Prehistoric Planet aims to let audiences experience the wonders of dinosaurs like never before in this docuseries from producer, director Jon Favreau and the producers of the BBC’s award-winning Planet Earth. The original Planet Earth was a 2006 British series produced by the BBC Natural History Unit. Like the new Prehistoric Planet, it was ground-breaking. The original took five years to make and was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned. It was hugely successful and lead to several sequels. Planet Earth was narrated by David Attenborough, who again returns to narrate the five-part Apple TV+ Prehistoric Planet.
The new Prehistoric Planet combines award-winning wildlife filmmaking, the latest palaeontology learnings, and state-of-the-art VFX to unveil the habitats and inhabitants of the ancient Earth. The series was made by the team at BBC Studios Natural History Unit with support from the photorealistic visual effects and animation of MPC, award winners themselves for The Lion King, The Jungle Book. The series was in development for over a decade and is available on Apple TV+.
The production started with an extensive pre-visualization process to quickly home in on the types of Dinosaurs the show was going to cover. The concept art basis for the previz was created by Jellyfish Pictures (known for their work on The Book of Boba Fett). MPC used previz to explore the environments that they would need to augment, and virtual cinematography and what would be needed to be captured on-location to create the most authentic documentary-style aesthetic.
Prehistoric Planet presents little-known and surprising facts of dinosaur life set against the backdrop of the environments of Cretaceous times, including coasts, deserts, freshwater, ice worlds, and forests, traveling back 66 million years to when majestic dinosaurs and extraordinary creatures roamed the lands, seas, and skies.
One of the unique aspects of this project was for the MPC VFX team to work with the filmmakers and the experts at the Natural History Unit “It was a great collaboration of two hugely experienced studios working together to unite the two worlds,” MPC’s visual effects supervisor Elliot Newman explains. “It was great working with Jon Favreau. For myself and my Associate VFX Supervisor Kirstin Hall, this was the third production working with Jon, so we felt like we understood his vision as a filmmaker – his sensibilities, what he likes, what he might not like, etc. Jon has an excellent eye for detail and for, nuance and realistically portraying things.” This rapport helped MPC establish effective visuals early on. “Jon is also very experienced at directing heavy VFX productions; this was a massive advantage as he understands the process.”
“What makes Prehistoric Planet different is the accuracy in which we are portraying dinosaurs and the prehistoric animals of the time using the latest VFX craft, filmmaking, and science,” Newman explains “There were so many breathtaking sequences, from a VFX perspective and the story-telling point of view in this series, such as the Wrestling Titans sequence, the battle on the salt flats, etc.”
The creative team uses a host of VFX in traditional photographic styles, from timelapse to night vision, matching photography underwater, on cliffs, and in snow, all of which adds to the realism and documentary feel of the series. The complexity for MPC was dealing with such a diverse range of creatures, locations and cinematic styles. “The scope and complexity are interesting about the project; with typical film production, there’ll be a lot more continuity throughout, so you can generally solve things that repeat later,” points out Newman. “You work out exactly what your problem areas are as you go, but Prehistoric Planet contains so much diversity in the content; it was a huge creative and technical challenge for us to overcome because it was all quite different throughout.”
MPC built 95 prehistoric animals starting with designs from BBC NHU, and guidance from Dr. Darren Naish to ensure scientific accuracy. Each animal required MPC to create a complete digital anatomy, including bones, muscles, skin, scales, fur, feathers, and of course teeth. “We paid particular attention to various source material including fossil records, skeletal reconstructions, and we studied many current-day animals that have evolutionary similarities,” Newman recalls. “Taking the iconic T-Rex as an example, every layer of the animal’s anatomy has been created in CGI to be anatomically accurate from the skeleton to the layers of muscle and interaction between the joints.” This detail enabled MPC’s animators to move each animal with precision, mimicking exactly how the creature’s muscles must have moved. “We even took care to ensure every scale on the skin was the correct size,” he adds.
Prehistoric Planet involved a huge VFX shoot, in remote locations with BBC NHU wildlife filmmakers. Additionally, a huge amount of on-set data was captured in order to integrate believable digital extensions and accurate prehistoric animals. This approach was more prescribed than a typical documentary shoot. MPC Environments Supervisor Marco Rolandi and his team helped to build fully digital environments or replaced portions of live-action photography. This was important to allow the dinosaurs to interact and be integrated into their various habitats.
To aid the cinematographers in framing shots on-location we used static dinosaur cut-outs for scale and reference, however in instances where the dinosaurs were too large for cutouts, the team got creative, using boom poles or even flying drones to represent the dinosaur’s massive scale within their environment.
To aid the cinematographers in framing shots on-location they used static dinosaur cut-outs for scale and reference, however, in instances where the dinosaurs were too large for cut-outs, the team got creative and used boom poles or even flying drones to represent the dinosaur’s massive scale within their environment.
Previz photos: Courtesy of MPC. Final photos: Courtesy of Apple