• August 7, 2015

Making B-Movie Magic on a Dinosaur Dig

Kim Hubbard

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.

Allosaurus model
The articulated foot of an Allosaurus was located in the Upper Quarry of the Livingston site in the early 1990s.

Photographer Robb Kendrick and I worked on a National 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.

Ramphorhyncus model
While Ramphorhyncus itself didn’t live in Montana, rhamphorhynchid pterosaurs have been found in the Morrison Formation.

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.

Stegosaurus model
In June, the Livingston crew found a Stegosaurus, the first scientifically documented specimen ever discovered in Montana. The remains consist of a few plates, a whole humerus, a portion of lower leg, a few vertebrae, and some ribs.

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.

Apatasaurus model
At least two Apatasaurus specimens have been excavated from the Lower Quarry of the Livingston site. A 4.5-foot-long femur was found shortly after Sam and I left.

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.

Sauropelta model
Sauropelta, a dinosaur from the early Cretaceous in Montana, looks similar to earlier versions of ankylosaurs who lived in the Morrison Formation.

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.

Ceratosaurus model
Ceratosaurus has been discovered in the Morrison Formation in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado but not Montana. Yet.

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.

Diplodocus model
Two remarkably preserved, largely complete skeletons of Diplodocus were found in the Upper and Lower Quarries of the Livingston site. One of them is currently on display at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

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.

There are 18 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Margaret
    August 28, 2015

    I too would love to see prints of these available! Any further info on that?

  2. kira
    August 27, 2015

    love dis shiz, i want a dino for myself, and i also think that kims love to tiny and her fascination with dinosaurs has melded perfectly!

  3. Elena Smith
    August 18, 2015

    I’m 74 and I enjoy things older than me. I like Jurassic Park!!!

  4. soupbone
    August 17, 2015

    Where can I find the tintype app you used – I love the effect.

  5. james smith
    August 17, 2015

    I loved the pterodactyl! great stuff…the stegosaurus? was good too….

  6. Colleen McAllister
    August 17, 2015

    I love these photos! I played with tiny dinosaurs when I was little and never lost my love for them. I want to try some photos like this myself. Thank you!

  7. Janet R.
    August 16, 2015

    Your pictures are really fun! What a great idea.

  8. BigZucchini Mike
    August 16, 2015

    wheres the photo of Donald Trump?

  9. Christy
    August 16, 2015

    These photos are just incredible! Have you thought about a coffee table book?

  10. bwana
    August 16, 2015

    Have always loved dinosaurs and prehistory. I have the ideal home, about an hour from the Royal Tyrrell Museum in the Alberta Badlands. A visit to this museum is always a highlight of my life!

  11. D. Glenn Riley
    August 16, 2015

    I really like your pictures.

  12. Anonymole
    August 16, 2015

    Clever composition. Simple, fun yet oddly compelling. Would suggest always photographing such dioramas from much closer to the ground – lens wise. Like less than 1 inch. Maybe flip the phone and set the top in the dirt – photographing upsidedown?

  13. Kim Hubbard
    August 11, 2015

    Thanks so much! These are among my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken.
    Dominique and Jim, I’ll be in touch with info about prints.

  14. Aidan
    August 10, 2015

    ow! great shots. but… no shots of when you got to lick bones?!?! 🙂
    just kidding. the shots are great. i guess you used a large aperture, small f-stop to get that out of focus background, and you did it well! takes time and effort to get your subject just right. i like, i like!

  15. Dominique B
    August 9, 2015

    Same as Jim, these are beautiful and I would love prints! Are they available anywhere?

  16. Jim
    August 7, 2015

    Beautiful images. Are there prints for sale anywhere? Thanks.

  17. Linda OCallahan
    August 7, 2015

    Kim’s love of tiny and her fascination with dinosaurs has melded perfectly!

  18. Chris Fisher
    August 7, 2015

    Visualizing the past is an important first step in any sort of broader interpretation – whether it be dinosaurs or past civilizations. This is a great example and I hope more people take Kim Hubbard’s lead!

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