Flying Monsters in 3D

Sure this came out a couple of years ago now, and Mark Witton has dealt with it in detail (and for the record I basically agree with everything he said, almost to the letter), but I’m now in a position to comment myself. While I have seen this before, I have now seen it in the cinema in full 3D glory. More particularly, I saw this with an audience of school children (about 80 of them aged, I would guess about 7-90). I was there to handle a Q&A on pterosaurs after the show to help extend their experience and hopefully help them get a bit more out of the film.

As far as I could tell, they thoroughly enjoyed it and there was a large, sustained and apparently spontaneous round of applause at the end. Certainly during the showing there was no chatter, fidgeting or anything else one might associate with them not being well engaged with the subject matter. So far so good.

The questions afterwards came thick and fast and were really of a better standard that I’ve come to expect of this age group. There were no overtly silly questions and most really were about the animals themselves and not about ‘who would win in a fight between’ or ‘which was the best’. Some were even great with ‘are archaeologists and palaeontologists different things?’ a personal favourite (all media outlets ever please take note).

The one thing that did strike me though was that the kids were still firmly happy with the idea that pterosaurs were dinosaurs (and so too, were the plesiosaurs and the like, but not birds, or at least not for most). This might sound rather inevitable, it’s a very common issue, but bear in mind they had just sat through a documentary on pterosaurs that had also featured dinosaurs, birds, Archaeopteryx and plesiosaurs. They had picked up on things like the launch of Quetzalcoatlus, and asked about how Pteranodon would get buried when surely the other animals would eat a dead one, or which ones ate which foods etc. They had grasped some of the trickier concepts and harder messages but missed a big one.

Thinking back though, I realised that this was never really stressed. While the documentary was careful to use the right terms in each case – which was good – they also never specifically drew attention to the fact. The knowledgeable audience member might spot the correct use of ‘marine reptile’ for plesiosaurs, but those who don’t know would probably miss this and not attach the importance to the fact that the word ‘dinosaur’ wasn’t used. For an hour-long program talking pterosaurs it does seem rather odd that at no point (confession, I missed the first 5 minutes) did they ever actually say ‘pterosaurs aren’t dinosaurs’. No, they never conflated them, but nor did they make it explicit.

With something so basic and so common an error, it does feel like a massively missed open goal. Sure, there are plenty of worse issues (as Mark details in his review), but still I can’t help feeling this would have helped the narrative itself – after all, they want the audience to appreciate pterosaurs in their own right, and making them distinct from dinosaurs would help that goal. Establishing them as their own group and in effect therefore somewhat more ‘special’ has the dual role of clearing up a great misconception and focusing the attention of the viewer.

So while I did work to clean that one up in the minds of those who watched the show, it clearly still is a major issue. It’s a shame that such a major effort to really push pterosaurs to a mainstream audience and bring them to the fore failed to address such a simple and critical concept.

14 Responses to “Flying Monsters in 3D”

  1. 1 Ben 14/03/2012 at 10:07 am

    Great post, and love the blog.

    I suppose one of the main causes is that pterosaurs, plesiosaurs etc are all lumped into the ‘First Book of Dinosaurs’ which your parents get you aged 4. I speak from experience, as I still have mine (I’m now 21) and was playing ‘dinosaurs’ with my 4-year-old neighbour just last weekend.

    These ‘first books’ tend to just have big colourful pictures, the names of the beast and a brief intro to it, which may be read briefly but not always taken in; but that’s exactly what you want if you’re a 4-year-old, or their parent. The first time I remember seeing ‘pterosaurs are not dinosaurs’, or similar, was in the ‘Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs’ type book, which you don’t really get on to until you’re 10ish, if you make it at all.

    • 2 David Hone 14/03/2012 at 10:21 am

      Oh yeah, I’m sure that kind of the thing is the root of the confusion (and to the uninitiated yeah they are all big, extinct reptiles that lived together). My beef here is that made a whole documentary about pterosaurs and simply didn’t really make the distinct clear which seems an obvious oversight and missed opportunity.

  2. 3 Robert Sloan 14/03/2012 at 10:30 am

    Thanks for a great review. If it makes you feel any better, I did stress that point with my little granddaughter while we were sharing Walking With Dinosaurs and various other prehistoric beastie videos including her introducing me to the wonderful “Dinosaur Train.” She got it after a few reminders, by the time we got to Dinosaur Train she understood Buddy was the only dinosaur in the nest.

  3. 4 Marmaduke 14/03/2012 at 1:35 pm

    I don’t see the distinction as that important for a lay audience. It is, of course, critical to really understanding how dinosaurs and pterosaurs (and marine reptiles) fit into the larger landscape of biology and evolution, but I don’t think it’s necessary to stress when you are reaching out to a larger audience. Kids can appreciate the Quetzalcoatlus just for it’s size, and those who want to know more can then take on the evolutionary relationships.

    I’m a microbiologist, not a paleontologist, but I have a similar issue when talking about my work with others. Very few people know what archaea are, and if I start my explanation with their evolutionary relationship to bacteria, I’ve lost my audience. If I start with bacteria and tell how archaea are different, it’s easier to hold attention. The details of how bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes are related is fascinating to me, but not to people who don’t understand who the characters in the play are.

    Don’t get me wrong, my 3 and 5 year olds know that pterosaurs are not dinosaurs, and I think an understanding of evolution is critical to anyone who wants to study anything even tangentially related to biology. But, I don’t think correcting every misconception at every chance is the best way to help the cause.

    • 5 David Hone 14/03/2012 at 2:07 pm

      “But, I don’t think correcting every misconception at every chance is the best way to help the cause.”

      Right I’m with you on that, but this is a David Attenborough hosted 70 minute cinema presentation just about pterosaurs. Given that they talk about inner ear function and flight mechanics and ecological competition with birds and other things (if not quite in those terms) is something really as basic as ‘they’re not dinosaurs you know’ too much information, too complex, or not important enough to warrant 5 seconds of time? I really don’t think so.

      I do take you point, fighting every mistake at every turn is a ‘turn off’, but this is a biggie and one that should have been done.

  4. 6 Nikki Lowry 14/03/2012 at 5:46 pm

    Dir. of Film Marketing for Nat Geo here, Dave, and we are constantly saying “Don’t call them dinosaurs!” for all the reasons you cite…we did create a consumer-oriented flyer that tries to clarify the difference, and gave a stack of these to museums. We are trying! We so hear you…but thanks for the great blog in any event…would love to have you comment on the Flying Monsters Facebook page as well….let’s become crusaders!

    Nikki Lowry
    Dir of Film Mktg
    Nat Geo

    • 7 David Hone 14/03/2012 at 6:06 pm

      Well that is encouraging to hear Nikki. If you’ve hung around here much and on related pages by my colleagues you’ll hear lots of horror stories from their various media outlets. We do know that some are very good though and I had a great experience with Discovery Chanel last year but it’s great to hear of more people on board!

  5. 8 Marc Vincent 14/03/2012 at 6:41 pm

    I remember being troubled by Planet Dinosaur also not necessarily making it clear that certain animals weren’t dinosaurs, but assumed that people knew anyway by now; Adam Smith’s review(s) of the plesiosaur episode really demonstrates otherwise!

    Maybe it’s ultimately trivial for the lay audience as Marmaduke says, but I think it’s still important to make clear to people some basic stuff about animal relationships – even among extinct animals – as it gives them a better appreciation of the world around them, and might even spark a new (or renewed) interest. I can vouch for this having happened to me at least as regards dinosaurs in particular.

  6. 9 Zhen 14/03/2012 at 6:57 pm

    You want something even worst? I just recently saw a Tyrannosaurus with 3 fingers in a trailer. This is for a game that’s coming out in 2012.

    BTW, did you personally enjoy the movie, Dave?

    • 10 David Hone 14/03/2012 at 8:10 pm

      It really was just as Mark’s review. The visuals were mostly very good, the animation good, the anatomical accuracy good, it was well presented and organised, but the errors were deeply frustrating and unnecessary.

  7. 11 Ben 15/03/2012 at 7:01 pm

    Great post. This is a very widespread misunderstanding and more effort should be made to correct it. As an educator, I’ve found that the misunderstanding is deeper than pterosaurs=dinosaurs, many people assume that anything extinct is a dinosaur, or that any bone that came out the ground is automatically a dinosaur. Along with the basics of evolution and the fossil record, this is definitely one of the topics these programs really need to cover before getting into specifics of anatomy and behavior speculation.

  8. 13 3d movie viewer 11/10/2013 at 1:53 am

    When I originally commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when
    new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the same
    comment. Is there an easy method you are able to remove me
    from that service? Thanks!

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