  2. A.I. endings so or so, I love your misty azhdarchids.

    1. Thanks David. I have my next painting all lined up, which is conceptually the next logical step from something like this. Hope to have it posted within the next few days.