An illustration of a sauropod skeleton

Vintage Dinosaur Media: Extinction: A Lesson from the Past

Vintage Dinosaur Art

It’s time for another trip down scicomm memory lane, courtesy Indiana University’s media collections online. 1971’s “Extinction: A Lesson from the Past” was written by Elizabeth Werrenrath and produced by her husband Reinald Werrenrath, Jr., a television pioneer and son of a famous opera singer. While Reinald passed away at the grand old age of 104 in 2019, Elizabeth is still with us at 108, and she seems to be a heck of a lady.

Teetering on the very edge of the dinosaur renaissance, the then-recent revelations of Ostrom are not much of an influence. Working with the basic 50’s and 60’s understanding of ancient life, Elizabeth’s script for this film conveys the message that nothing on this sphere is guaranteed, and humans are part of just one chapter of its long story. Ensuing decades would do much to fill in our understanding of extinction events (and, thankfully, the phylogenetic relations of the featured animals). But the moral of the Werrenraths’ film was as relevant in 1971 as it is now.

The film was produced in Chicago, crediting consultants from the National College of Education in Evanston and the Lincoln Park Zoo. You might expect Knight, Wiebe, or Hansen to appear, being the paleoartistic faces of the Field Museum. But that’s not quite what we get.

To illustrate its ancient subjects, the film does a couple things. It uses supposedly “primitive” extant animals to evoke long lost ancestors, such as crocodilians, iguanas, a mammal I recognize but can’t name, and an anhinga. It also zooms and pans around an illustrated mural or poster of various geologic eras. The footage of the anhinga is likely inspired by the Hesperornis-esque bird on the image’s right side.

The piece is fairly typical of mid-century paleoart, but I thought that the casual style of the art paired particularly well with the film’s jazzy glockenspiel-and-piano score, especially the loose brushwork of the flora.

An illustrated mural of different eras in Earth history, with Cenozoic mammals, Mesozoic dinosaurs, and Paleozoic reptiles

The central artwork of “Extinction: Lessons from the Past.”

The art seems to be inspired by the usual suspects, chiefly Burian, though overall it has a Knightian atmosphere. The pose of Stegosaurus is a pretty close match to Burian’s — just flipped horizontally — as well as the one Rudolph Zallinger illustrated in the ’60s. Delightfully, the Tyrannosaurus looks like a cross between this one by Burian and our old friend, the Zallinger/ Marx Potbelly Rex. And like Stegosaurus, it’s pretty similar to a 60’s Zallinger (these Zallinger images linked for comparison are from a 2011 post by Marc). The Brontosaurus doesn’t seem to be nicked from any particular depiction, but then again, I do not boast a photographic paleoart memory! It just looks like a standard issue mid-century sauropod.

One more thing: the narrator, who I’m sure I’ve heard in any number of old educational films, possesses a truly rich and velvety baritone. Like a thick slice of chocolate cake. Click play and let him wash your troubles away — at least for a bit.

Thanks for watching, and please let me know down in the comments if you recognize the paleoart featured in the film!

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  • Reply
    April 25, 2022 at 9:36 pm

    That mammal is a tree shrew (Scandentia), just FYI.

    • Reply
      David Orr
      April 25, 2022 at 11:31 pm

      Ah, thanks. Shan’t forget that again!

  • Reply
    April 26, 2022 at 6:14 am

    Pardon the slightly off-topic comment, but this is a rather nice redesign. I really appreciate the focus on making the content easy to read.

    • Reply
      David Orr
      April 26, 2022 at 3:37 pm

      Thank you! Much appreciated.

      • Reply
        April 26, 2022 at 4:19 pm

        Hi David, may I ask what prompted the redesign? I miss the old look. This just does not feel right. (sorry to be a party pooper!)

        • Reply
          David Orr
          April 26, 2022 at 6:24 pm

          Well, you can’t please everyone! Seriously though, the main point of the refresh was about performance and navigation. We have been encountering massive problems with loading times, and the sidebar as main navigational area was clunky. The old theme I modified had a number of customizations and a plug-in that I felt were part of the problem, since troubleshooting with our web host never arrived at a satisfactory solution. I also had some suspicions that the typography of the old site, loaded from Adobe, could be a problem. So cleaned that up and improved mobile readability.

          Other than that, I wanted to freshen up the look a bit since it had been four and a half years.

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