The facts and fiction behind Hollywood’s depiction of dinosaurs

Accurate or not, USC professor Mike Habib says big-screen portrayals have shaped the public perception of prehistory’s most popular animals

May 06, 2016 Andrew Good

Jurassic Park came out when Mike Habib was still a teenager, reigniting a love for dinosaurs that he first discovered as a kid. Its realism captivated him: At the time, few movies had tried as hard to portray the science of dinosaurs on film.

It left a deep impression, steering him toward a career as a paleontologist and, eventually, an expert on the flight mechanics of pterosaurs. Habib now teaches anatomy as an assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and is a research associate at the Natural History Museum’s Dinosaur Institute.

Habib will join a panel on how dinosaurs have been depicted on film as part of the museum’s First Fridays series tonight at 6:30 p.m. He spoke with USC News about the presentation titled “Velociraptor Is the Thing With Feathers.”

What’s the general gist of this talk?

The gist of it is the representation and sometimes misrepresentation of dinosaurs in film. That’s why we titled it as we did. In most film franchises, especially Jurassic Park, they continue to make all dinosaurs scaly. The velociraptor may have been scaly on their feet, but so are birds, and if you were to point out a bird to someone, you wouldn’t describe them as a scaly creature.

Basically, in film, dinosaurs get recruited as a monster. In the original Jurassic Park, they weren’t sure at that point if dinosaurs had feathers. But by the time they had got to Jurassic World, it’s become more of a horror franchise — it’s more of a slasher film. The human characters are constantly in peril. They want it to be as scary as possible. People think the more reptilian look is what people want to see.

It goes beyond just body coverings. The biggest idea myth is that dinosaurs were monsters as opposed to animals. The real velociraptor was about the size of a coyote. Even a utahraptor, if it got out at the zoo, the same thing would happen that happens when a big cat gets out of its enclosure. Some people might get hurt, but it’s not going on a killing spree. They might look for food and water; they may be confused. But being locked in a cage with a velociraptor would be like being in a cage with a leopard. I wouldn’t recommend it, per se, but there are people who live alongside leopards in nature in the world, too.

How have dinosaur depictions fared in film?

On average, dinosaurs in TV and film have fared very poorly in terms of realism. But a lot of that is because that’s not what they’re going for. You have to look at the depictions that meant to make them as realistic as possible.

The science has improved over time, and the films have incorporated the science. In early films, you have heavy, slow, tail-dragging dinosaurs, which was at the time what they thought of as accurate. But over time, we realized they were probably fairly active and high-performance. We know they probably had bristles, feathers, colors and patterns.

Have modern movies gotten better at this?

I’d say they have a little because with the growth of the internet and social media, it’s easier for people to look up the latest information on dinosaurs. And kids in particular gobble this up. Kids will complain when the dinosaurs in films don’t match what they’ve read. They’ll mention to their parents, “But, mom, I’ve read they weren’t that big.”

So there’s been some growing interest in portraying anatomically accurate dinosaurs. They always make them bigger and more fearsome and bloodthirsty.

We’ve talked about how they’ve looked. But how have movies made dinosaurs sound?

Another thing that’s common is they want to make them all really loud. Real animals in the world don’t walk around with their mouths open that often, even especially when stalking prey. Dinosaurs like brachiosaurs with long necks are shown trumpeting like elephants. They had that in the original Jurassic Park.

But actually, with the anatomy of a neck that long, the nerves would make it almost impossible to make those kinds of sounds. These 40-ton animals probably hissed when they wanted to communicate. And Jurassic Park knew they didn’t make those sounds, because my old PhD supervisor got a call from them, and he told them the same thing. Six month later, the film comes out and they’re trumpeting like a Sousa band.

I think you’ll never get a blockbuster film to give you hissing brachiosaurs, though. You’ll probably never convince them a T-Rex walks by a potential meal and doesn’t eat it because it’s full. That happens all the time in the Serengeti — lions walk by their prey because they don’t need to eat.

What are some of your favorite dinosaur movies or scenes?

The original Jurassic Park film is hugely important to me. We’re thinking of including some clips from King Kong, both the original and remake, which features Mesozoic animals. As a kid, my parents had a copy of the original, where a pterosaur carries off the heroine, and that was in my mind later when I decided to study them. They can’t do that, by the way — their feet weren’t shaped like talons. Most of my dissertation was on debunking the idea that pterosaurs and birds were similar. I had this old-fashioned view of them that I was revising from my youth.

As a kid, a lot of dinosaur books had a bigger impact on me than movies. While films were cool to watch, they weren’t a good guide to what dinosaurs were really like, and I was interested in the science factor.

What would you still like to see?

There’s cool bits of science I’d like to see, some of which I hold out more hope for than others. I do hope to see them more like animals. It would be really cool to see the predators just eating when hungry, but the real threat is herbivores that are temperamental. In Africa, the real dangers aren’t lions, which are predictably dangerous. But hippos are just mean. They’re territorial, they’re unpredictable and more than strong enough to cut you in half.

I think a feathery T-Rex would be great. That would be a lot of fun.

And there are some things that I wanted to see that have come to pass. Some stuff I’ve personally discovered has shown up. I published what was then a novel idea — and is now the status quo — about the take-off mechanics in pterosaurs, and that showed up in TV shows and kids books. There’s a certain amount of personal glee when something you or someone you know has worked on and you see it hit the big screen.