Friday 31 July 2015

Where next for the Jurassic Park movies?

Which creative direction would you take one of the most successful movie franchises of all time? Apparently, I would start by desaturating it of all colour. Read on to find out more.
To the surprise of no-one, the mega-successful, $1.5 billion box office juggernaut Jurassic World is getting a sequel. If you’re part of the broader contingent who thought the film was silly fun, that’s probably good news. If, like me, you thought the film was lacking in some areas, you may be less excited. Regardless, speculation is now rife about what the film will cover, and where it will pick up the sequel-bait left dangling at the end of the last film. Despite being less than bowled over with the Jurassic World, 22 years of investment in the franchise and obvious interest in the palaeo-theme of the series means I’m still curious about where this franchise goes. I’ve been involved in a lot of Jurassic World dissections online as well as with real human beings, throwing ideas around for what might work in another Jurassic instalment, as well as what could be maintained or improved on from the other films. The process has led to a lot of ideas and even some rough pictures which I thought I’d share here. Note this post contains mild spoilers for Jurassic World. 

Where the series stands

Any opinion about the future of a series is reliant on opinions of the existing products. Hence, it seems sensible to provide some context on where I think the Jurassic films stand before delving into ideas for new films. From conversations with others and reading lots of reviews, I get the feeling that my view is similar to many others: the Jurassic films are very samey, the sequels aren’t especially well structured, and the franchise needs fresh ideas. 

Let’s unpack that a bit. All four films have the same setting (tropical island theme parks which go wrong, or tropical islands where things have already gone wrong), similar characters (kids, a grumpy/cynical lead, a corporate scumbag, a romantic couple of two headstrong individuals) and the same major scenes (the ‘giant dinosaur vs. vehicle attack, which strands victims from civilisation’ scene, a Velociraptor chase, a panning shot of glorious dinosaurs in harmony with nature, exploring abandoned/ruined buildings etc.). Similarly, by at most the 50% run time mark, each film becomes the same 'chased by dinosaurs' skit. Even the new elements brought in for Jurassic World – dinosaur hybrids (we’ll get to those in a moment) – didn’t alter this: the role Indominus was interchangeable with that of the Tyrannosaurus or Spinosaurus from the previous movies. 

This repetition might stem from knowing what has pleased audiences in the past, but perhaps also the limited narrative scope available to the Jurassic films. Those elements more-or-less define the franchise, and jettisoning them risks losing much of what we identify with the brand. This is probably why the original Jurassic sequels were just the first film without the theme park-backdrop, and why Jurassic World was basically a ‘reimagined’ version of the original. All three follow-ups are extremely conservative from a creative perspective, mostly trading on nostalgia for the first film. It might be argued that this inability to move out of the shadow of the original might indicate Jurassic Park was better left as a contained, single story. I think there's some truth to that, but, whatever, the sequels are happening. It’s clear that avoiding/escaping (chose your own words there) sequel mediocrity is reliant on creativity being shot into the franchise in the form of a new direction or focus, or maybe even a genre transition. I'd wager that the success of the franchise relies on the next film pulling this off.

The right plot, and right level of complexity, is also important for the next film, because the last three movies have each had real issues with these. The first two sequels were seemingly bored and uninterested in their own story (The Lost World) or so underwritten that they seemed to just run out of ideas (Jurassic Park III). Jurassic World, by contrast, had enough going on to fill two or three films. The result was the same as being underwritten: poor characterisation, a loss of atmosphere and tension, and plot devices straining to get the story running. As an example, look at how brief and daft the release of hyper-dangerous Indominus was: folks who’ve watched this animal grow up are shocked they can no longer see her (so she waited years to do her camouflage tricks?); trained experts don’t check for basic equipment faults before waltzing into her pen without any concern or protection; trained experts get scared; trained experts open her cage door, allowing her to escape. Compare that to the original, where the very threat dangerous animals escaping is a key issue, built up over a long period of time. There's discussion from characters, establishment of the level of security across the island, introduction of important location, the animals are teased, and their escape is revealed via tense, iconic scenes. Jurassic World raced through this important, potentially dramatic story point so quickly and nonsensically that it had no weight or impact, as it did for virtually all other potentially interesting scenes, because there was so much else to cram in. Jurassic sequel plots are either too simple, or too crowded. 

There is evidence that the Jurassic series recognises that it has issues with repetition, Jurassic World effectively rebooting the series to take the story off elsewhere. I must admit to not liking the direction being hinted at now - militarised dinosaurs, weaponised hybrids and so on – and hope they abandon them for the next film. To me, this is the least interesting direction this franchise can take, it being both a recognised story cliché as well as promising little more than extended CGI dinosaur battle sequences no more interesting than watching someone play a video game. 

And we already have lots of palaeoart which does that for us.
We're already at saturation point for movies like that, and despite their box office success, their appeal is not universal. I find it odd that we were all laughing at those abandoned human-dinosaur hybrid concepts for the fourth Jurassic film – but what Jurassic World hinted at isn’t a million miles off that. I'm sure there are lots of interesting ideas that could be explored without turning this franchise into live action Dino Riders.
All that said, if that's where I think we stand with this franchise, where do we go next?

Introduce a genuinely new fossil species: our own ancestors

Movie algebra dictates that primitive humans + dinosaurs + modern day setting = vehicular mayhem. 
The last two Jurassic movies have tried to add novelty by introducing new dinosaurs. The problem with this is that dinosaurs, as antagonists, only offer slight variations on a theme. So how about introducing something really different: put fossil human species into the films. I’m thinking specifically of early Homo species here: things with obvious anatomical differences to modern humans, but also similar enough that they could be played equally for eeriness or sympathy. This seems like such ripe ground for storytelling, and could be framed as a publicity seeking exercise in a park setting (museum exhibitions of our own fossil history are pretty popular after all, and apes are often 'star animals' of zoos) or as a nefarious means to have human-like subjects for commercial or scientific exploitation.

The social and ethical issues of creating, caging and exploiting very human-like species make for numerous interesting points of discussion and impetus for plot developments. Where is the line between caging an animal and a person? What rights do stem-humans have? What rights do artificially-created stem humans have? How would people react to seeing their own recent ancestry behind glass and fences? Is it right to use our close relatives for entertainment, and if not, where is the line between them and other animals? What I like about this concept is that strong messages can be implied with subtlety – even the design of human enclosures would be meaningful - allowing for an adventure story to play out with layers of subtext beneath. Our ancestors would also add a whole new dynamic to the franchise as antagonists, being resourceful, tool-using, intelligent and emotional adversaries. It’s easy to imagine how an escaped ‘movieised’ stem-human could really put a spanner in the works any smoothly running facility. From a filmmaking perspective, we could see this as bringing classic components of classic dinosaur b-movies (cavemen) to modern audiences, and minus the cheesiness associated with those characters: fur bikinis, grunting language and so forth. 

Do the ‘hybrid species’ thing properly

It was almost a given that the lacklustre design of the Jurassic World hybrid species will be brought up here, but for good reason: it was a huge missed opportunity. I know Indominus has defenders, but the design is just so uninspired and the potential wasted. For anyone familiar with palaeoart, Indominus is just an animated version of John Sibbick’s 1985 Allosaurus restoration, whitened and with spikes. For movie goers, the hyped abilities of the animal were pointless outside of two scenes, and pretty redundant even there. As is well known by now, artist Brian Engh launched the #BuildaBetterFakeTheropod Twitter campaign as a response to the dull design of Indominus, encouraging artists to upload more interesting concepts for a genetically modified dinosaur. What a treasure trove of ideas that turned out to be! There’s several images there which could be key drawings to launch whole movies. If you've not checked it out yet, go and take a look now. I can wait.

A 25 m long, pseudotoothed beastie with prehensile feet. It kills SUVs for sport.
What is readily apparent from these works is that there's real horror potential in the Jurassic films: it’s actually pretty easy to make a creepy, scary dinosaur antagonist, even if you just blend elements of modern and fossil theropods. Keep those guys off camera for as long as possible, shoot them in the dark and shadows, and we could have a movie full of scares akin to tenser scenes from the first Jurassic movie. If we’re after a genre shift, a Jurassic film akin to Aliens (which the last film already nods to) might be neat: a siege movie where the hybrid creatures are scary, rarely glimpsed, powerful and barely understood by the film’s characters. Or a film where human characters, lost in some wilderness, simply have to survive being followed and hunted by weird, dinosaur-like creatures while they search for rescue. There’s potential for some interesting character-led films there, the protagonists stewing in an increasingly tense, hopeless situation as strange-looking animals close in. Push that 12A/PG-13 rating to its limit!

"Say, did you remember to flick the gene for determinate growth?" "...whoops."
If not horror, then why not use the hybrids is to enter ‘classic’ monster movie territory? Make the creatures really outlandish and huge, ala those of 50s B-movies, and more like unleashing a natural disaster than a rouge animal. This was the idea behind the #BuildaBetterFakeTheropod entry above, which is a play on hyperbole already associated with dinosaurs as the 'biggest animals ever'. Well, this hybrid is quite literally the biggest animal ever: it makes blue whales look as impressive as tinned sardines. There’s enough movies out there about giant creatures aggressively attacking cities and towns however, so my suggestion would be to make such a creature sympathetic, more King Kong than Pacific Rim. Make it a freak loner, very much an animal in behaviour and attitudes, and persecuted for causing problems by simply existing: eating other dinosaurs to sustain itself (sauropods seem like ideal snacks for this thing) and causing masses of damage whenever it travels across built up areas. In doing so, there’s fun to be had with other species escaping just because this thing trod on an enclosure fence. A tragic ending is, of course, a must for this creature. 

I like the potential for exploring accountability from the Jurassic scientists with this one, real old-school ‘man has gone too far’ stuff, especially given the commercial drive underlying hybrid production in the last film. Some of this was alluded to in Jurassic World when the keeping of Indominus in isolation was discussed: the undercurrent was that scientists made an animal, then made a monster by treating it terribly. This theme was rapidly forgotten (and, indeed, contradicted later on: for an animal supposedly brought up in isolation and with no idea of its own identity, it could identify and communicate with Velociraptor pretty instantaneously…) but, as a seed of an idea, it’s a good one, and may warrant exploration in another film. Needless to say, there's plenty of scope here for spectacle as a giant theropod smashes its way around, as well as for exploration of themes about exploitation of science and nature in pursuit of profit.

Give some dinosaurs actual character, other than roary videogame protagonists

It's a bit like Born Free, but with more Awesomebro potential.
Another new element of Jurassic World was that some dinosaurs were actual characters, with names, motives and everything. Well, I say ‘motives’: like all characters in Jurassic World, their actions were dictated more by plot contrivances than personality. Still, though I expected to dislike all the Velociraptor wrangling stuff, the first few scenes of it showed more potential than I anticipated. I disliked the stuff later on because it just got silly – the motorcycle thing, the Velociraptor/Tyrannosaurus tag team – but a movie which explored that relationship in more depth, and then tested it in a way other than just fighting other dinosaurs, could be interesting. 

Such a story would need to spend more time establishing the dynamics of human/dinosaur interactions than the latest movie, but that needn’t be done in a boring way: Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed how summer blockbusters can work cross-species sci-fi dramas into fast moving stories with big climaxes. We’d need to show Velociraptor as more than just a perpetually roaring, biting machine, and see evidence of intelligence other than that pertaining to finding and killing. We’d also need to feel that it was vulnerable, and thus unlike the other Jurassic films where there’s no consistency to animal mortality (i.e. we see the same injuries happening to different animals, but only some are hurt because of plot demands). I can’t see this forming the focus of a whole movie, but as a concept, I think more could be done with it. Bonus points to the filmmakers if they make a sympathetic, believable dinosaur character, and then have it die at the end, perhaps when rescuing a small boy from a well or barn fire. We could call it Velassieraptors.

Finally, Hollywood knows de-extinction is a real thing, right?

Jurassic World 2: sauropods vs. ecological destabilisation. "The race is ON."
One of the questions commonly asked of palaeontologists is whether cloning extinct animals is ever going to happen. Since the original film, the answer to that has gone from a straight ‘no’ to a ‘well, actually people are genuinely trying to resurrect some recently extinct species’. The core sci-fi concept of the Jurassic films is now reality in the form of de-extinction, and the related idea of rewilding (recreating extinct ecosystems using extant animals, or clones of extinct animals, typically for the purpose of stabilising dynamics of ecosystem or certain habitats). Both are genuine areas of research and discussion, as well as no small amount of controversy. 

A lot of discussions around de-extinction involve the nitty-gritty of reconstructing genetic material (it seems to be extremely difficult to do, even with recently-extinct species), which probably wouldn't transfer that well to film. But both de-extinction and rewilding have pragmatic and ethical issues which are relevant to the Jurassic films. What do you actually do with a resurrected species, other than keep it in a zoo? Let it roam wild somewhere? How many individuals should you make? Who, or what, raises them to adulthood and teaches them how to be whatever they’re meant to be? Who is accountable for the wellbeing of an ‘artificial’ animal? Shouldn’t we be putting these efforts into saving extant species more than resurrected ones? What impact will releasing cloned animals have on existing ecosystems? How precisely do we control and manage these artificial ecosystems?

Bringing some of these to the fore might make for an interesting movie. What do you do with islands overrun with long extinct species? Odds are, most of them will die in the absence of artificially-supplied food sources, so who’s going to step in to sort that out? Should some animals be moved elsewhere to balance out their populations? Could animals be grown and engineered to rewild parts of the world in need of ecologically-stabilising, long-extinct large animals? (That's not hypothetical: such schemes are being proposed and trialled, for real, in many places across the Northern Hemisphere.) Again, there seems to be a wealth of scenarios and stories in those questions, and lots of scope for adventure: rounding up and figuring out what to do with free-roaming dinosaurs, the creation of a ‘Jurassic nature reserve’, moving and introducing dinosaurs into new places and habitats, protecting them from evil poaching types, keeping fledging ecosystems in balance… Lots of cool stuff.

Most importantly, it's not lost on me that this concept lends itself well to another touchstone of dinosaur fiction and film - freakin' dinosaur-wrangling cowboys. A film which gets to introduce the complexity of cutting edge, controversial conservation issues and features people rounding up dinosaurs on horseback? There’s not a single part of my brain that doesn’t like the sound of that. It could be like Valley of Gwangi but, you know… good when the dinosaurs aren’t on screen. 

OK, that’s my lot. Hollywood, I’m waiting by the phone. Any Jurassic movie ideas of your own? The comment field is below...

Thursday 23 July 2015

A year of Tyrannosaurus rex artworks

A minor milestone was reached this week at my print store - there's now 50 different bits of art in there. Given that I only started selling prints less than a year ago, I'm happy to see some substantial growth in my catalogue already (albeit with some cheating - many are 'reworked' older pieces, rather than entirely new bits). Lots more will be available in the near future - I'm holding several bits back for various reasons, including a project I'll elaborate more on soon. Working on these in relative secret is why things have been a bit quiet around her for the last month.

Teasers of unreleased artwork: Troodon, Repenomamus, diminutive azhdarchid and Diplodocus. We'll revisit the reason for holding these back in due time.
Scanning through my shop revealed an unexpected bias in my output this year. I make an effort to portray varying subjects and taxa, and find most interest in reconstructing lesser depicted species, scenarios and behaviour. I don't think I do too badly with this - at least within the context of Mesozoic reptiles - so was surprised to find 5 images dedicated to the same species, and one which has been painted, sculpted, animated and rendered to death: Tyrannosaurus rex. Two of these were commissions, but that still leaves three on my own head. I'm forced to concede that I must be a closet Tyrannosaurus fan - I had no idea.

I thought it would be fun to show the last year's worth of king tyrant art: some of them may still be fresh in your memory, but two are new (well, reworked). I realise that I've almost got a growth series across these images, and I've ordered them according to this. As usual, you can grab high quality art prints of these from my store.

Tyrant dinosaurs vs. bees. Bees are winning. Click here for prints.
First up is my tyrants and bees, the image I created to raise money for various bee charity causes in February of this year. Auctioning a framed version and sales of prints raised £249 for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and a £30 contribution for a new beehive at the Cumberland House Natural History Museum, who also received the image for use on a display board. As you may remember, it shows two infant tyrants checking out a honey bee nest, molecular data indicating that honey bee ancestors were alive in the Late Cretaceous. My favourite bit of the image remains the smaller animal on the right, losing the battle with tiny arthropods. I like the fact its arms aren't really long enough to cover its eyes.

Resting rexes, and bonus moths. Click here for prints.
Next is Chidumebi Browne's reclined teenage Tyrannosaurus commission, from November 2014. These animals are heavily based on BMRP 2002.4.1, the probable half-size Tyrannosaurus with proportions and facial structure quite different to large adults. Of course, some would argue that this makes this image feature Nanotyrannus, but I don't want to get into that here. Those wanting to open that can of worms may want to read Thomas Carr's blog post (and comments) on this topic, as well as Mark Wildman's take on the same debate. 

Dating tip: romantic sunsets don't count for much when you're crushing your partner's skull. If you fancy a physical copy of this scene of violent tyrannosaur copulation, you might be a bit odd. Nevertheless, prints are here.
Something new now - a reworked take on my mating, neck-biting tyrants. Those with long memories will recall the first guise of this image appeared in 2013 with my comments on All Your Yesterdays, the crowd-sourced follow up to All Yesterdays. As explained in that post, a number of tyrants show evidence of having been bitten around the jaws and head, with the area around the braincase of some specimens being badly damaged. I'd been looking at Savannah monitors shortly before rendering the original of this, and found their toughened neck skin - which apparently exists because of rough copulatory behaviour - of interest. I tend to have half my mind on prehistoric animals when looking at modern ones, and it wasn't long before I was wondering if some Tyrannosaurus injuries were the result of similarly violent nuptial encounters. This reworked version includes some very minor anatomical tweaks, slight colouration changes, and a vastly more detailed background.

Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus: finally bro-dogs. Get printed up here.
Another commission from Chidumebi Browne resulted one of the strangest pictures I know of featuring Tyrannosaurus - but hopefully one which is interesting and thought provoking. Alongside this big female (note the similar colour to the red teenage animal in Chidumebi's first commission - this is the grown up version of a female in that 'universe') is a baby Triceratops, the idea being that it's been interspecifically adopted by the tyrant. I provided a long commentary on this image and the likelihood of the scenario back in March, concluding that this image might not be as crazy as it first seems. Quite a few modern animals - including dinosaurs - are known to kidnap or inherit the offspring of other species, although there's not always clear explanations for why it happens. I tried to imply a bit of a story in Chidumebi's concept, those marauding adults in the distance taking clear, hungry interest in the Triceratops infant. I get the feeling this scene wouldn't stay peaceful for long.

A Late Cretaceous evening, ruled by an especially robust tyrant. You can own a copy of him if you click here.  
Finally, one more new image: a major overhaul of one of the first images posted at this blog (end 2012). Changes include anatomical tweaks, a revised pose (now trotting, not standing), new colouration (the cranial pattern is a nod to the judge helmets in Dredd, because scientists predict Tyrannosaurus are some of the few things in life more badass than that movie) and a heck of a lot more background detail. The depicted animal is a 'robust' Tyrannosaurus morph - note it seems the 'robust' and 'gracile' forms are extremes of anatomical variation rather than distinct categories. My goal here was to make the animal look big and heavy - appreciating that tyrants are relatively long-legged and gracile for their size, they're still absolutely huge. I thought of bears a lot when painting this chap - I wanted him to have that same imposing aspect without going all 'awesomebro' on it. Tyrannosaurs - especially big ones - should look like animals you'd instinctively keep a good distance from.

OK, that's all for now. Soon, hopefully, some details on that project alluded to above.