How Did ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Make Dinosaurs Look So Real?
This story is a part of the SciFri Book Club’s reading of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs. There’s lots of ways to participate: Read the book, listen to our interview with the author, join our online community space, or send a voice message at (646) 767-6532 or on the SciFri VoxPop app.
Being a fan of dinosaurs has its challenges. The largest, perhaps, is that no human has seen these creatures with their own eyes. Depictions of prehistoric creatures in film and media have been based on the research available at the time, but accurate knowledge about feathers, colors, and behavior have changed as science has progressed.
The much-anticipated docuseries “Prehistoric Planet” dives into the most recent research about dinosaurs and their environment and illustrates what the world might have looked like 66 million years ago. The show uses hyper-realistic computer imaging to make the most realistic dinosaurs seen on film yet. The result is an epic look at how dinosaurs once lived.
Joining Ira to talk about “Prehistoric Planet” is producer Tim Walker and paleontologist Darren Naish, who served as the show’s lead science consultant. See a sneak peak of the show in a new trailer.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Tim Walker is a producer for the Apple TV+ docuseries “Prehistoric Planet.”
Darren Naish is a paleontologist and author based in Southampton, U.K.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’re a big fan of dinosaurs like I am, you always want to know more. You can learn as much as you can about what they looked like, how they behaved, but ultimately, you’ll never be able to see them with your own eyes, of course. That’s barring any real life Jurassic Park situation, which you all know how well that goes.
A new docuseries from BBC Studios tackles this impossible task, making dinosaurs nobody has seen as realistic as possible. We even see T. rex swim, Velociraptors hunt, and Titanosaurus stomp around the desert. So how did the team behind the show accomplish all of this?
Let’s ask them. Joining me now to talk about Prehistoric Planet streaming on Apple TV+ are Tim Walker, Producer for Prehistoric Planet, and Darren Naish, Lead Science Consultant for the show, both based in Bristol, UK. Welcome to Science Friday.
TIM WALKER: Hi, Ira. Really great to be here. We’re very excited to share Prehistoric Planet with you and the whole of the world.
DARREN NAISH: Yeah, great to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have both of you. The BBC docuseries Walking with Dinosaurs from the ’90s was a formative dinosaur media for many people. Prehistoric Planet feels in many ways like a spiritual successor to that, Tim. What’s different about this series?
TIM WALKER: Well, Ira, I mean, Walking with Dinosaurs was one of the most fantastic TV shows. And personally, I lapped it up, and I know a lot of the world did.
Now we’ve taken the last 25 years of scientific interpretation of the fossil record and comparative biology, looking at how modern animals work and behave, and looking at what we can glean from what we know about the past, and we’ve created a brand new, definitive guide to dinosaurs. So where Walking with Dinosaurs was over 20 years ago, I think, we’re hoping that Prehistoric Planet will bring a whole new generation of potential paleontologists and filmmakers to our side.
We’re showing the dinosaurs and the other animals that lived alongside them at the end of the Cretaceous in a brand new light. Interpretation of how they looked, what they physically looked like is now very different to the last 20 years and what people have got very used to from Walking with Dinosaurs and from other TV shows and movies.
And a key aspect of Prehistoric Planet is the behaviors we show. We want people to fall in love with the Cretaceous period, with dinosaurs generally, and realize that dinosaurs weren’t monsters. They were magnificent and they were majestic.
IRA FLATOW: And of course, there are, Darren, a lot of feathers on your dinosaurs in the show. Speaking of how they looked like, was that controversial?
DARREN NAISH: It’s true. So many of our animals are beautifully feathered. Some of them don’t just have feathers. Some of them have hair-like filaments covering their bodies. And it’s almost surprising, certainly to me as a specialist, as a paleontologist specializing on dinosaurs, that this is seen as a surprising new thing.
We have known definitely since the mid-1990s that extinct dinosaurs of many kinds had feathered bodies. It’s an idea that goes back even further than that. As far back as the 1960s people had put this idea forward for very good reason, mostly based on the strong affinity between birds and bird-like, non-bird dinosaurs, Velociraptor-type dinosaurs.
And today, we’ve got literally thousands of fossils, mostly from China, that confirm that predatory dinosaurs and members of some other dinosaur groups looked like this. So the fact that it was discovered in the 1990s, it’s not a new idea. I think the public has kind of been misled by certain interpretations of dinosaurs that haven’t portrayed them accurately.
Of course, we have done everything to be scientifically accurate in Prehistoric Planet. You’re seeing this new view of dinosaurs and the other animals of their time because we wanted to accurately reflect the science as up to the minute as we could.
IRA FLATOW: And of course, you did that by showing dinosaurs that have muscles and skin. And tell us, Darren, walk us through how you brought a dinosaur to life. And let’s use one of the show’s stars, T. rex as an example.
DARREN NAISH: Bringing a dinosaur to life, creating a fully realized, photo-real CG image of this animal is a very long, intensive collaboration involving tens of different people. So our starting point, obviously, is the fossils and what we understand about the bones and how they actually go together, what the skeleton would look like. So we essentially start with a skeletal reconstruction, which has been compiled by a specialist.
Now we know from what we understand about marks on bones and the anatomy of living animals, got pretty good evidence for what the tissue on top of the musculature was like. Bringing the actual animal to life then incorporates a ton of discussion about how big you think the muscles were, how much jiggle there was in the animal’s tissues, the range of movements in its joints, how much its knees and ankles bend, how wide its jaws could open.
We used all of the scientific data that exists, combined it with a whole load of lines of evidence to do with the rules– air quotes around rules– that exist in nature about which animals have which color schemes, which patterns worked best for animals according to their lifestyle and habitat. And we incorporated all of this up-to-date thinking on what the integument, the stuff on the outside of the body, was like.
We know for sure that loads of dinosaurs had scaly skin on much or all of their bodies. But of course, we have this evidence now for feathers and filaments and spikes and other structures, which we incorporated as well. So it’s a really complicated, multi-stranded collaboration involving getting the bones right, getting the soft tissues right, coming up with rules about colors and patterns according to lifestyle and habitat, and incorporating all this brand new stuff about the external covering of the animal.
And then actually getting the thing to move around and walk, that again is a collaboration between what we understand about biomechanics. There’s a huge amount of science done on how joints and muscles move, what the range of motion’s like, combining that with the skill and experience of our team behind the CG building, because they have to build in gravity and movement to the animals.
Which, it is a scientifically-led thing, but it’s also something that’s in a way intuitive. They have developed this phenomenal understanding of, how do you make an animal that weighs 10 tons– thinking of a really big T. rex– how do you make that look like an animal that weighs 10 tons when you’re designing it on a computer?
IRA FLATOW: It’s quite incredible, the animation. I think you also have put in some real surprising moments in it. And I think one of them for me and probably for the audience is that you opened one of your episodes with T. rex swimming. I think a swimming T. rex is going to surprise a lot of Jurassic Park fans.
TIM WALKER: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that we’ve been aiming for is to bring an element of surprise to the viewers. I think people do have an expectation that dinosaurs are going to run around all the time and fight.
Now of course, that does happen in the natural world. But key to the success of Prehistoric Planet is the depiction of dinosaurs as animals, just like a bear or a tiger or a lion, if you film these things for real, they spend a lot of time doing very little. Then they’ve got to eat. They’ve got to procreate, repeat on a yearly basis.
And so we’ve approached the storytelling as if we’d been out in the field filming the dinosaurs for real. And when you do that, you would normally spend months and months in the field filming animals, because as I say, they do very little a lot of the time.
However, what they do display is unusual aspects of behavior that until it’s been filmed before, has never been seen. And so we’ve taken that approach. We’ve looked at what evidence we have out there to create our stories.
And there’s great evidence that Theropod dinosaurs swam. We know that T. rex had a pneumatic skeleton. It had a lot of air in its skeleton. It would have sat comfortably in the water body. And the trace fossils that have been found in many places show that Theropod feet have scraped along the bottom of rivers and lakes, the sediments on the bottom, and left the remains of a swimming motion. We put those elements together to tell a fantastic story, which will surprise and hopefully delight the viewers as much as it has done us.
IRA FLATOW: Watching this show there are times where the dinosaurs seem to show emotion. They have personalities. The babies are especially very cute and charismatic. Tim, how did you balance keeping the animation realistic and not making it too cartoony?
TIM WALKER: It’s a big challenge, making the animation realistic and not too cartoony. We spent a lot of time– I mean a lot of time working on this, getting the nuance of movement of an animal right, then combining that with the storytelling that we’ve developed at the BBC’s Natural History unit.
If you watch the type of things that we’ve made in the past, you can see a certain style to the storytelling, which does encourage an emotional attachment with a character. And combining that with the expertise of our animation supervisors, in particular Andy Jones, who had previously worked on The Lion King and Jungle Book and the incredible team at NBC, and that is absolutely key in maintaining the aesthetic of this being a docuseries and not just a fantastic movie.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Speaking of a docuseries, Prehistoric Planet is narrated by the inimitable Sir David Attenborough, who, of course, is known for his documentary narrations about nature. How did he take to this? Was it odd to craft scripting around footage that was computer animated where he’s used to being out in the wild with them, Tim?
TIM WALKER: Well, working with David Attenborough is an absolute delight, and it gives us the final piece of the cake, if you like. Having got the stories the way we want them, having got the animation and the look and feel of the dinosaurs and the other creatures how we want them, getting David’s endorsement was the final cherry on the top there.
And we spent a lot of time both researching the scientific side of things and then getting the material right before we showed it. And it was a tense moment. We can’t deny it, because he’s done everything when it comes to telling stories about the natural world. And we waited until things were very, very far advanced in terms of the development of the storylines and the final animation.
And when we showed him, he turned and he said, I don’t think you could have done it any better, which is a real seal of approval. And from that moment, he was on board.
IRA FLATOW: Right. Right. Darren, how did you choose from so many dinosaurs which ones to feature on the show?
DARREN NAISH: Right from the start, we decided that we were only going to focus on one particular short section of the so-called age of dinosaurs. So in particular, we wanted to focus on what’s called the Late Cretaceous. The Cretaceous is the last major chunk of the so-called age of dinosaurs.
And we focused on one six-million-year section of the last part of the Late Cretaceous called the Maastrichtian. So you’re only seeing animals from the Maastrichtian, the very last part of the Cretaceous. It’s the final days of the dinosaurs, if you like. But we’re still talking about a long time. Six million years is a considerable time. Lots of things happening in that time.
The reason we chose the Maastrichtian was partly because it contains the paleontological superstars that everyone knows. They’re household names. So Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, for example, are Maastrichtian dinosaurs.
But doubling up on this is the fact that the fossil record of the Maastrichtian is essentially the best for the whole age of dinosaurs. The fossil beds, the beds that bear fossils are more abundant globally, and they yield a greater diversity in terms of animals, and also plant fossils, information on environment, that kind of thing, than, again, almost any other part of the Mesozoic. This is partly a consequence of the fact that it’s the youngest part of the age of dinosaurs, so it’s the bit with the best fossils.
We really wanted to focus on the idea that life at this time was phenomenally diverse, abundant, incredibly rich. There were all these amazing dinosaurs, some of which, as I’ve said, are household names, others of which nobody apart from specialists have really heard about. And they live in a world that we understand pretty well relative to other sections of geological time. So if you want to start with bringing a very dynamic, new, exciting view of the age of dinosaurs to public, you virtually always start with the Maastrichtian.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Tim Walker and Darren Naish about the upcoming Apple TV+ show Prehistoric Planet.
Yeah, and throughout the years, depictions of dinosaurs have been pretty drab, mostly grays and browns. But there’s quite a lot of color in the show’s dinos. How were the choices made there, Darren?
DARREN NAISH: So conventional reconstructions of dinosaurs, which do portray them as not particularly attractive animals, often quite sort of dragony in appearance– you know, jagged teeth poking out from their face and lumpy, bumpy skin. And yeah, as you say, fairly dull animals.
This is a very, very out-of-date view of the animals, which isn’t in keeping at all with our current understanding. So it’s quite distressing to a specialist like me that that stereotype is still being perpetuated, even at this point in history. It’s very strange.
We know for a whole bunch of reasons that dinosaurs were, in fact, almost the opposite of this. They were flamboyant, visually oriented, very likely colorful dinosaurs.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that many species were pretty dull. They would have been grays and browns, and maybe some of them weren’t particularly attractive to us. But we know that dinosaurs had enormous eyes. They have the biggest eyeballs of any terrestrial animals in all of history. The parts of their brains devoted to processing information from the eyes are particularly big and well developed.
They’re closely related to birds. Birds are living dinosaurs. So what goes for birds often goes for extinct dinosaurs as well. So you think of in the bird world today, birds are often colorful. They do mating dances and displays, wiggling their tails and all this kind of stuff. That kind of thing applies to dinosaurs– non-bird dinosaurs too.
So the idea that you should take away from Prehistoric Planet is that dinosaurs would have been flamboyant, attractive, often colorful animals. It’s not a coincidence. You think about all these remarkable body shapes we have in all the dinosaur groups. Again and again, we see the evolution and elaboration of head crests, plates on the back, spikes, spines, giant dorsal scales. Very peculiar anatomical structures.
I think it shows that this group of animals, almost more than any other group of animals in the history of life, are visually flamboyant, doing displays, using color, using body language, sending signals to other members of their species and to the members of other species. And this is very much the modern view of these animals, is what you’re going to see portrayed in our sequences.
IRA FLATOW: It was fascinating to watch. Tim, when Walking with Dinosaurs came out, we were in the late– what? 1990s? And there was this huge dino mania. Jurassic Park was one of the biggest movies ever. You had dinosaur toys. Things were huge with kids. And now 20 years later, Prehistoric Planet is coming out. We’ve got a new Jurassic World movie coming out soon. Are we in a new age of dino mania?
TIM WALKER: I think we are in a new age of dino mania. And for me, bring it on. If we can have Prehistoric Planet and we can have Jurassic Park at the same time, the more people we can get excited and passionate about what we’ve been spending the last three and a half years doing, well, just fabulous, you know?
IRA FLATOW: That’s great, and we look forward to it. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today, and good luck.
DARREN NAISH: Thank you very much.
TIM WALKER: Thank you very much. It’s a great pleasure. And don’t forget to watch Prehistoric Planet on Apple TV+ streaming from May 23.
IRA FLATOW: Tim Walker, Producer for Prehistoric Planet, and Darren Naish, Lead Science Consultant for the show, both based in Bristol, UK. And if you can’t get enough of dinosaurs, you can join our Science Friday Book Club. We’re reading Riley Black’s book, The Last Days of the Dinosaurs. Find out how to join at sciencefriday.com/bookclub.