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Getting Into Pterosaur Trouble – An Interview With Daniel Loxton

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

April 3, 2013

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of Junior Skeptic (the ten page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine). He’s is the author and illustrator of the national award-winning kids’ science book Evolution: How We And All Living Things Came to Be and is also the author and illustrator (with Jim W.W. Smith) of Ankylosaur Attack, a paleofiction storybook for ages four and up.

Ankylosaur Attack was just the first book in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series from Kids Can Press. Pterosaur Trouble is out now and those attending the next Amazing Meeting in July will be treated to a preview of the book co-authored with fellow Skeptic.com blogger Professor Donald Prothero, Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids.

Daniel has written for critical thinking publications including Skeptic, Skeptical Briefs, eSkeptic and the Skeptical Inquirer, and contributed cover art to Skeptic, Yes mag, and Free Inquiry.

Quetzalcoatlus

Kylie Sturgess: Firstly, there's a lot of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals to choose from—why this pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus?

Daniel Loxton: First of all, Quetzalcoatlus is just inherently awesome. These critters and their close relatives were the largest fliers the world has ever known—like, the size of a small airplane. The preposterousness of a creature that large taking to the air is just totally seductive. We're talking about animals that could, as Tetrapod Zoology's Darren Naish and other pterosaur enthusiasts like to point out, look a giraffe in the eyes while standing on all fours.

But what cinched this animal as the focus for Book Two of my Tales of Prehistoric Life series was learning of a specific fossil find by a young woman named Wendy Sloboda and other staffers and volunteers at the Royal Tyrrell Museum: bones from Quetzalcoatlus or a similarly enormous close relative that had been gnawed on by the small, Velociraptor-like dinosaur Saurornitholestes in Cretaceous Alberta. That's an almost Lilliputian scenario: a giant devoured by dinosaurs much, much smaller than it. How did that happen? Was the big pterosaur scavenged, or did the little dinosaurs somehow manage to hunt it successfully? The more conservative scavenging possibility is discussed in the nonfiction page at the back of the book, but I couldn't resist letting the most spectacular interpretation inspire my paleofiction bedtime story….

Kylie: What's involved in the process of creating a picture book like this - the stages and revision?

Daniel: The goal for Pterosaur Trouble and the other Tales of Prehistoric Life series books is persuasive photorealism—or heightened realism, anyway. I want it to look like I just popped back in time with my camera and took some nature photographs. That concept constrains every aspect of the creation of the illustrations. Let me tell you, the step between “cool computer generated representation of a prehistoric animal,” and “Hey, that looks real!” is a doozy.

Achieving that realism, or at least reaching for it, is a process that takes many months of painstaking steps and revisions. At its most basic, we create computer generated (CG) creatures and composite them into real world location photographs. Huge, high-resolution, panoramic photo mosaics are shot on location, which form the foundation for the backgrounds. I alter those extensively however—adding in foliage, taking out tourists, altering landscapes and sky however the story requires. Likewise, the massive sixty-seven megapixel texture maps for each animal's skin are built up from real world photoreference from live animals, museum specimens, roadkill, my friends and relatives, and even a Christmas dinner.

Pterosaur Trouble especially benefitted from behind-the-scenes access to extensively photograph bird and bat specimens from the collections at the Royal British Columbia Museum.

Once the creatures are designed, sculpted, textured, and posed, I design a virtual lighting scheme to match the lighting conditions present in the background photography. Then I render the animals out in many passes, using a 3D rendering program on a computer: a pass for the diffuse light, a pass for reflections, a pass for specular highlights, a pass for fill light, and so on. Some passes take days each to render at the massive resolutions I need for print.

I render twenty or thirty such passes for each illustration, then stack those up in Photoshop and begin to really get to work. The magic happens (assuming it happens at all!) in the very last steps of this compositing process of blending together many elements into a seamless, photorealist whole. It's a complicated and lengthy process that has to be done in a certain sequence. The illustration can't come to life until you get to Step Z—but if you don't get the foundational work for Steps A, B, and C right several months earlier, then Step Z won't ever spark the way you hope it will.

(For those who are interested in more details, I described some of the steps involved in creating the art for Ankylosaur Attack here and here.)

Quetzalcoatlus and other dinosaurs

Kylie: Looking over the illustrations, there seems to be a lot of envious dinosaurs checking out the Pterosaur's flight! What are some of the considerations that you have to take into account when creating dinosaur art—particularly so many different kinds?

Daniel: Paleoartists tend very strongly to follow the lead of other paleoartists. That's natural—by and large, we're artists, not scientists. We speak art, we read art, and we learn from art, as artists have for millennia. So we wind up conforming, very often, to the conventions and reconstructions of other artists. That's why virtually every depiction of the pliosaur Liopleurodon since 2000 has given the animal a black and white pattern, from illustrations to toys: it's the way that the texture artists of the Walking With Dinosaurs television series did theirs, and theirs was the awesomest.

There is an interesting meta-conversation happening now in paleoart circles, with projects like the new book All Yesterdays by John Conway, C. M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish seeking to deconstruct some of the conventions of our practice. These creatures were ordinary animals in their time, after all, not movie monsters. They must have spent a lot more time strolling, playing, and having naps than they spent struggling titanically for survival—but you wouldn't know it by the ubiquitous action shots we depict in dinosaur art.

Pterosaur Trouble and Ankylosaur Attack are intended for kids, so your readers won't be surprised to hear that there is indeed a big fight in each book. But I wanted to show these animals doing other stuff, too: ankylosaurs honking curiously at the animals in the sky, pterosaurs ignoring the goings on the ground, animals waking up or poking about for breakfast, or just plain traveling on.

Quetzalcoatlus

Kylie: What do you consult when it comes to accuracy, particularly when new discoveries are made (e.g. movement of dinosaurs)?

Daniel: For the first book, Ankylosaur Attack, I relied to begin with on my own knowledge and research. Paleontologists Donald Prothero and Jason Loxton looked over the illustrations for me informally, as I completed each one, and ankylosaur expert Ken Carpenter kindly vetted the nonfiction section at the back of that book.

For Pterosaur Trouble and the third book (in production now) we brought in paleozoologist Darren Naish right at the beginning of the process, to help me keep the book grounded in real science at every step—sculpting, illustration, plot, and story. That has been tremendously helpful—not only to help me avoid factual errors (like this one I corrected in Ankylosaur Attack after it was published) but also to illuminate new possibilities for science-based storytelling.

Kylie: I noticed (and it's fantastic timing with your book coming out!) some press on “9-Year-Old Girl Gets Dinosaur Named After Her, Makes All Other Children/Adults Jealous,” and yet I also noticed some criticism about the media labeling of Pterosaurs as dinosaurs. Is misidentification that much of an issue?

Daniel: That's a lovely story, and I was delighted to learn of it. You're right, though: many sources misidentified the creature young Daisy Morris discovered as a “dinosaur,” which it was not. Even outlets like Popular Science identified her discovery as “a small species of pterosaur, a flying dinosaur.” In reality, pterosaurs were reptiles of another branch altogether—calling them “dinosaurs” is like calling you a marsupial. As Written in Stone author Brian Switek put it for Smithsonian Magazine, “A pterosaur is no more a dinosaur than a goldfish is a shark.”

A lot of people seem to regard that distinction as “paleo-pedantry.” That reaction sort of baffles me. Why call anything what it is? Why make any factual distinctions? If we're going to talk about stuff, teach, popularize, we might as well value accuracy.

Kylie: What do you have next in the works?

Daniel: I'm working now on Book Three of the Tales of Prehistoric Life series, which will feature plesiosaurs (which were, incidentally, also not dinosaurs). That will be out next year. Before that, though, is my book Abominable Science for Columbia University Press, co-authored with Don Prothero. That's a hefty non-fiction book on legendary animals (“cryptids”) such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, examined through a critical lens. It should hit stores in the middle of 2013.

You can follow Daniel Loxton on his blog at Skeptic Blogs.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.