As soon as viewers caught the first glimpse of Apple TV+’s Prehistoric Planet, the five-part dinosaur documentary made by the BBC Studios Natural History Unit, featuring Jon Favreau as showrunner and narration by David Attenborough, it was clear that a new level of nature documentary was here.
That’s partly because the series leverages photoreal and naturalistic visual effects from MPC, following its somewhat similar approach on The Lion King and The Jungle Book, and because it was also directed by Andrew R. Jones and Adam Valdez, who both worked on those films as animation supervisor and visual effects directly, respectively (Jones was also series animation supervisor on Prehistoric Planet).
In their new roles here, the directors share with befores & afters what approach they took–from early tests of prehistoric creatures featuring the latest scientific imaginings, to animation to dealing with dino close-ups–in delivering a new level of realism with the CG dinosaurs, which were realized against both live-action backgrounds and completely synthetic environments.
b&a: What was the brief for what this series should be? Was it ‘realistic’? Was it ‘fantastical’? Where did you sit on all that?
Adam Valdez: Mike Gunton (creative director, factual – BBC Worldwide) had seminal ideas about where it all begins. And it turns out–I don’t want to call him the Granddaddy of the BBC Natural History Unit–but it’s kind of the case. It’s his thing, and he’s been doing these shows for so long. It’s 100% in line with his shows. They are science-based but super engaging through story. They always find an interesting story in the real world. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction.
Andrew Jones: The early talks between Jon Favreau and Gunton and Adam and I were all about, how do we do what we’ve been doing on Lion King and Jungle Book, but trying to pull off the ultimate magic trick of completely photoreal animals and then take it to the next step, where you’re not just recreating a lion, that we all know what it looks like, where we’re making it talk. But instead now we’re recreating dinosaurs and prehistoric animals that did exist on this planet. That fascinates everybody universally.
It was also about using the latest science and latest thinking, and all the latest in terms of technology for animation and rigging–all the stuff MPC’s developed over the years with Jungle Book and Lion King, like muscle systems and skin sliding. How can we really truly bring these dinosaurs to life? That was the pitch.