Featured Creator: Tyler Keillor on the Digital Dinosaur

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If you think about it, Tyler Keillor's project to make the most realistic reconstruction of a dryptosaurus that's ever been attempted is the closest we can possibly get to having real live dinosaurs on Kickstarter. (Clearly, that's a goal we are always working towards.) The project is amazing for a number of reasons, including rewards for a variety of casts of Tyler's incredible dino sculptures. We caught up with this professional paleoartist on how he got to where he is, his process, and obviously, who wins the award for Dopest Dinosaur.

It sounds like you essentially have every 8 year old child's dream career. How did you get to where you are?

I loved dinosaurs and monster movies as a kid, and spent my time drawing, teaching myself how to sculpt, make molds and casts of my creations, life-casting friends’ faces and making special makeup effects for home video projects, etc. During my college years while attending Columbia College in Chicago, I pursued makeup and effects more seriously, and started assisting local makeup artists on film, TV and theater projects, as well as becoming a student of Dick Smith’s Correspondence Course. My exposure to the entertainment industry helped me to see that while I loved the artistry, the field wasn’t a fit for me. I then worked at a dental laboratory making porcelain teeth for dental patients for a few years, and later worked at Chicago’s Field Museum, in the Exhibit department. 

Throughout all of these jobs and experiences, I was assembling the skill set that I use today in my work; and throughout all of those years, I was also revisiting my childhood interest in dinosaurs, reading about new discoveries and advances in the field of paleontology, as well as attempting my own miniature sculptures as a hobby. I’ve been working for paleontologist Paul Sereno at the University of Chicago in 2001, and since that time I’ve had the chance to work with real fossil material on a daily basis, preparing the bones for research, making molds and casts, and developing my style and techniques for the flesh reconstructions that I’ve built for his and other researchers’ discoveries.

Can you run us through the process of creating a model? How do you create a sculpture of a thing when no one really knows what it looks like?

I usually start with a skull – and since complete skulls aren’t always unearthed, I often begin by first restoring the skull from preserved remains, and sculpting missing or damaged parts by mirroring the opposite side of the skull, or looking at other related species. For dinosaur flesh reconstructions, I observe the living relatives such as crocodiles, birds, and even large lizards like Komodo dragons for anatomical reference and inspiration. I try to find similarities in bone texture between the fossil and living species, for clues as to what types of soft tissues may have covered areas of the dinosaur’s face, such as keratin, muscle, lips, etc. 

Once I have an idea for the appearance of the model, and have discussed the reconstruction with the paleontologists I’m collaborating with, it’s time to cover the skull armature with clay, sculpting the details and trying to make them look as natural as possible. The clay sculpture is molded and cast, and the resulting replica is painted and detailed to create the display model. The whole process can take many months.

“Jane” juvenile tyrannosaur
“Jane” juvenile tyrannosaur

What's different about this epic dryptosaurus project that you're embarking on?

This Dryptosaurus project will be my first digitally created model. Also, I will be creating a full body instead of just the bust. As I describe on my Kickstarter project page, there so many advantages to using digital technology to create this dinosaur…but at the same time I am not planning on abandoning my traditional sculptures – this is a powerful tool that will allow me create in a new way. What is not changing is my commitment to create an anatomically and scientifically accurate reconstruction, with the input of paleontologists to verify my work. 


Which of your projects are you most proud of?

It’s really hard to limit it to one, because they’ve all been so unique and demanding…but I am particularly proud of the work I did on a bizarre dinosaur called Nigersaurus. For that project I collaborated with paleontologists Paul Sereno and Jeff Wilson, and it involved a truly challenging skull restoration, and then a lot of investigation and effort to put flesh back on the bones.

A not lame Herrerasaurus!
A not lame Herrerasaurus!

What's the dopest dinosaur? What's the lamest dinosaur? 

My vote for dopest dino, at the moment, would be Spinosaurus. Like Dryptosaurus, this is a dinosaur that’s known from incomplete yet tantalizing remains: a HUGE creature with an enormous dorsal sail, and long toothy jaws. 

And for lamest? There are no lame dinosaurs!! Actually I recently reconstructed a model of a little plant eater called Heterodontosaurus; I thought it would be a really lame dinosaur to sculpt, but it has turned out to be one of my current favorites!

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