Capturing Giants

Sheeza Sarfraz, researcher/writer at the Royal Ontario Museum Press

How the ROM is using multimedia technology to bring ancient dinosaurs to screens everywhere


A scene from the Late Triassic of Argentina.

Conjuring extinct creatures into existence, the likes of which have never been seen, is challenging. But as the ROM prepares to take visitors millions of years back in time to the supercontinent of Gondwana, we are doing just that. Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana focuses on the dinosaurs down under—those that inhabited the land mass now split into South America, Africa, Antarctica, and Madagascar. Seventeen full-skeleton casts of these southern giants have been created and will be shown alongside an array of real fossils. But in today’s digital age, multimedia forms the bedrock of any representation of prehistoric life. In a post–Jurassic Park world, can audiovisual elements excite interest in ways that Hollywood hasn’t already?

This exhibition, the first ROM-produced natural history blockbuster, will provide the answer. Quite different from what’s typically seen in effects-heavy dinosaur movies and television, the ROM is using technology to immerse guests in multiple aspects of this prehistoric world. The largescale geological processes that split the supercontinents into the ones we are familiar with today, for example, are elaborated through a participatory puzzle that allows users to re-align the drifting continents using in-house iPads and a communal screen.

To see how the animals might have looked fleshed out, complete with sound and movement, visitors can direct iPads at digital markers next to dinosaur skeletons. Geological, biological, and anatomical perspectives of the animals are shown onscreen, down to the skin and flesh that cover the bones we so strongly associate with the word “dinosaur.” Motion-sensing screens allow for an interactive, and perhaps at first slightly unnerving, experience as dinosaurs react to visitors’ approach with onscreen activity. Large-scale IMAX projections give a sense of the surroundings these creatures inhabited.

A human dimension, documenting how dinosaurs are discovered and studied today, is very much part of the exhibition narrative. Towards the end of March 2012, Randy Dreager and Rob McMahon, both audiovisual specialists on the ROM’s Media Productions team, accompanied exhibition curator David Evans to the province of Neuquén at the northern end of Patagonia in Argentina to shoot on-the-ground mini-documentaries in the places where these rare dinosaur specimens were discovered.

“Videography is a way of enhancing our storytelling,” explains Dreager, who is also the ROM’s manager of Media Productions. “When curators go into the field, they are focused on the science. We help interpret their research and tell the stories behind it.” Dreager believes integrating digital technologies into exhibits is an effective way to educate and entertain increasingly technology-savvy visitors.

This footprint, belonging to Giganotosaurus, is approximately 3 feet long. Credit: Rob McMahon.

Among the footage brought back from the badlands of Argentina are shots of a rocky landscape etched with enormous dinosaur footprints almost three feet in length belonging to Giganotosaurus—part of a walkway frequented by dinosaurs millions of years ago. “Going into the field to film these locations allows us to communicate to the public the idea that these specimens are from a real world that was living and vibrant,” says McMahon, who directed and produced the documentaries. “Dinosaurs didn’t come from outer space. They once lived in the same regions that we explore in our video.”

Dr. Ariana Paulina-Carabajala, the paleontologist who as a graduate student in 2000 discovered the star of the show—the titanosaur Futalognkosaurus (which averaged 107 feet in length!)—was among those interviewed. She returned to the scene of her discovery to speak with the ROM team.

Filming also took place at a vineyard where workers stumbled upon important dinosaur fossils during construction of the winery. McMahon’s goal with the documentaries is to have visitors feel they are part of the expedition, to convey the wonder of discovering the prehistoric world that existed where humans now dominate. Says McMahon, looking at a case of bones preserved within the winery: “You can imagine that the dinosaur died here, therefore that it also lived here.”

Thanks to multimedia technology, the ROM is able to invite its audiences into the virtual Mesozoic world of these impressive southern dinosaurs.

Sheeza Sarfraz is a researcher/writer at the Royal Ontario Museum Press.

Illustrations by Julius Csotonyi

 

Based on Giganotosaurus’s colossal dimensions, Scientists believe that, had the hemispheres not separated it from Tyrannosaurus rex, this southern giant would have dethroned its northern counterpart as the apex predator.

Paleontologists who uncovered Masiakasaurus knopfleri were listening to British band Dire Straits when they made the discovery. The dinosaur, which is featured in the ROM’s exhibition, was named after Mark Knopfler, the band’s vocalist and lead guitarist.

Check the fall issue of ROM magazine for news on how Augmented Reality is changing the way visitors experience museums.

Follow David Evans as he takes readers behind the scenes during the making of Ultimate Dinosaurs at our blog. Map the #ultimatedinosadventure on twitter ROMPalaeo and @davide_rom.