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T. rex Autopsy: 5 good questions with Erin Fifer, National Geographic research manager

FCP logoThe National Geographic Channel in June released an ambitious project that took eight months to complete: a (very bloody) hands-on, boots-on examination of what it might be like to conduct an autopsy on “the biggest, baddest meat-eater that ever lived.”

A life-sized replica of the tyrannosaurus rex with realistic-looking organs, blood and horrible dead-carnivore stench  was constructed in about 10,000 hours by a team of special effects experts. Filming took place in a London movie studio, and “T. rex Autopsy” first aired in early June.

Erin Fifer, National Geographic Channel’s research manager based in Washington, D.C., was given the job of fact-checking “T. rex Autopsy.” For many reasons, it wasn’t an easy task: Obviously no one’s actually ever seen a dinosaur; and the science-based show had to remain captivating for 90 minutes without taking dramatic license with the facts. Fifer answered some questions from the American Press Institute’s Fact-Checking project about her work on the program.

Erin Fifer

Erin Fifer

First of all, we want to know: Did you get to climb inside the T. rex and play around with dinosaur guts?

Sadly, no, I wish! Our executive producer did hang out inside the foamy abdomen at one point as the special effects team were beginning to assemble it onsite in the studio.  I did get to touch the dinosaur, though, and walk around the studio floor in the sticky squelch of its (fake, made-of-syrup) blood.

The producers of “T. rex Autopsy” wanted to make it clear this was not a “fake documentary.”  They didn’t want any comparisons to, say, another science channel’s program about mermaid. From a research and fact-checking standpoint, how did you assist in that effort?

First and foremost, I worked with the editorial team to help craft narration that would clearly frame the program for the audience. We started off the show with language like “Imagine if…”, reprised that language several times coming back from commercial breaks, and then ended the program with a clear explanation detailing how we had made this model, and all the amazing work that had gone into it with the ultimate goal of exploring what we know about this iconic creature in a totally novel way.

The other part of my involvement was to help guide our onscreen experts through that tightrope walk of not going too far or compromising standards, while still creating dramatically engaging television. All our experts were completely mindful of and eager to fulfill both those needs, so we discussed some ways for them to talk about the model through a more experiential lens. As in, “I’ve never experienced T. rex in this way before” – which is 100 percent true, especially for paleontologists who are used to working with bones, and are suddenly eyeball deep in goopy, smelly organs. Language like that allowed them to stay in the “Imagine if…” world of the program without crossing the line into uncomfortable territory.

UNITED KINGDOM - The T. rex’s stomach and intestines have been removed.

(photo credit:  National Geographic Channels/Stuart Freedman)

The T. rex’s stomach and intestines have been removed.

 (National Geographic Channels/Stuart Freedman)

Can you give us some behind-the-scenes facts about the fact-checking? 

The fact-checking for this show was pretty unique for us, for a couple reasons: 1) as researchers working in television, our normal workflow focuses on scripts and film – not on huge physical objects; and 2) in this case, no one knows what that huge physical object actually looked like in real life. The nature of this program therefore required us to get a little creative in adapting our usual process.

Normally, our fact-checking process is based on what we call an annotated script. It’s a massive script that reflects all the onscreen content of a given show, and includes a credible source to support each statement of fact or visual element – like computer generated imagery of a T. rex feeding. Once the program was shot, we did go through this process as normal to fact check the hundreds of factual statements to be recorded in the narration.

But at its heart the show really revolves around the T. rex model itself, so long before filming began we had to thoroughly research all aspects of the model as it was being created.

We worked very closely with a team of paleontologists. After the special effects company sculpted an organ in clay, we sent pictures of it to whichever of the paleontologists would be best suited based on their expertise to comment. We got their input, and directed it back to the special effects company to make changes. This process continued, with updated pictures being sent and updated input being given, until the paleontologists felt comfortable with the way we were depicting that organ or feature.

Obviously, as mentioned, for many of these things we don’t always know what a given organ actually looked like, so in many cases we were working within boundaries circumscribed by the modern examples of bird and croc anatomy (as the closest living analogues). Then, once everyone was happy, the special effects company went ahead and molded the organ in its final form in silicone and other special materials.

It was quite a process, but honestly it was a privilege to work on something that fascinating and downright cool.

In order to keep track of all this research (often happening on different organs simultaneously), we created separate “annotated” documents for each organ or element of the body as it was being created. Each included all our own research on the topic, such as scholarly journal articles related to this feature in T. rex or related dinosaurs, and relevant comparative bird and croc anatomy. And most importantly, each listed which of our paleontologists had been consulted, and included all their feedback and their ultimate approval. We also had a Google spreadsheet to track where we were in the process on each organ/element, and to keep an eye on our very tight timeline.

There were two of us working through all this research – myself, and the wonderful assistant producer at the production company creating the show for us. It was quite a process, but honestly it was a privilege to work on something that fascinating and downright cool.

The T. rex rests under the glare of lights in the specially constructed biology lab.

(National Geographic Channels/Stuart Freedman)

The T. rex rests under the glare of lights in the specially constructed biology lab.

(National Geographic Channels/Stuart Freedman)

What was the most challenging fact/statement you checked, and how did you do it?

As mentioned, the model itself was the most challenging part of the whole program, much more than any statement of fact – but as far as a particularly challenging discrete element, as I recall the model’s head took a bit of extra work.

Of course there is plenty of fossil evidence of T. rex skulls, but you don’t necessarily realize ahead of time how much additional expert opinion has to flow into the head: there’s the placement and size of the massive neck muscles, the size of the ear holes, the shape and volume of the lips, the position of the nostrils, etc. Not to mention there was a last-minute crises where an expert became deeply concerned about the position of one of the major facial features — one that would have been almost impossible to change at that point — but we finally figured out it was just the angle at which a particular set of photos were taken. In the end I think the head really turned out spectacularly.

Journalists at times also are tasked with checking statements or facts that are old and esoteric, and finding data to support or discredit the statement is tricky. Do you have any favorite tips, tools, resources or encouragement you can share?

My personal strategy when I come up against something impossibly tricky to nail down is to turn to people – experts, specifically.  Especially as the world turns more and more towards seeking knowledge in the digital realm, it is always so refreshing (and satisfying) to have someone who has dedicated their life to studying a topic explain something to you clearly and succinctly, in no time flat. Someone out there knows the answer to what you’re looking for, you just have to you find them.

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