Friday, 16 September 2011

Planet Dinosaur stomps into view

As I'm the only person in the paleo blogosphere not to have seen Dinosaur Revolutions and feeling somewhat left out of the whole 'new dinosaur programme on telly' vibe of the past few weeks, I was pleased to settle down last night and watch the first episode of the BBC's new offering, Planet Dinosaur.

More knowledgeable people than I have commented on the accuracy and behaviour depicted elsewhere so I'll concentrate more on the work of the artists. Suffice to say the mawkish anthropomorphism that pervades many of the recent additions to this genre was not evident here much to my relief, and there was science behind the displayed behaviour for the most part. For a fine review and discussion on the morphological details head over to Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs which has a good debate going on, including input from one of the production team.

As commercial artist and animator myself I was watching with one eye on the 3D and motion graphics all the time, and I thought these were both excellent. There were some issues, such as the time-traveling Ouranosaurus looking a little lacking in mass when walking on all fours (not too sure about the skin texture, which looked a bit plasticky), and the occasional odd footfall but these are minor niggles. For the most part the CGI was a joy to watch, with skin following muscle deformations and wobbly bits looking, er, wobbly. The close-up shots were outstanding and I really enjoyed some of the particle effects (many presumably done in post), and a big shout out to whoever did the sand particles when the feet came down - very effective indeed. The theropod's heads were suitably scaly and battle-scarred and the excellent Spinosaurus was a good choice for the episode's main protagonist. Highlights were the shots of him swimming and his tug-of-war with the Carcharodontosaurus for the hapless herbivore's carcass and the attack on the pterosaurs (who were in the nip! Whither fur?).

The camera work was of the hand-held-in-a-battlezone type so beloved of gamers and producers of CGI these days and although no wildlife cameraman would ever film a subject like that for fear of inducing motion sickness in his audience it added to the sense of drama, as did the camerawork during the fight sequence with it's slow-mo/hard cuts/bullet time feel. As ever, the devil is in the detail and the detail was not ignored; camera lenses were splattered with blood and drool (often at the same time - good call whoever thought that one up) and debris flew from the feet of running dinosaurs.

All of this was backed up with motion graphics explaining the rationale behind the behaviour shown and showing - gasp - actual fossils. Deep joy! John Hurt's narration was pitch perfect as you'd expect and added a certain gravitas the the proceedings.

One thing though - we really need to come up with some new sounds for dinosaurs. The Ouranosaurus were portrayed making ungulate-like vocalisations and the predators growling with lion/croc/bear style mashups. This is fine, but I can't help thinking that perhaps we could move this on a bit now.

The firm who created the shots for the programme, Jellyfish Pictures worked very closely with experts (including Scott Harman and one of my old tutors from Birkbeck College, Charlie Underwood), which I think is reflected in the quality of the models. Reading the article in 3D World magazine, it becomes apparent that the team worked hard to get as much of the science in whilst making the programme interesting, and on time and within budget too. This sort of work is not cheap, and is time-consuming and I think the team have made an excellent programme given the constraints; 2,100 CGI and 700 mograph shots in 17 months, to this standard is impressive stuff and we should be applauding the BBC for commissioning this sort of science programme.

So, much to look forward to in the next episode.

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