If you’re a dinosaur fan on social media, you might have stumbled upon Your Dinosaurs Are Wrong, a long-running, brilliant educational YouTube series in which dinosaur enthousiast Steven Bellettini reviews toy dinosaurs and judges their scientific accuracy. One of the real joys of watching the show is seeing Steven’s animations, in which the toy dinosaur gradually transforms into a much more scientifically informed version of itself.
After a long hiatus, during which the longtime home of the show, the National Science Institute, ceased operations and YDAW had to stand on its own feet, last month saw the long-awaited release of the Velociraptor episode, in a retooled format and a brand-new studio. We spoke to presenter, writer and animator Steven Bellettini and director, editor and camera operator Elizabeth Stack, for a look behind the scenes.
Tell us about yourselves first. What’s your personal background, and what got you interested in dinosaurs?
Steven: My background is in animation, or more specifically motion graphics. Our job as the video department of The Geek Group science center was mostly to find clear, layman-friendly ways to communicate STEM stuff, and graphics are integral to that (even in cases where they’re only there as sizzle).
I do not remember a time when I was not interested in dinosaurs. The book I checked out the very first time I was in a library was “Prehistoric Monsters did the Strangest Things”–a title I would’ve never recalled without your post about it! I had the first 19 issues of Orbis’ “Dinosaurs!” partwork, which I simply called ‘my dinosaur books’ and would read over and over. I watched The Lost World: Jurassic Park at least 50 times. I was bitter when my family moved and the new school district didn’t do regular field trips to FMNH, just when they had gotten Sue! If asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, until I was old enough to be existentially frightened by the question, my answer was paleontologist.
Liz: I have a general background in film & video production, with a preference for post-production and writing. Most of my work has been focused in the areas of documentary or education, which is how I ended up working for the non-profit organization, The Geek Group/The NSI (National Science Institute, NH), where our first episodes were produced. It was there that I’ve developed most of my production and science communication skills.
To be honest my interest in dinosaurs has always been in passing at best. I remember having to research them for school projects and such now and then, but the subject is not one I’ve really sought out for myself for fun or pure interest. I did spend a lot of my time in my years from elementary to high school sitting next to a kid who really loved dinosaurs and we’d talk about them as he drew another on his notes or assignments. So I guess you could say I was at least absorbing information about them secondhand for a lot of my life.
Where did the idea to do a dinosaur-centered YouTube show come from?
Liz: I’d say the idea was a few incidents culminating in what I guess we can call the pilot episode of the series (Scelidosaurus). Around the facility at The Geek Group, there were many dinosaur toys placed randomly for fun. For example, set on consoles of machines that our members used to make things. These were dubbed “Safety Dinosaurs”. They had no actual safety function. It was just the answer that someone had come up with to use whenever someone else asked why there were dinosaurs everywhere. Amazingly it never prompted further questions.
So Steven, usually while we were waiting to actually start shooting a video or had downtime, would often spot one of these toys. At some point he started to pick them up and point out inaccuracies to whoever was nearby (most often me). This became a regular occurrence, to the point that viewers and fans of TGG picked up on it and loved whenever a behind-the-scenes blog featured it. It was around then we started joking about pointing a camera at Steven and making a real video out of it.
At some point the organization was doing a fundraiser–I don’t remember what for. To encourage donations I offered to shoot an actual video of Steven ‘doing his thing’ and posting it as a real episode if they hit a certain dollar amount. Well they did, so we did. The whole thing was sort of a large in-joke at the time. It wasn’t until we noticed how many views the video was garnering that we thought that we may have something bigger and started creating more episodes. When The NSI/TGG unfortunately ceased operations in 2019, we decided to create the new channel and try to keep the series going.
Steven’s presenting style tends too look very off the cuff and casual. How much of the show is scripted?
Steven: The first dozen or so episodes of the show were barely scripted. I would write notes on a whiteboard of things I wanted to mention, and hang it next to one of the cameras. This was, in retrospect, not a great method, and we intend to produce some follow ups to address the problems and mistakes in the early stuff. When we got through Deinonychus, we suddenly had to talk about feathers, and I realized I didn’t actually know much of anything about feathers. So, that was the first episode that I specifically had to research the way I do now, trying to answer ‘why’ and digging through a bunch of sources, attempting to digest them into something the lay audience can engage with. In that endeavor the online paleo community is absolutely essential, from maintaining the Wikipedia articles on dinosaurs, to constantly producing and talking about paleoart, to blogging about current research. This is not to say that the show is perfect now–we still make mistakes or miss things, and the episode lengths have spiraled out of control a bit–but we’re getting better.
Presently, we shoot the show more or less like a lecture, if the lecturer stopped every few minutes to re-read his outline, then went off on weird tangents anyway. We usually have at least one segment (Velociraptor has three) that’s a longer sequence of motion graphics, which can have me reading from a more definite script, since I’m not addressing a camera. Liz then has the task of making it seem coherent in the edit.
You’ve already hinted at the production process, all the research, animating and editing that goes into producing one episode of YDAW. Can you walk us though all the steps of the process, and approximately how long all those steps take?
Steven: Well the research never really ends, right up to the end of animation I’m looking for references of how some feature looks, or making sure that a source we cited has the right year. But the purely research phase normally takes a few weeks. Features on a toy (like any reconstruction) can be interesting because they’re wrong, but also because they’re right and have a history behind them. Some features are speculative, but become self-reinforcing tropes regardless. So I spend a lot of time trying to identify where our ideas about these animals come from so we can approach them critically (with varying success). I make the art for the main, lateral view ‘corrected’ reconstruction fairly early on, because there’s always some feature I hadn’t thought about until I tried to draw it.
Viewers often ask how to read scientific papers, because the language & terminology are daunting; I find it helpful to read about the paper first. I look for news articles and blogs, especially if the author(s) wrote or were interviewed for them. I look for paleontologists and paleoartists on social media. Then, once I know what people *say* a paper says (or what it failed to say, sometimes), I can dive into it. Once I have this sprawling mass of topics I want to cover, Liz and I then have to try to trim it into something approaching a coherent narrative. This phase always takes longer than I think it will, probably because the story of a particular genus is rarely as simple as ‘we used to think that, now we think this’; usually disagreements are more nuanced. And then sometimes a big important paper on sauropod posture comes out right when you thought you were almost done researching for Amargasaurus (The planned next episode of YDAW, NH). . . anyway if research took 3 to 4 weeks then this digestion/writing phase would take 1 or 2.
In the past, we shot the episodes in one go, with three cameras. That may change. I know Liz has ideas about how to make it less rigid. Shooting is almost always a single day for the live-action, and then probably another day or two for audio pickups or incidental stuff like Bertrand’s intro segment (Bertrand is the show’s mascot, a dinosaur toy of unclear affiliation, NH).
Once Liz hands me a rough edit, I go through and spot anywhere that animation would help clarify what we’re talking about. Sometimes these happen to cover what would otherwise have to be a jump or otherwise awkward cut, which is convenient. I also put in the popups that show our citations or correct me for misspeaking. I export the audio from those sections requiring animation and make a shot list. From here out, how long a step takes is a function of the video’s length. For Velociraptor, spotting took over a week, but a couple days is more standard.
Animation is time-consuming. I use a combination of Adobe Flash, Illustrator, and Photoshop for the artwork, but ultimately I spend the most time in After Effects putting it all together and making it move. Velociraptor was a bit unique, in that we wound up not really using our accustomed lateral view transformation. Most of the graphics segments were special-purpose. That’s something I’m trying to avoid going forward, because having so many shots requiring custom art and rebuilding AE compositions to hold them is largely what made animation on Velociraptor take 4 months. Plus, the lateral view animations are the ones I have the most fun with. There’s a bit of character animation when the dinosaur reacts to the change that was made, which I find rewarding.
Once shots are rendered, checked, fixed & re-rendered because I missed some minor stupid thing, and transcoded to a video format Premiere won’t choke on, I can drop them into the timeline. I’ll also add the transitions to go into and out of the animated parts before returning it to Liz for the final edit. The last things I do on an episode are make the video thumbnail, compile the final list of sources with timestamps, and render the end credits with the current list of Patrons. For Velociraptor, this step took me a week and a half.
So, about those episode lengths spiraling out of control… Your first video, about Scelidosaurus, was about five minutes long. The most recent one, Velociraptor, is a full hour. How did that happen? Can we expect this trend to continue where the videos just get bigger and bigger?
Steven: I inadvertently addressed this in passing, but no, we don’t intend future episodes to be even a fraction of Velociraptor’s length. We’re going to try to break off some topics into separate videos where possible. For example, the segment in Velociraptor about slit pupils could have been its own video, which we could then have referenced instead of stopping for a few minutes to talk about multifocal optics.
Velociraptor was probably always going to be on the long side, because it’s so popular and has so many tropes to talk about, on top of having a long history. But the episode sprawled to over an hour because circumstances kept us in preproduction longer than we anticipated and the work expanded to fill the time allotted it. When it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to shoot until November I attempted to stop researching Velociraptor and move on to Amargasaurus, but I’m not great at putting an unfinished project down (and worse at picking it up again once I have).
Speaking of your older videos: is there any animal you’ve covered in an older, shorter video that you’d like to revisit, like you did with Stegosaurus in the Sophie episode?
Steven: Yes! As you may have gathered by now, there’s always more I’d like to say for a given episode, but specifically for the older ones we do indeed plan to do follow-ups (or even outright do-overs) for all of them. Sooner or later. We want to address new research that’s come out, stuff we just failed to bring up–or got wrong–and in some cases just make a better video than we did the first time.
You’ve been hinting that the types of content we can expect on the channel might expand. Beside the usual YDAW-type videos, what are some of the types of videos you plan to make in the long term? Can we expect more things akin to the Field Museum episode?
Steven: We are planning on more on-location stuff like the Field Museum episode, including talking to the people who work on paleo and paleoart, though we can’t yet say where/who specifically we’re looking at visiting (not least because of the pandemic). We also receive at least one comment or message a day asking about various dinosaur video games, so it appears there would be an audience if we find a way to talk about those–without adding another entire show to our workload.
Liz: Along with that, we’re slowly working on videos that we hope will help people learn to digest the information they come across when doing their own paleo research. A common complaint/observation we receive concerns the high barrier to entry for the hobbyist researcher. They struggle with doing it, even when the enthusiasm to try is there, and we want to try and assist in alleviating that. For example, Steven has been working on a video or two specifically about reading scientific papers. We’re also writing a glossary series that would help to define the terminology and jargon in paleo journals. Most of our ideas are still in the writing phase, but we’re hoping to start releasing some of it this year.
One last question that must be on a lot of fans’ minds… You’ve covered Tarbosaurus, and you’ve talked about the skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex, but you haven’t done an actual T. rex episode yet. Is that a deliberate decision? Are you waiting for a special occasion?
Steven: Ah, Tyrannosaurus. We are indeed deliberately avoiding tackling that genus. It would absolutely be an interesting episode (or several), between how extensively studied the animal is, its long history in popular culture, and the number of unknowns that nevertheless persist. I’m hesitant, though, because whenever we do talk about it it’s going to be the most scrutinized thing we’ve ever made. I don’t know if we’re good enough at this yet to make a video with the rigor that will require. Even with all the extra research and writing, Velociraptor still had some pretty glaring errors and omissions (well they seem glaring to me). If we’re going to nitpick an animal so beloved to so many people, we want to get it right!
Many thans to Steven and Liz for their enthousiastic participation! We hope to see more great videos from you. The Your Dinosaurs Are Wrong YouTube channel can be found here. You can support them on Patreon, and find them on Etsy, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Discord and Ko-fi.