Stuart Sumida’s career is one wild ride – literally. The paleontologist and animal anatomy consultant for animated films helped design a scary Yeti for the Expedition Everest attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. How did Sumida go from professor of paleontology to adviser for The Lion King, How to Train Your Dragon, and other animated flicks? Well, he explains that in the interview below, plus what kinds of questions he receives from animators, how science advising has influenced his teaching, and what projects (a sequel to How to Train Your Dragon!) he’s working on now.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a paleontologist?
Like many youngsters, an interest in marine biology was my “gateway science.” But as an undergraduate at UCLA, my comparative anatomy instructor, Professor Peter Vaughn, captivated me. I asked if I could do an undergraduate honors thesis with him. He was a paleontologist and when I saw what he was doing I was at first intrigued, and then quickly hooked. I stayed with him at UCLA for my doctorate and afterward went to the University of Chicago for a postdoctorate, with plans to work with Eric Lombard there to gain more experience in functional morphology and physiology. But when I arrived Lombard was gung-ho for traditional paleontology, so that is what we did – and that is what really cemented my career as a paleontologist.
Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science?
Like many people of my generation, one of my early media interests was the original Star Trek television series (yes, I am giving away my age here). Not so much because of the accuracy of the science, but the fact that science was valued. And science was part of the optimistic outlook for the future. I also quite enjoyed the original Planet of the Apes films, though for reasons you might not expect. To this day, one of the finest teachers I’ve ever had was my first martial arts instructor, Bill Ryusaki, and he was a stuntman in a number of those films. I watched them to see him, but it also fed into my already heavy habit of gobbling up science fiction in all forms.
How did you start consulting for film projects? How did you become involved with The Science & Entertainment Exchange?
When in graduate school at UCLA, I became very good friends with Charles Solomon who was working on his master of fine arts in animation at the time. He quickly saw the important intersection of science and art and often invited my fellow biology students and me over to Art and Animation. The animation and biology students would share ideas and talk with one another. Solomon has since gone on to become one of the most respected historians and critics of animation worldwide, and when some of the artists at Disney were discussing their difficulties with horses and wolves on a particular project he asked them, “Why don’t you talk to a biologist?” I was still at the University of Chicago at the time, but at his recommendation they flew me out for a talk – and those horses and wolves became characters in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. They had me back for the plethora of animals in The Lion King, just as I got started in my position at Cal State San Bernardino, and the rollercoaster has been rolling ever since! So far I’ve worked as an animal anatomy consultant on about 50 motion pictures with a variety of different studios.
One of the fun things I’ve been able to do with my odd hybrid of experiences is speak at a number of film festivals. At one I met David Bolinsky, who produced the Life of the Cell in conjunction with Harvard University. I had him speak at a scientific visualization event I helped coordinate and we got to know one another pretty well. He recommended me to The Exchange when it was still in its embryonic form, and it’s been a great relationship ever since.
What kinds of questions do the animators and artists you work with ask you? Are there any you haven’t been able to answer?
When I first started working on animated films, it was still primarily the world of traditional hand-drawn characters. In those days, most artists were interested in animal shape and biomechanics. They still are, but as the pendulum has recently swung in the direction of computer animation and digital effects artists have also become much more deeply aware of the importance of skeletons and joints. All computer generated characters have an underlying structure known as a rig, which run the characters much like a marionette is run by a puppeteer. And the best proxy for a rig is the skeleton and its joints.
There are always questions that cannot really be answered, but my approach is instead to treat such queries as biological problems. Some classics are: “So what is the anatomy of a dragon?” or “a centaur,” and so on. Of course, we do not actually know. But the real question then becomes, what do we know about the component parts and how they work, and if they could work, how would we sew them together? I think they did a terrific job of answering such questions in DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon. A very different example was on a film like Tarzan for Disney Feature Animation. When asked to work on that film I viewed it essentially as (again) a biological question. What would happen if a primate with long legs and relatively shorter arms (a human) had to learn to locomote from one with relatively long arms and short legs? The results, especially Glen Keane’s work on Tarzan himself was wonderful.
Has your work with the movie industry influenced your research or the way you've taught science at Cal State?
I am fortunate that Cal State San Bernardino is very understanding about my admittedly eclectic approach to professional activity. I continue traditional field-based vertebrate paleontology with my close colleague David Berman at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. But the university also encourages me to work on films (so long as I get my teaching done!). Fortunately, the imagery with which I am involved at the studios provides me with some very dramatic materials with which to teach human and comparative vertebrate anatomy. My students learn the same things others do at different universities, but they might learn flight biomechanics with the aid of a dragon (How to Train Your Dragon) or an animated parrot (Rio). Or they might learn the difference in the types of gallops a carnivore displays when compared to an herbivore with shots from The Lion King. When artists get it right it is beautiful and a powerful teaching tool.
Beyond animated films, you have consulted on anatomy for a few attractions at Disney Theme Parks. What was that like? Did it differ from consulting for a film?
In 1999, Disney Imagineering sponsored my sabbatical leave, and I got to be an anatomical trouble-shooter for many of the characters in their Disneyland and Disney World Florida attractions. I have had a wonderful relationship with Imagineering ever since. One of the most exciting projects was helping them out with the Expedition Everest attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park in Florida. Starting in 2003, I got to help with the design and biomechanics of the Yeti character that you see while on that rollercoaster. It is one of the largest audio-animatronic robots ever built at nearly two-and-a-half stories tall. The attraction opened in 2006. In many ways it was a much more “evolutionary process” than some films, as we saw what did and did not work, both in terms of entertainment and mechanical function. Along the way, I also learned a ton of physics! I have to say, some of the artists that work on such projects are also some of the most superb scientist/engineers I know.
So, what is the most unexpected thing you have run across in your wide-ranging scientific career? Anything you can share about your next project?
I have to say, what is most startling to me as an evolutionary biologist is just how many people feel they know better than me about science and evolution – with no training of their own. Evolutionary biology (and recently climate change science) is one of the very few areas of science where people feel that it can somehow be questioned as to its validity. You would never dream of treating your physician, dentist, or even plumber that way. Can you imagine someone going to the dentist with a toothache and saying: “I have no dental training, but I know better, and everything you’ve studied about teeth is wrong”? Ironically, many paleontologists teach in medical and dental schools. We may be as heavily represented in basic biomedical teaching as any other biological specialty. Fortunately, animation these days is a very science-heavy activity. Physics, computer science, biology, anatomy ... they all go into it. So it is a very stealthy way to get people to accept science and technology, and to talk about them as well. I have two young sons (Darwin, 10, and Owen, 4). Along with my students, they inspire me; I want them to grow up in the best world possible.
In the meantime, upcoming projects include work with Moving Picture Company and Rhythm and Hues on Life of Pi, the Yann Martel book that’s being adapted into a film by Ang Lee. The book is well known, but I am not yet allowed to say much about the characters with which I helped. Down the road will be the sequel to How to Train Your Dragon as well. Beyond that I am not sure. However, I am sure that I have one of the best jobs on the planet. With paleontology and animation you cannot go wrong. Kids love them both, and it is my opportunity to infect them with a love for science. I take heart in them. It is my children’s generation who will see the importance of science coupled with art, and, I hope, be the saviors of science in our country.