Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

It is edited by CFZ Director Jon Downes, and subbed by the lovely Lizzy Bitakara'mire (formerly Clancy), scourge of improper syntax. The daily newsblog is edited by Corinna Downes, head administratrix of the CFZ, and the indexing is done by Lee Canty and Kathy Imbriani. There is regular news from the CFZ Mystery Cat study group, and regular fortean bird news from 'The Watcher of the Skies'. Regular bloggers include Dr Karl Shuker, Dale Drinnon, Richard Muirhead and Richard Freeman.The CFZ bloggo is updated daily, and there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Come and join us...

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

GUEST BLOGGER ALAN FRISWELL: Dragon tales and monkey business..

Alan first came to my notice when he turned up at our stall at last November's Unconvention. He was clutching a box that had once held a plastic Christmas Tree. He thrust it at me, and said "Here's your mermaid".

I vaguely remembered Richard F having said that one of his mates had offereed to make us a feegee mermaid, but I had forgotten all about it. Sad to say, so many people offer to do stuff for us, and then fail to deliver, that I had got into the habit of treating all such offers cum grano salis, but the advent of Alan shows that I should not be such a cynical old sod. Now he has become a guest blogger..

While I’ve read what must be thousands of books on Fortean subject matter since childhood, and would--in my more self-aggrandizing moments--consider myself to be something of an amateur cryptozoologist, I would feel very uneasy spouting off about big cats, lake monsters and alligators up the U-bend with any pretence of authority in the company of professionals such as Jon and Richard.

My real ‘trade’, if you will, is special effects, particularly stop-motion animation, and I do know a bit about that. So I thought you might be interested to hear about how a cryptozoological expedition that led to the discovery and classification of a new species, was subsequently responsible for the creation of the most famous fantasy film in cinema history.

In 1912, P.A. Ouwens, a Dutch scientist based in Java, had travelled to Indonesia after reports of living dragons had spread to various small islands in the region. Although a man with a conservative interest in zoology, the accounts of giant reptiles capable of killing goats and cattle, and occasionally human beings were too compelling to ignore, and Ouwens embarked on a full-scale dragon hunt (I bet Richard would have liked to have been around for that one). Eventually arriving on the island of Komodo, Ouwens was amazed to discover that the dragon legends were, at least in part, spectacularly true, and the giant monitor lizards were appropriately named Komodo dragons, subsequently becoming Varanus komodoensis.

These deadly animals are possessed of tremendous strength, and are capable of bringing a human being down with ease. They tear chunks of flesh from their prey by holding down the victim with their front feet, and dismember it by biting down, and twisting their powerful neck muscles. If this wasn’t bad enough, their jaws are swimming with bacteria of extraordinary virulence, and a single bite can precipitate fatal blood poisoning in hours.

These creatures really do qualify as monsters, although those of us who love this stuff can also see great beauty and magnificence in these living prehistoric beasts.Fast forward to 1926, and W. Douglas Burden, the naturalist and explorer, lands on Komodo with the American Museum Natural History expedition, successfully capturing two of the great dragons. Their arrival, and establishment in the Bronx Zoo ends in disaster, as the creatures sadly languish and die in the alien environment.

One of Burden’s friends is the filmmaker Merian C. Cooper. Cooper, a real-life Indiana Jones-type character had an extremely colourful past as a soldier and adventurer, and had established himself, along with his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack as a highly successful producer of outdoor movies, set against the often savage backdrops of primitive cultures and the brutality of untamed nature.Cooper is enthralled by Burden’s tales of the primordial world of Komodo, and begins to formulate a film theme that would capture all the thrills of the ‘lost world’, and the excitement of bringing some great monster back to civilization. He searches for a name, a word that would, by itself, conjure up the atmosphere and sensibility of lost lands and times.

The name Komodo gives him his inspiration, and from it, he creates the name Kong. Originally, Cooper was actually going to film Kong on Komodo, and get in amongst the dragons. His intention was to enlarge them photographically, to make them appear dinosaur-sized. At this point, the lizards were the ‘stars’ of the project, and according to an interview with Fay Wray in the 1960’s, Cooper had always wanted to have a monster climb a skyscraper, but in the original script, he had intended to have two giant Komodo dragons climb--not the Empire State building, but the Chrysler Building.

It was only in subsequent adjustments to the story that he realised that the ‘monster’ needed more anthropomorphism in order to engender audience sympathy, so Kong became a giant gorilla, for which Cooper intended to use a man in a suit.While trying to raise finance for Kong, Cooper was employed as a trouble-shooter at RKO studios, being given the job of assessing movies in production, and their viability at the box-office.

He views a film called Creation, a lost-world-type film involving the discovery of dinosaurs in an underground valley, and cancels the project, believing that because of the uninspired storyline it lacks the necessary vitality and interest to make it a hit. The technical work however, amazes him, and he falls in love with the process of stop-motion animation. Asking the special effects designer Willis O’ Brien, if it would be possible to create a giant ape with the same techniques. O’Brien demonstrates that the model animation process will make anything possible, and Cooper realises that the whole of Kong can be made in the studio; that the giant reptiles can now look like real dinosaurs, and--fortunately, I’m sure you’ll agree--that the giants of Komodo can be left in peace. The rest of course, is history.

King Kong, through the genius of Wills O’ Brien, became the ultimate classic of fantasy storytelling. Carl Denham, the intrepid filmmaker who travels to Skull Island and brings Kong back to civilization is directly based on Cooper. The film inspired thirteen-year-old Ray Harryhausen, who through his own work has influenced almost every special effects technician working today, including yours truly. So we have a lot to thank those old Komodo lizards for. Not only for providing us with a glimpse into a spectacular--and terrifying--primeval past with their own awesome presence, but for being directly responsible for the most iconic and influential monster movie of all time.

Thanks chaps! An account of Burden’s adventures can be found in: Dragon Lizards of Komodo: An Expedition to the Lost World of the Dutch East Indies,available on all good Amazon websites.

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