Untitled Document

Bringing Dinosaurs to Life
Megan Sever

Making Science TV News

In China in 2001, researchers found a fossilized dinosaur covered with feathers from head to toe. By 2003, this fossil had come to life and was immortalized on the small screen, in the Discovery Channel’s production Dinosaur Planet. Working backward from other fossils found in close proximity to the feathered creature, a team of animators, filmmakers and paleontologists created a story that follows one young dinosaur in her daily struggles to survive in the harsh desert environment of Mongolia, 70 million years ago — a snapshot of the life of a female Velociraptor named White Tip.

Two Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs encounter one another in an episode of Walking With Dinosaurs. As scientists discover more about T. rex and other dinosaurs, their portrayal on-screen becomes even more accurate. Courtesy of Evergreen Films.

Bringing creatures to life that have been extinct for millions of years is no small feat. It takes a collaborative team of animators and still-graphic artists, sculptors, writers, directors and paleontologists working over many months. And making a product that is not just entertaining but is also educational is an even more challenging assignment, requiring scientific input every step of the way.

Although dinosaurs have graced the screen since movies and television were invented, only since the advent of computer-generated imagery, or CGI, have the creatures become more realistic. The release of Jurassic Park in 1994 marked the first dinosaur production to use live-action backgrounds and CGI, says Kent Stevens, a computer scientist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, who has developed software designed to re-create the biomechanics of dinosaurs.

Jurassic Park “really nailed” the use of live action and animation, but it was meant purely for entertainment, Stevens says. The movie’s release, however, resurrected “dino-mania,” he says. And in the meantime, scientists continued to discover new fossils.

Thus, in 1996, BBC set out to create a documentary-style dinosaur series, and Walking With Dinosaurs was born. Released on television in the United Kingdom and United States in 1999, it was followed up by Dinosaur Planet and later by other smaller productions. The multi-step process of creating Walking With Dinosaurs (a six-hour series) and Dinosaur Planet (a series of four hour-long shows) took 18 months and more than 100 graphic artists for each production, not to mention dozens of paleontological experts and production crew members.

Creating the characters

The first steps in producing a “paleoreconstruction” are to create blueprints for the dinosaurs and for the story, says Francois Garcia, head of production and film development at Meteor Studios in Montreal, the studio that created the animation for Dinosaur Planet. To generate the storylines, writers and creators of the programs start out researching and talking to paleontologists to learn about interesting discoveries in the fossil record, says John Copeland of Evergreen Films in California, who was producer of Dinosaur Planet for the Discovery Channel. They use this background research to create stories and a “cast of characters around each fossil find for each episode,” he says.

For example, some of the characters surrounding White Tip, the feathered dinosaur in Dinosaur Planet, include two fossilized dinosaurs found entwined in sandstone, Copeland says. One was hunting the other and had taken a bite when both were suddenly buried, paleontologists think, and then fossilized by a landslide. “We put together a series of three fossil finds and fabricated an interwoven story,” Copeland says, and thus created “White Tip’s Journey,” one of the episodes of the series.

Once the writers and producers have decided which dinosaurs to follow in the stories, they again consult paleontologists to create the look of the actual dinosaurs, Copeland says, which are then sketched by artists. Together with the storyboard, the sketches create the blueprint.

Back in the studio, designers model the size and shape of the dinosaurs, some with virtual models and others with clay. At Meteor Studios, each creature is first digitally created as a wire-framed model that is accurate in size and shape — it’s the canvas onto which the artists will paint color and texture later. At FrameStore CFC in London, the computer animation studio that created the animation in Walking With Dinosaurs, freelance sculptors create models out of clay, says Mike Milne, director of animation at FrameStore. When that step is finished, the models are scanned top-to-bottom and put into a computer in 3-D, he says. “Modeling the shape and size is perhaps the least controversial part of creating a dinosaur,” Milne says, “because so much is known about the musculature, the skeletons and the mass of the creatures.”

Adding in color and texture (such as skin patterns), however, incorporates “a lot of speculation,” Milne says, and “usually involves a fairly heated discussion.” The movie producers want the creatures to look spectacular, he says, but paleontologists are more cautious because few skin impressions have been fossilized and found, and no colors have been — or could have been — fossilized.

“We know the colors and textures are largely made-up and are probably a little bit remote from what they actually looked like,” says David Norman, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom who worked on Walking With Dinosaurs. “But that doesn’t bother me unless the commentary gives the clear impression to the viewer that this is exactly as they looked in life,” he says. The productions, Milne adds, just aim to get it as plausible as possible.

Reconstructing the behaviors and movements of the giant creatures can also be problematic, says Scott Sampson, a paleontologist at the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City who was involved in Dinosaur Planet. Graphic artists build in muscle structures and a predetermined set of movements that are established by the paleontologists, says Garcia of Meteor Studios, such as whether and how a dinosaur walks or runs, how high the neck and tail can move, and how its jowls move when it eats.

Paleontologist Scott Sampson was intimately involved in the making of Dinosaur Planet. He and other scientists advised producers throughout the filmmaking process on the scientific information about the dinosaurs, from how they moved and what they looked like, to where they would have lived. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

All of the movements and behaviors are created by animators, Milne says, but “we’re at the mercy of the directors and paleontologists — we construct the motions they tell us to.” Whereas writers and animators are most focused on the artistic end of things, the paleontologists are most concerned about scientific accuracy. “The end result is often a dynamic tension,” Sampson says.

For example, for one of the episodes of Dinosaur Planet, Sampson and the other paleontologists told the writers what sorts of behaviors, including mating and eating, each dinosaur could plausibly portray. The scientists recognized the difficulties of creating characters out of dinosaurs with no facial expressions and limited intelligence. However, when they got the script back, “and the writers had portrayed the animals feeling and reacting in ways only humans do,” Sampson says, “we told [the directors] ‘no, that won’t work,’” and everyone went back to the drawing board.

Still, for the most part, says Stevens of the University of Oregon, the relationship between the scientists, producers and animators is congenial. “They gave us the chance to participate, to get it right,” he says. “And we definitely had some influence in rearranging body postures or behaviors” that were not appropriate.

The scientists do not get the final say, however, says Norman of Cambridge. Sometimes, he says, the producers do not consult with paleontologists on particular activities and instead make choices for artistic reasons that end up being “completely unreal” — he’s thinking of a particular scene in Walking With Dinosaurs in which a Triassic Archosaur is shown urinating “copiously” in a manner inconsistent with paleontological knowledge. “By the time we ‘experts’ are made privy to what has been done … it’s simply too late.” And then, he says, “I get calls from peers after they’ve seen the show, saying ‘what on Earth were you thinking?’ And it’s embarrassing. But in the end I just have to shake my head and move on and try to learn lessons for the future.”

Creating a world

Creating the landscapes onto which the dinosaurs will roam, or “backplates,” is also an involved process, Garcia says. For the four hours of Dinosaur Planet, producers spent close to two weeks in the field filming these live-action shots. The challenge, Copeland says, is that the environments in which the dinosaurs lived do not exist anywhere on Earth today. For example, grass did not exist during dinosaur times, and it is hard to find anywhere on Earth with the right climate that doesn’t have grass.

A crew for Evergreen Films is shooting the “backplates” onto which dinosaurs will roam in an episode of Dinosaur Planet. Present-day Costa Rica serves as a modern backdrop for Cretaceous-aged Romania. Courtesy of Evergreen Films.

“I sweat so much over the accuracy of this,” Copeland says, “but Kirk [Johnson] and the other paleontologists are pragmatic about it.” Johnson, a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and other scientists told Copeland where he could find environments that were close to the paleoenvironments, in terms of climate and foliage. Costa Rica provided the setting for ancient Romania, New Mexico the setting for ancient Montana, and California provided settings for both ancient Mongolian deserts and tropical redwood forests of South America.

During the live filming, the producers also create “interactions with the environment,” Copeland says. For example, the crew walks around kicking up dust clouds and splashing around in water. Later, via computers, dinosaurs are put in place of humans to make those motions.

Once the characters are in place and the backdrop is set, the world begins to come together. The creatures are plotted onto the backplates, and the visual-effects specialists incorporate all the elements that show the dinosaurs interacting with their environment, Garcia says. Then, each individual scene is carefully illuminated to match the natural lighting in the background, “giving the impression that the animal really exists in that environment,” he says, including shadows under the dinosaurs as they’re walking and light shining through where trees part.

Additionally, during this process, called rendering, the computer programs and artists jointly “layer” the scenes — all in an effort to make each scene look as real as possible, Garcia says. The final step, called compositing, is where all the elements are finally combined to create “a perfectly integrated image,” he says.

The entire process of creating dinosaurs and bringing them to life is “labor-intensive, but very interesting,” says Milne, who has been occupied with dinosaur stories since production on Walking With Dinosaurs began in 1996. Since then, the process has not changed much, though “the computer graphics have improved in speed and sophistication,” he says, “allowing us to do more complex animations in less time.” And, he suggests, over the next few years, things will probably get even faster and more sophisticated, allowing for increasingly realistic-looking scenes.

In the end, Sampson says, programs like this are hard to do well. Walking With Dinosaurs and Dinosaur Planet are decent, he says, but better if the criteria is entertainment rather than education. His main complaint is that programs about paleontology tend to “give the impression that we somehow filmed these animals interacting at a waterhole 75 million years ago.” Without injecting any science, he says, the take-home message for viewers is misleading — that paleontologists have figured out all the details of the world of dinosaurs. “An approach that conveys some of the unsolved mysteries and pathways of investigation is equally fascinating,” Sampson says, especially for kids, “who need to know that there’s a lot more to discover.”

“We’re in a golden age of dinosaur discovery,” Copeland says. “Paleontologists are finding things we never thought possible,” such as the recent discovery of well-preserved soft tissues from a Tyrannosaurus rex (see Geotimes, May 2005). As more discoveries come about, and more is learned, he says, the stories are going to get better as well.

Making Science TV News
Steve Burns

Every month, I receive hundreds of story proposals about science from around the world. And as general manager for the Science Channel, it is my job in part to sift through the masses and pick out the few stories that will make the cut for our regular science series. It’s a rigorous process that involves balancing the best science stories we can cover with the logistics of producing TV programming and the financial realities of the TV industry.

If you were to look at the program guide for the Science Channel and the table of contents from Geotimes, you might mistake one for the other. Inside recent issues of Geotimes, there are stories about forensic geology, the tsunami in Asia, volcanism on Titan, discovery of soft tissue in a Tyrannosaurus rex, offshore dead zones and the Permian extinction. This is the same array of stories you find on our programming.

The tremendous overlap is no surprise. Science TV and science print get many of their ideas from the same sources, such as the scientists themselves and from reading science journals and the popular press. This background allows us to bring timely coverage to the network, make intelligent decisions about what is good science, and enables us to knowledgeably brainstorm ideas with independent producers who pitch us ideas.

The Science Channel’s foremost strategy to ensure that we present new science is to keep the doors open to the scientific community to find the latest breakthrough projects. However, the major overwhelming source of ideas and concepts for programming come from other experienced producers from all over the world. These science programming producers have their own sources in the science community and provide a constant, daily stream of ideas to our network. At one point just a few years ago, we were receiving nearly 800 proposals a month. And it can get even more hectic at film festivals or television trade shows, during which broadcasters get as many as 50 to 60 proposals a day for science programming.

With the Science Channel in 38 million homes and over 2,000 hours of air-time to program a year, we need to make responsible choices for what we broadcast. Because most of the story ideas are germinated from actual current science, the task of vetting is easy, but the actual decision process considers a number of issues.

The most important criteria for a story idea is whether it addresses new developments in science or new insights being provided by the underlying science. These good ideas must also fit within the theme-night schedule we use, such as paleontology, archaeology, space, technology, engineering, geology, meteorology or even science history.

We also examine if there are new production techniques that allow us to reveal the new scientific insights in a way that has never been possible. We often revisit topics because of production advances in slow-motion photography, scanning electronic microscopy imaging and even in storytelling itself, such as reenactments. New computer animation techniques allow us to go to places we could never go and even allow us to bring “living, breathing” dinosaurs back to life, while enhancing viewers’ ability to understand the science and big ideas that are being presented.

For example, we are developing a new show called Prehistoric Lab that features dinosaurs brought to life in a modern hangar-sized science laboratory. Such a show is highly dependent on new computer animation techniques — today’s audiences would never allow us to simply use clay models.

The issue of viewer interest, of course, is never subservient in the decision-making process. Cosmology and space exploration programs continue to be the Science Channel’s most viewed programs. The mix of passionate scientists, high drama and the high-tech background of “rocket science” enable us to make intrinsically interesting stories.

Periodically, we identify a story compelling enough to warrant a large-scale science production, with a dozen or more production crew members in the field or even on expeditions. These large productions, such as big dinosaur specials, deep ocean dives, and effects-laden docudramas, can cost upwards of a million dollars per hour of finished programming.

Indeed, one ever-present limitation in our programming choices is the budget we have available to purchase or develop programs. TV production is expensive, and in most cases, much more expensive than print stories. While a magazine or newspaper can send a writer with a laptop anywhere to report, a minimal TV crew requires two and often more people. The filming of a simple program can often take days to weeks in the field and months of editing. An average half-hour to hour-long program could take between six and 18 months to produce.

It’s a balancing act to control cost while finding topics and material to fill the air-time of a 24/7 science-based channel. When deciding whether to develop or purchase a show, we look at whether we or our sister channels have a show on that topic already, and whether the program could retain rebroadcasting value for three to five years. The Science Channel currently produces about 125 hours of new programming a year, and that number continues to grow rapidly. But despite our desire for “evergreen” programming that can be re-aired, we often need to update existing programs with new research and new scripts to be timely in responding to current, interesting research.

Sometimes, however, a story just needs to be covered promptly, regardless of our inventory or its potential shelf-life. The Science Channel did this when it produced six hours on the Mars Rovers in 2004, continually updating the story of Spirit and Opportunity. Similarly, in 2004 we covered SpaceShipOne’s historic flight in a live five-hour event and early in 2005, we produced three hours about Huygens’ plunge to the surface of Titan.

Overall success for science TV programming, and the Science Channel in particular, requires decisions that are a mix of gut instinct, understanding of audience interests, relationships with the science community and chance. The results of these factors have led to an improved ability for matching the timeliness of print media and for providing a core of classic solid science programs that is entertaining for intelligent and curious viewers.

Burns is currently senior vice president and general manager of the Science Channel, a Discovery network available on digital cable and satellite. He has worked for Discovery Communications for 13 years.

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Sever is a staff writer for Geotimes.

"Broken bones yield T. rex tissue," Geotimes, May 2005
BBC Science & Nature
Discovery Channel Dinosaur Planet
Meteor Studios
FrameStore CFC
Evergreen Films

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