BBC Studios and MPC worked with biologists and palaeontologists to translate scientific research into photoreal VFX and the visual grammar of a blue-chip wildlife doc, reports Adrian Pennington.
Inspired by BBC Natural History docuseries Planet Earth, Apple TV+’s Prehistoric Planet takes viewers on a safari of the Cretaceous 66 million years ago. The first set of 5 x 40’ won multiple nominations for its docu-like realism in resurrecting dinosaurs and was quickly recommissioned for a second run.
“Season two ups the ante in every way,” said series producer and showrunner Tim Walker (Ice Age Giants) in a promotional trailer. “It’s a wonderful combination of science and art.”
Prehistoric Planet 2 is produced by BBC Studios’ NHU led by Creative Director, Factual Mike Gunton alongside Hollywood’s photo-realist pioneer Jon Favreau as executive producer. Visual effects are by MPC and includes many of the heads of department who previously teamed with Favreau to create The Jungle Book and The Lion King.
Prehistoric Planet II: Hyper realism
“The work that we did on The Lion King itself used BBC NHU docs as a point of reference,” said Elliot Newman, MPC VFX Supervisor. “Now our collaboration with Jon uses techniques learned on The Lion King but fed back into the style of a blue-chip wildlife documentary.”
Shooting on series two overlapped with series one with some environments and assets including the more familiar dinosaurs like Triceratops being able to be reused. However, Prehistoric Planet 2 introduces 57 new dinos and animals and required 1183 shots from MPC (with some additional non-dino VFX by Moonraker VFX in Bristol).
“The main goal was hyper realism, to bring these things back to life,” said Newman. “If you could take a natural history crew back in a time machine to film these creatures in the wild that was the visual style and format we were going for. You’ve got to convince people they are watching a documentary not an animation.”
The illusion is complete with narration from Sir David Attenborough. However, the animators consciously dialled down the CGI perfection and even reined back on the technical advances that are being deployed on the current production of Planet Earth III.
Prehistoric Planet II: VFX extravaganza
“With VFX by default you have a lot of time to finesse and overthink but if the end result looks too polished that defeats what we were trying to achieve,” said Newman.
“The reality of location-based filming is that you don’t always end up getting everything you want. There are so many variables in a narrow shoot window when you’re filming wildlife. You might turn up and the weather is foggy. Maybe you planned to film with a drone but it wasn’t working that day. Perhaps the focus isn’t right on a shot but it is still the one that works best for the story in the edit. We were trying to emulate that lack of perfection as if created in the edit from thousands of hours of rushes not something that looked like it had been orchestrated over many months.”
The process began in previz and creation of 1-minute-long 3D animations of creature behaviour. These featured proximations of the type of environment needed for the scene and a draft version of the assets (dinosaurs and animals).
“They look like a video game,” said Newman. “The creatures are proportionally accurate but not fully detailed. You are not thinking about camera position at this point, just animating behaviour.”
These 3D animated sketches were used by camera teams out on location as a guide to the coverage needed from particular environments in Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Zambia, Montana, New Zealand, Maldives, the Cayman Islands and Sweden.
Given that there were no actual creatures to shoot, the photographic process was more procedural than would occur on a conventional natural history shoot.
The previz were also used to storyboard VFX and shots using virtual cameras by teams at MPC’s London and LA facilities. Episode directors used virtual production techniques, for instance while wearing VR headsets, to move around the scene and work out how best to tell the story. This was done with guidance from BBC wildlife crew expert in how similar animal behaviour would be photographed in real life.
Prehistoric Planet II: Logistics of the Quetzalcoatlus
“Based on the actual logistics of the scene were you actually present we are selecting a camera position and camera movement,” Newman explained. “Would you film this from a drone or on a long lens from a distance? Would you pitch a tripod over there and wait for the animals to come?
“In a T-rex hunting sequence you are not going to be 2ft away. You’d be a long, long way away making sure your crew is safe. The collaboration with BBC Studios is a massively important part of the grammar of making it feel like it was shot as doc.”
For example, the flying predator Hatzegopteryx would be too dangerous to film close-up but when in a mating ritual they are distracted. “You can take advantage of that,” Newman said. “You don’t have to be quite so cautious and it’s a justification for why you can get closer to predators in some situations.”
The series includes episodes set among islands and swamps and oceans. We see a Tyrannosaurus and two Quetzalcoatlus fight over an Alamosaurus carcass; a pack of Imperobator pursue a Morrosaurus onto a frozen lake, a male Beelzebufo attempts to attract a mate and a female Phosphorosaurus hunts lanternfish under the ocean’s moonlit surface.
To virtually film the small crocodile-like Shamosuchus, BBC experts advised that creatures like these have paths that they tend to choose when fleeing from prey. “So you can predict where they are going to run,” said Newman. “We simulated that by putting a camera low down by the bushes, just as you’d use a trap cam in reality, to get really close.”
As for series 1, Jellyfish Pictures (The Book of Boba Fett) had created character packs for each creature. These contained a wealth of information about creature size, skeletal structure, fossil record research and current day species that might exhibit similar characteristics to the dinosaur in question. The packs included 2D concept images on top of musculoskeletal diagrams providing references, for example, of the colour of a velociraptor’s feathers. MPC used this to build the game engine assets in previz and for the final 3D construction.
Prehistoric Planet II: Scalify
The facility rebuilt its feather system to better ‘groom’ feathers and developed ‘Scalify’, a tool that allowed it to quickly add and alter tiny scales to skin.
Newman explains, “Adding hair to characters would be too time-consuming to do hair by hair so we develop tools to define hairstyle, density and length like a sculpting system. We took that logic as the basis for Scalify. It allows you to plot and control curves on a surface. You can paint black and white portions of the skin to dictate that you want very small scales here and larger ones there. It means the workflow is more non-destructive. You could make changes without it causing our artists to go crazy and have to redo a lot of work.”
The production involved close collaboration with the scientific research team led by chief scientific consultant and palaeozoologist Darren Naish.
“We want to portray these creatures in a way that science thinks is accurate and that entailed unlearning, from an animation point of view, some of our preconceived ideas,” Newman said. “It’s not how to make a Triceratops walk in a cool way, it’s an understanding based on science that they walked in a certain way even if it’s not necessarily how you’d animate them.”
Working on the project also seems to have benefitted the science. For the first time, scientists were able to see behaviour for extinct species previously modelled on fossil study or a theory, now visualised in photorealistic animation.
“There was this interesting feedback loop when we had all the scientists and heads of animation in the room,” said Newman. “You’ve still got to adhere to physics. How do you make a 20-tonne Sauropoda feel heavy and big? That’s still the skill of the animator but in terms of the mechanics of saying this is how we believe they behaved and moved required a lot of collaboration and a certain amount of discipline from the animator.”
Prehistoric Planet II: The Devil Frog
Prehistoric Planet II returns to the period as series 1 but when your timeline is 79 million years long (spanning 145 million to 66 million years ago) you have huge scope to play with in the Cretaceous alone.
“There were solid reasons the producers went for that particular point in prehistory since it helps to feature the classics like T-Rex – the golden age of dinosaurs,” Newman said.
He particularly enjoyed recreating a ‘devil frog’ which proved technically tricky because the sequence required close ups of mud and water interaction “which we were very much concerned about our ability to pull off.”
More broadly, though, he is proud of bringing all the project’s constituent parts together given the complexity of content.
“On a typical show you tend to have a lot more continuity,” he said. “In The Lion King you’ve got Simba. You figure out Simba, you’ve got the movie locked in. This was a lot of story vignettes that don’t necessarily relate to each other and a massive number of animals with totally different environments exhibiting never seen before behaviours. Sustaining a high standard of quality was the biggest challenge we faced.”
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