Inside T. rex Autopsy: A set visit to National Geographic's gory science special

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Jun 4, 2015

You did it. You crazy SOBs, you did it. You built a dinosaur ... and now you're going to butcher it.

This thought, paraphrasing Dr. Ian Malcolm, along with John Williams' Jurassic Park theme song, runs through my head as I enter a soundstage in England to encounter a full-sized Tyrannosaurus rex, complete with internal organs. 

This is "Edwina," the subject of National Geographic Channel's T. rex Autopsy, airing Sunday, June 7, at 9 p.m. And I was on set to watch the gory, informative wetworks as it was filmed in late April.

Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire, England: The well-known location has played host to productions such as Star Wars: Episode VII, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hobbit trilogy, Harry Potter films, Tim Burton's Batman and several James Bond installments -- including Spectre, which is still filming while I am here.

All temptation to sneak off and search for J.J. Abrams' full-size Millennium Falcon leaves me as I join a small group of journalists to see the still-intact T. rex. Lying on her right side, it is as if the beast is just taking a nap after a long Late Cretaceous age. 

There is no overstating how real the 42-foot long creature looks. Teeth, tongue, eyes, all appear to belong to something that existed. The skin is tough and leathery, but slightly pliable. The quill-like feathers, which have become widely accepted by paleontologists as existing, are coarse and sharp.

Created by Jez Gibson-Harris and his company Crawley Creatures (which has worked on Star Wars, Lost World, BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs and more), this dinosaur has a feel of reality about it that is crucial to what is about to unfold in front of me, and what viewers at home will see next Sunday. We have to believe that a fully preserved T. rex had just been discovered in order to believe that it can be cut open and examined. And when it is opened, I'm promised it will be gross.

Let's talk about that "reality" for a moment. In a talk before our unveiling, executive producers Ed Sayer and Allan Butler stress that T. rex Autopsy is no mermaid special. Although the special does begin with shots of a military compound and a voiceover asking "what if" a T. rex had been discovered, there is no suggestion that this monster actually exists in modern era and will soon be seen stomping through San Diego.

There is a verisimilitude at work here that then allows a team of paleontologists, veterinarians and biologists a chance to perform a necropsy and look at what the insides of this dinosaur likely looked like. Spoiler: Those insides are bloody, gooey and so friggin' awesome. But also informative. Throughout my time on set, I learn more about how a T. rex eats, walk, sees, digests -- and even learn about an extra set of belly ribs that protect its abdomen. 

The program is also a bit of a detective show as the on-camera experts try to determine what killed the king dino. Was it a broken leg? Bacteria? A blood infection? Or maybe something else entirely? 

They had to open her up to find out.

And I got to witness it, alongside John Hutchinson, an American biologist and professor of evolutionary biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London. John's particular focus as the expert behind the scenes is on how large animals, like the T. rex, stand and move. A fellow of the world's oldest active biological organization, The Linnean Society of London, he is also a giant nerd, so we get along really well.

Having seen the entire special, and reflecting back on this day, I can say this was one of the most amazing practical effects displays I've ever seen. Moreover, I learned a lot through the blood-and-guts storytelling. 

Read ahead for an extensive breakdown of what I witnessed on the set of T. rex Autopsy for a behind-the-scenes perspective, with photos, on a quite impressive program airing this Sunday.

"Hold on to your butts." – Ray Arnold

The humans doing the actual necropsy enter through a massive warehouse door, and a blanket of fog for dramatic effect. They are veterinary surgeon Luke Gamble (aka the guy who gets all the wonderful toys on the show); Dr. Steve Brusatte, a Chancellor's Fellow in Vertebrate Paleontology at the University of Edinburgh; Matthew Mossbrucker, director and chief curator of the Morrison Natural History Museum in Colorado; Dr. Victoria "Tori" Herridge, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum in London (and who autopsied the best-preserved woolly mammoth ever found!).

As the experts lay eyes on the T. rex for the first time, they touch the skin, comment on the massive mouth full of teeth (which Luke calls a "machinery of death"). 

The team gets to work quick, deciding they need to remove a leg to determine the age of Edwina (a name I still think Ed made up on the spot when I asked him). The dinosaur could live to its late 20s, and you can tell its age by counting the rings in its bones, much like a tree. 

After Gamble tries, and fails, to use a knife to separate the leg, he selects a chainsaw from a row of toys, and returns to the body. Luke looks pretty excited, and he would fit right in next to Ian Ziering if a Sharknado and T. rex ever team up. 

Gamble revs up the chainsaw and starts cutting through. I half expect the dinosaur to wake up at this point, feeling really cranky. 

"Fossils are not as gooey," says Matthew. Meanwhile I'm chanting "cut, cut, cut" from the viewing booth as blood and flesh fly. Gamble gets the blade stuck for a minute, but the saw eventually goes through the leg. Everyone cheers in the soundproof booth.

As a big chicken wing of a dino leg hangs from harnesses, I can't help but feel for Jez Gibson-Harris. He created this amazing creature – and it's literally getting cut to pieces.

We break for lunch.

"I don't blame people for their mistakes. But I do ask that they pay for them." – John Hammond

After lunch, we return to a visceral scene of a "gore man" (as I refer to him in my notes) mopping up blood while "forklift guy" moves the leg to an exam table. Here, Tori and Steve discuss the creature's birdlike three-toed foot. They explain how it moved, placing weight in a tippy-toe fashion on fatty, resilient pads.  

Although John isn't on camera for this special, he is the hero of the show. At one point, he notices a special effect applique on the T. rex leg stump is wrong; the bones are flipped upside down. Before X-rays on the leg take place (using a really swanky machine), Hutchinson leaves the booth and points out the error to EP Ed Sayers. 

I watch as the crew cheats some shots with Matthew and Luke, so they can cover up the inaccuracy. John talks to my colleagues about the T. rex's 4D vision (meaning that whole vision based on movement thing is a myth), and works on some calculations about the pressure of the beast's bite. 

The next thing I know, the effects crew is replacing the stump on the dino, re-affixing it with blood and glue so it is correct. The moment gets John a round of applause in the room, and a lot of respect for him and the NatGeo production. This may not be a real dinosaur, but the channel is dedicated to presenting facts.

Throughout the day I watch John when big factual statements are made from the on-camera scientists. He gives a thumbs-up when they nail it, or might add a statement to the effect of, "Well, that's still a theory." 

"Dr. Grant, my dear Dr. Sattler...Welcome to Jurassic Park" – John Hammond

There is a dinosaur being cut up within a stone's throw of John, my fellow journalists and me – and we're watching the new Jurassic World trailer on someone's cell phone. 

It is not as if we're bored. A new take is being set up for Tori and Steve to talk about dino age and Edwina's rings. She's in her early 20s, and by no means old. In fact, she was in her prime when she died, and the team is slowly piecing together the mystery of her demise.

But, in the booth, we're also goofing off a little. We talk about Jurassic World, and what to expect. John discusses the ways the original movie got a lot right, and what the follow ups got wrong. Things feel only slightly more surreal as we discuss a dream soundtrack for T. rex Autopsy. Mark Bolan and T. Rex make the cut. "Walk the Dinosaur" from Was (Not Was) is obvious; "I'm a Paleontologist" from They Might Be Giants is suggested. Dinosaur Jr. comes up.

John also talks about the smell the crew will experience when they cut open Edwina's gut; he relates how bad it was when he worked on Inside Nature's Giants and they dissected an elephant. 

Things are about to get grosser. 

"Look at all the blood" - Tim

It is easy to forget this is an informational entertainment special, and not a slasher flick, as the Jez crew inject blood into the tissue of the dinosaur. 

With the gore properly prepped, Luke stabs into the belly of the T. rex, and starts sawing through. This is not special effects work. Like, with the chainsaw earlier, this is actually happening, and it's difficult. Luke is struggling here, and warns his cohorts to watch their fingers.

There are "Ooh, aahs" heard in the viewing booth as Luke unleashes buckets of blood with each vertical cut. In the ground crew, it looks like Steve is visibly taken aback by the blood.

Interestingly, at one point someone offers Luke scissors to assist in the tough job. Like an alpha male Brit bro, he exclaims "I don't need scissors! Get them out of here!" The man clearly enjoys his job. Via the camera attached to his safety mask, I see the splatter of blood hitting his face. 

As a fan of dinosaurs and practical models, I began the day not wanting to see this beautiful specimen butchered. But the horror fan in me is in control at this point. Now, I find myself a little overcome with bloodlust. I want to see its guts! 

The more they open her up, the more rancid the smell gets out there. I think it's Matthew who looks a little watery-eyed and says he can taste it.

Luke cuts -- and is working up a mighty sweat doing so -- and the others lift up the heavy flaps of skin, muscle, and fat. Instead of classic red blood, Tori comments that the fluid looks "more like brown goo." 

At this point, the clean scrubs and rubber boots with which the team began the day are bloody ruined. Luke's arms, in particular, are entirely red. Steve, in a move I'd admittedly borrow, scoops up some of it from the tray it's all spilling into, and applies it to his face and arms. Occasionally, when a take has to be reset, a crewmember walks through the blood and nearly slips, almost biting it in the process. Meanwhile, there is attention to blood continuity so the team looks consistent between shots. Yes, this is science entertainment – to the extreme!

The horror show unfolding in front me is spectacular, but so is the science talk that follows.

With Edwina opened up, we see a rack of ribs called the gastralia. Instead of a soft belly, these ribs – not connected to her top ribs -- protected the underside of the T. rex. John explains that a complete set of gastralia fossils haven't been discovered, which is why we don't see them on display in museum reconstructions. 

But to get to the good stuff, like the internal organs, the impressive belly ribs have to be sawed through and removed. 

…right after we break for dinner.

"I bet you'll never look at birds the same way again." – Alan Grant

After dinner break, the small group of journalists is even smaller. Many have opted to head back to the hotel, or had to go to work. What's left are the dedicated few who want, nay need, to see the guts of this dinosaur.

Things progressed quickly for the rest of the day on set. Luke and Matt used a bone-cutting wire to saw through the gastralia while Tori and Steve examined the meat portal mouth.

Using a car jack, Edwina's jaws are pried open to expose more of her mouth. Again, this takes effort, earning yet another nod of appreciation for Jez and his crew for the realism.  Steve comments on the "record-setting chompers" that had an estimated 5.8-thousand-kilogram bite force. 

But while she chomps, the T. rex did not chew. Instead, it swallowed meat in big chunks that would slide down her throat and into a two-chambered stomach. 

They set about removing one of her 54 conical, serrated teeth. Luke offers an assist (with a big knife, of course), and a cheer goes up as they pop a loose one out. To test why the tooth was loose in the first place – and explore the possibility of a fatal infection – Steve and Tori use an endoscope in the cavity. Instead of an infection, we learn that T. rex was always growing replacement teeth, and that a newer one was pushing this out. 

"I won't tell anyone you threw up" – Alan Grant

My day on set is coming to a close, but there is still the matter of organs.

I am not disappointed. 

After Luke and Matthew saw through the gastralia, they begin prying the ribs out. There is a series of great wrenching and cracking noises as they remove what looks like the giant slab of meat that weighed down Fred Flinstone's car.

Then: Sliminess. The team encounter a protective membrane, the peritoneum. It serves a purpose as nature's Band-Aid. The whitish, veiny, rubbery strip straps everything in. Luke cuts through it to show its elasticity. For whatever reason, this makes me a little queasy.

From there, it's on to the grand review of intestines, stomach, and, um, other stuff. 

All four of the team begin tugging on the lower intestine, pulling out this massive cord. The opening it creates allows Luke to actually crawl inside Edwina, and you can hear the sloshing of liquids in her as he stomps around. 

In order to release the stomach, Luke cuts a connective tube – and is immediately blasted with a noxious stench. He looks for a moment like he's going to barf all over the inside of the beast. I tell him later I'm disappointed he didn't say, "I thought they smelled bad...on the outside!"

Even though the team is trying to keep their scientist face on, you can tell the messy foursome are giddy like a bunch of kids. Getting a peek inside the stomach will be a big moment for them – and helpful in determing Edwina's cause of death. Luke pushes the organ out of the body, and it looks like Steve nearly takes a stomach to the face. As it plops to the ground, a torrent of bodily juices comes with it, and the bloodbath continues.

Then the director calls cut for the day. It's getting late, and there is more to shoot – the extraction of the eye, the heart, the poop, and the exam of sex organs. But that would have to wait until I saw the special.

And so, my time on T. rex Autopsy, a gory and educational dino-horror show of science draws to end. But we have a large gallery of set photos below for you to check out.

Will you be tuning in to watch Edwina get cut up on Sunday, June 7?

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