Making B-Movie Magic on a Dinosaur Dig

A couple of years ago, my nephew, Sam, and I went to a dinosaur dig near Livingston, Montana. It was beyond cool—we licked bones!—and this July we were able to return. Paleontologist Cary Woodruff and his crew were still jackhammering and digging around the Apatasaurus that we had helped to partially excavate back in 2013, but this year, a neighboring Stegosaurus had also been discovered on the hilly property, one of its plates literally poking up out of the ground. What luck for us! Bob Harmon, chief preparator for the Museum of the Rockies, was working on it when we arrived. I knew then what my next photo project would be.

Photographer Robb Kendrick and I worked on a National Geographic storyNational Geographic story about bringing extinct species back to life. It remains one of my all-time favorites. Robb makes tintypes, the real ones, with an 1800s-era camera and lens and a whole bevy of toxic chemicals. Our goal for that story was to make a varied array of creatures, taxidermied and otherwise, look as alive as possible. In one case we were able to put a life-size saber-toothed cat puppet in what would’ve been its natural environment at the La Brea Tar Pits. I decided to channel Robb and try the same thing, only I was going to use a toy Stegosaurus I’d picked up at the museum’s gift shop and an iPhone with a nifty tintype app.

As I placed the little Stegosaurus in its present-day landscape of juniper tree seedlings and rattlesnake weed, Bob was excavating the real thing a few feet below me, chipping away at the 155-million-year-old mudstone. Once he was done with the fossil, he estimated the plaster jacket containing the bones would weigh around 600 pounds and would have to be removed by “Big Red,” the museum’s truck, built especially for lifting dinosaurs (up to 5,000 pounds!). I was definitely working on a much smaller scale.

Twisting into an awkward crouch, I took a photo of the six-inch dinosaur. When I saw that first semiblurry image appear on my screen, I got so excited I nearly fell over on a cactus. The little guy actually looked like he belonged there. Fantastic! This picture combined a few of my favorite things—dinosaurs, those wonderful B-movie stills from the 1930s, and dioramas. I’ve always loved dioramas in museums, especially the really small ones, but for me this was even better because the location was real, and the vegetation was too, if not entirely accurate (more on that later). An obsession was born.

Sam donated a pterosaur model he had, an Anhanguera, so Bob carefully did surgery on it, using pliers to gently push a needle on a fishing line directly through its little plastic body. Using Bob’s fishing pole, we “flew” it over the edge of the quarry cliff. The Anhanguera seemingly caught a thermal and soared round and round in circles. Bob and I were giddy. I was in love with the images I was getting. And then Cary brought everything crashing down by telling me that this particular pterosaur hadn’t lived in the U.S. at all, let alone Montana.

Back to the museum gift shop we went, this time to buy models of dinosaurs that had specifically been found at the Livingston site, or at least in the Morrison Formation (which the Livingston site is part of). Sam and Cary pored over all manner of toothiness and spikiness as they scoured bins overflowing with prehistoric creatures. Cary patiently explained the difference between ankylosaurids and Ankylosaurus and how I could use one for the pictures but not the other. Museum curator Jack Horner’s office was just downstairs, and he happily offered me a Diplodocus gathering dust on top of his filing cabinet—he is famously not fond of sauropods, even though he thinks they are the most important dinosaurs of all. I ended up with several new models, including the awesomely named Ramphorhyncus, a pterosaur whose shape is dino-dragon perfection.

At camp, I started looking at the landscape in a different way. Proportion and perspective were everything. Weeds became trees and rocks became cliffs and twigs became logs. I realized I was going to have to get really low. Like rattlesnake-level low. It was at this point that Bob wisely suggested I put on some snake gaiters just in case. Jack, fresh off his Jurassic World advising, came out to the dig and, sitting on a rock containing two visible tibias, offered background info on the dinosaurs and their habitats. He broke the news to me that grasses didn’t exist during the Jurassic time period—only ferns, conifers, and cycads—so I realized I’d have to take artistic license with that. We scouted high and low around the two quarries where an Allosaurus, Diplodocus, and Apatasaurus were found. We walked up a hill from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous, watching as the sediment changed. I was reminded yet again of Montana’s rich dinosaur history.

In between digging for bones (Sam found a ten-centimeter fragment!), bailing out a flooded tent, listening to Sam and the crew imitate Velociraptors, reviving a car battery that fell victim to overzealous iPhone charging, and outwitting the unbalanced Ramphorhyncus that didn’t want to fly (we put six holes in its body before we realized that stringing up the wings would be a better bet), I traipsed around the site with my snake gaiters and gloves on, wallowing in the dust and brush in an effort to convey a nostalgic feeling about these creatures I love so much. A “Land of the Lost” meets modern Montana, so to speak. I can’t wait to do it again.

Read This Next

Can science help personalize your diet?
Hogs are running wild in the U.S.—and spreading disease
Salman Rushdie on the timeless beauty of the Taj Mahal

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet