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ASU grad student builds dinosaur skull replica, bellowing roars and all

Courtney Brown blows into a dinosaur skull to produce dinosaur-like noises during an art gallery demonstration at ASU's eMerge Festival and Gallery Show in Tempe on March 2, 2013.
Courtney Brown blows into a dinosaur skull to produce dinosaur-like noises during an art gallery demonstration at ASU's eMerge Festival and Gallery Show in Tempe on March 2, 2013.

An ASU graduate student is making unique contributions to the world of sound art with her roaring Corythosaurus skull replica, but not without some dinosaur-sized challenges.

Courtney Brown, an interdisciplinary digital media and performance doctoral student, has spent the past few years refining a dinosaur skull replica that mimics the sounds this prehistoric creature would have actually made.

Brown said a trip to a dinosaur museum is what sparked the idea to make this unique piece of interactive art.

“I was coming here to start my doctorate, and I had only ever been on the East Coast,” she said. “So I was taking this long trip from Virginia to here, and we were stopping at things along the way, and there was a dinosaur museum. It was very novel to me, I guess.”

From there, Brown went about acquiring Computed Topology (CT) scans of a Corythosaurus skull, and started theorizing about how to replicate it in a way that would allow it to sound when blown into.

“I’m very invested in the fact that it was all physical,” she said. “So I spent a lot of time looking for mechanical ways to change the sound.”

This dedication to acoustics and actual sound resonation posed quite a few challenges, and multiple prototypes were made. Brown said the size was a significant issue, because it ruled out 3D printing as an option, outside of the nasal passages, which still had to be printed in multiple pieces.

Collaborator Sharif Razzaque worked closely with Brown to tackle this huge project.

“It became a lot harder than we expected,” he said. “In particular, she wanted to make this life-sized. … Most things that come out of a standard 3D printer that cost only a few thousand dollars are maybe the size of a mug.”

The project was funded by an ASU graduate and professional student organization grant.

Eventually, Brown and Razzaque found a solution in machining, which is a method of mechanical sculpting with a machine tool.

Razzaque was able to do the machining on an extremely large machine tool belonging to a local artist who happened to keep one in her barn.

“I was like ‘Why do you have this thing here? What the hell!’,” Razzaque said.

As it turned out, the woman’s husband actually designed the machine himself.

“Just doing this project we met a lot of really cool people who were really helpful and fun to work with,” Razzaque said. “It was a lot of fun.”

In the end, Brown and Razzaque came up with an extremely resonant foam model coated in epoxy.

Since then, Brown has developed performances utilizing the skull in collaboration with a tubist. The piece is called “How to Speak Dinosaur: Courtship.”

How to Speak Dinosaur: Courtship from Courtney Brown on Vimeo.

David Earll, the tubist Brown performs with, said their collaboration delved into several theories about how dinosaurs and other creatures used sound to communicate.

“(The piece) is an exploration of the concept of how a dinosaur would communicate love,” he said.

Earll said he and Brown have performed the piece several times, and continue to work on further collaborations for the future.

“It seems to be picking up quite well, which is quite exciting,” he said.

Rawr! Prototype II First test with larynx from Courtney Brown on Vimeo.

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting an error, a previous version of this story misstated how the project was funded. This version of the article has been updated with the correct information.  

Related Link:

Where have all the dinosaurs gone?

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