The dinosaurs in the most recent Jurassic Park movie may not be real thanks to the magic of CGI, but the ones being assembled in Peter May's workshop in Trenton, Ont. – and in museums across the globe – are palpable behemoths.
His company, Research Casting International Ltd., is one of the world's biggest restorers and reproducers of dinosaur bones. Mr. May was the go-to guy when director Steven Spielberg needed skeletons for the first Jurassic Park film in 1993.
"There are probably three or four other companies [out there], but they're not on the same scale," Mr. May says. "We have 50,000 square feet and 20 employees, and we've been at it coming up to 28 years now."
RCI recently signed a contract for $6-million (U.S.) to preserve, clean and mount 52 dinosaur skeletons for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The effort, which is part of the museum's $48-million renovation, will take four years to complete.
While much of RCI's business involves working with original fossil material, including cleaning, repairing and treating bones to preserve them for years to come, sometimes it has to make moulds of bones that are either missing or too fragile or damaged to be put on display.
"What we do is dismantle the skeleton and preserve the fossil, putting in new adhesives and remounting the fossil skeleton with whole new bones. That's very time consuming," he says.
The company just completed the first of its skeletons for the Smithsonian – a 10.5-metre-long Tyrannosaurus rex that dates back 66 million years. RCI worked on 130 original bones and also fabricated 96 artificial ones that were missing to complete the T-rex skeleton, which is held together by steel and weighs nearly two tons.
But the "Nation's T-rex," as that centrepiece is known at the Smithsonian, is far from the biggest challenge RCI has taken on. It just shipped the steel frame and cast "bones" of a Titanosaurus to Argentina to be assembled at a museum in Trelew, where David Attenborough and the BBC will arrive this month to finish a documentary on the dinosaur that began when RCI started the bone-scanning process in February.
RCI's employees use cranes in their Trenton workshop, but they will use forklifts and scaffolding to assemble the 33-metre-long, 10-metre-high beast, which originally weighed up to 13 tons when it walked the Earth.
The extensive work comes at a price. RCI charges anywhere from $1,000 for a skull or small skeleton to $400,000 for a big one. Annual revenue at the company is $2.5-million to $3.5-million.
Jobs take three months for a cast skeleton and eight months to a year if the work involves original fossil material.
Technology has helped speed up the process of casting replica skeletons, with three-dimensional printers and other devices replacing the traditional methods that Mr. May first encountered when he got into the business.
"In the old days we'd have a sculptor lay out the bones and make a metal armature, put the clay on it and sculpt the whole thing. Then we'd go into moulding and casting," he says. "But now we just scan and print, which is a lot quicker and a lot more accurate."
The new technology has enabled RCI to assemble a computer database of dinosaur skeletons, making it quicker and easier to refabricate them.
The business has come a long way since Mr. May graduated from the University of Guelph as a sculptor and replied to an advertisement in The Globe and Mail for a paleontology technician at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 1977.
Later, after a brief spell as head technician at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alta., Mr. May returned to the ROM as head technician. But it wasn't until he was approached to build a dinosaur skeleton in his spare time that the idea for his own business came to light.
After founding RCI as a side business in 1987, he hired experts from the American Museum of Natural History and the British Museum in London. He was doing more than $1-million of work annually in his spare time.
The ROM wasn't interested in setting up a museum tech department, so Mr. May quit in 1990. By that time RCI had five employees and 3,000 square feet of space.
Twenty-five years and what he estimates is 680 skeletons later, Mr. May has done work for museums across the globe, from Japan to China, Australia to Belgium.
The company keeps track of the work it has done, "so if we're building a cast of a T-rex skeleton, we know how many hours it takes to cast the skeleton, we know how many hours it takes to mount it."
Mr. May is unsure what the future holds, but he's convinced technology will play a big part in it. "We've got two 3-D printers," he says, along with other technology including scanners, "so we have a digital record of everything."