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King of the dinosaurs

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Fistbumping movie stars, getting messages from Hollywood directors and making dinosaurs fluffy – it’s all in a day’s work for Professor Steve Brusatte as an adviser on the newest film in the Jurassic Park franchise.

It’s 1993. Life-like dinosaurs roar and thunder across the big screen in Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, Jurassic Park. A visually stunning tale of cloned dinosaurs running amok in a futuristic island theme park, it captures the world’s imagination.

The film becomes an instant, bonafide classic, and dinosaurs – for so long unconvincingly depicted on screen in wobbly stop motion animation – are propelled into the pop culture stratosphere.

One of the millions of moviegoers whose imaginations are ignited by the spectacle is nine-year-old Steve Brusatte from Ottawa, Illinois, a small city just outside Chicago. Already fascinated by dinosaurs, the film injects life into the wonders of the prehistoric world in ways Brusatte – indeed, no one – has never seen before.

Life finds a way

“A lot of people of my generation would say Jurassic Park is what made them want to be a palaeontologist”, says Brusatte today. “It made dinosaurs cool again. The movie and sequels that followed have been so important for our field, opening up new opportunities and access to funding. There’s no doubt that there are many more palaeontologists around today because of those movies.”

Steve Brusatte doing fieldwork on Skye
Steve Brusatte during fieldwork on the Isle of Skye, home to many startling fossil finds in recent years

Some 30 years after Jurassic Park first wowed audiences, Brusatte – now one of the leading palaeontologists of his generation – is effectively on the other side of the camera. An advisor on the latest film in the franchise, Jurassic World: Dominion, he is helping to bring dinosaurs to life all over again for a new generation.

Following his undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago, in 2006 Brusatte was awarded a prestigious Marshall Scholarship and completed an MSc in palaeobiology and earth sciences at the University of Bristol. In 2013, after completing his PhD at Columbia University and working as a researcher for the American Museum of Natural History, he joined the University of Edinburgh.

Jurassic isle

An artist's impression of what pterosaurs would have looked like - feathers and all
An artist’s impression of what pterosaurs would have looked like – feathers and all

To date, Brusatte, who is Professor of Palaeontology and Evolution, has written more than 110 scientific papers and described 16 new species of fossil animals. Most recently, he led a team that discovered the largest-known pterosaur from the Jurassic period. The giant winged creature – found on the Isle of Skye – lived around 170 million years ago and had an estimated wingspan of more than 2.5 metres.

Alongside his academic work, Brusatte has consulted on numerous films and documentary series and is an accomplished science writer, authoring several books including the New York Times bestseller, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World. It was this book – a popular science tale about dinosaur evolution – that brought Brusatte to the attention of Colin Treverrow, the director of Jurassic World: Dominion, which is scheduled for release in June 2022.

It’s not every day you get an email from a Hollywood director, as Brusatte explains: “I thought it was a hoax at first. He described himself as the director of scientifically inaccurate dinosaur films, which I thought was pretty funny. He said he was a big fan of my book, and asked if I would consider consulting on the next movie.”

Brusatte with pterosaur
Steve Brusatte hold the largest fossil of a Jurassic pterosaur ever discovered

After doing a bit of digging, it quickly turned out it really was Treverrow who had contacted him. Not surprisingly, Brusatte jumped at chance to be involved, and after a few lengthy chats and a sit-down meeting in Edinburgh – Treverrow lives in the UK – he was on-board.

An evolving role

A big part of Brusatte’s role involves reviewing designs and answering questions about dinosaurs, advising the production team on what the animals looked like and how they would behave. In particular, he has worked closely with the lead character designer responsible for the film’s dinosaurs. That’s the thing about Jurassic Park and the films that have followed: they are fictional stories with well-established characters – the dinosaurs included – that are designed to entertain.

“My approach to consulting is that not every detail has to be strictly in line with the science, because it’s just not realistic”, says Brusatte. “For one thing, there’s still lots we don’t know and there’s debate about fossils. Even where the science is clear, you have to remember that Jurassic Park is a blockbuster film series – not a textbook – that established a classic look for dinosaurs.”

“I love Jurassic Park, and I don’t like to criticise it. Should an astronaut criticise Star Wars? No. The movies have been so important for our field, bringing dinosaurs to the public in a way they’d never been seen before.”

Feathered friends

That said, a longstanding bone of contention among dinosaur experts and enthusiasts alike has been the absence of feathers on any of the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park films.

Part of the reason for that, Brusatte explains, is because the first feathered dinosaurs weren’t discovered until 1996 – three years after Jurassic Park came out. But things have moved on since then, and feathers are kind of a big deal, says Brusatte: “I’ve always said I wish some of the dinosaurs had feathers. Without them, it portrays an outdated picture of dinosaurs and perpetuates stereotypes. Not all dinosaurs had feathers – fossils have shown that – but we know that some definitely did.”

To his credit, Treverrow made clear to Brusatte from the outset that he wanted to pay closer attention to the science, to make the dinosaurs more accurate and realistic. And he wanted to put feathers on some of them.

A feathered Moros Intrepidus from Jurassic World: Dominion

For Brusatte, that’s probably the most important thing about the new film: “It shows this newer image of palaeontology to the public. I’m excited that so many people who’ve never even heard of feathered dinosaurs will see them on the big screen. There’s really no better way to communicate a big idea to a lot of people than through a blockbuster movie.”

As well as working with people remotely from his home in Edinburgh, Brusatte also spent time on the film set in 2020, fist bumping and chatting with A-list actors between takes. More than anything, it’s the people involved that have made the experience so enjoyable, says Brusatte: “It’s incredible to work with such a creative and artistic group of people. Everyone has so many great ideas and such enthusiasm for what they do.”

Brusatte grew up watching Jurassic Park, and will soon see his name on the big screen as the credits roll on Jurassic World: Dominion. So, might we one day catch a glimpse of him in one of the next blockbusters in the famous franchise? Brusatte is quick to downplay his chances of making a cameo appearance, but for now, we can be content in knowing he has played a starring role in bringing dinosaurs to life for audiences around the world.

Image credits: Brusatte with T Rex – Maverick Photo Agency; Brusatte with pterosaur – Stewart Attwood; illustration – Natalia Jagielska; Moros Intrepidus – Universal Pictures