I first met Stephen Czerkas back in the late 1970s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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!”
PS: On another subject entirely, Happy President’s Day!