Stephen Czerkas 1951–2015

I first met Stephen Czerkas back in the late 1970s.

StephenThen

We hit it off right away, as we had a lot in common. We were both young filmmakers, we both loved stop motion animation and we both loved dinosaurs. I was a painter; Stephen was a sculptor. Stephen was then in the middle of making and animating the creatures for Planet of the Dinosaurs (Stephen also worked on Dreamscape and Flesh Gordon). The footage I saw amazed me.

Stegosaurs from Planet of the Dinosaurs

Stegosaurs from Planet of the Dinosaurs

Well, the footage I saw by Stephen amazed me (Stephen did great work, but overall the entire film itself is a dog).

Shortly after that, we both got very serious in regards to accurate paleontological reconstruction — Stephen even more seriously than myself. I once saw him completely destroy an entire model, beautifully sculpted down to the last detail, because he learned the had made the animal’s tail an inch too long.

Stephen sculpting some raptors

Stephen sculpting some raptors

We both fought a battle for respect within the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, an esteemed organization we both joined around the same time. It was an upward battle, as our film backgrounds and work in fictional and fantasy arenas made us suspect within that community. It probably didn’t help Stephen’s reputation with them when I hired him to sculpt the fully articulated foam rubber animation maquette of my design for a new Godzilla back in 1982.

The New Godzilla meets the Old Godzilla

The New Godzilla meets the Old Godzilla

But Stephen was my pal. He cheerfully pitched in to help on the film without hesitation, reservation or complaint.

I know that acceptance by the scientific community was very important to Stephen. He worked twice as hard as any paleontologist I’ve ever met to achieve legitimacy in their eyes. Sadly, some of them would never come around, as they kept a tight grasp upon their prejudices, despite Stephen’s groundbreaking work.

Stephen and I shared an artistic hero: Charles R. Knight. Knight visually defined dinosaurs for the world. It was his dinosaurs that were in King Kong and Fantasia (Knight painted the dinosaur murals for the natural history museums in New York and Chicago, as well as the La Brea tar pits mural for Los Angeles). Stephen was a visionary similar to Knight. Just as Knight changed and formed the public’s perceptions of dinosaurs, so did Stephen. He was a visual pioneer when it came to depicting dinosaurs with feathers.

A Czerkas dino, comlete with feathers

A Czerkas dino, complete with feathers

I believe he and his talented wife Sylvia should receive a special acknowledgement from the paleontological community, if only for their pioneering work and observations in regards to dinosaur skin.

In 1984 Stephen and Sylvia got a call from Argentina. A very unusual dinosaur was being unearthed. Steve and Sylvia hooped on the first flight down there. They immediately noticed that in addition to the bones of this new dinosaur, there were lots and lots of preserved skin impressions. They made the paleontologists aware of this and changed the excavation procedure to include all of the skin as well as the fossilized bones.

It became a dramatic turning point in paleontological field collection. Up until that moment paleontologists did not expect to find skin when digging up dinosaurs. Because of Stephen and Sylvia, they became much more cautious. From that point on scientists began to look for the possibility of skin — and they began to find it. Lots of it. That Argentinian dinosaur they were called to see was Carnotaurus. About 90% of that animal’s skin was recovered thanks to Stephen and Sylvia. Here is Stephen with his sculpture of Carnotaurus, perhaps the first life restoration of a theropod showing accurate skin:

Stephen and Carnotaurus

Stephen and Carnotaurus

I believe we now have skin samples from every major dinosaur family thanks to their perceptive observations. Most of what we now know about dinosaur skin is a direct result of their educated and intuitive observation and vision, a vision that became the genesis for the subsequent explosion of information and knowledge in that rarefied but important field. Stephen himself discovered that sauropods (like Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus and Diplodocus) had a row of upright non-bony spines projecting from the top of their neck, back and most of their tail.

Stephen was serious — but also kind, sweet, and a loyal friend. He never lost his enthusiasm for the things he loved. He felt like the luckiest kid in the world when he met and became friends with one of his greatest heroes, fellow stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen.

Stephen's T. rex meets Ray's Rhedosaurus in Planet of the Dinosaurs

Stephen’s T. rex meets Ray’s Rhedosaurus in Planet of the Dinosaurs

Stephen found his soul mate in the talented and extremely perceptive Sylvia, whose love and wisdom gently helped him to successfully navigate the often-layered social worlds hitherto unfamiliar to him. Sylvia provided a safe refuge for Stephen so that he could pursue the knowledge and learning for which he never lost his hunger.

He has been taken from all of us far too soon. He has left us with a huge hole in our lives, a chasm that no one else can fill.

I don’t believe in Heaven. But if by some chance there is a heaven, I know that Stephen is there. And I pray to God that heaven abounds in dinosaurs, just so that Stephen can look around and say, “See? I was right!

StephenNow

PS: On another subject entirely, Happy President’s Day!

Happy President's Day!

Happy President’s Day!

11 Responses to “Stephen Czerkas 1951–2015”

  1. Jim Latimer says:

    I’m so sorry to learn about the passing of Stephen Czerkas. Over the years, I followed the many paths of his career. His sculptures, particularly, brought the fantastic world of saurians to life. The figures seemed to pulse with pent up energy. Whenever I saw his name linked to an article, artwork, or book, I made sure to search it out. You could feel the sense of wonder in his writing, but it would be backed up by solid science. This made these lost worlds even more tangible.

    As you mention, his groundbreaking work concerning fossilized skin left scientists and artists forever in his debt. Many restorations, art, and film depictions draw upon, but for Steven and Sylvia’s intervention, what might have been lost forever.

    Finally, Stephen bridged the gap between fan and professional. His love of the world’s portrayed by Knight, O’brien, and Harryhausen, set him on a life path. In turn, his work will inspire future generations of creators and scientists.

    My deepest condolences to his wife and family. My sympathy to you Bill for the loss of a friend.

  2. Aaron says:

    My condolences. Somewhere I have his book My Life with Dinosaurs. If memory serves correctly it has some amazing sculptures that he did for a museum in China. I’m sorry to hear that he’s gone. My prayers are with his family.

  3. dale mcinnes says:

    I first met Sylvia and Steve somewhere back in the late 70s. Like myself, we were young and enthusiastic about dinosaurs. I was a better sculptor than painter in those days. But I always admired Steven’s work. His Carnotaurus sastrei was mind boggling real !! One of the most beautiful sculptures of a non-avian theropd I have ever seen. Life is just too damn short. And shorter for others. Condolences to all those who knew him and to his family. You think they’re always there. Then this happens. Condolences to you especially Sylvia. You two made one hell of a team !!

  4. Dave Peters says:

    Bill, a fitting tribute. Thank you for creating this.

  5. Rick Catizone says:

    I too was sorry to see that Stephen had passed away. I never got to meet him, but I avidly followed his professional work in Cinefantastique and Cinefex. He certainly had many talents which began to really focus on his dinosaurs.

    I am very surprised about the story of destroying a great sculpture because the tail was too long. Tails grow don’t they?

    Best,
    Rick

  6. Tom Johnson says:

    My thanks to Bill Stout for a thoughtful and touching remembrance of Stephen Czerkas. On art and science: Lin Yutang once observed that we think with words, and how he thought and wrote differently on the same topic in English as opposed to Chinese. It occurs to me that we also think with pictures. We can observe living animals, but when it comes to extinct life, especially those forms without any close living analogs, artistic reconstructions are vitally important in envisioning the animals in question and determining whether various theories or reconstructions “work.” Of course, artwork, whether paintings, sculptures, or animation, brings these wonderful animals to life as nothing written ever could. Artists, like Stephen (and Bill) have contributed to the science of paleontology, and helped so many of us enjoy the grandeur of life.

  7. Spencer G. Lucas says:

    A fitting tribute to Stephen Czerkas by one of the great paleoartists. Thank you, Bill.

    Stephen Czerkas was indeed a great artist, and as a professional paleontologist I can say the science owes him a great debt. Paleontology owes him a debt not only for his art, but for the scientific research he did and his efforts to educate the public about the fossil record. Stephen made outstanding contributions in all of those areas, and he will always be remembered as an important paleontologist.

  8. Bill says:

    The smartest paleontologists I know embrace good paleoart. They understand that these pictures and sculptures can act as a conduit to the public, expressing the paleontologists’ discoveries in a way that inspires and informs the public about their important scientific work in ways that a cold scientific paper never will.

    That stimulating visual avenue can often lead to financial support and funding for the paleontological science.

  9. Bill says:

    @ Rick:
    I told Stephen, “You know, you could have just re-sculpted the damn tail instead of destroying the entire piece…”

  10. filmfan says:

    This is sad news indeed. I met Stephen and his wife Sylvia back in the mid 90’s at their very cool Dinosaur Museum in Blanding Utah. I kind of stumbled across the place by accident back in the summer of 95, while on a summer vacation. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that this fine museum was run by a couple of people whose books and art I had been admiring for a few years. Both Stephen and Sylvia were super nice people to deal with and I regret even more now that I haven’t been able to make the trip all the way back out there since the summer of 96. I would have liked to talk to Stephen and ask him what his current thoughts were on the correct forelimb posture of ceratopsian and sauropod dinosaurs.

  11. John Goodwin says:

    That we loose someone so talented and productive as S. Czerkus is bad enough but at his age it is a tragedy. His genius was large enough to encompass many areas but I feel strongly that his work in paleontology has to be championed. To say the least, he had discovered many great scientific truths that need to be carried on.

Leave a Reply