In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs to the big screen in a film that would spark a love of dinosaurs for generations to come, even if they were a little featherless. As we’ve continued to learn more about dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles, the franchise has carried on and in its latest release, Jurassic World Dominion, it seems some of the non-human stars have had a bit of a makeover.
That might have something to do with American palaeontologist Dr Steve Brusatte, an evolutionary biologist who specializes in the anatomy and evolution of dinosaurs, among other things (including fanged flying reptiles). Brusatte's many publications (including his most recent book, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals) earned him an invitation by director Colin Trevorrow to advise on Jurassic World Dominion, so we had a chat and find out what it's like working as a scientist on a Hollywood blockbuster and which new species were making their franchise debut.
As a paleontologist and – presumably – Jurassic Park fan, does being an advisor on Jurassic World Dominion feel like living the dream?
It is surreal, and frankly it's one of the great honors of my career. I so vividly remember seeing the original film in the cinema in 1993, with my dad and my brothers. I was nine years old. Those dinosaurs were so realistic, like they were actual animals, not the dull stereotypes from all of the books at school and in the library. And the film made a huge impact on my brother, Chris. He turned his bedroom into a dinosaur museum, which was really a Jurassic Park museum. That was the background music of my childhood – Chris and his dinosaurs. After a few years he won me over and by the time I entered high school I wanted to be a paleontologist. So Jurassic Park, in a pretty direct way, led me to where I am today.
Is there a lot of pressure for a scientific advisor when you’re trying to marry up the fossil record with the Hollywood desire for (to use Jurassic World’s own words) “bigger, scarier, more teeth”?
I didn't feel pressure, just privilege. How wonderful is it to have an opportunity to bring this esoteric research on dinosaurs that I've studied for decades to hundreds of millions of people around the world in a blockbuster film?
Really, I don't think there is any medium of communication that can reach as many people as a blockbuster. So, even if these dinosaurs aren't perfect, and there is some artistic license, that doesn't bother me. It's much more important to me, for instance, that moviegoers the world over are now going to see feathered dinosaurs on the screen – what dinosaurs actually looked like.
As a consultant I try to be pragmatic. It's my job to speak up for the science, to make sure that the reality of dinosaurs and fossils are always in the ears of the director and writers and artists. And I know they will take my advice and balance it with many competing interests, like the need to make their characters engaging, and relatable, and recognizable as characters on the screen, and in some cases their dinosaurs need to be movie monsters that carry a plot, and of course the original Jurassic Park set in stone a certain Jurassic design that needs to persist.
Who decided which dinosaurs to feature and how were they selected?
I wish I helped choose which dinosaurs to feature. If so, I would have chosen at least one of the dinosaurs I've named and described! But this was all down to Colin Trevorrow (the director and co-writer), Emily Carmichael (the co-writer), and their teams. When I first met Colin in Edinburgh, we sat down and he told me right away that he wanted to feature some new dinosaurs, and he started naming them. And he told me he wanted to have some dinosaurs with feathers. So, he had a vision from an early stage, and I tried to help make those dinosaurs as realistic as they could be.
This latest release includes dinosaur species never featured in the Jurassic franchise before, what was the motivation to enhance the prehistoric cast, and did it prove difficult bringing them to life?
There are some incredible new dinosaurs, and a few new characters that are not technically dinosaurs, but other types of prehistoric life. And many of these characters drive the plot.
There's the new apex predator Giganotosaurus – a meat-gorger that really was as big as T. rex. There's the new feathered raptor, Pyroraptor, with stunning red feathers and big wings on its arms. This is what raptors really looked like, more so than the classic Jurassic Park Velociraptors.
There's a cute little tyrannosaur called Moros, a T. rex antecedent the size of a puppy dog that was covered in downy feathers. There's a vegetarian movie monster, Therizinosaurus, with its meter-long claws for grabbing onto trees. And there is a primitive mammal antecedent, Dimetrodon, with a sail on its back and a bad attitude. Oh, and huge pterodactyls called Quetzalcoatlus that are the size of fighter jets.
There is an amazing scene, maybe my favorite in the film, when DeWanda Wise's character is piloting a plane under attack by these monsters. It seems inconceivable, but these pterosaurs really were that big. The biggest flying animals to ever live. I would not have wanted to share airspace with them.
I can't speak for Colin's motivation for expanding the cast, but I'm glad he did. What you see in this film is a much greater diversity of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, including a lot of species that were discovered recently, since Jurassic Park came out. These dinosaurs speak to the excitement of contemporary paleontology, where somebody somewhere is finding a new species of dinosaur once a week on average these days!
Tell us more about that epic clash between Quetzalcoatlus and the aircraft.
DeWanda Wise is a badass in that scene, and in the film as a whole. I think she's the breakout star. And she is a really cool, funny and engaging person. She's about to break it big, I think. Anyway, straying from the science here.
I say this because DeWanda Wise, Bryce Dallas Howard, Isabella Sermon, Colin Trevorrow, Emily Carmichael, and I all took part in an amazing event a few nights ago: a STEAM education event in which 350 high school students across the USA took part. They're all going to be the first in their families to attend college. I looked out at the sea of faces, and it nearly made me cry: such a diversity of young people, from all across the country, of so many ethnic and family backgrounds, and many young women.
They asked great questions. They were so engaged with both the film and the science. Some of them have been hitting me up on Instagram and Twitter. I love their energy. Looking at them, I have so much confidence in our future, and they gave DeWanda the biggest cheers. Even when I had to publicly butt in and be That Guy and tell DeWanda that her "favorite dinosaur" (Quetzalcoatlus, that she battled in the air) is not technically a dinosaur, but a pterosaur! This event probably didn't get much, if any, press, but it shows how this franchise is bigger than just big-budget blockbusters. It is inspiring, motivating and educational.
Jurassic World Dominion is out in cinemas now.