Tag Archives: National Geographic

1.21 Gigawatts: Artist Spotlight – John Conway, Bringing Dinosaurs Back


-Sarah Keartes

London-based artist John Conway spends his time in many walks of life—prehistoric life, that is.

Conway focuses on two genres of art: “paleontological reconstruction and, well, everything else,” a combination which allows for breathtaking imaginative overlap.

“John’s art melds illustrative skill and a variety of approaches with scientific detail and imagination,” science writer Brian Switek, who specializes in evolution, paleontology, and natural history, told Flux in an interview.

The path to creating accurate representations of prehistoric flora and fauna is riddled with challenges—the biggest perhaps being the initial research.

“Things are particularly difficult for artists here, even the most scientifically minded of us,” Conway said. “Scientific literature simply isn’t written with the problems of artists in mind; the crucial information on the appearance of fossil animals and environments can be spread across hundreds of papers, and even then there are huge gaps.”

Reconstructing plant life is particularly difficult as a decent-sized painting might have dozens of species, and gathering information on each is a daunting task.

“I’ve been putting a lot of effort into this over the last couple of years, and I’m still nowhere near where I’d like to be,” he said.

Conway’s fascination with paleontology began during childhood. Sparked by Bob Baker’s book The Dinosaur Heresies, his love for dinosaurs quickly intertwined with his passion for art.

“Certainly by the time I was fifteen, I was very into painting—especially nineteenth century landscape painters, and some modernists, as well as the paleontological artists,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Conway to dive into his own paleo-art career. At seventeen, he went to work for a museum in his hometown of Canberra, Australia, where he painted life-sized murals behind the dinosaur skeletons. Six years later, it was time for bigger and better.

“I grew up in a very dull city,” he said. “I left [Canberra] at age 23, while halfway through a philosophy/biology degree, to take up a very glamorous job working in Hall Train Studios making pterosaurs and dinosaurs.”

Hall Train, located in Ontario, Canada, is one of the leaders in the design and creation of exhibit paleo-environments, which are featured in natural history museums, science centers, and theme parks around the world, as well as one of the world’s foremost suppliers of dinosaur animation for television.

Credit: John Conway
“A year later, I moved to London and have been freelancing successfully (and mostly unsuccessfully) ever since…the money is terrible” Conway said.

On occasion Conway is challenged with completely reconstructing animals from the fossils, up. To do this, he must first draw all of the individual bones and assemble the skeleton, then comes the challenge of reconstructing muscles and other soft tissue using relatives through phylogenetic bracketing.

Greg Paul and, more recently, Scott Hartman have done an amazing job recreating dinosaur skeletons—I use those where available,” he said.

Conway’s non-paleo-art spans a vast variety of subjects, from alien life forms, to abstract representations of lyrics and mythologies, to beautifully obscure portraits of musical instruments.

“I’m very jealous of music and its apparently privileged connection to emotion in our brains. I have the rhythm of a drunken caffeinated turkey,” he said jokingly. “It has recently dawned on me that I will not live long enough to become a composer, an architect, a city planner, a singer-songwriter, an academic philosopher, a filmmaker, a paleontologist, a novelist, an engineer, a rock-star programmer, a shipbuilder, and a Lego-set designer.”

Though there is a distinct separation between Conway’s paleontological art and the rest, all of his work shares a similar aesthetic. He has an incredible ability to create life and motion is his computer-native art, much of which is still life recreation.

“He does far more than try to get the dinosaurs right: he gives them a kind of vitality that is sometimes lost in attempts where technical details trump the goal of trying to restore the animals as they once lived,” science writer Switek said. “People want to know what these animals looked like, and so it warms the cockles of my petrified heart to see John and other artists really do their homework while pushing the boundaries of what we can imagine about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals… Their work helps bring new science out to the public, and I am very thankful for that.”

Conway’s art has been featured worldwide, in countless blogs, publications, and in documentaries for National Geographic, BBC, and the Discovery Channel. Most exciting was the internet response to his book, All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals.

“In 2012 I decided to pursue a direct-to-people strategy of selling my work… All Yesterdays seemed like the most complete, and best suited of our various projects,” Conway said.

The beautifully illustrated book, which was co-written by C.M. Kosemen and Darren Nash, helped define a new paleo-art movement and is recognized as a celebration of Mesozoic life.

“It’s been amazingly well received critically and got heaps of coverage,” Conway said. “Though we are far from the only artists to produce the kinds of reconstructions you see in the book, I think it has come at just the right time, giving articulation and focus to what many of us have been feeling about paleontological reconstruction latterly.”

For Conway, paleontological art is about more than simply science communication.

“Honestly, such a goal would bore me. I think it should also have another goal, which has to do with enriching our lives through aesthetic experiences—shifting our feelings of the world,” he said

Want to know more about John Conway and his art? Visit his website or contact him on Twitter.

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1.21 Gigawatts: “Mermaids, New Evidence” – When Faux-cumentaries Attack…Again.

-Sarah Keartes

Described as the “rotting carcass of science TV,” Mermaids: the Body Found was the most appalling piece of docu-fiction I had ever seen—until last week.

Up from the depths of the Animal Planet sludgy abyss swam a new “documentary:” a follow up to The Body Found which originally aired as part of “Monster Week” (telling).

Mermaids: The New Evidence, which set an all-time ratings record for the network (3.6 million viewers), has the internet abuzz once again as scientists around the world desperately try to expose the film for what it is—not real.

The sister films combine documentary filmmaking techniques such as narrated reenactments, interviews, and vlogs, with debunked “evidence” and “theories” to drive home the main point: mermaids are real, and they are being concealed by marine biologists and the government.

“After watching this I said to myself ‘if the videos are real then it’s not a matter of it being a theory, it’s actual fact – ‘mermaids’ DO EXIST’. But that was the big ‘if,’” one viewer said.

“Ninety percent of the ocean is unexplored and you’re telling me #mermaids don’t exist,” said another, a statement which has been retweeted more than 800 times.

Firstly, there is no debate to whether or not either faux-cumentary is fake; the disclaimer at the beginning of both films clearly states:

“None of the individuals or entities depicted in the film are affiliated or associated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents. Any similarities to actual persons living or dead are entirely coincidental.”

Most (if not all) of the scientists, government officials, and professors in both films are in fact, actors, including the returning “Dr. Paul Robertson” (played by Andre Weideman) flaunted as “a former researcher for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration” (NOAA).

After The Body Found aired in 2011, NOAA released an official statement to clear up their implied contribution to the film.

“The belief in mermaids may have arisen at the very dawn of our species…But are mermaids real? No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists,” they said.

NOAA was not notified that the second documentary would be aired.

“They [NOAA] handled it beautifully—with aplomb,” Animal Planet GM Marjorie Kaplan said of NOAA’s response to the first mermaid special.

She added she was “pleased to note [that] you can’t be sued by the government” even for implying that they are spending billions concealing the entire cast of The Little Mermaid.

With so much previous evidence, why then are people still being dooped?

“The fact that the mermaid shows are fiction was easy enough to miss. Animal Planet certainly played up how authentic the illusory evidence was, including faked vlogs that didn’t bother to say that they were scripted,” science writer Brian Switek said in his National Geographic blog post.

“The channel’s page about Monster Week—of which the mermaids sludge was a part—likewise touts ‘physical evidence linked to the existence of mermaids’ without saying the show is a fantasy,” he said.

Like many people who have “Mocked the Doc,” I have taken some flak for my involvement in the “#mermaids” twitter conversation.

“Just because you have no imagination, doesn’t mean you have to bring us down with you, scientists and science people have no appreciation of fantasy—it’s sad really,” one person, let’s call her “Ursula” said in an email.

Anyone who knows me well  knows that I am more into fantasy than the average Joe—hell I’m still waiting for Robb Stark to come back from the dead and swoop me up riding Falkor so that we may run off into the double Tatooine sunset together.

I do not take issue with mermaids. I do not take issue with mermaids on television. But masquerading fiction as fact using debunked information—and on a network with a reputation (or at least a former one)—is fundamentally wrong.

“It’s not satire. It’s not parody. It’s a giant middle finger to the public,” Marine biologist Andrew David Thaler said.

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Image by Pets Advisor.

One Weekend with National Geographic

-Tiana Bouma

I thought I knew something about cameras. I could take a decent picture, and the auto function always helped. My mom knows about her camera, she loves photography and has been able to answer any questions I have had so far.  But I found out this weekend that my knowledge was limited.

Thursday night, November 19th, was the first evening of my 4-day photography workshop with National Geographic in Washington D.C. That night, we heard the background stories of two of Dan Westergen’s trips.  Westergren is a senior photo editor for National Geographic Traveler. His adventures include a trip was to the North Pole at the 90th parallel and another to Mt Kilimanjaro to climb to the peak.

The workshop was led by Westergren, Jennifer Davidson, and Krista Rossow, a photo editor for National Geographic Traveler and University of Oregon graduate.

Day 1

The day started out early with a three-hour class at the National Geographic building. We met with the editors of the National Geographic Special Edition and got to drill them with questions about their jobs and photos.

In those three hours it was obvious that I knew little about the nuances of photography.  When the class released to go take pictures in Dupont Square, a few people stayed behind to get a quick crash course on our cameras from Jennifer Davidson, an expedition leader for National Geographic and a phenomenal photographer. A half-hour class changed my whole perspective of my camera. I had a greater confidence taking a million pictures of anything I saw.

After three hours of adventuring around taking pictures with my mom, the group met again at National Geographic for a critique and share session. Their editing process was simply about picking our twenty favorite shots from the hundreds taken during that day, no tweaking or cropping needed. From our twenty favorite shots, Westergren and Davidson would choose their four favorite and explain why they were good shots.  Those four were then presented to our workshop group of 20 or so people to get feedback from everyone.

It was slightly stressful having my photos critiqued by so many talented photographers, but the advice was well worth the nervous butterflies.

Day 2

Saturday was our earliest and longest day. Although optional, we were told by Westergren, Rossow and Davidson that it would be best to be at the Lincoln Monument at 6:30 AM for sunrise shots of the monuments and surrounding area. As a west-coast resident still trying to adjust to the time difference, 6:30 AM felt like torture.

The photos were worth the early morning. My mom and I explored a new side of Washington D.C. and got helpful tips of taking nighttime shots. (They usually don’t work; sunrise and sunset are the times to get “night” shots).

Again, we met for a critique session with the workshop group and the difference in the photographers from day 1 to day 2 was obvious. The depth of field and focus had transformed to fit what National Geographic Traveler looks for in photos.

A 13-hour day exhausted everyone and we retired early after a group dinner for another workshop at the Eastern Market on Sunday morning. The workshop leaders collaborated on a video of the top photographs from the workshop and showed it at the dinner.

Day 3

The workshop was concluded with a trip to the Eastern Market, about 8 blocks from Capitol Hill. The Eastern Market was a hodgepodge of homemade jam stands, purse makers, butchers, antiqued wares, and the famous button lady. Most vendors were willing to be photographed and some even approached me, but it was the candid shots that I loved best.

A flea market covered two blocks and the items on sale had been collected from every corner of the world. Everything presented such clear stories in the photographs. It was easy to take 200-300 photos in two hours.

The final hours of the workshop were spent in a tour of the National Geographic layout room. Westergren explained his process of editing and choosing photos for the most recent edition of National Geographic Traveler. The behind the scene look into the Traveler magazine helped to cement my love of the company. The experiences of National Geographic photographers and writers can’t be replaced or duplicated.

The week I spent in DC felt much too short for all the information I learned. It has altered my work as a photographer and even as a writer. I have a new standard to hold myself to and a new goal. The vibe of National Geographic and D.C. isn’t something I can explain in words. It was an encompassing joy to be a part of the workshop and explore parts of D.C. I hadn’t seen yet.

It was a trip that changed my future, that made my dream that much more real. The workshop was an experience and a detailed lesson on professional photography that can’t be repeated.

On My Way to My Future

-Tiana Bouma

Yesterday was the start of my greatest adventure so far. Although my drive only took me to Portland, I was just as excited as if I was traveling to new a country.

An early flight from the Portland International Airport (PDX) was taking me to Washington D.C for a four day workshop with the senior editor at National Geographic.

Working for National Geographic has been my dream since I was in the single digits. I’ve always been a writer. Whether it was poems, short stories, intros to novels, or the required essays for school, writing was my fail safe and favorite activity. It still is.

As an English major I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to analyze writing, I wanted to write it. I want to teach people about things that interest me and I want to open up their eyes to places I haven’t seen.

National Geographic had taught me about places I hadn’t seen and subjects I hadn’t learned about before. I still learn from almost every page and I want nothing more to write and work for National Geographic.

So this weekend I get to live a part of my dream as I am taught photography by one of the best photographers I know of. Since I want to work for National Geographic, I may as well get to know the city I will most likely (and hopefully) be living in.

So until Thursday I am going to explore and enjoy my possible future city. And Thursday at four I will finally get to walk through the headquarters of my future dream and live a part of it.

Stay tuned for more about my workshop with National Geographic and the amazing four days I am about to experience!