Flying Monsters 3D’: extinct flying reptiles star in an award-winning multi-media offer promoting science on a global scale
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Leicester
Unit of AssessmentEarth Systems and Environmental Sciences
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Earth Sciences: Geology
Biological Sciences: Ecology, Evolutionary Biology
Summary of the impact
Research by David Unwin on extinct flying reptiles underpinned a
successful bid to produce a 3D digital product backed by funding,
principally from Sky, of more than three million pounds. This facilitated
development of 3D film technology by the British film industry and
resulted in a BAFTA award winning digital film `Flying Monsters 3D'. FM3D
was hosted by David Attenborough, featured Unwin and was delivered via
television, cinemas and the web. The film, which has generated revenues of
more than $10 million, is primarily targeted at children and has helped
foster positive attitudes toward natural history, the sciences and
Pterosaurs, the first back-boned animals to achieve true flapping flight,
were a key component of Mesozoic faunas and dominated the skies for more
than 140 million years. This iconic group, without which no dinosaur
diorama, film, or documentary would be complete, were unique in many
respects, not least the giant sizes achieved by some species with
wingspans in excess of 10 metres. The sheer exoticism of pterosaurs
coupled with their patchy fossil record has rendered these creatures one
of the great enigmas of palaeontology and, until recently, a mass of
contradictions, debates and controversies. During the last two decades, a
series of important new finds coupled with the application of modern
approaches such as scanning electron microscopy and phylogenetic analysis
have revolutionised our understanding of the biology and evolutionary
history of pterosaurs.
David Unwin, based in Leicester since 2006 and Reader in Palaeobiology
since 2009, has been at the forefront of this research, authoring more
than 100 presentations, 60 papers, a book and several edited volumes on
pterosaurs. Research projects founded and directed by Unwin, many of them
involving international collaboration (e.g. in Argentina, China, Germany,
Romania, Russia, Mongolia, Spain, and the USA) have played a pivotal role
in shaping our understanding of these unique animals and helped solve a
string of outstanding questions concerning pterosaur anatomy, locomotory
abilities, reproduction, physiology, taxonomy and evolutionary
Recently completed projects led by Unwin (1-6) directly
contributed to several key episodes of `Flying Monsters' and underpinned
the general historical narrative of the film. Unwin's phylogenetic
analyses of pterosaurs, the most comprehensive in the field, played a
critical role in identifying a series of new forms (Shenzhoupterus
(2), Darwinopterus (1), Alanqa (5))
and established their relationships to other pterosaurs. Darwinopterus,
heavily featured in the film, is one of the most important fossil finds
ever made. This pterosaur, first recognised by Unwin in Beijing in 2009,
has a highly unusual anatomy, consisting of a remarkably advanced skull
and neck perched on a primitive body. Darwinopterus thus fills a
large and seemingly unbridgeable evolutionary gap between primitive and
advanced pterosaurs. As Unwin and colleagues have shown (1),
this pattern points to a `modular' form of evolution that could explain a
long-standing problem: the frequent appearance, in the fossil record, of
relatively rapid, large-scale evolutionary changes.
Unwin's research on the reproductive biology of pterosaurs (3,4),
in collaboration with colleagues in the UK and China, led to startling new
insights into the nesting behaviour of these animals: they buried their
eggs, like many reptiles, rather than sitting on them as birds do. An
extraordinary specimen of a female Darwinopterus preserved in
association with an egg, dubbed `Mrs T' by Unwin, further emphasised the
remarkably reptilian nature of pterosaurs (3). Studies on
exceptionally well preserved skeletons by Unwin and colleagues based in
the USA resolved a particularly troublesome paradox: how was the
respiratory system of the reptile-like pterosaurs able to support the
highly demanding activity of flapping flight (6). This work also
supplied fresh insights into the evolution of giant size in pterosaurs
which was facilitated through the extensive hollowing out of bones and
soft tissues by extensions of the lungs
References to the research
1. Lü Junchang, Unwin, D. M. & Jin Xingsheng. 2010. Modular
evolution in a long-tailed pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull. Proceedings
of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277, 383-389.
2. Lü, Junchang, Unwin, D. M., Xu Li & Zhang Xingliao. 2008.
A new azhdarchoid pterosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China and its
implications for pterosaur phylogeny and evolution. Naturwissenschaften,
3. Lü Junchang, Unwin, D. M., Deeming, D. C., Jin Xingsheng, Liu
Yongqing and Ji Qiang. An egg-adult association, gender, and reproduction
in pterosaurs. Science, 331, 321-324.
4. Unwin, D. M. & Deeming, D. C. 2008. Pterosaur eggshell
structure and its implications for pterosaur reproductive biology. Zitteliana,
5. Ibrahim, N., Unwin D. M., Martill, D. M.,
Baidder L. & Zouhri, S. 2010. A new pterosaur
(Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchidae) from the Upper Cretaceous of Morocco. PLoS
ONE, 5(5): e10875. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010875.
6. Claessens, L. P. A. M, O'Connor, P. M. and Unwin, D. M.
Respiratory evolution facilitated the origin of pterosaur flight and
aerial gigantism. PLoS ONE, 4(2): e4497,
Royal Society International Joint Project Grant: `Reproduction and early
ontogeny in pterosaurs'. Unwin and Lü (Chinese Academy of Geological
Sciences, Beijing, China), 2010-12; £11,800.
References 1-3 and 5-6 appeared in well known, highly ranked
international science journals. Journal impact factor, number of citations
and, in the case of PloS ONE, number of views, are as follows: (1.) 5.68,
39; (2.) 2.14, 29; (3.) 31.03, 22; (4.) 0.17, 3; (5.) 3.73, 16, 15,317;
(6.) 3.73, 35, 22,861.
Details of the impact
A. Contributions to the film:
I. A physical role in the film. Unwin featured in two stories, `Darwinopterus'
and `Robodactylus', filmed in London at the end of July 2010. With the
exception of the host, Attenborough, this was the longest appearance in
the film by a contributor. Unwin also appeared in the `Making of Flying
II. Unwin was the lead scientific consultant on the film and contributed
to the development of the script, assessment of ideas and story lines and
fact-checking. He also provided critical feedback on animations and film
sequences. Discussion of the central narrative and of several episodes,
e.g. on Darwinopterus, took place during an all-day meeting in
London in early 2010 and subsequently by email and phone (B).
III. Generation and provision, between December 2009 and April 2010, of
information on film locations (e.g. Solnhofen, Germany; Crayssac, France),
an extensive list of contacts and advice on the suitability and
accessibility of specific objects (e.g. specimens of Darwinopterus)
B. Investment in the British Film Industry.
Approval of the film project by Sky brought considerable benefit to
Atlantic, the producer of FM3D, and its subcontractors (C).
Principal among these were: ONSIGHT 3D, responsible for postproduction and
editing services; Vision3 who supervised the 3D filming and provided
production support; ZOO , who generated the high resolution CGI suitable
for the very large screens found in Imax theatres; and FIDO, who developed
and built models used in filming and CGI production (C). In total,
more than 130 people were involved in the project which spanned the period
late 2009 to late 2010 (D).
The primary benefit came in the form of financial funding (>£3
million) principally from Sky. Work on FM3D provided Atlantic and its
subcontractors with a unique opportunity to develop high end 3D film
technology and processes, described by Atlantic CEO Anthony Geffen as `an
evolving tool-set' (E), and thus acquire expertise and experience
in this important and rapidly developing area. `Flying Monsters' thus
became a `showcase for 3D moviemaking' as applied to documentaries (F).
Building directly on the financial and critical success of this project
(see below) Atlantic have gone on to produce a series of documentaries
(e.g. `Galapagos 3D', `Micro Monsters 3D'), that have also met with
critical acclaim (F).
C. Revenue generation and distribution
Unusually, for a science documentary, FM3D has been a great financial
success. By May 2013 it had generated more than ten million dollars in
revenue from Imax and other movie theatre ticket sales and this will rise
further as the film continues to be shown worldwide (G).
A unique, ground-breaking feature of FM3D, vastly increasing its
potential audience, has been its delivery across an array of platforms.
Through collaboration with National Geographic the film has been
distributed to film theatres across the globe (G). The film can
also be streamed from the internet, is available on DVD and Blue Ray DVD,
was broadcast on terrestrial television (with a debut on Xmas Day 2010)
and content can also be viewed via an app for the iPad and Android (G).
The total viewing audience exceeds one million. The film also has a very
large geographic footprint, having been shown in more than 75 IMax
theatres worldwide distributed across 20 countries (G).
D. Evaluation of `Flying Monsters 3D'.
To date FM3D has been awarded five prizes (H). The most
prestigious of these, a BAFTA for the best specialist factual film, was
awarded in 2011. The film also won a Special Award given by the
International Broadcasting Convention, for best science film, in 2011,
best Earth and Environmental Program at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film
Festival in 2012, and a Panda Award for best 3D film at Wildscreen 2012.
The film has garnered a large number of positive reviews. Mean
aggregations of these posted on the principal film review websites show
consistently high scores (e.g. Rotten Tomatoes = 100%; IMDb = 7.0/10 for
279 reviews (I)).
E. Target audience and educational impact.
The principal target of this film was children of school age. Many film
reviews comment positively in this respect ("the majority of the 3D
imagery is impressive enough to instill a sense of awe among its
predominantly school-age target audience", Timeout 03/05/11)
showing that this aim was achieved (I). Audience
figures indicate that more than five hundred thousand school-age children
have already seen FM3D (G). The positive educational impact of the
film is further demonstrated by National Geographic which has used their
web-site to deliver additional educational content, based on FM3D and
aimed at school-children (J). Six hours of teaching material
introduces children to aspects of palaeontology and to broader concepts
such as biomechanics and evolution (J). Principal natural history
museums, such as the AMNH, New York, have also been incorporating FM3D
into their educational programmes (J).
Sources to corroborate the impact
A. Details of `Flying Monsters 3D': www.flyingmonsters3dmovie.com.
Details of `The Making of Flying Monsters 3D': www.atlanticproductions.tv/productions/making-
B. Meeting agenda for Flying Monsters 3D, March 2010 and emails between
DU and Atlantic, 12/11/2009 to 17/11/2010
C. Principal companies involved in the production of `Flying Monsters
3D': Atlantic: www.atlanticproductions.tv;
ONSIGHT 3D: www.onsight.co.uk;
Vision3: www.vision3.tv; ZOO: http://zoovfx.com;
D. Cast list for `Flying Monsters 3D': www.imdb.com/title/tt1777610/fullcredits.
E. Kaufman, D. 2012. `Behind the lens: Flying Monsters 3D',
F. Details of Atlantic films:
`The Bachelor King 3D': www.atlanticproductions.tv/productions/the-bachelor-king-3d-with-david-
attenborough/ `Kingdom of Plants 3D': www.atlanticproductions.tv/productions/kingdom-of-plants-3d-with-david-
attenborough. `Galapagos 3D': www.atlanticproductions.tv/productions/galapagos-3d.
`Micro Monsters 3D': www.atlanticproductions.tv/productions/micro-monsters/
News stories and links to reviews of these films: www.atlanticproductions.tv/news.
G. Revenue generated by `Flying Monsters 3D':
See also: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=flyingmonsters.htm.
Distribution: National Geographic: http://movies.nationalgeographic.co.uk/movies/flying-
monsters/theater-listings/ Video on demand (download from internet):
Blue Ray: www.blu-ray.com/movies/Flying-Monsters-3D-Blu-ray/42028/#Review.
Phone app: www.amediatek.com/project/flying-monsters-3d/.
H. Prizes for `Flying Monsters 3D':
British Academy of Film & Television Arts (BAFTA) for Best 3D Film
Special Award for Innovation at the International Broadcasting Convention
in Amsterdam 2011:
Best Science Film from The Association of International Broadcasters 2011:
Panda Award for 3D Film at Wildscreen 2012: www.wildscreenfestival.org/index.php?pageid=426&parentid=368.
Best Earth and Environmental Science film at the Jackson Hole Science
Media Awards 2012: www.jhfestival.org/sciencemedia/winners.htm
Further details of awards and prizes can be found in the 2012 version of
`Press Kit for Flying Monsters' available from Atlantic (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I. Film reviews of `Flying Monsters 3D':
Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/flying_monsters_3d_with_david_attenborough/
J. National Geographic education site:
See also the American Museum of Natural History `Learn and Teach' website: