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A decade ago, while on location in Africa with natural history documentary icon David Attenborough, Michael Gunton, who serves as creative director of factual at BBC Studios, had the idea to do another series that goes back in time — effectively BBC’s Planet Earth but with dinosaurs. What then seemed impossible proved to be a real option in more recent years with the evolution of technology and by teaming with innovative filmmaker Jon Favreau.
The result is Prehistoric Planet, an ambitious five-part Apple TV+ docuseries produced by the BBC Studios Natural History Unit and narrated by Attenborough that takes viewers back 66 million years to the late Cretaceous period and features nearly 100 CG dinosaurs and other animals.
Series producer/showrunner Tim Walker credits Favreau (who executive produced the series with Gunton) as the one who handed the team the “keys to the time machine.” Recalling the first time the team met Favreau in London, Walker says: “Jon came in and sat down; we got chatting and he flipped his iPad open and said, ‘Let me show you some of the stuff we’ve been doing.’ It was The Lion King.”
The result was an expansive collaboration of talents from the scientific and documentary worlds, along with the Hollywood team. The producers turned to Lion King visual effects company MPC to handle the dinosaurs and all of the VFX as well as such top talent as two-time Oscar winner Hans Zimmer, who composed the score with Anze Rozman and Kara Talve.
But make no mistake — this isn’t a narrative motion picture like The Lion King or Jurassic Park. The series unfolds with a documentary vocabulary, including camerawork that has the feel of spontaneous, captured moments. “The trick in a natural history show is about how it’s edited as well as how it’s shot,” explains Walker. “The trick in what we do is to make it look like we have loads of cameras shooting that event when we only ever have one. The trick is to try to create material that looks perfectly imperfect.”
Oscar winners Adam Valdez and Andrew R. Jones, VFX supervisor and animation supervisor, respectively, on Favreau’s The Jungle Book and The Lion King, shared directing duties on Prehistoric Planet, and that methodology was top of mind. “How do you make it look like it was cobbled together from hundreds of hours of footage that was caught out in the wild and yet approach it with all the discipline of visual effects? How is the collaboration going to go between a documentary team and Hollywood filmmaker types like us, and a lot of that has to do with camera,” Valdez says of the questions that they had to address up front.
The VFX team was led by VFX supervisor Lindsay McFarlane and MPC VFX supervisor Elliot Newman, with Jones additionally serving as the series’ animation supervisor. The work started with previsualization before production.
For the final shots, the dinosaurs walk in filmed environments or VFX-augmented filmed environments, while in some instances (including underwater), the shots are fully CG. “And there are a few cases in this story where we actually got LIDAR scans or scout images so that we could re-create a location in the computer,” Valdez notes.
Says Gunton, “There are parts of the world that represent the ancient world,” adding that the production’s team of cinematographers filmed in parts of North America, South America, Africa, Europe and Australasia. “It really was a globally filmed series.”
Walker adds that during these shoots, the crews endured everything from freezing temperatures to dust storms. “Even though the dinosaurs are all created in a computer world, the real world still throws a lot of challenges at you, which once again is all part of the ethos of the series. It’s Planet Earth, but 66 million years ago.”
Adds Favreau: “When I heard about the project, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with much of the same talent and vendors that we had on [The Jungle Book and The Lion King]. Planet Earth had been such an inspiration for us when we were making The Lion King. It was great to bring both of those worlds together because there was so much mutual respect and so much we could learn from one another.”
Armed with the previsualization, or previs (a sort of blueprint for what was needed for the episodes), the crews captured footage with RED cameras, according to cinematographer Richard Bluck (also a second unit DP on The Lord of the Rings, Avatar and its upcoming sequels), who filmed the series’ New Zealand sequences.
The filmmakers were additionally able to plan VFX and shots by tapping into virtual production techniques, for instance while wearing VR headsets in a virtual studio in MPC’s London headquarters (or using an iPad, sometimes at home because of COVID-19, says Valdez).
Of course, production involved close collaboration with the scientific research team led by chief scientific consultant and palaeozoologist Darren Naish. “Darren was there for everything — creating story assets, making the dinosaurs,” says Valdez. “I remember having Darren in to do a VR viewing of the T-Rex model as it was being created. … He was walking around it [in VR] and itemizing the anatomy, [details such as] whether the musculature on the back seemed right.”
In all, the VFX team created a lengthy list of dinosaurs and prehistoric life, including some that are not believed to have ever been depicted onscreen before. Among them, Kaikaifilu, a seagoing lizard equipped with flippers and a tail fin; Masiakasaurus, a small predatory dinosaur noted for forward-projecting teeth at the front of its jaws; and Qianzhousaurus, a long-snouted Asian tyrannosaur, sometimes referred to as Pinocchio rex.
“Any time animals are digging into the dirt or snow, even if it’s filmed, they have to replace a lot of the ground terrain [digitally] to create the surface that the animals will interact with,” Valdez notes.
Supervising sound editor Jonny Crew also worked closely with Naish to ensure accuracy when creating the vocalizations of the different species. “With all due respect to Jurassic Park, he wanted it to be more scientific and so more based off of reptiles and bird species, but only particular bird species,” says Crew. “He gave us a long list of things that we should and shouldn’t do.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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