Walking With Dinosaurs

by Eric Huelsman

In my view, it is the most awesome science program ever produced. Nothing before ever made for television even approaches it, so breathtaking is its scope, its thoroughness and its authenticity. It is an incredible three-hour journey into prehistory that, while as provocative as any fictional account of dinosaurs that has ever been made, is, more importantly, a wildlife documentary that stands on its own as an unprecedented achievement for natural history. The "it" I'm referring to is the BBC/Discovery Channel mini-series Walking With Dinosaurs; which, by all measures of television entertainment will, like what Jurassic Park did for motion pictures, be hailed as one of the most scientifically significant technological benchmarks in broadcast television for many years to come.

These Torosaurus' are sure walking! © BBC/Discovery Channel.

Comparisons to Jurassic Park are sadly inevitable but, as such, I am happy to report that Walking With Dinosaurs is simply stunning -- almost unbelievable -- even for the most jaded dinosaur fans out there. The computer generated animation wrought for these creatures, handled by the British firm FrameStore, is so astonishingly true to life that paleontologists hired to facilitate the making of the show ended up writing new chapters for "the book" on dinosaurs as a result. And it is, by all accounts, the first time ever that a production of this magnitude has tried so diligently to recreate the natural ecosystems in which dinosaurs lived, e.g. how they hunted, bore offspring, etc. So much so that the experience of watching Walking With Dinosaurs is veritably no different than what one would expect from watching say, a wildlife documentary about hippos or lions in Africa; except that these animals lived over 65 millions years ago!

In fact, Walking With Dinosaurs has been heralded by some scientists as being the most credibly accurate depiction of dinosaur life ever produced, theatrical, TV or otherwise. And, if this is any indication of the excellence of the production crew that put the show together, it was all done on a production budget of less than $10 million. So, if you're asking, how on Pangaea did they do it, Virginia? Read on. And stop calling me Virginia.

Big Thunder (Lizards) on a Small Budget
In Hollywood, the litmus test of a successful dinosaur show is how much box office the dinos can generate. Jurassic Park, for example, made into the many hundreds of millions of dollars on receipts for both that picture and its sequel, Jurassic Park 2. Yet only 7 to 8 minutes of the first picture and 10 minutes of the sequel showed any dinosaurs at all, despite the motion pictures' relatively large budgets. So why not more dinos? Too expensive to make, as the BBC would come to find out.

When first approached in 1995 to do the job, the CG dinosaur factory of Industrial Light & Magic, which had done the dinos for both Jurassic Park movies, quoted the BBC a whopping $10,000 per second to do the CG. At $10,000 a second for two and a half hours, you do the math. Not many producers at BBC could justify a tenth of that kind of expense, so imagine the dilemma facing Tim Haines, BBC Science Producer in charge of making Walking With Dinosaurs. Considering the show's total running time of 180 minutes, 150 minutes of it CG, what was one to do?

The T-Rex is one of 40 dinosaurs brought to life for Walking with Dinosaurs. © BBC/Discovery Channel.

As a zoologist with a background in paleontology, Haines was keenly aware that it would take far more than three hours of TV to depict the entire history of dinosaurs. Many thousands of species of dinosaur thrived throughout the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. Thus, settling on a representative smattering of the more interesting species, such as the mammoth sea monster Lilopleurodon or the giant pterosaur Omithocheirus, as well as the obligatory Tyrannosarus Rex and Diplodicus, was really going to need to strike a careful balance between that which would hold the interest of science-savvy viewers as well as making for exciting television for the dinosaurs' more er...bloodthirsty fans.

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