Photograph by Mike Hettwer, assisted by Mark Thiessen
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Spinosaurus, ready for its close-up
Photograph by Mike Hettwer, assisted by Mark Thiessen

Jurassic Parking Lot: Spinosaurus Makes Its Debut

The story of “Mister Big,” begins in March 2013, when paleontologists Nizar Ibrahim and Paul Sereno brought an exciting new discovery to National Geographic headquarters. In a closed door presentation, the pair told a few members of the staff about their exciting new research on Spinosaurus, the largest carnivore to have ever lived—larger even than T. rex. And most surprisingly, this dinosaur wasn’t a land animal, but one adapted to life in the water. Then and there, Senior Photo Editor Kim Hubbard and Science Editor Jamie Shreeve knew they had something for the pages of the magazine. For Hubbard, the challenge of bringing this creature to life was on.

Spinosaurus was a seriously cool dinosaur. An enormous predator with an 6-foot-tall sail, nothing else looks like it, and now we know that nothing else behaved like it. This dinosaur could swim! The pressure was on to make a really great picture. Where did we begin?

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Click to enlarge GeoModel

The folks at GeoModel in Italy made a beautiful life-size version of it that we could use for our shoot, so photographers Mike Hettwer and Mark Thiessen, Creative Director Bill Marr, Director of Photography Sarah Leen, and I started brainstorming. When Spinosaurus lived in Morocco 100 million years ago, the area was a swamp. We located a gorgeous spot in Louisiana that was a surprisingly similar environment, but we soon realized there was a very real possibility that our 2,200-pound dinosaur model would sink in the mud.

So we went to Plan B: Put the dinosaur in a modern environment where it absolutely shouldn’t be.

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A 53-foot flatbed truck transported the bubble-wrapped dinosaur through downtown Chicago on a route designed to avoid any low overhangs. Photograph by Kim Hubbard

We loved the idea of juxtaposing old and new. We originally wanted to put it in a suburban neighborhood, but there wasn’t enough space for the crane, the trucks, the lights, or the dinosaur. Even if we could get it in lengthwise on the street, there wouldn’t be enough room to back up to get a picture of the full body. It’s a very horizontal dinosaur. So a parking lot was our next option. Should it be a small bank parking lot or that of a big box store? We envisioned a foggy scene with the dinosaur towering over the trees and lights. After many weeks of searching for exactly the right combination of elements, Mike found the perfect parking lot at a golf course outside Chicago. We were thrilled! During meetings, we showed off pictures of that parking lot like they were baby photos. Now that we had a location, planning went into high gear. How on earth do you get a dinosaur from Milan to Chicago? We found out very quickly it’s not easy to transport a 50-foot long awkwardly-shaped creature, even if it is in 8 pieces.

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GeoModel owner Mauro Scaggiante crawls into the belly of the beast in order to tighten the screws on the leg of the dinosaur. Photograph by Kim Hubbard

There were many, many logistics to work out (even dinosaurs have to go through customs), but after a two-week boat ride to New York, and a 3-day truck ride from NYC to Chicago, the Spinosaurus was ready for its closeup. Almost. First he had to be unpacked. We removed about a million miles of bubble wrap, and then we had to use a crane to put the giant pieces of dinosaur together. Luckily it came with an instruction manual—for real. Eight hours, 10 men, 3 women, and countless tools later, it was ready for makeup. A paleo artist applied some color around its eyes, and used rubber cement and fishing line to create strings of saliva dripping from its enormous teeth.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Assembling Spinosaurus

As the sun began to set on a damp and chilly night, we were ready to shoot. Or so we thought. After all our careful planning, the dinosaur was standing in the wrong spot. The trees behind it seemed to jut out of its head at weird angles. We wanted a cleaner background, so it had to be moved. As the crane lifted the dinosaur a few inches off the ground, the body started to swing back and forth so much we were worried it was going to break in two (not good!) so we had to move it with manpower instead. Everyone got a grip on a leg and at the count of three, we pushed a few inches at a time. It took several efforts, but we managed to get it where we wanted.

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Despite our detailed planning, the lights and trees were not lining up the way we’d hoped in the original placement of the dinosaur. We ended up moving it across the parking lot. Photograph by Kim Hubbard

At last, we fired up the three fog machines and started shooting! The fog was there to hide the poles on the base of the legs. It was not cooperative. One of the “fog wranglers” ran through the frame with his machine during an exposure, and that did the trick. From then on, someone dashed back and forth behind the dinosaur in every single picture.

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Mark Thiessen and Mike Hettwer (right) check the framing of the photo while the rest of the crew makes final adjustments before the shoot. Photograph by Kim Hubbard

I manned a computer screen a few feet away from Mike, and as he shot, I instantly saw the new pictures. As we started to get photos we knew were good, we experimented a bit more. We pulled back and included the equipment in the frame, to make it look like a movie set. This dinosaur was a star, and we wanted it to look that way. Total Hollywood. This is the picture we ended up using on the opening spread of the magazine. After months of planning and three days of shooting, we felt we’d done the dinosaur justice.

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A model of the Cretaceous predator Spinosaurus gets rock star treatment. Photograph by Mike Hettwer, assisted by Mark Thiessen

“Mister Big” is the cover story of the October 2014 issue of National Geographic. Learn more about the life of the Spinosaurus and the chain of events unravelling the riddle of this unusual creature here. Or, come see Spinosaurus for yourselfSpinosaurus for yourself, on display at the National Geographic Museum until April 2015.