Dino guts and Bloody boots: Inside National Geographic's 'T.rex Autopsy'
LONDON, ENGLAND. Something horrible has happened on TV Stage 2 at London's Pinewood Studios.
Trails of sticky blood lead to and from the stage.
Lurid, red fingerprints spot the doors.
On the actual stage itself, the source of the carnage evident. A tyrannosaurus rex rests prone on a shiny metal platform, chest open. A sluice tray holds a stomach, curling innards and still more blood.
A pair of drenched white rubber boots sits gory and ensanguinated, vacated by their owner.
When a network known for fact-based programming ventures into the realm of the speculative, the slope is a slippery one.
It will be years before Animal Planet and Discovery Channel recover from "Mermaids: The Body Found" and it will also probably be years before the competition stops twisting that particular knife.
It's mid-April at Pinewood Studios outside of London. It's a location most associated with a fictional British spy with a license to kill, but TV Studio 2 is currently occupied by an unlikely outfit, National Geographic Channel.
NatGeo is preparing to shoot two days on "T.rex Autopsy," a project that comes with a whiff of the speculative, a whiff that Ed Sayer, executive producer on the special and VP of Commissioning for NGCI, is eager to clear up for a room of visiting reporters.
"What we're definitely not doing is doing a kind of mermaid show," Sayer emphasizes. "Let's get that one out of the way."
There's no question that "T.rex Autopsy" is walking an interesting line. A noted special effects company, Crawley Creatures, has made a life-sized tyrannosaurus rex. The team was headed up by Jez Gibson-Harris, whose credits include both the very reputable "Walking with Dinosaurs" and the very differently reputable "Return of the Jedi."
Looking at Edwina, the "deceased" carnivore sprawled across the stripped down sound-stage, it's easy to see the sizzle, but Sayer notes that the steak comes built into the brand.
"It's an important point, we're really clear: We are National Geographic. We don't make fake documentaries and this is not a fake documentary. What this is is a real hands-on, visceral way to explore the latest findings of a T.rex in a really fun, imaginative way," Sayer says. "There's a fine balance that you have to create, because you don't want to make it dry and boring and a lecture. You want it to be [so] an eight or nine-year-old kid can watch and just be awe-inspired."
The balance is everything for NatGeo, because they want to make sure that people are talking about "T.rex Autopsy," but they don't want people saying the wrong things. So every step of the process was conducted as a back and forth between Crawley Creatures and a team of dinosaur experts with specializations on each individual aspect of Edwina that the show will be representing.
"We have a very robust fact-checking, standards-and-practices organization at National Geographic that ensures that everything we put into our programming is 100 percent legit, verified. And so they have also been going through the process of documenting and checking off on everything," says Allan Butler, another NGC VP and executive producer on "T.rex Autopsy."
The National Geographic executives are very excited about the actual progress that has come as a result of this research and preparation. In attempting to place internal organs in the model, for example, they realized limitations in the chest cavity and they came to new conclusions about the size of the T.rex heart and the compact power of the organ.
They've had to make decisive choices. Edwina, for example, has feathers. At this point, that isn't a huge or risky leap for them to make, even if certain viewers raise eyebrows.
"Every decision that we've taken has been verified and confirmed and agreed by these top paleontologists and so the reason we've gone with feathers is because that's what they believe the T.rex had," Sayer says.
And along with the feathers, there are also bursts of color on Edwina's skin. This is actually one of the points on which Sayer expects some quibbling or expects to be challenged on with the passage of time.
"I guess one of the things where there could be disagreement is over the color of the dinosaur," he admits. "I don't think that our experts have done anything too crazy with it. I'm afraid to say it's not got pink spots. But I think that's one of the fields where it's very difficult to determine. I mean, no one really knows what dinosaurs looked like, but again we can take really educated guesses from looking at crocodiles and other ancestors of dinosaurs today, which are birds, and so how are they colors? Did they have display colors? What did the feathers look like? During the evolution of an animal, you can go back and you can look at other animals that we know much more about and see how they've evolved. So you can take fairly educated guesses."
Some details on Edwina:
Construction began in November and took roughly 12,000 man-hours, tasking a team that ranged between 12 and 16 people working around the clock.
She was initially designed around a scan of the famous T.rex fossil Sue and started as a 1/10th scale maquette.
The skin is made of latex rubber and the organs are made of silicon rubber. In the molding stage, she consisted of over 113 sections of molds.
Edwina's heart is 80 cm long and weighs around 40 or 50 kilos.
She has nine meters of intestines.
Her eyeball is the size of a grapefruit and designed for dissection.
There are 20,000 of those feathers.
Edwina arrived at Pinewood in two trucks. She weighs around 400 kilos and the crates were a tight 9'6", because anything taller than that would have required a police escort.
She's quite a piece of work.
Jez Gibson-Harris laments, "It's taken five months to put it together and it really was finally put together last night... this morning... this afternoon... And we're gonna chop it to bits. It's like, 'Oh please, just a little bit longer!'"
It's hard to get perspective on Edwina because we're used to animatronic dinosaurs in movies or in theme parks. As impressive as Edwina is, in repose the day before her dissection, she looks very much like one of those. She is not.
"This isn't just like, 'Oh, a fiberglass dino with some skin put on the top of it.' They had to model everything, so we're talking membranes, we're talking fat layers, we're talking muscle layers, we're talking skin layers," Sayer says. "All of those, when a knife goes in and slices down and the skin peels apart, you will see all those layers. That's one of the things I think people will be amazed about is the absolute level of detail that Jez and the scientists have put into this, literally down to blood vessels and veins and that will leak blood. It's as real as it could possibly be."
But it's more than that, too.
"There are lots of things that built into the dinosaur, surprises for the talent that they don't know is going to happen," Sayer says. "[W]e don't want our talent to have to act. And they're not actors, they're experts and so we want them to react to whatever is presented to them in an authentic manner."
And that includes an aroma that's going to reflect their best approximation of what you might truly experience if you cut into a T.rex's stomach, perhaps punctured an intestine here or there.
"We might have gone too far, I don't know. But we've put the most noxious smell that you can possibly imagine into the stomach..." Sayer cackles with glee. "When they were designing the smell, one guy actually did throw up, so I'm slightly nervous that we might have gone a bit too far."
[More on Page 2, including some highlights from filming...]
It's not a coincidence that "T.rex Autopsy" is premiering on June 7, worldwide.
"We really wanted to get it ready in time to coincide with the opening of the new 'Jurassic' movie and so that gave us a fixed deadline that we had to work towards, which was very, very challenging," Allan Butler says.
"Jurassic World" opens on June 12, roughly 22 years after the premiere of "Jurassic Park," a movie that still dominates the collective consciousness when it comes to how we perceive and think of dinosaurs.
Somehow, 1985's "Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend" didn't make the same impact.
"I think that 'Jurassic Park' plays an important role in getting kids and families interested and into the dinosaurs that might not have ever wanted to come to the subject because maybe they saw other documentaries which they felt were a bit dry and boring and dusty. And so I think it's an important piece of of that jigsaw and I think that's what we've tried to do with this show as well, which is to create something which is really exciting, which will fire up the imagination of children and adults alike and want them to find out more and get involved," Sayer says.
"T.rex Autopsy" is capitalizing on "Jurassic Park," but it isn't slavish in devotion. Among the things that will be learned, proven or discussed in the special are the notion that the T.rex could never run fast enough to keep up with a moving Jeep, but it also would have been able to see you even if you tried standing still.
A lot of thought has been put into how the experts are going to be approaching what would be a fairly unfathomable find, if it actually happened.
"There's no backstory, because we didn't want to say, 'Well where did we find it?' If we'd made something up like, 'We found it in the permafrost somewhere in Siberia,' that wouldn't be true or possible. And I think if we'd done that, we would have created an illusion from the top of the show that it was just a spoof, which it's not," says executive producer Paul Wooding.
"We never ever say that it's real and we never ever say that it's fake," Sayer adds.
One thing of note is that as the autopsy begins, only Dr. Luke Gamble, the lead veterinarian and a veteran of elephant and polar bear autopsies, will have seen Edwina before. His three comrades-in-autopsy will be experiencing something of this scale for the first time.
"The paleontologists who are doing the cutting do not know what to expect. So they have not been involved in the design of this thing. It's kinda cinema verite. They're gonna be cutting open a T.rex and realizing what's inside and what it's like without really knowing," says Professor John Hutchinson, an advisor on the special and our source of information and clarification in the observation room. [My terrific full interview with John Hutchinson.]
What caused the bloodbath we witnessed by the end of that first day of shooting?
Some highlights from the shoot itself:
- Dr. Luke Gamble, very reminiscent of a young Gordon Ramsay, likes playing with dangerous things and "T.rex Autopsy" gives him plenty of chances to. While there are limited opportunities to do reshoots with the dissection of Edwina, there are many chances to do reshoots of both the conveyance of information from the experts and the hot-shot fun of the autopsy, so Dr. Luke spends a lot of time revving a chainsaw before removing one of the T.rex's legs, which turns out to be the best way to figure out her age. This is part of why Dr. Luke had to have seen the T.rex previously, because it's not like he's a lumberjack and it's not like Edwina is such a common thing that anybody could risk rogue chainsawing on a rather expensive dinosaur. Edwina responds somewhat as expected to the chainsawing, but that doesn't mean that the blood didn't have to be embellished in inserts and close-ups.
- Practically the entire special hinges on the successful chainsawing a removal of the leg. If it's messed up, it can't be hastily fixed and redone. It's a tense moment in the observation room, but when it succeeds, we cheer, relishing the smoking chainsaw and the red mist.
- Keep an eye out for Jez Gibson-Harris as one of the assistants to the scientists. He was on-hand at all times "assisting" in the dissection, but really making sure that Edwina worked as she was supposed to. Several of the other assistant scientists, the ones who never explain anything, but are probably visible giving the dinosaur special attention are also Crawley Creatures employees.
- Joining Dr. Luke Gamble are Dr. Tori Herridge, Dr. Steve Brusatte and Matthew T. Mossbrucker, who each bring different forms of expertise to the table. A last-minute addition, Herridge is a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and appeared in a mammoth autopsy special on UK's Channel 4. This means that more than Brusatte and Mossbrucker, she has experience cutting into ancient creatures of size. From our area in the observation room, we begin to devise a counter-narrative to "T.rex Autopsy" in which it becomes more and more about the chemistry between Brusatte and Herridge and also more about Mossbrucker's frustration at being marginalized in the autopsy. This isn't a narrative that relates to anything that's actually happening in the special and you probably won't even be able to pretend to see what we saw, but 10+ hours watching nearly non-stop production and you start to make up stories.
- Shooting included an overhead operating camera, four cameras on the autopsy floor, an endoscopic camera for going into the oozy bits and several GoPro-style cameras that should allow for Gallagher-levels of spatter and spray and goop when the chainsawing happens.
- In order to make room for all of the necessary cameras and the fast production, the stage set is striking and spare. There are tables set aside with microscopes and models and high tech gizmos that we never got to see used. And then there are tables covered with shiny surgical implements. One of Dr. Luke's trademark moves is showing off a blade's sharpness by removing a patch of arm-hair. He does this at least four or five times. We'll see if that makes the cut. We'll see if you can also notice continuity involving his arm-hair.
- When the abdomen is opened and the intestines are dislodged, there are a couple comments about the smell, which is described as "rancid," but nobody throws up. When we get down to the floor later, the smell has largely dissipated.
- Speaking of the opening of the abdomen, there's no way the special will show how difficult it was to get to the T.rex guts. The ribs and connective tissue had to be very, very sturdy, which is much better than the alternative. But Dr. Luke and Steve & Matt, as we were calling them at that point, had to put in nearly 45 minutes of hard labor. I'm betting that we'll see the start and then a cut-away to some expert commentary or CGI dino-footage and then they'll return to the opening.
The pack of reporters, many of us stayed into the evening to get to the stomach and intestines, left after one day of shooting and missed out on the heart, the eye ball and something Allan Butler said related to the "sex life of dinosaurs and reproduction and how their young were brought into the world."
"We do have a bit of dino-porn!" Ed Sayer teased eagerly.
So that's something to look forward to.
"T.rex Autopsy" airs on Sunday, June 7 on National Geographic.