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Film Why dinosaurs

From 'WHY DINOSAURS.' Photo courtesy SIFF.

SIFF 2024 Streaming: ‘WHY DINOSAURS?’

Meet the father-son filmmakers behind terrific introduction to paleontology

The capricious and often emotionally estranged teenage years can be challenging for parents to navigate. While many struggle to make a meaningful connection and squirrel away quality time with their growing adolescents, filmmaker Tony Pinto has found a solution. 

“I recommend to anyone: find a way to do something with your kid,” Tony said while seated next to his son and filmmaking partner James. “I didn’t care about dinosaurs. I do like them a lot now. I have friends who are paleontologists. I am deep into dinosaurs, and it’s all because of him.”

Film Why dinosaurs Tony and James

Tony and James, the father son duo behind ‘WHY DINOSAURS.’ Photo courtesy SIFF

Labor of love and point of connection

It was three days after James graduated from UC Berkeley with a double major in Integrative Biology and Geology that the Pintos landed in the Emerald City to discuss the project that has become a labor of love and a point of connection for the duo. They held several screenings during the Seattle International Film Festival and even hosted a special showing at the Burke Museum, where the father-son team also received a private tour of its fossil exhibit. Their film is called “WHY DINOSAURS?” and it is a soaring exploration into the history and modern relevancy of creatures that have been extinct for some 65 million years. 

As co-writers, co-directors, and co-producers, the Pintos combined their passions to make the documentary a reality. It was James’ early love of and interest in dinosaurs that inspired the film’s subject matter. Tony owns a commercial filmmaking business that focuses mainly on advertisements and corporate videos. He encouraged his son’s interest, taking him to dig sites in their home state of California and even traveling across state borders for opportunities in the field. Tony’s familiarity with film equipment and his skill behind the camera certainly helped in their first-ever feature film endeavor, which began in earnest when James’ “kid-level passion” developed into something “more than anyone really expected”. 

Learning by doing

So began six-plus years of “learning by doing” on their documentary, which took Tony and James all over the world. They interviewed working scientists, museum curators, dino mega fans, and Hollywood insiders, like “Jurassic World” director Collin Trevorrow. The common theme between Tony and James is their identical love and appreciation for museums, which play a big role in the film’s setting. It is also the dream home for this passion project.

“Museums are really important,” James said. “They almost feel like they shouldn’t exist. They are such a noble goal. Like let’s just have some knowledge in a place and let’s tell some people about it. There’s no crazy money-making scheme in the end. Just a repository of information.”

“There’s a nod to that in the film, too,” Tony said, mirroring his son’s enthusiasm on the subject. “Next time you’re in a museum looking at a dinosaur, think about all the people that found it, dug it up, researched it, prepped it, put it on display, took care of it. That’s every museum. One of the goals of the film is to bring people into museums. Doing screenings at museums. Letting people know that museums are cool. You don’t have to do everything on your screen. Go to a museum.”

Film Why dinosaurs

‘WHY DINOSAURS.’ Photo courtesy SIFF.

Years in the making

The film’s production spanned James’ time in high school and college. Tony and James would collaborate during holiday and summer breaks or whenever they could fit it into their busy schedules. Through the global pandemic, they kept filming, resorting to Zoom interviews with their subjects in China and postponing trips to important filming sites in Europe until restrictions were lifted. According to Tony, they didn’t want to “shortchange dinosaurs” because “paleontology is a worldwide phenomenon”. 

Their patience and dedication to the film, which Tony said he originally envisioned as a short YouTube video, pays off. “WHY DINOSAURS?” is a wonderful introduction for late elementary school viewers to the fascinating science of paleontology or the study of fossil animals and plants. The film looks far beyond the ancient behemoths, sneaking in science, history, and a wealth of knowledge that uses everyone’s favorite Jurassic-era creatures as the hook.

“Dinosaurs have this cultural cachet with people that other organisms or groups of processes don’t have,” James said. “The pitch was, from a historical perspective, why is that the case? Where does all this fascination with dinosaurs come from? Is there something more than just they’re big and scary that has led people to be interested in them so much in the past 150 years?”

Pursuing Paleontology

Though filmmaking was Tony’s interest, James found the process of making the film to be “a very good pilot” for him professionally. He’s accepted a post at the University of Southern California, where he’ll pursue a PhD in Paleontology. While James may be looking to leave the film behind for more academic pursuits, Tony is eager for “WHY DINOSAURS?” to find a wider audience and maybe even encourage a new generation of young paleontologists.

“If we can use dinosaurs to be the hook to get kids interested in all these other STEM fields, to me, that’s a win,” Tony said. “That’s the first science they’re going to be interested in, and from there, they can go into engineering or whatever. Let it be the gateway to science.”

Seattle is only the starting point for the first-time filmmakers and their much-loved creation. The “WHY DINOSAURS?” team will bring the film to four cities in the UK, including Lyme Regis, often considered a hub for fossil hunters. It will then travel to Cheyenne as an Official Selection at the Wyoming International Film Festival.

Which dino is the fav?

When I asked my final question of the interview, it was clear that this was far from a novel inquiry. In fact, James has been asked to provide his “favorite dinosaur” so often in the past that it’s become a joke amongst his friends. His answer was what you might expect from someone who has dedicated most of his childhood and all of his adulthood to this particular field of study. 

“A lot of my actual research is on a group of animals called dicynodonts, which are these very distant relatives of mammals from about 300 to 250 million years ago, just before the time of the dinosaurs,” James said. “What’s interesting for me and researchers is they’re quite numerous. Dinosaurs are really rare. Thirteen-year-old me would say Spinosaurus. I still do like Spinosaurus. It’s very cool, but we literally only have one skeleton of it in a museum. There’s very little material to work with. For dicynodont, we have hundreds of individuals.”

His father, Tony, was far less verbose with his answer but retained the sense of humor and playful sarcasm that defined the loving interaction between the father and son. 

“Allosaurus,” Tony said, with a smile. “Because it’s cool.”

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About the Author

Candice McMillan

Candice McMillan has been writing about film for more than 10 years. Since becoming a mom to her two daughters, she’s had to hang up her affinity for horror films, catering to the two smallest critics who prefer shows about rescue dogs and a family of pigs. Candice has degrees in journalism and film critical studies from USC, and her favorite children’s film is a toss-up between “Anastasia” and “A Goofy Movie.”