Idea for Dino-Robots Came From Art Student Project
Then-student of digital media Evan Boucher 3-D scanned a crocodile fossil to create this image. Watch the video embedded in the story below.
CREDIT: Screenshot from an animation by Evan Boucher
One way to recreate extinct animals is to make robots of them. That's what paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara plans to do, as InnovationNewsDaily reported Feb. 21. By the year's end, he hopes to have printed out a dinosaur skeleton with a 3-D printer, to make robots to better study dino locomotion. But another way to bring the long-extinct back to life is to make an animation, which can show the animal moving and eating in its native habitat. In fact, the first of Lacovara's lab members to use a 3-D scanner wasn't a paleontologist, but an art student who now works as a technical director for DreamWorks Animation.
Evan Boucher was a master's student in digital media at Drexel when he met with Lacovara to talk about creating an animation of one of the specimens the paleontologist had dug up. Boucher wanted to show an animal people would never get to see otherwise, he said.
He eventually chose a fossil of Thoracosaurus neocesariensis, which lived in mangrove swamps of what is now New Jersey during the Late Cretaceous period, 65 million years to 100 million years ago. Boucher put the fossil to a 3-D laser scan, which led to the rest of the lab thinking that they might do the same, Lacovara told InnovationNewsDaily.
After Boucher had a digital 3-D representation of the fossil's skeleton, he still needed to know how its muscles would have attached to the bones, so he dissected a modern crocodile. Lacovara was impressed. "Keep in mind this was an art student," he said.
Boucher also read scientific literature, watched nature documentaries and filmed living crocodiles in zoos. Once he was even lowered into a crocodile pit to get a better shot. "That was pretty sweet," he recalled.
Finally, he took all he had learned to make a five-minute, hand-animated video of a Thoracosaurus slinking along the ground, slipping into the water, swimming and snapping up scientifically accurate extinct fish.
He took pains to make sure all these movements were science based, he said. "I would kind of take all these points and be like, 'All right, what motions are going to depict the current research on how this animal moves the best?'" he told InnovationNewsDaily. "I wanted make sure everything had a scientific purpose in there."
His efforts paid off. He won National Geographic's 2011 paleontology art prize for digital animation, then landed a job with DreamWorks, the animation company behind such movies as Shrek and Kung Fu Panda.
Animators are unlikely to use 3-D printed dinosaur robots directly for their animations, though Boucher said he would love to own one. The dino-bots will improve paleontology's understanding of how dinosaurs moved, however, which in turn will improve how artists animate dinosaurs in movies.
"Paleoart is sort of a self-correcting process, like science," Boucher said.