Data Interpretation: Methods and Tools
Walking with Dragons. CGIs in Wildlife ‘Documentaries’
by Mark Carnall
Following the success of Jurassic Park and the Walking With Dinosaurs series, computer generated imagery and other forms of animation (CGI) are increasingly used in wildlife ‘documentaries’ and nature programmes to illustrate extinct animals and to educate. However, these techniques are part science, part illusion and they are used for edutainment, rather than pure education. Unlike academic courses and peer-reviewed journal articles, these documentaries are not accountable to scientists before they air and as such are not subject to close scrutiny. Audiences are very rarely informed about how reliable reconstructions are or if some parts of the reconstructions are based on only one of a series of equally viable hypotheses.
Is it necessary to highlight parts of CGI reconstruction that are merely the whim of the digital artist? Or should these works be more clearly labelled as works of science fiction more than science fact? Would such illusion-shattering work to undermine these programmes altogether and void any of the potential learning that might otherwise occur? How convincing is a digital Tyrannosaurus rex stomping around the environment once the viewer is shown that the shown plant life, sky colour, skin texture, musculature, feeding method and mating positions are mostly the work of educated guess, conjecture or convincing anachronism? After all, most of what we know about some of the more recognisable extinct animals is deduced from incomplete specimens using reasonable assumption. Many theories and hypotheses in palaeontology are very much working hypotheses and any scientist worth their salt is happy to change theories when good evidence based work overthrows previous reconstructions and works within the realms of reasonable assumption.
Transparency in scientific educational spaces is not a new issue as was highlighted by the public outrage and subsequent parliamentary enquiry in the 19th century when a number of fossil marine reptiles which were partially, yet expertly, reconstructed were acquired and put on display at the Natural History Museum London (British Museum, Natural History). Interestingly, these specimens are still on display but reconstructed sections are not highlighted to the casual visitor.
So although many recent documentaries incorporating CGI techniques, do often have the customary ‘making off’ specials and have some international leading scientists as consultants, should they be making more effort to show what parts of reconstructions are drawn from fact and which parts are based on ‘pure’ evidence? And if so, how do programme makers do this without compromising the educational value to audiences?