Thursday, 31 March 2011

Raptors in packs with refs - woo-hoo!

Brian Switek, author of the excellent blog Laelaps has written an article for UK newspaper The Guardian that discusses the likelihood that dromaeosaurs hunted in packs. Interesting stuff to be sure, familiar to many of us interested in dinosaurs yes, but the great thing about this article apart from the clear and concise arguments presented for and against pack hunting behaviour in dromaeosaurs was that Brian was thoughtful enough to include a list of references; a rare treat in a palaeontology story covered in the mainstream press and it would be excellent to see other writers following suit.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Stu Pond joins Art Evolved

I've recently received the honour of being asked to join Art Evolved as a contributing member and am looking forward to many years of paleo-art related blogging and being part such a dynamic community. If you've never seen the site swing by and take a look at the superb art their members create, and the wealth of information and opinion that is posted on the site.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Allosaurus fragilis sketch

Allosaurus fragilis, graphite.


This sketch was a highly speculative reconstruction I did a couple of years ago based on a photograph I took of the Allosaurus fragilis that's posed attacking the rearing Barosaurus in the famous mount at the American Museum of Natural History. Were I to reconstruct the same animal today it would be less bony and probably with more interesting arrangements of the scales.

Allosaurus moving in the kill . . .


I took this when my wife and I, in New York to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary in 2001 made the pilgrimage to those dinosaur halls of legend, and walking in we were faced with this incredible sight:

If this chap steps on your foot, it's going to smart a little.


It would be no exaggeration to say we were speechless for a few seconds. Being small island hayseeds we had never seen such an dynamic mount, and the rest of the museum lived up to that initial burst of excitement as we walked through the dinosaur hall and into the feathered dinosaurs exhibition that was on a the time. It was great to see our more regular hunting ground the Isle of Wight was represented by a superb Hypsilophodon foxii skeleton, presumably from the Hypsi bed of the south west coast.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Baby avian theropods that look like, er baby dinosaurs . . .

If you've ever wondered exactly what a non-avain maniraptorian chick might have looked like in the flesh (and face it, who doesn't?), then you could do worse than have a pike at these Ground Hornbill chicks born in Johannesburg Zoo.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Work, teeth and tiny Irish dinosaurs

Not much time to post this week due to the large amount of work I've had in, problems with a cyst in my upper jaw that led to a Marathon-man style tooth removal ordeal (despite the attempts of my excellent dentist to avoid such a scenario), and a trip over the Irish Sea to Dublin to enjoy the ambience of that wonderful city and the hospitality of the locals which always lives up to it's reputation.  Apart from the Guinness and The Porterhouse the highlights were a return trip to see the incredible Book of Kells at Trinity College, along with it's attendant exhibition which features excellent and informative AV exhibits as well as artifacts, plus the music in O'Donoghues which was superb. I must try illustrating dinosaurs in that celtic style . . .

I didn't expect to find anything pertaining to dinosaurs on our trip as Ireland is dinosaur-free, so imagine my delight when I found this little chap recumbent on the pavement in St Stephen's Green:

An Irish dinosaur. He is rather wee.

Not the best picture, but this little geezer is now sitting atop my monitor between a similarly sized velociraptor and Triceratops skeleton. Judging by the thumb spikes he's an Iguanodon.  Result!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Building a dinosaur - the software

Part 2 of my occasional series, Building a Dinosaur focuses on the software I’ll be using to model our 3D dinosaur. Of course, the most basic tool is has remained unchanged for quite a few years: pencil and paper are still the best way to rough out ideas and compositions and are unparalleled in their usefulness, but more on that in a subsequent post.

As a long-term paleo-art fanboy, I've diddled with creating art in 3D packages before, most notably the venerable KPT Bryce (still available in a different form from Daz 3D), a landscape creation tool which for a time I was completely addicted to. Here's an attempt from 1997 showing a plesiosaur cruising at the edge of the continental shelf off the coast of Laurasia. It was modelled in a very early version of Cinema 4D and this model was imported into Bryce for placement and rendering. I would like to revisit this image at some point and perhaps create a new version using the tools available today.



These days there are several 3D packages capable of creating the sort of images and animation were are used to seeing in films and on the telly. Invariably these are targeted at professional artists and animators and the complexity, flexibility and toolsets they offer is reflected in the price. However, whilst packages  that only do modelling and rendering can be purchased relatively cheaply when it comes to animation then it’s time to get the big boys in (there is one notable exception, a free cross platform, open-source package called Blender which is capable of producing excellent results in the right hands).

For this project I will be using the 3D programme I use in my everyday work modelling tiny things, Maxon’s excellent Cinema 4D R12 Studio (C4D). This comes in a number of different configurations, from the core application which allows modelling and animation up to the Studio version which includes all manner of goodies such as character rigging, advanced rendering options and soft body dynamics to name a few. It’s becoming increasingly popular in motion picture production and it’s crossing over from broadcast graphics where it’s already established as an industry leader.

Many in the industry will be using Softimage, Maya (both popular in film) or 3D Studio Max (although this is mainly popular for games), all very powerful applications with incredible capabilities and a learning curve to match. C4D still has a learning curve but fits into my workflow as much of the 3D data (lights, object positions, cameras etc) can be imported into Adobe After Effects, the motion graphics and compositing package I use to bring my animations together. It’s best described as 'Photoshop on wheels', although it outgrew it’s elder sibling in terms of useful features long ago. I will be using Photoshop of course (textures, retouching stills etc) and Adobe Illustrator for drawings .

The other 3D package I will be using is zBrush, an organic modelling and texturing application which uses clay sculpting as a modelling analogy and capable of producing incredible, detailed results. I’ll be using zBrush to refine the sculpt from C4D and add detail to the model. Maxon’s Bodypaint 3D will also feature when it comes to texturing the sculpt.

Finally, other software utilised will be iTunes, which I use for pumping out the grooves and rockin’ out whilst working.

So next on the agenda . . . research. Let’s do it!

Our subject spotted by the artist in the Hell Creek of Montana last year. Not enough to base a reconstruction on.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Creating a classic . . .

The chaps over at SV-POW have posted an excellent article on the creation of their almost-iconic-already image of Brontomerus in collaboration with artist Francisco Gasc├│: Genesis of an instant palaeo-art classic. For those curious as to how science and art can work together this is an essential read, and the positive reaction to the image shows how good paleo-art can play an important role in education and bringing science to the attention of the mainstream media; for better or worse we live in a world where good visual communication has become a vital part of any palaeontologists toolbox. It's great to see the production sketches (even 3D artists still use pencil and paper) and have a look at the way the model developed and was refined.

If the article over at SV-POW has piqued your interest in the restoration of ancient life using modern computer techniques such as 3D modelling and compositing, then check back here for my occasional series on building a 3D Triceratops, which will go into the process in much more detail as I build a dinosaur from scratch.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Building a dinosaur - 3D modelling Triceratops horridus

One of the most exciting things about modern paleo art is the use of 3D modelling to reconstruct extinct life. Today single animals of all types, herds of migrating dinosaurs and entire environments can be modelled and animated within a single computer and the use of modern computer modelling technology to re-create dinosaur gaits, calculate sauropod neck posture and illustrate dinosaurs in the media, blogs and papers has become a powerful new tool for palaeontologists and artists alike. We have become used to seeing these depictions in images and films but the whole process of how these images and animations are created is still unfamiliar to many people.

A big part of my day job is modelling and animating the in vitro mechanisms of action of drugs and the biological processes they affect or influence, something I enjoy as the science is quite astounding and very interesting. This involves the modelling of all sorts of weird and wonderful molecules, proteins and cells such as macrophages, fibroblasts and the environments they populate such our own cells, vessels and organs. For reference for the larger objects I can use SEM images but much of the time the actual morphology of many of these very tiny but fascinating objects is unknown and is open to speculation, something the scientists and I indulge in as we develop the models and animations. As seen below, I often model some very tiny things for my own research in creating more realistic images, in this case trying to match the detail of microscopy in using 3D modelling and post-production techniques:


3D CGI image of Tetrahymena pyriformis, an extant freshwater protozoan and very small indeed.


The wireframe model of Tetrahymena in the modelling environment.


As I spend so much time modelling in 3D it only seemed natural that at some point I would take the plunge and model a dinosaur, and I will be posting the whole process on this blog to give some insight into the methodology and techniques used by 3D artists to re-create depictions of ancient life. Much of this journey into paleo-art is going to be as new to me as it is to you, and some bits you'll be familiar with I'm not and vice-versa - it promises to be an interesting trip!

Of course, modelling a dinosaur presents a whole raft of problems. I don't have direct access to many specimens so direct study is out for all but Tyrannosaurus rex . . . and I'm drawing those frequently. Luckily there is plenty of literature about and so I should have no problem finding a subject.

So, what dinosaur to choose? Well, after spending a week in the field with the Marmarth Research Foundation last year I'd grown attached to one of the most common of dinosaurs found in the Hell Creek, Triceratops horridus which we spent several days excavating. Although Triceratops is well-represented in the canon of paleo-art it does offer some serious challenges to the 3D artist both from a modelling perspective and an animation point of view so seems a good subject for this part of the journey. How long this will take I have no idea so this will be a series of occasional posts which I hope gives some insight into the whole process of creating 3D models and animation, and any comments on accuracy or other details are very welcome.

So where do we start? Well, the first step is to create one of these:


Ceci n'est past une cube. It's a dinosaur.

Oh, and research . . . and the software . . . and . . . and I think that's a whole new post.