The idea for Walking with Dinosaurs started in 1996. At the time I was a science TV producer at the BBC and knew they were looking for a big series about palaeontology. In particular they wanted it to appeal to the widest possible audience, to bring the subject alive. This was only a couple of years after Jurassic Park had come out which set a new bench mark in dinosaur imagery, so rather naively I suggested we use the same techniques to make a series of prehistoric natural history programmes. I had an image of a small raptor trying to catch dragonflies in the evening light of a Cretaceous summer – one of these extraordinary animals doing something quite normal and natural. Overall the aim was to create an immersive experience that was both spectacular and informative.
As I investigated further I realised how difficult it would be to achieve. The first quote I got for creating these computer dinosaurs was 10,000 US dollars a second which was way beyond a TV budget and Jurassic Park had only about nine minutes of dinosaurs in it, we needed three hours. So my initial ideas concentrated heavily on the insects, plants and landscapes of the Mesozoic with the occasional dinosaur thrown in. Fortunately my search of UK graphics companies brought me to Framestore where I met Mike Milne. He understood exactly what I was trying to achieve and showed a flexibility and imagination that allowed us to bring down the cost of animation. Suddenly, thanks to Mike and his team, I could have a programme full of dinosaurs.
We shot a six-minute pilot among some old Mediterranean pines in Cyprus and this was enough to persuade the BBC, Discovery and BBC Worldwide to fund the series. It was essential that this vision of the past was as accurate as possible even though it could only ever be based on scientific conjecture. For six months we did nothing but research – carefully choosing the moments in the Mesozoic that scientists knew the most about.
To create a complete picture of the past we needed all the information we could get. Then between the summer of 1997 and winter 1998 producer Jasper James and myself took a small production crew to some of the last places on Earth where ancient plants and trees still survive so we could capture the right backgrounds for our dinosaurs. These small patches of untouched wilderness are some of the most beautiful places on the planet and we were truly privileged to spend weeks in them filming. These included the araucaria forests in New Caledonia and southern Chile, the redwood forests in California, the beech gap on South Island New Zealand and the Labyrinth in Tasmania.
While the film crews sat in southern Pacific forests shooting lots of pretty shots of landscape with nothing in it, Mike Milne and his team of animators started work on the dinosaurs. With a lot of advice from palaeontologists we built accurate models of almost 20 dinosaurs (and several other weird and wonderful creatures from the same time) and then scanned them into the computer. The team then faced a huge task. They were attempting something that had never been tried before even in Hollywood – hours of high quality photoreal animation. The first show took a year to animate but once Mike’s team have overcome their teething problems, the last five only took six months.
Once our creatures were up and running they looked magnificent and suddenly the era came alive – walking, running, feeding and fighting, a whole menagerie of creatures many of which have never been seen outside the pages of scientific journals. When I first saw the images of our polar allosaurus wandering among the podocarps of New Zealand I knew we had created something quite special. The six half hour programmes were finished and first broadcast in October 1999 on the BBC1.
Creator and BBC Series Producer ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’