Friday, August 28, 2015

Prehistoric Predators (Switek & Csotonyi) Is a Banal, Color-by-the-Numbers Cash Grab

Get even more irreverent in my book Dinosaur Enlightenment: Piercing the Veil on Kaiju Dinosaur in an Age of Disruption available on Amazon for ebook and soft cover!! Get on!!

Sorry, not going to mince any words here.

When a new paleo-art book aimed at younger audience comes down the pike I often check it out - especially when significant names are attached to it. I have in the past found books written for this age group more daring, audacious, visually inspiring, and willing to go out on a limb than the books written for a more adult or technically minded audience. And really, that's the way it should be. The young mind is generally more flexible and open to new interpretation than us olds. But such a book is not what I found in Prehistoric Predators. A book that, in my estimation, rests on its laurels relying on the name brand recognition of free lance science writer Brian Switek and paleo-artist Julius Csotonyi.

You might not like what I am going to say because it might strike you as a bit "personal" but too bad - this whole trend of "we always got to keep it nice and polite in the sciences" is something that really irks me. When the stakes are high, when personal and professional reputations are at risk, that is the fire that stokes the creative furnace of art, science, and literature and creates the highest level of work. We shouldn't give people a pass just because they achieved stuff in the past.

In the spirit of transparency I should be forthcoming regarding my opinions of these people.

I am admittedly biased against Csotonyi. I am no big fan of digital photogrammetry and to tell you the truth I wish it would just go away. If you don't have the time, patience, or effort to render plants, landscapes etc. etc, then maybe step aside for other artists that do. All in all digital photogrammetry is  the performance enhancing drug of paleoart, except, unlike in athletes, it doesn't even merit superior results. I feel digital photogrammetry lacks believability, composition, and soul. Yes, soul. When the artists physical hand meets medium an imitable transfer of their personal touch is made. Even computer aided illustration has this to a point. Digital photogrammetry is as dead as dead can be creatively, spiritually, and artistically in my opinion. That being said, Julius' capacity with this medium is generally better than most. But it his skill in actual drawing and painting that sets him apart. Even his quick gesture sketches are far superior to most painted imagery. I do own, and for the most part enjoy, his art book. And when he really sits down and paints the whole scene he is pretty much without equal and arguably deserved of the title of leading paleo-artist. But I have to knock off some points for being one of the biggest practitioners of always plopping your dinosaur (or other beastie) down on a vacant plain or simply conveniently framed on a bare patch of soil. This in my estimation is the biggest meme in paleoart and commits a real disservice in terms of portraying how animals actually interact with their environment in the real world. And he is overly conservative in his depictions - never taking a risk or going out on a limb. I am fully convinced that if he was a preeminent paleo-artist of the 80's & 90's that he would have been drawing scaly, featherless theropods.

And as for Brian Switek I am honestly a little biased against him too. Many would consider him an exceptional writer and, for a science writer, I will concede that he is above average in portraying accurate science communication. However I find his writing a little too "vanilla" for my personal liking. And, while my tastes are a little left of center, this could also be a function of his having to write to a larger, lay audience. But it certainly seems from his comments section that noted paleontologists and dedicated paleo-nuts frequent his blog posts. Speaking of his comments section it really irks me that he seems to never respond to questions, queries, or criticisms in his comments section often times directly asked of him - this just doesn't sit well with me. In having put yourself up as someone with some instructional capacity you should at least have the courtesy to respond to people who have taken the time to read your post and type a response. I mean the internet is really just one big competition for content viewing so why be so - how else can I interpret this non-action - condescending? There are a lot of people that would love to have the platform that he enjoys - nat geo contributor the seemingly go-to-guy for popular dino writing - I just don't get the feeling that he recognizes his privilege. And yeah, if you sense a little jealousy on my part you are very astute. I am an imperfect person in an imperfect world. But that does not negate these critiques. Cuz I'm just gonna put it all out there, in three years of my blogging here at antediluvian salad Brian (or Csotonyi) has never once commented upon, shared, or promoted, a single post of mine. There's that.

As I alluded to in the beginning of this post dinosaur - or other science based books - aimed towards children can be challenging, intellectually stimulating, and actually fairly deep. It's a myth that kids don't like to read - just look at the astonishing success of Harry Potter and other series - in fact an argument can be leveled that children are more dedicated and voracious readers than most adults. But you can't talk down to them or placate them as just children... which is exactly what this book does in the text. In fact the sheer triteness and lack of descriptive, exciting vocabulary in the text is really disappointing. It's rehashed and boring. Anyone armed with a few wikipedia pages and with no extensive knowledge of "prehistoric predators" could have wrote this book. The fictional vignettes are under-utilized and uninspired at best. When I was young lad I was reading The Dinosaur Heresies and Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. I might have been a little ahead of the curve but there is nothing in those books that is not explainable to kids - especially kids today with the internet at hand. There are a couple of throwaway lines that could have been taken further. For instance Switek mentions that no one knows what horns, bumps, and ridges on the tops of theropods head were for (don't worry I got that one). And he posits Masiakasaurus as a fish eater - when there is no real evidence for that, it's just always kind of been - what's the word - assumed. Long story short the text offers less information for a paleo-hungry kid than a wikipedia page (which they can all access anyways).

The choice of what animals get covered and what animals don't creates a weird hodge-podge effect. Why not take this more stimulating and still teachable angle to children: compare and contrast diaspid versus anapsid predatory technique over geologic time? That would have made for a more cogent and interesting book and potentially of use to children and lay adults. The book could have also contrasted the differing physiologies and respiratory systems of these two groups - especially with regards to monitor lizards/crocs showing signs of advanced respiratory tactics. Again kids could get this stuff if you don't overwhelm them with jargon and use interesting graphics and diagrams. If I was a kid I would feel this book is insulting my intelligence. Where are the monitor lizards, terrestrial crocs (or any crocs for that matter?), mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, giant eagles, teratornithids? The only discernible pattern is that the animals chosen were critters that Csotonyi had images of lying around already for the most part. So yeah, I'm not a fan of the organization.

And now on to the art. With a few exceptions almost all of the Csotonyi art is lifted directly from his already published book, "The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi", which again speaks to an obvious quick cash grab. Look - why should they presuppose that dedicated paleo-kids don't already own that volume? There is nothing in that admittedly awesome book that relegates it strictly to adults except for the arbitrary placement in the adult science section of Barnes & Nobles. If I was a kid I would feel ripped off - "I already freaking have all this imagery!!" However I am assuming that this book is aimed at dedicated paleo-kids. Perhaps it is not. The book is probably aimed at the more wider children's audience. You know the kids that are infatuated with dinosaurs for like a month but "grow out of it" - and then just want to play video games and shoot stuff? Yeah them. Because of this it will probably make a killing financially. But, at least in my mind, that doesn't excuse the less than stellar treatment of this young audience as a group hungry for exciting and revelatory new information in a way that they could digest. Instead the kids are given RAWR and big toothy things - which I am sure that they will enjoy - but I just think a big opportunity was missed here.

However there are a couple of new Csotonyi pieces that are worth mentioning... barely. What I remember - cuz I didn't buy a copy but read it in the store looking like some creepy big bearded dude in the children's section - is underwhelming. There was a rather insipid fight scene between an Ekrixinatosaurus and a Giganotosaurus. Kudos for picking a rather obscure abelisaurid but compositionally the piece is just kind of bleh... lacking any kind of atmosphere... Csotonyi is capable of just so much more. There was a very cliched "fight" scene between a T-rex and a Triceratops where they are just kind of staring at each other like junior high boys in their first real "fight". Boring. And then the kicker, the one piece where Csotonyi could have saved himself, a Spinosaurus rendering. But here again it looks rushed and just kind of typical. The spinosaurus has, what do you know, a giant saw-toothed fish Onchopristis in it's clutches - never seen that before. And it's standing upright like a good ol' well behaved bipedal theropod should - despite all the evidence to the contrary. Somehow presupposing an animal that we never had - a bipedal spinosaurus - is more parsimonious than the one we do have which is screaming out I'm not really any sort of a biped the way you imagine me to be?? Furthermore Csotonyi, in taking this overly cautious approach (which is actually the more radical one) takes complete liberty in depicting several Deltadromeus as hypercarnivorous theropods. Keep in mind that this is an animal that we have no head for and is most likely somewhat of a hipster ornithomimid - that is it was an ornithomimid before it was cool to be an ornithomimid. And the scene is plopped down in a gulf coast/Louisiana bayou style swamp full of giant swamp cypress trees. I have never heard any reference to giant swamp cypress type trees in the Kem Kem/ Cenomanian North Africa. But if Csotonyy did his homework he could have utilized the infinitely more interesting mangrove fern Weichselia reticulata as well as halophytic cheirolepidiacean conifers.  Long story short there is nothing in this rendering that you could have seen in a spinosaur rendering from 10 years ago - except the swayback sail.

As the title states of this post states I can only interpret this book as a quick crash grab. We should not be too surprised by this - after all these two gentlemen are hot off the heels of working - in a limited fashion albeit - on that movie. The thing is, I really don't have a problem with that. You got to put food on the table, make rent, I'm all for that actually. But let's call it what it is. The title of the book, the theme at hand, the obvious marketability to young readers - most likely boys - of big toothy critters that go RAWR - it's a quick buck. This book is not going to move the science forward, it's not going to challenge current dogma or pose new questions, and I don't consider it really acting as any kind of spark to young minds. It's a placeholder regarding current thought - which also implies there is going to be some dogma attached to it because dogma is part and parcel to any crop of leading paleontologists. And just because you put feathers on your theropods doesn't make you edgy at this point.

So if you have child in your life that might like dinosaurs a better pick would be A Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Gee & Rey). Or, before he went AWOL with digital what-ever-you-call-it, David Peters' A Gallery of Dinosaurs and Other Early Reptiles.

Yeah...... I SAID IT. Peters' book > Switek & Csotonyi's book.

P.S. My tone might be angry or overly aggressive but at the end of the day I feel these two have grown a little... complacent. They need a kick in the butt. There are many hungry artists and writers out there. A book full of deviantart renderings would have been way more compelling in my estimation. My ultimate goal is to get these two to step their game up - show a little more effort and respect for your audience, even if they are kids.

*update several hours later. Upon reflection and introspection this post is more about me and what I am going through right now than Switek or Csotonyi. I happen to have a lot of chemical imbalance going on in my brain right now, anger & bitterness, and uncertain future. This has helped me work through some of this. I am going to leave the post as it is because I believe in documenting what I get right and wrong here. And sometimes this blog is more than a documentation of my thoughts and ideas but also a kind of therapy and getting raw to the world. If Csotonyi or Switek read this know that you were simply caught in the crossfire of the war inside my head. I mean you no ill will. I actually greatly appreciate and acknowledge your contributions to the field of paleontology.

And the book is not that bad either, especially compared to other dino kids books out there. Other mitigating factors play into how the book comes out that are out of the control of both the author and artist. So, if you don't already have Csotonyi's book it is actually a worthwhile investment. And I concede I quite like some of the newer atmospheric pieces as well. Prehistoic Predators at Amazon.

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BrianL said...

Sorry to read about your personal troubles. That being said, vicious though your post might have been it doesn't seem *too* vicious to me and your comments do seem valid. The only thing in it I felt was over the top was complaining about neither Csotonyi or Switek ever commenting on your work, as they have no reason to and you are, after all, small fry in the blogosphere. I would certainly agree with you that digital paintings just don't look or feel good. I suppose the criticism for recent CGI work in films applies here too: it looks too real and lacks 'soul'. I would also agree that Switek's writing is very vanilla. Obviously his goal seems to be science reporting rather than jumping in the fray himself, but then his writing generally still seems very bland to me in a 'here are the facts so-and-so said and let's not be too hasty concerning alternatives'-way. This is not a neccessity: Darren Naish's Tetrapod Zoology offers an excellent example of how you can report on the current state of knowledge, dismantle out-there hypotheses but do not unquestioningly accept mainstream thoughts (though Naish himself has a pretty big influence on what mainstream concerning Mesozoic reptiles is, admittedly) and have a strong personal presence in your writing, all at the same time. Switek occassionally mentions his enthusiasm about his subject of writing in his posts without much to show for it beyond that, Naish's oozes his in everything he writes about and delivers far better posts as a result, I feel. And, he participates in and cultivates his comments section, as we both know.

Duane Nash said...

In retrospect and upon soul searching I should have found a more constructive way to get some shit off my back than launching into Switek & Csotonyi. I am not above jealousy, anger, and petty shit but actually in writing this post and communicating with Csotonyi directly on FB it was cleansing. Everybody has their style and I shouldn't knock guys for trying to make a living in this realm - because it is still a niche market. And as you point out I am small fry in the blogosphere and probably a more underground niche is better for my personality anyways. To come clean I just had developed a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I felt I had developed some really interesting ideas regarding theropod feeding which, when published, got overshadowed by everyone depicting laser beams coming out of prehistoric eyeballs for crying out loud. But, my idea is probably going to be a slow burn. I have uncovered more evidence bolstering my bonesaw theory so I will keep plugging away and try not to take it personally when the whole world doesn't congratulate me. Cuz its just dinosaurs and not a cure for cancer.

Sean McCabe said...

I think you might have been a bit harsh on the Spinosaurus posture and Deltadromeus anatomy: If you want to depict them, you do have to chose one side or the other. However I do agree with quite a bit of this. Switek's style is extremely bland to me, I simply read it since Laelaps really is the best place for keeping up on major Palaeontology news. But being objective and fact based doesn't mean it has to be bland, which is probably why I'm not overly fond of his writing, because I DO find his bland. I to find the Photomanipulation style very bad - it doesn't fit together properly, and commonly actually comes off as unpleasant. One of my favorite of his pieces is his Acheroraptor piece, which as far as I can tell doesn't use it.

This is just my opinion on their work, of course there will be people who think that they great, I'm just not one of them. As far as this book specifically goes, I can't say seeing as I know nothing about it.

Duane Nash said...

I actually - now I'm strangely defending photomanipulation now - I think he does a good job of it with a lot of his Permian depictions especially. I just find his actual artwork so vastly superior to the photo manipulation. Per Spinosaurus well I respectfully disagree with giving equal merit to both postures and we might not just part ways here. The non-obligate biped at least has bones and a paper attached to it. The bipedal spinosaurus is a creature that we never had, just presupposed. But I'm definitely in the minority on not giving equal clearance to both postures - but that's my own idiosyncrasy I guess. However my point stands in that the depiction Csotonyi went with is not really any different than a pic you could have viewed 10 years ago - why not stretch out into uncharted waters?

Iris-Katyayani said...

I got this book as a gift for my Birthday. I was waiting for almost a month until this book came out so that I could look at the beautifl artwork, and maybe even learn a few tricks my self on reconstructing Dinosaurs...but then I opened the damn thing. Most of the artwork is just his old work that you could easily just look at on the internet, most of the scenes were cruedly rendered with false backgrounds that often times don't even match the actual envirenmenet, poor text that a toddler could understand (one of Switeks main character defining features as a writer), many innacuricies and very little to no actual originality in creature design, and my personal worst part of the book...almost every single fucking peice of art is basically just 2 different species of Dinosaurs just yelling at eachother. This book is not the worst paleoart book, far from it, but it's still a peice of garbage. I personally like to imagine all bad and/or unoriginal paleoart as just garbage in an over flowing landfill. This book is just the least rancid, smelly peice of garbage at the very top of the landfill. Is this book good compared to the rest of the garbage. Yes. Is this book god, no. Hell no. This good is good compared to all the other bad paleoart, in the same way a half bitten apple with a worm in the middle, is better than a rancid, 3 week old apple that is full of maggots. It's better compared to the other trash, but it's no where near good. And on the whole "I don't get enough credit" thing, I agree. It actually angers me how you're not more popular than the layman "writer" that is Switek. You have come up/supported so many new and innovative theories and hypothesis, all the while giving evidence (much of the time MASSIVE amounts of evidence) to support or refute it. Things like "dump truck" Ankylosaurs, choanal grinding, bone shimmying, Teratorn gang killing, and your (arguably) best so far, the Plesiosaur machinations as a whole. All of these extraordinary theories and hypothesis that would make some of the greats like Robert Bakker and Jack Horner want to rethink how they view exctinct animals, yet instead, we have dumbasses all over the internet adding LASERS TO FUCKING DINOSAURS! Why? I still don't know. It doesn't make since, is a waste of time and is pointless. You should be up there with the more popular paleonotlogists like Scott Hartman and Darren Naish. But that's my opinion, and since this is the internet, it's not like people will read this comment and "ditch" the laymen like Switek, and visit your blog. I recomend self advertising somehow. I don't necessarily mean just barging into someone else's blog and basically just saying "yo fam, check out my mix tape". I don't exactly know how, but the premise of advertising could help you out in the long run.

Warren JB said...

"Sorry, not going to mince any words here."

You don't say! Though I'm with you on the whole thing about photocomposite/collage palaeoart, especially leaving most of the techniques and work of the background by the wayside. (More palaeoartists need to read James Gurney, IMO)

Julius can render at a level I can barely even dream of, at this point, but with the preview images on this book's Amazon page... even this noob can pick out a handful of jarring compositional bloopers. The Spinosaur's pale chin blends a little too easily, tonally, with the Onchopristis' pale underbelly. The Allosaur's chin forms a tangent, resting awkwardly on the back of the sauropod aaall the way in the background. Both big theropods look strange... I can't quite pin it down, but both seem too flat, too sharp. I think it's something to do with a lack of lost edges and confusion about lighting. (Both regular symptoms of photocollage p-art) Sure there's shadows, but I get an inference that they're a nod to 3D form on a field-guide-style flat profile-contour pose. The spinosaur's left side is in shadow for the most part but the deltadrom's left side isn't... for the most part. The plane of the stegosaur facing the viewer - the belly and throat - is in shadow while the plane of the allosaur facing the viewer - the left side of the head and neck - is very brightly lit. (The token black shadows at lacrimal and jaw don't really help reduce the effect) Not to mention the huge dark thunderclouds covering the sky. I know an object can be brightly lit from one direction while clouds darken the background, but again, in this instance it's not improving the photocollage effect. (That break in the clouds seems to be the light source for the herbivores, but what about the allosaur?)

And those ferns in the bottom left just look to me like a foofy green Kilroy.

"...everyone depicting laser beams coming out of prehistoric eyeballs for crying out loud."

I think I missed something. Laser beams coming out of what now!?

Warren JB said...

"That break in the clouds seems to be the light source for the herbivores..."

Scratch that. Forgot about the stegosaur's (pin sharp) shadow on the ground. But add that to the list. I can only see tiny wee image previews, but it seems like everything's pin sharp and well lit no matter how far back it goes in the images, let alone far back under the jurassic clouds. IMO aerial perspective is overdone in a lot of sci-fi/fantasy art and illustration these days, but here it's practically nonexistant.

Duane Nash said...

@Warren JB lasers coming out dinosaurs/prehistoric animals eyes was a meme trending around the same time that I was posting on choanal grinding/bonesaw theropod etc etc.

Everyone was doing their own version of it - including some of the top name people. But, at least among some of the names with the biggest presence, not one of them linked to my post or went to comment upon it -even after contacting some directly. Jaime Headden did but that is about it. So yeah, I took it as a bit of a slight that my theories/ideas are getting overshadowed by damn laser eyed prehistoric monster mock ups.

And look I am not asking to have my ass kissed, or for you to even agree with me, but I have compiled enough evidence - more to come as well - that this idea merits discussion.

Bottom line bonesaw theropods>dumbass laser eyed monsters. And I got a bit of chip on my shoulder because of it, and maybe anyone would as well.

Warren JB said...

Y'know what, I'm kinda glad I missed that. And FWIW I do agree with you.

Unknown said...

Interesting thoughts, and I have to applaud you for actually taking a moment to BE critical in any sort of way about paleoart, most folks either 1. Don't care, or 2. Don't say anything if they do.

I haven't yet had a chance to read the article about predator/therapods you mention but I will say I vastly enjoyed your thorough and graphically endowed series on Plesiosaurs from a while back, so I for one appreciate your work and the work of other paleo bloggers. I wish I were more diligent in blogging myself, so more power to you man.

I haven't yet checked out this book, but referring back to criticism, that's what one is supposed to do yes? Be critical, and of course it's your blog so no need to worry about mincing words, it's your opinion that you should share. Too often folks are afraid of being critical, and while it wouldn't behoove someone to be overly critical, I think there is plenty of space for it in paleoart, and has been absent for quite some time. I would certainly be more vocal about it myself if I weren't in the whole paleoart game myself :) and on that note, if you need paleo illustration or any type of nature art, hit me up Fam! So not having seen this book I can only speculate based on the work I've seen from Cstonyi and Switek.

I'll go ahead and say I agree that the photography backgrounds aren't my favorite either, but as was said Julius does it better than most. You mention the term Photogrametry but isn't that measuring things using photos? I hang in the Science Fiction and fantasy illustration sphere a lot and it's called Photomanip or Photobashing there, but regardless I totally get what you mean. There are good examples and bad examples but I would personally argue that Julius is a great example of a using photos well. Also taking into account how much he might need to produce. I was more critical of some of the large permian murals use of photomanips until I did my own series of two 16'X4' murals that were 8GB PSD files each. I painted every pixel, and it took an eternity, so I actually do use lot's of photobashing now, I try very hard to hide it though. For me there isn't any such thing as cheating in art, it's concept that counts. If somebody can use only chopping up photos and produce a better looking image out of it than using any traditional tool, I wouldn't really care except when it came to the option to sell an original piece of art, where the big difference is in the digital world there isn't such a thing, but that's going off on a tangent. So that said that I'm actually a psuedo fan of Photobashing, I don't like to make it obvious and I'll always run any photographic elements through some filters to make them look more 'painterly'. I've seen folks criticize and bash this technique but at the end of the day I'm going to use the techniques and materials that 1. Satisfy my client and 2. Get the job done in the best way possible before I worry about any of my own personal concerns. If it's personal work I do whatever I want, but I'm always eager to use any means necessary to improve my craft and increase my production and client base.

Unknown said...

As a fellow paleoartist, I can only say extremely nice things about Julius as a person. In every art Genre there are "Rock-Stars" and I can say that Julius is the most friendly and ego free "top shelf" illustrator and artist I've ever met. Sure there are other really friendly artists that are popular and prolific that are also great folks, but Julius was specifically kind to me on multiple occasions when I questioned him about pricing, dealing with clients as a paleoartist, etc, talking 'shop' basically. He absolutely didn't need to be that friendly to me, and I really appreciate his willingness to converse with other illustrators about the biz and didn't seem competitive, egotistic, or arrogant in the least. I've not had any real dialogue with Mr. Switek before, but I do enjoy his articles, I just haven't ever spoken with him personally. All in all, I've found it's very easy to become jealous of the 'popular' folks, I've been that way myself. This is something that's bound to happen to any who aspire to improve in any artistic (also scientific) capacity in that you are bound to be looking at work created by predecessors that have probably put in more time honing their craft and/or networking and making connections. What I've learned is it's best to approach these folks as a friend and sometimes they will give you valuable advice. Sometimes you find out they are a huge asshole, but in Julius' case, it couldn't be anything further from that, he's one of the nicest artists on the top tier I've ever interacted with.

Lastly, I'm very welcome of legitimate and scientific criticism from those with informed opinions. I don't enjoy 'bothering' paleontologists for advise constantly, although sometimes I have to. Then the other end of the spectrum is 8 year old kids on Deviant art telling me that my triceratops should be red instead of blue. So on that note, I'd love a group or community where I could share things I'm working on for critique (NOT publish, but more like WIP's before they get mainstream shared). I almost never share WIP's for that very reason, asinine and useless commentary, HOWEVER, some of you guys very likely would have things to say that could help me out immensely, especially on the Anatomical accuracy side. I'd be happy to trade with anyone, favor for favor, blog share for a look over, what have you if anyone is ever interested. Keep up the good work Duane!

Duane Nash said...

Thanks for you thoughts Stevie and yeah I think I did use the wrong term...

And yes I briefly spoke with Julius at SVP in LA 2 years ago and he is extremely nice. The book is what it claims to be - a montage of prehistoric predators. I think it could have been a lot more and the majority of work is in Julius' other book.

BTW what is your name on deviantart? I get so confounded with all the names...

Unknown said...

Yes indeed! You found me, I'm easy "STUDIOSPECTRE" everywhere.
I'll check out the book sometime, I definitely want to get my hands on the "Paleoart of Julius Cstonyi" eventually.

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