Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Jurassic Fight Club Epilog: Apologies, Clarifications, and Ponderings

Protoceratops andrewsi. He heard something and popped his head up out of the brush...
Note to self: Stop drawing 'em with their mouths open all the time.

Well, this Jurassic Fight Club thing has been a real eye-opener from an number of perspectives. As someone new to the blogging sphere it's given me my first taste of... well, fame certainly isn't the right word. Let's be optimistic and call it the start of an audience.

Here's how it worked for me. On Sunday I installed a hit counter and was surprised to see that there were five visitors and they'd seen eighteen pages. Wow. People are coming and they're actually reading stuff. Cool!

Then on Monday there were fourteen readers and then twenty-nine on Tuesday. This was the audience I was writing for at that point. I figured it was probably friends and relatives for the most part with a sprinkling of people I'd linked to and a few folks who got here through search engines.

Then yesterday I posted what I thought was the last piece on Jurassic Fight Club. A link went up over at Laelaps (see my blogroll) and all of a sudden the numbers started piling up. I had a brief idiot flicker of inspiration and posted links on the Jurassic Fight Club site.

Honestly, this started to feel like cheating -- like I was getting the hits not because of what I had to say but because I was talking about a TV show. By the end of the day I had a hundred and twenty-seven visitors look at two hundred and seventy pages. Mostly in-and-outs but here and there someone took a good chunk of time to look things over. And there were hits from A&E and Warner Bros...

And on the Jurassic Fight Club site a frustrated animator who had worked on the show posted a comment about the reviews that gave me pause to think. While he was kind enough to allow that he agreed with me about some of what I said it was pretty obvious that he had been offended -- offended to the point where he felt obliged to make a statement about the role of criticism in the arts. (And the popular arts are arts in my book.)

Here's where I make my apology. In my review I used some vulgarities in reference to the creators of the show. That was uncalled for and inappropriate and I will attempt to refrain from similar behavior in the future. I thought I was sitting around the living room sharing beers with some like-minded friends when in actuality I was standing on a soap box on a street corner. This may be my site but it is also a public forum and that does put me into a position of responsibility rather than license.

To those who were involved in Jurassic Fight Club, I apologize. I was rude and that was wrong.

So how would I have handled it differently if I'd considered the possibility that someone who worked on the show would see the review? I mean, aside from avoiding terms like 'dipshit.'

I wouldn't have come into it with a load of anxiety and resentment and used it as a means of blowing off steam. I would have focused more on what was right with the show. I would have been more clear about why I didn't like the aspects of the show that bothered me, even if it meant being a little harsh. And I would have been more specific in suggesting what could have been done to make the show more to my tastes. In other words, I would have written a critique rather than conducting a petulant frenzy.


I find the concept of the show absolutely irresistible. The format of alternating interviews with researchers and animation is a good idea. While it doesn't go with the name I think that the decision not to limit scenarios to the Mesozoic was very solid. The people appearing on-camera are well-spoken and likable and while this has nothing to do with paleontology it makes for a more enjoyable viewing experience. And as I said in the earlier sections of the review there is some wonderful animation work here, notable not just for the animation but for the choice of shots, the lighting, the composition, and the use of focus.

My main issue with the show is the way that speculation is presented as fact. Given the audience for this show it's a genuinely irresponsible stance to take. Let me explain why I take this so seriously -- why this actually arouses an emotional response in me and in others.

So far as I can tell -- and this is speculation on my part -- this is the result of a little conceptual confusion in the show. It seems to have a hard time deciding if it's entertainment or education. And as a result the entertainment part of the show is presented on the same level as the more educational elements. If you do have present the show as educational there are responsibilities that go with that stance; to claim to represent scientific thought while dishing out fantasy is a form of dishonesty. If you do not clearly distinguish between fact and fancy the audience will have the same level of belief in both -- and when that happens you are not educating.

Right now science education in America is terrible. The average citizen's ignorance is frightening in that we live in a quasi-democracy and many of the conditions we have to think about have scientific aspect to them. Even non-scientific issues would benefit from the kind of rigorous rationality that science teaches. So to see something labeled as science when it isn't does have serious ramifications. I'm not saying you're destroying our nation -- but when you do this you are in a small way putting weight behind forces that are acting against all of our best interests. And that is something I take seriously.

And on a more simple level, to present speculation as fact is deceptive. It's dishonest. I am not arguing that the creators of JFC are dishonest -- but a lack of discipline here produces dishonesty. I don't think you want that.

Even at this point in production it is still possible to put a notice at the start of the show indicating that it is speculative, that there are a lot of unknowns, and that what is shown is by no means conclusive. This would not only be honest; it would also greatly reduce the amount of resentment directed at the show by those with a serious interest in science.

And while it's much too late, if another season is produced it would be wonderful if each speculation could be debated -- if we could hear the arguments against Gastonia cutting bone with scutes or pack hunting in maniraptorans as well as the arguments in favor. That would very effectively raise the credibility of the show.

This is the central source of antagonism toward the show that I've seen in the online communities I frequent. While the details of how the animals have been presented are occasionally frustrating (non-feathered maniraptorans with curled-up hands for instance) they would seem much, much less problematic if they were not presented as fact.

I honestly did have trouble with the writing on the show. I honestly did have trouble with the pacing, with the jump-cuts, with this that and the other thing. If I were to do a serious critique of the show -- the kind of thing I'd do at a table discussion if I were a member of the staff -- I'd also go over those in detail. But I ain't.

Now here's the quote the animator gave me in reaction to my pissing and moaning about JFC. It's from Ratatouille --

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so." -- Anton Ego

There's truth to this but there's more to the question than that. Let's consider three aspects of criticism. First of is the simple opinion piece and I'd say the above quote fits the opinion piece neatly. An opinion piece is only of interest to those who share the opinion. And I am ashamed to say that what I wrote did have some big chunks of opinion piece in it. Mea culpa, and I'm going to try and avoid that in the future.

Next is the review -- this is useful to the consumer who can find a reviewer whose tastes are congruent with his own, or who is able to tell when someone's negative criticism indicates something he'd like. This is just barely removed from the opinion piece -- but it does serve a real function. Still, its only meaning for an artist is in how it affects his career -- an artist is right to be concerned about a bad review and wrong to be concerned about the reviewer's personal opinion.

Criticism is something else entirely. A critic is genuinely knowledgeable and works with the intent of furthering the art. (Oh, how I blush to describe dinosaur television as art -- but it is, it is!) And this is something an artist would do well to pay attention to. The best criticism is done by practitioners of the art. Ruskin, for example. While I disagree with much of what I've read by him it is still worthy of respect -- respect he has earned not simply through words and erudition but also through his drawings and paintings.

For an intuitive creator, one who is self-taught and self-motivated, even this level of critique can be damaging. But for the creator who studies and practices his skills, having one's work analyzed and commented on is an essential part of the process of education. And I speak from experience.

For years now I've sat down every Monday night and critiqued writing while having my writing critiqued. This is why my writing has improved. When I'm in an art class and I get a chance to find out how people respond to my work I learn. This is the level of critique I'm interested in receiving.

So if I write any more criticism I'm going to try and write at that level.



Zach said...

Right on, sir. I can't really fault the animators, either. They're doing what they were told to do. We can't all read every journal article that comes out. My problems with the show were far more "fixable." Things like making the correct cuts, spending less time with Dinosaur George and more time with people who do this kind of thing for a living (although I had problems with them, too), and GIVING THE GODDAMN RAPTORS FEATHERS.

Is that too much to ask? I mean, really?

Also, how do you keep track of how many hits the blog gets? I'd be interested to know that for my own blog, sir.

Sean Craven said...

Y'know, the more I learn about how movies and TV are made, the more amazed I am that anything is ever watchable.

One thing that needs to be kept in mind is that a lot of decisions about the show are likely to be made by people who don't care about science or art or communication. They care (and to some degree rightly so) about the bottom line. Others care about getting their name out into the public view while others care about putting their grubby little fingerprints all over someone else's work.

I would bet cash money that a lot of the things we've complained about were thorns in the sides of those actually working on the show. Big media inevitably mandates compromise -- and there aren't a lot of people with industry power who actually give a tin shit about science.

And as for the counter, there are a bunch of them. On the advice of Deborah, my writing buddy over at Seedbyte, I decided on...

But beware. This thing is a whole new addiction.