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‘Those close-ups are where it all lives and breathes’

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.

Andrew Jones: The intention was to do some AR on location. And we did a little bit. We attempted simulcam with an AR system, but it was super tricky to get that to work. And working with the amount of time and the amount of shots we needed to get per day on these locations, we just found it a bit cumbersome. But, on the iPad we still had all the previs and all the camera work that we had already cut together with all of our camera positions. So we knew we had a really good roadmap of what to shoot when we got there. A lot of those locations to shoot were just ticking the boxes of where we could shoot this particular shot.

That was especially the case for a lot of those types of close-ups, which is the fun thing too about documentary filmmaking. They do this all the time in natural history shows, where they cut together completely different locations. They cut them together because they’re in a close and a wide and you don’t realize–that’s why some of those really tights are so out of focus in the backgrounds. Because you don’t realize that the lion is in a different spot, but they’re making it feel like it’s all part of the same action. And we try to do the same thing.

So, a lot of times we’d be like, ‘Okay, we’re going to shoot these rocks here during the day.’ And then we’d be like, ‘Oh, but the lighting’s so much nicer now we’re in the afternoon over here. I know our dinosaur is supposed to be there, but it’s fine, it’s a close-up.’ And nobody notices. Because we want the lighting to be right. Or we want it just to be a beautiful shot. They’ll shoot lions for a month and then they’ll cut together all these different days and the most beautiful lighting that they could find. And it makes it feel like one scene, but if there’s inconsistent lighting, that actually makes it feel like a documentary. Which I think is something fun that we did on the show as well.

Previs frame. Courtesy of MPC.

Adam Valdez: Just to be clear, there’s a range of stuff in the show. The show’s mostly real backgrounds. But a lot of underwater stuff is full CG and there are hybrids as usual. What Andy’s talking about is the intentional sense of mismatch, where actually, it was highly planned.

Some people are like, ‘Well, what are you directing exactly?’ It’s like, ‘Well, first you have notions of stories and you have to dramatize those.’ Then we have to pretty much design every shot. For example, Andy has a sequence with the lizard crawling over these sleeping animals. And you’re following this tiny little creature over the landscape, which is other animals. And you’re not just going to go shoot some random stuff and make that work later. It’s so precise.

Also, there are no other human actors or stunt cars or something else that are grounding every shot. It’s just empty. So the only thing you’re worrying about is whether or not that camera is going to support that exact shot. And because we were held to such high standards for exactly how the camera should behave, I think there was more scrutiny on these as shot designs, not just an idea of what it could be.

I don’t remember, Andy, what your editorial process was like, but I would deliver a director’s cut to them. And then also a bin full of all my takes. Those takes would be long. And they said it was a lot like combing through field footage.