Sep. 20, 2011 at 12:02 AM ET
The way David Attenborough sees it, pterosaurs and 3-D documentaries were made for each other, even though they're separated by 65 million years.
"You want to have something that moves not just in 2-D across the ground, but goes up as well," he said. That makes the flying reptiles an "obvious subject" for a 3-D movie, Attenborough added.
He should know: The 85-year-old British broadcaster and naturalist has been doing nature documentaries for the BBC for more than 50 years — and what's more, he's the brother of Richard Attenborough, the actor who welcomed scientists to "Jurassic Park" in that classic 1993 dino-flick.
So it's hard to think of anyone better-suited to be the writer and narrator of "Flying Monsters 3D," a big-screen documentary due for its North American opening on Oct. 7.
The movie, which had its British theatrical release earlier this year, blends computer-generated graphics with field trips to fossil beds and laboratories. In the process, a wide variety of pterosaur breeds are virtually resurrected.
Paleontologists say the creatures came to dominate the skies of the Cretaceous era, just as dinosaurs dominated the land below. "The story of how that came about, and why eventually they died out, is what the film is about," David Attenborough told journalists during a Monday teleconference.
The 3-D special effects in "Flying Monsters" take their cue from "Avatar," but there's much more mixing of the Cretaceous and the modern world. At one point, pterosaur bones laid out on a table assemble themselves and take off. And during one of the movie's concluding scenes, a Quetzalcoatlus with a 40-foot wingspan pulls alongside Attenborough as he's sitting in the cockpit of a glider.
"I originally thought I might do that in a hang glider. ... Unfortunately, the insurers wouldn't let me do that, so I had to do it in the glider," he quipped.
Attenborough said one of the challenges of the project was to make sure the movie stuck to the scientific story instead of turning into a 3-D monster chiller horrorfest. "It's no good just doing a film to say, 'Oh, yes, it's wonderful in 3-D,' but have no story behind it," he said.
The scientific story
Pterosaurs have been the subject of scientific debate for decades: Paleontologists have argued over whether they were cold-blooded or warm-blooded, whether they bore feathers or fur, whether they could take off from a runway or had to jump off a cliff in order to take flight. (One of the places Attenborough visited during the making of the movie was the famed "pterosaur landing strip" in southern France, which he compared to "a prehistoric Heathrow" airport.)
The creatures shown in "Flying Dinosaurs 3D" aren't your father's pterosaurs: They use their folded wings as forelimbs when they walk around on all fours — or when they launch into the air. Some have a coat of fine hairs known as pycnofibers, which serve as evidence that they were warm-blooded. And most of them sport colorful crests, which Attenborough considers a "reasonable" hypothesis.
"They were almost certainly colored, and they had structures on their heads which can best be explained as being like the crest of a bird, and were used in courtship," he said.
Were pterosaurs actually birds? Pterosaurs had wings. (Check, although their wings could spread wider than bird wings.) They laid eggs. (Check, although their eggs were more like those of reptiles than modern-day birds.) They tended to group in colonies, as many species of birds do today. Pterosaurs and early birds co-existed during the Cretaceous ... but the mainstream view is that they came from different lines of the evolutionary tree.
Why did birds survive while pterosaurs die out? That's the 65 million-year question.
"Birds had feathers, stiff quills, but pterosaurs didn't have feathers," Attenborough said. "They didn't evolve feathers."
Instead, pterosaurs got their lift from membranes that were attached to their limbs and spread out during flight. Those membranes made it "very difficult to move around on the ground in a nimble sort of way," while birds "were able to run on the ground very well," Attenborough said. The way he sees it, that was a "crucial element" in the fight for survival when the era of the dinosaurs ended.
The rest of the story
Is that the way paleontologists see it? Mark Witton, a pterosaur expert at the University of Portsmouth, was one of the scientists who served as consultants for the film — and he was invited to a screening when the British version was ready for its release. "My hopes were high that everyone's favourite leathery-winged beasties were about to get their moment in the media sun," he wrote on the Pterosaur.net blog.
He came away impressed by the film's technical fireworks, but not so much impressed by the scientific claims. "Take, for instance, the way that we're explicitly told that pterosaurs were out-competed by birds and their ability to adapt to new ecologies, thus sealing the extinction of the more evolutionary-stagnant pterosaurs," he wrote. "Detailed analyses of bird and pterosaur diversity have either proved inconclusive on this issue ... or categorically stated that there's no evidence for bird-driven pterosaur extinction. ..."
Witton catalogs the movie's other scientific sins with the rigor that only a dedicated specialist could muster. "It really seems that, with a bit more care, this could've been as much of an achievement for effective scientific communication as it has been for 3-D technology, but it's really an enormous missed opportunity," he wrote.
Other pterosaur experts have provided more positive reviews. The University of Leicester's David Unwin, who was also a consultant for the film, praised the results in a video clip. "Films like this do a tremendous job of actually communicating in a really exciting way, and one that grabs your attention, the kinds of things that we've found out about pterosaurs," he said. "And what I really love is being able to see the animation and being involved in the process of trying to produce the best possible and most accurate animations."
What's a pterosaur fan to do? If you go see "Flying Monsters 3D," you'll want to sit back and enjoy the 3-D effects ... and then get the rest of the story from online resources such Pterosaur.net, or Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings, or John Conway's Palaeontography, or Pterosauria at the University of California Museum of Paleontology.
More about pterosaurs:
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