Friday 23 March 2018

Dinosaurs in the Wild: a review

Dinosaurs in the Wild's Quetzalcoatlus. OK, it's not a dinosaur, but it is in the wild.
If you travel to London's Greenwich Peninsula before the end of July 2018 you might find Dinosaurs in the Wild, a unique dinosaur experience that's been touring the UK since 2017. Created by the same team that brought us the original Walking with Dinosaurs, it continues the apparent mission statement of director Tim Haines to bring realistic, lifelike dinosaurs from cinema screens into everyday life. Walking with Dinosaurs allowed us to see realistic, movie-grade dinosaurs in our own living rooms, and DITW takes us one step further: what if we - the general public - could be among extinct dinosaurs ourselves?

DITW defies easy categorisation, taking inspiration from education centres, theatre, film and theme park rides. At the core of this blend of media is a simple idea: DITW visitors are transported 67 million years back in time to Maastrichtian North America, the final stage of the Cretaceous and the home of some very famous dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops and Ankylosaurus. Once there, visitors are guided through the labs of 'TimeBase 67', a research base dedicated to the study of Late Cretaceous life. Note that isn't a sit-down VR experience but a tour through a real physical environment with actual rooms, simulated vehicle rides, lab stations, 3D video displays acting as windows, animatronics and trained humans creating a convincing illusion of DITW's setting and narrative.

Vehicle rides are part of the DITW experience, as are traffic jams caused by dinosaurs with little in the way of road awareness.
The tour we took included people of many different ages and, so far as I could tell, everyone was having a lot of fun. Children in particular seemed completely sold by the setting and only the most jaded adults won't be pulled into the experience somehow. Even if older visitors aren't completely able to suspend disbelief for the 70 minute run time, there's huge amounts of detail to appreciate in the lab environments, the back story to the TimeBase to unravel, some terrific sequences with the animals, and a lot of genuine science to find behind the 'edutainment' exterior. Tour guides are on hand to answer questions along the way and keep guests moving on time. There is a narrative to the journey through TimeBase 67, which I won't spoil here, but parents with young kids be warned that Tyrannosaurus is an appropriately big, scary motherhubbard in DITW, and some bonus parenting* might be required at times.

*I don't have kids. I assume this is the right terminology.

Alamosaurus, Dakotaraptor and a collection of tourists approach TimeBase 67. Note that the necks of Alamosaurus are not hugely oversized, but augmented with a long skin flap along the underside.
While many will see DITW as a great activity for kids, I have no doubt that the people who'll get most out of it are genuine palaeontology enthusiasts, especially those who pay close attention to the TimeBase 67 interior, know a little about dinosaur palaeobiology, and have some experience in real labs and wildlife hides. There are Easter eggs galore for the experienced palaeo or wildlife nerd, and it's clear that great attention has been paid to the interior design to evoke the feeling of real-world research labs and wildlife observation posts. Though guides present information in each room, eyes are encouraged to wander to video footage of nesting dinosaurs, instructional posters on animal handling, open notebooks, specimens awaiting cataloguing, tissue samples being processed and - most sciencey of all - weird things in jars. The observation dome - an obvious highlight of the tour - bears animal spotting guides much like those you'll find in nature reserve hides, and they cleverly include a number of animals that (I think) are not featured in the show, tricking us into looking at the animations as we would a real landscape. I can't have been the only one looking for small mammals, birds and lizards among the more obvious dinosaurs. The impression from such details is of a rich, detailed world, and it's convincing enough that you might have to occasionally remind yourself that you're in 21st century east London and not, actually, in Cretaceous Montana looking at freshly caught extinct insects.

Visitors are given time to wander around rooms to take in these details, but not much. The clear intention is to deliberately overwhelm us in the same way that comparable real world settings might - if you've ever taken a tour through an unfamiliar lab or museum, you'll know the frustrations of barely glimpsed curiosities and quickly glimpsed specimens. It's a risky strategy: pull people through DITW too quick and they'll feel rushed and unsatisfied, but let visitors linger and they might get bored, or notice the proverbial wiring under the board. For the most part, I think DITW gets the timing right. I felt I had sufficient time to satisfy myself with the main details of each setting, but left knowing that a future visit would reveal more. This said, I'm aware that palaeo enthusiasts might be able to experience rooms a little quicker than the average visitor. If, say, you're familiar with sclerotic rings and Tyrannosaurus brains you'll immediately recognise these objects when you see them, experience a quick nerdy thrill, and then move on. Other visitors might need a little more time to read labels and work out unfamiliar objects, and I wonder if the tight schedule could be a little more frustrating for those not so familiar with dinosaur theory.

Fully-lipped Tyrannosaurus surveys the TimeBase 67 floodplain. Note the feathers - they shouldn't be over the pelvic region, right? DITW has an obvious solution to this - though you'll have to visit to see what it is.
Of course, most sensible people won't visit DITW to look at notepads and specimen trays: they want dinosaurs, preferably in the wild. These also do not disappoint, with the digital versions being especially well produced. 3D glasses UV-protection goggles need to be worn whenever you're next to a window, allowing us to appreciate a great sense of depth when we look out over the Cretaceous floodplain surrounding TimeBase 67. We get a number of opportunities to see the animals in their full digital glory, and they're refreshingly animalistic instead of Hollywoodised monsters. Half the fun of the experience is not knowing what the animals will do and I won't spoil anything here, but you can get a good sense of DITW ethos from the snippets released by the DITW Twitter feed. I won't pretend I wasn't super-chuffed to see terrestrially-stalking azhdarchids...
...and this sequence of Alamosaurus irritating a flock of Dakotaraptor is terrific. No Jurassic World-style tag-teaming to dispatch a giant dinosaur here, just lots of irritated feather poofing. Shake harder, boy!

It's not all yawning dinosaurs and preening pterosaurs, though: fans wanting dicier threat displays and hunting behaviours won't be disappointed**. Happily, the quality of the reconstructions matches the depicted behaviours. The animals are thoroughly modern takes on familiar species and seem to have received refreshingly little, if any, embellishment to make them more ferocious or marketable. Extra-oral tissues (lips and expanded rictal plates) are standard, bold but credible decisions have been taken with their integument, and the volume of muscle and other soft-tissues is substantial, but within reason. Their animations are pretty good too, with larger species having an appreciable sense of mass and inertia instead of pirouetting around like creatures half their size. This is especially noticeable when the animals are close to viewing windows, these being large enough to appreciate their real-life size. A lousy sense of mass in the animation would have ruined the illusion, but they move with a weight and heft comparable to large living animals. This might not be something that we appreciate consciously, but is one of narrowest precipices over the uncanny valley and the downfall of many dinosaur animations. Hats off to the animators for taking time to get it right.

**Apparently. I, er, was basically watching the pterosaurs most of the time.

Variation in animal proportions, integument and colouration gives a sense of looking at real populations and not cloned digital models - it's subtle, but makes all the difference. I suspect deliberate efforts were made to avoid the uniform greys and browns that still characterises many popular dinosaur reconstructions with most species sporting elaborate colouration or patterning somewhere. These are not garish carnival monsters though, and look consistent with our knowledge of pigment mechanics and evolution, as well as appropriate for the habitat and lifestyle of the creatures concerned. Ultraviolet colouration and iridescence features too. Further points are awarded for the animals not being dressed up in the colours of living species: there's no cassowary-inspired maniraptorans or other obvious real-world colour schemes to jar the illusion. I'm fairly certain the facial colours of Triceratops (below) owe something to Darth Maul, though...

DITW's Triceratops takes a dip. Sadly, this great image isn't a still from DITW proper, but the attention to detail and nuanced behaviour shown here - including the birds on the Triceratops face - is typical of the show in general.
Several aspects of the reconstructions recall All Yesterdays for their boldness, such as the pterosaur dewlaps, display flaps on the sauropod necks, and some inflatable nasal tissues - this isn't surprising when you realise that an All Yesterdays author - Darren Naish - was DITW's scientific consultant. I'm sure these additions will startle some folks who aren't familiar with modern palaeoart conventions, especially those used to dinosaurs depicted as shrink-wrapped walking musculoskeletal systems, but, simultaneously, none of the animals look 'over speculated': their appearance acknowledges our limits to predict extinct animal anatomy without losing sight of what real animals look like. This isn't to say there aren't some aspects of the reconstructions that won't be quibbled by experts, but we're talking nitpicks here, not glaring problems. In terms of broad-brush strokes, and most of the finer ones, DITW hits home in all critical aspects of its reconstructions and animations. It's rare to see big-budget, mass-audience palaeoart achieve this sort of credibility and is especially surprising given how much animation was needed to create the sense being in a real 3D environment, sometimes with multiple views over the same landscape and animals transitioning between viewing stations. The sensation is believable enough that, upon leaving the event, I felt a strong urge to head off to the countryside for genuine wildlife watching.

Back in the real world, away from the TimeBase, is where some minor criticism of DITW might be found. Having been thoroughly impressed with DITW I was a little disappointed to find that there was no book or other media (behind the scenes DVD? Blu-ray with the animations?) allowing us to preserve the experience at home. There's some great work gone into this show and it's a shame to think that, when DITW eventually ends its run, there'll be no way to truly appreciate the designs and ingenuity that went into it. There are DITW toys, posters and clothes, but they only go part way to capturing the experience itself. A book or 'behind the scenes' film could reinforce the science behind the spectacle, too - a lot of visitors surely enjoy DITW, but do they know how saturated in science the event is? I'm aware that this might change in the future - I hope it does.

Another look at the DITW Tyrannosaurus. There are other, non-tyrannical choices of PR art, but I really like the composition of this piece. Half-obscured dinosaurs have an almost classical vibe, I suspect Zdenek Burian would have approved. The artworks you're seeing in this post are promotional renderings by Damir Martin - check out his site for more cool stuff.
The ticket cost of DITW has drawn some comment on social media, some of which may be unwarranted. Tickets are upwards of £20 each so, yes, DITW is undeniably a more expensive dinosaur experience than, say, visiting a museum or watching the next Jurassic World movie at the cinema. Such cost, however, is comparable to that of gigs, theatre shows and travelling exhibitions - not perfect analogues for DITW, but similar in terms of running expenditure and event duration. I'd argue that the novelty, ambition and execution of DITW trumps most of these experiences too: there really isn't much else out there like it, let alone something of such quality and educational potential. I appreciate this doesn't diminish what will be steep door prices for some, but a little online research revealed a number of family passes, promotional codes and other means of trimming the ticket cost down, sometimes quite considerably. Group rates are available too, if you're looking to attend with a suitably sized clan. If cost is an issue I heartily recommend checking these offers out - dinosaur fans young and old(er) will not want to miss this.

In sum, Dinosaurs in the Wild is a terrific blend of cutting edge science, technology and entertainment that dinosaurophiles - or anyone with a general interest in extinct life - will enjoy immensely. Whether you visit just for the spectacle, to nerd-out over the palaeontological Easter eggs, or to see what next-generation science outreach could be like, you're sure to enjoy it. As far as I know, the next location for DITW has not been announced yet. It leaves London on the 31st of July, so I recommend exploiting London's accessibility to visit as soon you can in case the next venue is less reachable. Hopefully, if DITW does well, we can look forward to sequel experiences set in alternative times or locations: DITW-style experiences in Mesozoic seas, Permian Russia or Pleistocene Europe, anyone?

Exclusive, unused promotional still of the DITW Alamosaurus, AKA Spods Maclean, finished acting for the day and out of character, relaxing in a pub close to the venue. It's funny how performers are often smaller in life than they appear onscreen.

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