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TV Preview 'Dinosaur Planet' mixes fact and fancy

Sunday, December 14, 2003

By John Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Meet White Tip, a female Velociraptor who becomes separated from her pack but finds love with a hunky Mohawk-feathered mate in the Mongolian desert. Little Das, a 25-foot slacker from Cretaceous Montana, screws up the hunt, again, totally peeving the pack leader, his mom. South American Saltasaur hatchling Alpha grows into a 40-foot mama-to-be struggling to return to the ancient breeding grounds where she can finally lay her eggs, while in Europe, little Pod gets swept to sea and crawls ashore on an island where he lives a lonely life at the top of the food chain.

'Dinosaur Planet'

When: 8 p.m. tonight and Tuesday on The Discovery Channel.

Narrator: Christian Slater.

Now meet Scott Sampson of the order paleontologus televisionus, a new breed of scientist who has evolved to not look like a geek and talks more or less like the rest of us. Sampson's dual role in the new Discovery Channel miniseries "Dinosaur Planet" was to help animators create state-of-the-art depictions of the show's prehistoric co-stars, and to explain the cross-breeding of breaking scientific news with fictional stories and pet-name personifications.

"It's a little bit of psychology," says Sampson, a Canadian paleontologist from the University of Utah. "People tend to understand things better and remember them longer when they can see them and there's a story attached that they can relate to."

In the new epoch of commercially funded educational TV, boring eggheads reciting monotone science jargon are rapidly being replaced with voice-overs by familiar celebrities, feature-film quality action and MTV-inspired graphics.

The trick to holding the attention of fact-over-fiction fans is to simultaneously keep the science credible. The producers of "Dinosaur Planet," The Discovery Channel and Evergreen Films, started by digging up recently peer-reviewed paleontology finds, including new evidence that T. Rex could not run down a "Jurassic Park" jeep and that feathers originated to retain heat, not to enable flight.

Six professional paleontologists, including Sampson, and two geologists were recruited to help animators and writers create valid story-line scenarios and animation models digitally built from the skeletons up. Film and TV star Christian Slater was brought in to narrate, with Sampson serving as an on-air scientific source.

"Even five years ago this would have been impossible to produce on the budget of a TV show," says Sampson. "Technological breakthroughs have made it possible to do 'Jurassic Park' quality without a huge budget. Also, there's been an artistic breakthrough in the level of detail, through working very closely with the paleontologists."

Sampson and the other field and lab researchers were involved from the show's beginnings, two years ago. Newly discovered fossilized skeletal remains were sketched from multiple angles. Placement of soft-tissue musculature, feathers and skin, which don't fossilize, was debated among the scientists, who often disagreed on the details. When animators began to make the sketches move, the scientists continued the debate.

"Accuracy poses interesting questions," says Sampson. "There's no such thing as absolute truth in science. On something like color -- what color were the feathers and skin? -- there's no clear answer because there's no fossilized record. On a number of things the paleontologists disagreed. We debated the issues and compromised on one view, then continued the debate with the animators to come up with something we could all live with that represents, in some cases, a composite of various views. In the end, I think the paleontologists learned as much as the artists."

The scientists experimented with the same process regarding story lines. Based on the best new evidence available, what scenarios would characterize the social lives, motivations and daily lifestyles of animals that lived some 80 million years ago?

The result is an entertaining, educational two-part miniseries that imparts new dino information. Cliffhanger segments discourage viewers from fiddling with the remote during commercials.

"One of the things that has changed in recent years is how fast we think an animal like T. Rex can move," says Sampson. "The 'Jurassic Park' movie has him chasing down a jeep going 40 mph. We spoke with an anatomy specialist who recently reconstructed the musculature of T. Rex and calculated the force necessary to make a 5- or 6-ton animal run like that, and he determined that it would be impossible."

"Dinosaur Planet's" biggest scientific breakthrough is based on the recent discovery in Asia of Velociraptors with fossilized impressions of feathers.

"People have a view of Velociraptor like it was an 8-year-old running in gangs in the street and standing as tall as a 6-foot man," Sampson says. "Turns out it isn't really that big, maybe 3 feet, and it has feathers. This discovery blows away the previously held interpretation that feathers evolved first for flight. They didn't. Based on the dating of this find, we now have flightless dinosaurs with feathers, probably as a means of insulation, long before animals began to fly.

"It's now conclusive. Dinosaurs didn't go extinct. They're there every time you have chicken dinner."

John Hayes can be reached at or 412-263-1991.

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