Find out Geology in Art book, Follow Me :)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Paleontologic inspirations in James Cameron's Avatar

Like many other sci-fi enthusiasts, I saw James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar.
My opinion is twofold, divided between two aspects of the movie: filming and watching it.

Filming Avatar.
Cameron invested substantial resources in creating a revolutionary filming framework and probably set a reference point for the technology of filmaking. For instance, Avatar introduced a very efficent virtual camera system, displaying an augmented reality on a monitor. Thanks to this technological advance, the director can see the actor's virtual counterparts into their digital world in real-time.

Watching Avatar.
Here Avatar is less revolutionary. The movie is aesthetically impressive, but the final result is fully comparable to the last-generation computer graphics. Outstanding, but nothing new. Similarly the the 3D glasses represent a juicy old-fashioned technology but they are not critical to appreciate the elaborate visuals. Despite the significant hype raised, Avatar is not a breakthrough in the aesthetics of moving images.
As most of the movies, Avatar isn't only visuals. Indeed I greately appreciated the themes, revolving around a sense of ecological awareness. Avatar criticizes the environmental and social effects of imperialism, coming out at the right moment of the development of human civilization.
Unfortunately, the themes are developed through an extremely linear plot. After the first 30 minutes you know already all the movie. Nothing unexpected happens and there is the persistent impression to have seen something like that before. As many people said, Avatar is nothing more than 'Dances With Wolves in space'.
Avatar is a phenomenon you can't ignore, entertaining and done with extraordinary expertise. Nevertheless, it is definitely not a masterpiece.

Paleontology in Avatar. You might ask why I dealt about Avatar. Isn't this a blog about Geology and Art?
The answers are quite subterraneous, and they regard the fictional biology created by Cameron.
Avatar witnesses an enormous effort into bringing a fictional biological world to life. The result is convincing, although many creatures are modeled closely on familiar animals.
Under this point of view, Avatar is an eye-catching interpretation of how evolution might toss up on another planet. Paleontology is one of the strongest evidences of evolution, therefore I started to look for any paleontological references in Avatar.
Many creatures are obviously dinosaur-like or pterosaur-like, but I didn't find any explicit reference to precise prehistoric animals. Consequently my quest could finish without a result, but then I found the words of Wayne Barlowe, one of the creature creators of Avatar:

I was influenced by manta rays and skates – sea life motifs were prevalent in my thoughts at the time – when it came to my initial concepts. Their lines informed everything from wings to head profiles.
And, yes, being a huge paleontology buff did make me think of the vast variety of relatively little-known pterosaurs and plesiosaurs with their many, unique aerodynamic and hydrodynamic solutions."

Bingo! This demonstrates the origin of the reptile-like flying critters from planet Pandora, coming straight out from geologic times. In conclusion, Avatar is neither a paleontologic movie or an example of geologic art, but it shows how fossils can inspire modern artists.

The Thagomizer

The thagomizer is an arrangement of four to ten spikes on the tails of certain dinosaurs, of which Stegosaurus stenops is the most familiar. It is believed to have been a defensive weapon against predators, although some researches propose a display function only.

Stegosaurus by Heinrich Harder, a paleoartist active between 19th and 20th century. Note the spike arrangement on the tail: it's the Thagomizer!

The term "thagomizer" comes from a 1982 comic strip: the Far Side by Gary Larson. The strip shows a caveman professor discussing about the spikes on the tail of Stegosaurus. The professor explains to the audience that the spikes were named "after the late Thag Simmons" (Thag Simmons is a fictional caveman from Gary Larson's comic).

"Now this end is called the thagomizer...after the late Thag Simmons."

The paleontologist Ken Carpenter picked up the term and used it when describing a fossil at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting in 1993.
Thagomizer has since been adopted as an anatomical term!

The author of the comic strip has a background in Life Sciences, which explains his frequent use of animals and nature in the comic. For this reason too, he is well aware that dinosaurs and humans did not exist in the same era. Indeed he suggests that "there should be cartoon confessionals where we could go and say things like, 'Father, I have sinned – I have drawn dinosaurs and hominids together in the same cartoon.'"

The Thagomizer is not the only scientific term brought by comics. A nice example is given by a strip from "Calvin and Hobbes", criticizing the naming of the Big Bang as unevocative of the wonders behind it. The strip coined the term 'Horrendous Space Kablooie', which has achieved some popularity among the scientific community, particularly in informal discussion.
What about the suggested alternative to Tyrannosaurus rex, 'monstrous killer death lizard'?