Nerd Culture

6 Things We Learned at Phoenix DinoCon 2014

Didja happen to know that every dinosaur may have had feathers? What about the notion that the Tyrannosaurus Rex most likely had really bad breath, given that it ate nothing but meat and probably never brushed between meals?

We boned up on these seemingly random factoids this past weekend while hanging out at Phoenix DinoCon 2014, the annual one-day pop cultural convention devoted to the larger-than-life lizards.

See also: Phoenix DinoCon 2014 in Photos

Run by a clan of five local dino-lovers -- including "crafty librarian" Patty Jimenez, her husband Carl, their son Trinidad, and her sister Julia Zolondz -- the 'con launched last summer and has already tripled in size. More than 400 people were in attendance at the afternoon event at the Phoenix Center for the Arts, which offered the chance to indulge their stegosaurus-size fixations for the prehistoric creatures while attending any of a dozen different panels celebrating saurians in movies, literature, and gaming.

There was also a massive smackdown between geeks debating dinosaur-related topics to participate in, discussions about the scientific accuracy of dinos in Hollywood, the chance to pose for photos with a screen-authentic vehicle from Jurassic Park, or even buy a tyrannosaurus handbag.

Geeking out over dinosaurs wasn't the only thing to be had at DinoCon, as it offered the chance to find out a few things about the behemoth beasts and their portrayal in pop culture over the past several decades. Here what we learned after attending the event.

6. Phoenix Ultimate Geek Smackdown works at any nerd event

One of the many hallmarks of being a geek is engaging in lively and spirited debate with your fellow know-it-alls and (hopefully) pwning the crap out of them. Such a thrill is at the very heart of the annual Phoenix Ultimate Geek Smackdown, which has been a humorous and popular part of Phoenix Comicon the past several years. It's proven to be such a success that DinoCon's staff adapted the competition for their event, naturally with a more saurian-oriented focus.

The result? The "Turbo Dinosaur Edition" of PUGS proved to be just as fun as the original. Eight dino-geeks squared off against each other in back-and-forth verbal donnybrooks during the single-elimination tournament, hashed out whether Dino from The Flintstones or Night at the Museum's Rexy the Skeleton made for a better pet, or if Godzilla's cartoon stomping of Bambi was a more memorable than its b-ball match-up with former Phoenix Suns star Charles Barkley.

Probably the most entertaining tête-à-tête came when a pair of geeks argued over who had the sassier short-shorts in Jurassic Park: paleobotantist Ellie Sattler or game warden Robert Muldoon. It marked the first, and probably only, time we've heard the phrases "asstastic" and "T-Rex booty meat" used in a geek debate.

5. Tyrannosaurs Rex rules all

Without a doubt, the "tyrant lizard king" truly deserves its crown, and not just because the fearsome meat-eater sits atop the dinosaur food chain. T-Rex is easily the most identifiable and beloved dino of them all, even if it scared the bejeezus out you as a child. Appropriately, T-Rexes were practically everywhere at Phoenix DinoCon, from T-shirts and toys to the focus of several panels and the winner's circle of an event-long competition.

Its utter popularity was no more evident when the Tyrannosaurs Rex from the original Jurassic Park thrashed Godzilla for a spot in DinoCon's "Hall of Distinguished Dinosaurs." A majority of attendees cast their votes throughout the day for the hungry beast that munched its way through the flick and cheered when it was announced as the winner. And in a comedic twist, a look-alike version of fictitious industrialist John Hammond accepted a trophy on behalf of his creation.

The T-Rex might not be able to do pushups with its tiny arms, but it can still kick the ass of the "King of All Monsters."

4. Japanese kaiju films and TV shows were highly influential

There were many topics we overheard being discussed over the course of DinoCon, including one particularly heated debate: Is Godzilla a dinosaur or not? The fire-breathing radioactive behemoth, most recently seen on the silver screen this past summer, sort of qualifies as one, since it's a "terrible lizard" of titanic proportions and all, which is apparently good enough for the convention's organizers. A few panels were offered that covered Godzilla and other kaiju, the Japanese term that means "strange beast" and refers to all the enormous monsters that have been a staple of the country's culture for more than 60 years.

Godzilla's battles with kaiju foes like Gamera and Rodan not only inspired a wealth of similar movies in Japan, it also helped give birth to fantastical TV shows like of Ultraman and Kamen Rider, which eventually -- more or less -- begat such cultural exports as Voltron and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, as well as the blockbuster battles of Pacific Rim.

The influential reach of kaiju was explored at DinoCon, whether it was Asian cult film expert's Damon Foster's informative lecture on "Kaiju and their Kin" to graphic designer Damien X. Hernandez's geeky presentation on the mind-blowing popularity of MMPR during the '90s ("They were The Beatles of my generation," he says) and "kicked tons of ass" in their various Megazords, Dragonzords, and Ultrazords.

3. Jurassic Park's T-Rex Was Originally Less Frightening

DinoCon was a bit what you'd call Jurassic Park heavy, from the replica vehicles outside to three separate panels covering the film franchise, including a popular one spoiling the upcoming Jurassic World. It's to be expected, considering the original 1993 film was a landmark piece of cinema that broke much ground along with many box office records.

And one of the centerpieces of the Steven Spielberg-directed blockbuster was the state-of-the-art animatronic dinosaurs, including the menacing tyrannosaurus rex that ran amok and turned a few of the theme park's visitors into tasty bite-sized snacks. Sculptor and special effects whiz Michael Trcic oversaw the creation of the creature for Jurassic Park and discussed his experiences at length during DinoCon. It proved to be a major highlight of the convention that underscored how Hollywood has not only abandoned more convincing-looking practical effects in favor of CGI but also eschews scientific accuracy for more visceral thrills and chills.

Case in point: Trcic described how early concept drawings of the tyrannosaurus by artist Mark "Crash" McCreery, which were based on "fairly sound" paleontological science, weren't frightening enough for the film's producers. "In Hollywood, the prevailing idea was, 'Okay, we've got a T-Rex that's 18 feet high, 40 feet long, it's got six-inch teeth, it weighs two tons. How are we going to make this thing scary?'"

The result? Transforming the tyrannosaurus' countenance into one with bigger teeth, sharper facial features, and more muscular appearance. Or as Trcic dubbed it, "the Arnold Schwarzenegger of T-Rexes."

2. Everyone Loves Dinosaurs

There's a certain sense of wonder and awe to dinosaurs, especially if you're a kid. And since we were all children at some point, unless you happen to be either a robot or clone, it's likely that you had a yen for these fantastical beasts at some point, whether it was gazing out of a backseat window at those roadside statues on the way to L.A. or transforming Grimlock and the rest of the Dinobots to fight the dreaded Decepticons.

And the multi-generational appeal of DinoCon was illustrated by the wide range of ages that attended, be it kids begging their parents to buy them a plastic dino, teenagers hamming it up for green-screen photos, snarky college-aged types dressed as a Philosoraptors, or cosplayers decked out as Victorian-era raptor hunters.

According to Bobby Tyning, one of the event's organizers, the universal appeal of dinosaurs is why they put on the convention. "What we're trying to tap into is that feeling when you were a little kid and you're a big dinosaur fan," he says. "So we're just trying to celebrate that. There's definitely a lot of us out there, obviously, we're finding."

To say the least, which leads us to our next point...

1. DinoCon Will Return in 2015

When DinoCon's staff started planning this year's event, they figured it was going to get a good turnout, given that the first one in 2013 at the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa did well. Needless to say, the public's response was bigger than they imagined, including a sell-out of advanced tickets.

Co-organizer Julia Zolondz seemed especially blown away. "We grew by 300 percent since last summer and we thought that we'd grown enough this year to accommodate everyone who wanted to come," she says. "People just exceeded our expectations."

And if you weren't able to make it to the event to get a bit of the dino-sized fun, fear not. DinoCon isn't about to become extinct anytime soon. "I guess this means we have to start planning for 2015," Zolondz says.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.