Walking with dinosaurs: Feathered, furry and fierce

Feathered, fluffy dinosaurs?

Dinosaurs are getting a whole new look in the new 3D film, “Walking With Dinosaurs.” Traditionally portrayed on screen as covered with scales, the dinos in the new film will be covered with feathers.

“When you think about those smaller raptors, like the Troodons – creatures similar to what was seen in the famous ‘Jurassic Park’ kitchen scene   … there’s some fossil evidence that suggests that there were feathers on those smaller raptors,” Barry Cook, co-director of the new animated 3D film, told FoxNews.com.

“More recently, a lot of the paleontologists who do artistic renderings have been playing around with what they might look like with feathers – and it looks quite natural, because if you study those raptors, they sort of look like birds. They’ve got big, muscular legs. Like, if you think of a chicken or a turkey, they have big legs and small, little wings. The raptors had claws on the end, but just from a bone structure, they’re very much like non-flying birds.”

'One of the small little raptors, the Hesperonychus, are also known as killer turkeys.'

— Barry Cook, co-director of the new animated 3D film 'Walking With Dinosaurs'

While aiming for accuracy and realism, Cook had quite a bit of freedom creating the dinosaurs’ appearance. “Our art director at Animal Logic, Simon Whiteley, and I might get a crazy idea, run it by the paleontologists, and they would say, ‘Well, you know, this is possible – I can see how this could work.’ Sometimes they might not agree with a direction we were going in, but most of the time, they were really open to the possibilities – of the colors, especially, and the type of plumage and so forth.”

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Modern-day birds inspired the look of raptors in the film. “One of the small little raptors, the Hesperonychus, are also known as ‘killer turkeys,’” Cook said. “We literally took the color palate and the feather pattern from a golden pheasant and it just looked perfect! The Hesperonychus might not have looked that way – who knows? – but it works very well in the movie.”

The film’s Troodons were also rendered with feathers, but – somewhat controversially – Cook and his team at Animal Logic decided against illustrating the largest predator in the film with downy fluff.

“The Gorgosaurus, which is very reminiscent of a T. rex in some ways, was a very fast-hunting predator,” explained Cook. “We decided that we wouldn’t put feathers on that one, but we did give that dinosaur iridescent scales.”

The inspiration for the depiction of the Gorgosaurus in “Walking with Dinosaurs” came from a picture Cook found of a modern-day lizard. “Its skin was very dark – almost black – with a very light-colored underbelly, and its scales were an iridescent blue, almost a turquoise,” said Cook. “We put that on the Gorgosaurus, and it just looked fantastic. A little flashy, maybe – but I always argue that it’s a movie, let’s have fun with it. Let’s push it as far as we can, and still make it realistic.”

The flashy, lizard-like Gorgosaurus seen in “Walking with Dinosaurs”doesn’t make everyone happy. National Geographic writer Brian Switek, who was hoping to see a feathery predator in the film, noted with some disappointment that “scaly skin certainly has tradition on its side, but tradition is not the arbiter of accuracy.”

In any case, the scales on the Gorgosaurus in “Walking with Dinosaurs” are rendered with a proprietary new system created by Animal Logic. “In the older animation – even five years ago – if the characters’ muscle would flex or the skin would stretch, the scales on top would stretch with it, which is not natural,” explained Cook. “To separate those two elements – the stretchy skin from scales – that’s a really, really fine detail. When you’re watching the movie, you’re not really cognizant it’s happening. But it’s more true to life, and it makes the dinosaurs’ skin and scales look more realistic than ever. It’s a methodology Animal Logic developed and devised especially for the movie.”

Whether depicted with feathers or scales, Cook loves making dinosaurs come back through the magic of computer animation. “You can’t see dinosaurs in real life, but you can see a pretty realistic version in the movies,” he said. “They’re very strange creatures and they’re fascinating.”

“Walking with Dinosaurs” opens nationwide in 3D on Dec. 20.