VFX Voice

The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.

Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.

Subscribe to the VFX Voice Print Edition

Subscriptions & Single Issues


July 19
2022

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

COMBINING NATURE WITH CG TO PRODUCE A PREHISTORIC PLANET

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Apple, Inc.

Amongst the winged creatures re-created are the Hatzegopteryx.

Amongst the winged creatures re-created are the Hatzegopteryx.

Going beyond the Hollywood portrayals is the Apple TV+ natural documentary series Prehistoric Planet, which travels back 66 million years to the Late Cretaceous period when dinosaurs reigned supreme. Serving as executive producers are filmmaker Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Mike Gunton, Creative Director, Factual at BBC Studios. Directing the five episodes are Adam Valdez and Andy Jones who respectively worked as a visual effects supervisor and animation supervisor on The Lion King and The Jungle Book for Favreau. Collaborating closely together were digital artists from MPC and cinematographers from BBC’s Natural History Unit.

Tyrannosaurus rex and juvenile go for a swim in the episode ‘Coasts.’

Tyrannosaurus rex and juvenile go for a swim in the episode ‘Coasts.’

A Mosasaurus as it would have appeared during the Late Cretaceous period, which occurred 66 million years ago.

A Mosasaurus as it would have appeared during the Late Cretaceous period, which occurred 66 million years ago.

Progressing from The Lion King and The Jungle Book was not a huge leap for Jones. “Wildlife, natural history and what the BBC has been doing for years was our goal for a lot of the shots. In Jon Favreau’s mind, he always wanted it to feel as naturalistic and realistic as possible,” Jones notes. Nuances have to be incorporated into the animation to believably convey the emotional state of the creature. Explains Jones, “You want to lean away from anthropomorphism as much as possible because right away people will say, ‘Oh, we’re watching animation.’ Mammals share such a common bond with us, even elephants and giraffes have this look of concern for their kids, and we try to use some of that sparingly. We looked at larger lizards and birds a lot. The way birds care for their young is different. There is not this nuzzling.”

“The whole point is when you look at natural animals, they do things that are so weird and wonderful, so why not just portray that because it’s fascinating on its own? While the BBC Natural History Unit is obsessed with scientific accuracy, they’re also storytellers and know how to make things compelling; that was a real balancing act.”

—Adam Valdez, Director

Success is found in the subtle details. “You could say that the work we do is like a thousand of tiny traces on a thousand tiny items, and if it all stacks up correctly,  you get a win,” Valdez remarks. “Sometimes you don’t know what those things are until you’re in the midst of it. One of the things that we’ve learned over the last couple shows was that human audiences will project a lot onto characters for you. You don’t have to lean too hard in any visual storytelling. That’s the magic of the medium. Sometimes it’s a moment of stillness that could convey the idea that the animal might be thinking or feeling the event that just happened.” The events had to fit within natural order of things. Valdez adds, “The whole point is when you look at natural animals, they do things that are so weird and wonderful, so why not just portray that because it’s fascinating on its own? While the BBC Natural History Unit is obsessed with scientific accuracy, they’re also storytellers and know how to make things compelling; that was a real balancing act.”

A herd of Dreadnoughtus are inserted digitally into live-action plate photography.

A herd of Dreadnoughtus are inserted digitally into live-action plate photography.

Mongolian Titanosaur and Barsboldia gather around a watering hole.

Mongolian Titanosaur and Barsboldia gather around a watering hole.

The rules of wildlife documentary filmmaking were applied when conceptualizing and executing scenes.

The rules of wildlife documentary filmmaking were applied when conceptualizing and executing scenes.

A male and female Barbaridactylus were created by MPC, which was the sole vendor for Prehistoric Planet.

A male and female Barbaridactylus were created by MPC, which was the sole vendor for Prehistoric Planet.

As interesting as creating realistic dinosaurs was the process of making the show. “The trick was how do you make something that feels like you went and got the footage hiding out for eight weeks or hiding the track cameras all over and bringing the footage back,” Valdez states. “It’s a painstaking editorial process. What you learn is it’s not like BBC Natural History Unit [to] just go somewhere and film randomly. They know what’s interesting and what the dynamics are at a certain time and place. The Natural History Unit brought us deeply researched stories and our role was to go, ‘Okay, you have a notion, but what we’re going to do is make an animatic that is so tight that you know exactly where to go to get shot by shot.’” Shots were determined by the reality of documentary filmmaking. Valdez comments, “If you shot a hunt like a movie with eight camera positions, that’s not how they get those once-in-a-lifetime moments. They get them rarely [with one camera]. It was our job to make an animatic that felt 100% like they had shot it, and then give them a shopping list: go get these backgrounds, and precisely match the lens and how the camera is moving.”

“We went through quite a bit making the T-Rex because we definitely wanted to nail our version of what we really think the T-Rex is today. It was the first asset that we built and to show off what the series would be. Him and the baby T-Rex. As much we know about them in terms of fur, coloration, and the idea of what these babies would have been like, we needed our Baby Yoda!”

—Andy Jones, Director

Edmontosaurus and juvenile appear in Prehistoric Planet, with Andy Jones and Adam Valdez sharing directorial duties.

Edmontosaurus and juvenile appear in Prehistoric Planet, with Andy Jones and Adam Valdez sharing directorial duties.

Biomes determined the creatures, not the other way around, with the episodes titled ‘Coasts,’ ‘Deserts,’ ‘Freshwater,’ ‘Ice Worlds’ and ‘Forests.’ “That gives you one point of view on the nature of life and planet as a working ecosystem together,” Valdez observes. “Animals are our way in, whether it’s chimps, lions or dinosaurs. That’s why you see it framed the way that you do. Paul Stewart was in charge of ‘Coasts’ as the writer, producer and natural history partner. All of those particular stories have to do with the fact that where the land and sea meet you have a lot of dynamics. You have a lot of biodiversity, food source, territory and raising young. That’s the framing concept for the whole show.” The final sequence in ‘Coasts’ deals with the birth of a baby Tuarangisaurus. “For a Tuarangisaurus to make a baby that’s 12 feet long and 25% of the body mass of the mother is a massive investment, so they’re going to raise one at a time,” Valdez explains. “Then it turns out that the family shows some investment around the young as well. They found fossil evidence that backs all of this up. You find evidence of these sea creatures in the sands and earth where there was previously the Western Interior Seaway, a huge stretch of water that divided North America which had huge coastlands. The show hints on these ideas all the way through.”

“If you shot a hunt like a movie with eight camera positions, that’s not how they get those once-in-a-lifetime moments. They get them rarely [with one camera]. It was our job to make an animatic that felt 100% like they had shot it, and then give them a shopping list: go get these backgrounds, and precisely match the lens and how the camera is moving.”

—Adam Valdez, Director

A pack of Pachyrhinosaurus are hunted by the Nanuqsaurus.

A pack of Pachyrhinosaurus are hunted by the Nanuqsaurus.

When it comes to proper pronunciations of dinosaurs’ names, Jones laughs. “It’s never set in stone how to pronounce it until Sir David Attenborough says it! The Deincheirus was one of the fun dinosaurs in the series for me because it’s such a weird-looking animal with a big duck bill and massive claws. This is one where scientists would say, ‘He had these massive claws that probably could be used to defend himself in some sort of battle with males.’ But what else could these claws be use for? Let’s tell a story that’s not about fighting.’ We know that he probably ate seagrass or some sort of grass or some sort of vegetation. Those claws would be used to rip up and dig up the grasses and roots. Dealing with all of the flies is another thing. His claws could scratch a little bit, but his arms are so small that he can’t reach his whole body. The Deincheirus spots a scratching tree post to go up and start using that to scratch. For the ending of the episode, we wanted to tell the story of what happens when you eat so much food; his bowels get loose, he fertilizes the entire place and moves on. The Deincherius is a great character!”

“Deincheirus was one of the fun dinosaurs in the series for me because it’s such a weird-looking animal with a big duck bill and massive claws. This is one where scientists would say, ‘He had these massive claws that probably could be used to defend himself in some sort of battle with males.’ But what else could these claws be use for? Let’s tell a story that’s not about fighting.’ We know that he probably ate seagrass or some sort of grass or some sort of vegetation. Those claws would be used to rip up and dig up the grasses and roots. … For the ending of the episode, we wanted to tell the story of what happens when you eat so much food; his bowels get loose, he fertilizes the entire place and moves on. The Deincherius is a great character!”

—Adam Valdez, Director

Biomes determined the creatures, not the other way around, with the episodes titled ‘Coasts,’ ‘Deserts,’ ‘Freshwater,’ ‘Ice Worlds’ and ‘Forests.’

Biomes determined the creatures, not the other way around, with the episodes titled ‘Coasts,’ ‘Deserts,’ ‘Freshwater,’ ‘Ice Worlds’ and ‘Forests.’

A baby Triceratops is portrayed as 'naturalistically' as possible, rather than rely on anthropomorphism to convey emotion.

A baby Triceratops is portrayed as ‘naturalistically’ as possible, rather than rely on anthropomorphism to convey emotion.

Events involving the Corythoraptor had to fall within the natural order of things.

Events involving the Corythoraptor had to fall within the natural order of things.

Prehistoric Planet showcases what scientists currently believe to be the actual behaviors of dinosaurs rather than the Hollywood portrayal of them.

Prehistoric Planet showcases what scientists currently believe to be the actual behaviors of dinosaurs rather than the Hollywood portrayal of them.

For Director Adam Valdez, animation is a balance of aesthetics and physics.

For Director Adam Valdez, animation is a balance of aesthetics and physics.

In a lot of the shots, the feet of the dinosaurs were framed out because in numerous natural history documentaries, you don't see the feet touching the ground.

In a lot of the shots, the feet of the dinosaurs were framed out because in numerous natural history documentaries, you don’t see the feet touching the ground.

‘Ice Worlds’ is a serious episode that explores family dynamics and the relationship between predator and prey. “It’s similar to ‘Deserts’ in the sense that you have these extreme environments, and it requires animals to go to greater lengths to survive,” Valdez observes. “You have this match that creates this endless loop of predation. and [questions] how does the prey species survive constantly being hunted. You have to figure out as a family group. The pack of Pachyrhinosaurus are rhino-like creatures that resemble Triceratops. They’re huge and powerful. The Nanuqsaurus don’t stand a chance attacking the group. But they are significant predators that are also big. What happens in the winter is that predators will work together as a team. You have a team of predators and a family group. It becomes a war of attrition, a siege. If we hound this family enough, eventually they’ll make a mistake, and we’ll take advantage of that mistake. It’s heavy. It’s like a standoff. You have to sit there and see who will last longer through the storm and winter that is around them.”

Going through the most iterations was an iconic dinosaur. “We went through quite a bit making the T-Rex because we definitely wanted to nail our version of what we really think the T-Rex is today,” Jones reveals. “It was the first asset that we built and to show off what the series would be. Him and the baby T-Rex. As much we know about them in terms of fur, coloration, and the idea of what these babies would have been like, we needed our Baby Yoda!”

Precise previs was created so that the cinematographers for the series knew exactly what needed to be shot for the plate photography.

Precise previs was created so that the cinematographers for the series knew exactly what needed to be shot for the plate photography.

The experience that the BBC Natural History Unit has in shooting hundreds of thousands of hours of real animals was leveraged when choreographing scenes .

The experience that the BBC Natural History Unit has in shooting hundreds of thousands of hours of real animals was leveraged when choreographing scenes.

The Cretaceous Period had enough similarities to today’s Earth that the production could fill a lot of the backgrounds on today’s Earth.

The Cretaceous Period had enough similarities to today’s Earth that the production could fill a lot of the backgrounds on today’s Earth.

Family dynamics is a prominent theme explored in Prehistoric Planet.

Family dynamics is a prominent theme explored in Prehistoric Planet.

For Jones, figuring out the motion of the creatures was a major task. “When I first saw the design of the giant pterosaurus, I thought there was no way that thing could fly,” he explains. “It’s the size of a giraffe. Figuring that out and having people watch it and believe it, is cool. Shooting at Palouse Falls was so much fun. We knew the environment when we prevised it, so we had a good layout. Actually, getting the shots was way challenging because we were hanging people on ropes to get the cameras in the positions that were needed. It was a fun sequence all around.”


Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

THE RISE AND FUTURE OF HIGH-END <b>EPISODIC VFX</b>
01 June 2022
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
THE RISE AND FUTURE OF HIGH-END EPISODIC VFX
Episodics ascend to memorable longform cinematic experiences.
UNCOMPLICATING HOW TO BUILD COMPLEX <b>VFX ASSETS</b>
01 June 2022
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
UNCOMPLICATING HOW TO BUILD COMPLEX VFX ASSETS
Industry pros break down how they made their most complex assets.
<b>EMMY CONTENDERS</b> SHOWCASE HOW MUCH VISUAL EFFECTS HAVE EXPANDED THE VISION IN TELEVISION
01 June 2022
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
EMMY CONTENDERS SHOWCASE HOW MUCH VISUAL EFFECTS HAVE EXPANDED THE VISION IN TELEVISION
Potential nominees reflect how far TV production quality has come.
<b>ANIMATION RENAISSANCE</b> FUELED BY TECH ADVANCES, NEW STORYTELLERS AND LOCAL CONTENT
01 June 2022
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
ANIMATION RENAISSANCE FUELED BY TECH ADVANCES, NEW STORYTELLERS AND LOCAL CONTENT
Animated projects are pushing the envelope in content and style.
<b>VFX PRODUCERS ROUNDTABLE:</b> ‘MY TOUGHEST CHALLENGE’
01 June 2022
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
VFX PRODUCERS ROUNDTABLE: ‘MY TOUGHEST CHALLENGE’
VFX producers discuss the biggest challenges they currently face.
cialis online buy cialis