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Dinotasia article in Sunday Times

  Theres a nice piece on the feature film Dinotasia in the Sunday Times in the 
UK.  I think you need a subscription (to the website), but just in case here is 
the text.

>>>It was the triceratops that hooked me. First, though, I hated T rex. The 
>>>picture in my book showed a tyrannosaurus in a full tooth-and-claw attacking 
>>>frenzy on a hapless brontosaurus, in livid colour. The T rex’s hind legs 
>>>ripped across the docile vegosaur’s back, and its teeth closed around the 
>>>waving neck, with every muscle on both beasts marked out in sharp, almost 
>>>pornographic detail. This was primary school, so I hadn’t encountered that 
>>>many pictures of battles to the death. It terrified and fascinated me.

After that, I was snared, riffling through books in search of vicious battles 
until I found a picture, and eventually made an Airfix model, of a sturdy, 
determined tricera­tops facing a T rex charge, sitting patiently behind its 
horns like Roman legionaries settling their shields against Hannibal’s 
elephants. Dinosaurs, I thought, what’s not to like?

Since we first stumbled across giant fossilised bones, the vast beasts have 
proved a cultural obsession to rank alongside Nazis, sharks and the Titanic. 
Last year’s BBC epic Planet Dinosaur started just as Pixar announced it was 
making a 3D dinosaur movie and Spielberg kicked off work on Jurassic Park 4. 
This year, there’s the cheesy David’s Dinosaur — a child finds a dinosaur egg 
in his grandad’s basement as the audience fall asleep — and there’s Werner 
Herzog narrating Dino­tasia, an animated documentary out this month.

It’s hard to explain the curious effect that the German director’s rasping 
vocals have over hyper-­realistic footage of well-loved dinosaur favourites 
tearing each other’s arms off, scrapping for survival with twisted, broken jaws 
and staring in mute beast incomprehension as giant rocks hurtle to earth to 
seal their doom. This is The Sopranos let loose in the Mesozoic era, and it’s a 
bit like hearing Rutger Hauer intoning his final Blade Runner speech over 
footage of Goofy emptying an AK-47 into Mickey and Pluto.

“Death will usher in life again,” Herzog rasps towards the end, as clouds race 
across a derelict planet. “And our life, too, is complex and fragile. We too 
might disappear.” A little on the hardcore side, Mr Herzog?

“Most of the time, you see dinosaur movies written for eight-year-olds — with a 
neat moral or a happy ending.” The enfant terrible of New German Cinema 
chuckles at my British accent. “But this film is to Walking with Dinosaurs what 
The Wire was to Z-Cars. Look, I have a certain voice and a certain reputation. 
If I’m the voice­over, then I’m speaking almost as God — and I fit much better 
as a villain. So my voice of God is never going to comfort you.”

Herzog’s recent documentary career has tended towards the grimly realistic or 
darkly fantastic. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a slightly hallucinogenic 3D 
piece about cave paintings in southern France; Grizzly Man tells the story of a 
bear enthusiast who gets eaten by bears; Into the Abyss profiles a convict on 
death row. A speculative “factual” like Dinotasia seems a logical step, but he 
got involved almost by accident. “My longtime collaborator Erik Nelson was 
working on a TV programme with this footage for the Discovery Channel,” he 
says, somehow sounding faintly threatening even when relaying a few simple 
facts. “I was in his office watching footage and said, ‘You know what? This 
should be a movie.’”

Nelson agrees demurely. “He actually said that on stage at Comic-Con, in front 
of a huge audience,” he explains. “So I said, if I do that, will you supply the 
voice­over? You know, people talk a lot about all sorts of things that Werner 
does, but they never talk about how he mentors people like me. You know that 
story about him eating his shoe? Well, he did that as a bet with the director 
Errol Morris — ‘If you ever finish your movie, I will eat my shoe’ — but he did 
it to encourage him.”

As Herzog is the kind of man who can be shot in the stomach during a filmed 
interview with Mark Kermode and carry on, saying, “It is not a significant 
bullet”, I suspect I’d be motivated if he simply growled “Hurry up and finish 
your damned movie”. But he shook on it with Nelson, and Dinotasia is the 
result. “We both love Fantasia,” Herzog says, in possibly the least likely 
quote of the decade. “This is Disney meets art-house documentary meets Werner 
Herzog, but it’s about dinosaurs — I have no idea if it’s going to work for 
everyone, but it really works for me.”

All the stories in Dinotasia are inspired by fossil evidence, something Nelson 
used in the pitch to Discovery that won him the contract to produce the TV 
version, beating the team behind Walking with Dinosaurs. Like the dinosaur 
subplot in Fantasia, Disney’s trippy 1940s mashup of visuals and classical 
music, little scenes of dinosaur life tell tales taken from specific fossil 
finds. The death of an allosaurus gravely injured as a juvenile is based on a 
Jurassic fossil in the Smithsonian with the same healed jaw injuries as those 
on screen. A T rex with a missing arm prompted a violent on-screen T rex 
tear-up in the film, while the buddy story of two protoceratops comes from 
fossil boneyards of the Gobi Desert, which provided a detailed tableau of their 
Upper Cretaceous battle with a veloci­raptor. Perhaps most bizarre, the sight 
of a monstrous frog picking off baby dinosaurs with its foot-long tongue is 
based on fossil evidence of beelzebufo, a dino-eating frog preserved with the 
remains of a carnivorous theropod inside its stomach.

The film-makers worked with the palaeontologist Thomas Holtz on the anatomy of 
the creatures, which means the appearance of T rex babies covered in feathers 
chimes with current scientific thinking. “There are about two people on the 
planet who don’t believe birds are dinosaurs,” says Dr Mark Witton, a lecturer 
at the University of Ports­mouth who has consulted on various dinosaur series. 
“A seagull is a dinosaur, a hummingbird is a dinosaur. I think the depiction in 
Dinotasia is probably the closest I’ve seen to what we think dinosaurs really 
looked like — it’s the best yet.

“The one thing I would point out is that, like all wildlife documentaries, they 
have focused on the gory stuff. In reality, most dinosaurs were herbivores, and 
the T rex probably slept 22 hours a day. If we did go back in a time machine, 
we wouldn’t find much going on, and they almost certainly wouldn’t chase after 
tiny morsels like us.”

Then he drops the bombshell. “The one creature I’d hate to meet is triceratops. 
We think they’re the good guys, but they were probably the most bad-tempered, 
ag­gressive dinosaurs ever. Imagine them as a giant herd of constantly rutting 
stags, battling each other and anything that comes near.” So the T rex was 
mainly asleep and my triceratops was a nightmare. This is what you get if you 
let Werner Herzog near a dinosaur doc. Just don’t let him loose on sharks.

Dinotasia is out on May 4<<<