AppleTV+’s Prehistoric Planet takes viewers back 66 million years to when majestic dinosaurs and extraordinary creatures roamed the lands, seas and skies. Executive produced by Jon Favreau and featuring original music by Hans Zimmer, Season 1 spans five episodes. MPC provided visual effects services for the series, which is narrated by David Attenborough.
Seng Lau, animation supervisor at MPC (Moving Picture Company), and supervising sound editor, Jonny Crew, recently shared their experience working on the show.
“My main role was to supervise the prehistoric creature movements and behaviors and to ensure the scientific accuracy and authenticity of the animation, with the help of Dr. Darren Naish. We’ve seen how Hollywood and popular fiction has depicted dinosaurs in the past. A lot of this work has entertained and inspired many of us greatly. But using the latest science, the latest technology and some incredibly talented artists, we sought to show you how they really behaved, lived and interacted with their environment. It was the job of the animation supervisors and our teams to tell their stories.
“The workflow first involved creating pre-vis animation with the producers and Dr. Darren Naish in order to first nail down the story we wanted to tell. We would work with cameras and explore some rough behavior and movement ideas, and make sure from the very start that everything was authentic — not just with the animal behavior, but with the filming process as well. There are so many things about natural history filmmaking that we simply don’t consider in major Hollywood productions. For instance, you must shoot from a long lens when you’re filming giant, terrifying predators for the obvious reason of being as far away as possible, so you don’t get eaten. Conversely, with a herd of herbivore triceratops, we would be able to get right in there with a wide lens if we wanted to, right next to the animal. We would consider the animal’s behavior and its mindset in the shot. Would there be a single juvenile with a protective parent? Would there be a group of juveniles, because this dinosaur hatches in broods? If this is a nesting site, is there dung everywhere? Would they be naturally curious about the camera?
“We would then go out into the real world and film the plates in exotic, appropriate locations and then get them back into the hands of our animators to add the dinosaurs. Using techniques like phylogenetic bracketing and evidence, such as fossil records and trackways, we then pieced together references from existing animals that we could draw from and learn from. Our animators would explore many options to get the dinosaurs to move precisely right, and I would say that was our biggest challenge. Everything we did was based on science and evidence, yet we had no direct reference to study from.
“For instance, pterosaurs and their method of flying don’t exist among vertebrates anymore. They evolved in a completely different way of flying than bats and birds, yet they still have similarities. The MPC team learned that the pachyrhinosaurus and other types of ceratopsids couldn’t run in a full gallop, which is quite a challenge when trying to animate them escaping predators. Every dinosaur was a puzzle to be solved, and the animation team did its best to bring these prehistoric creatures to life.”
Supervising Sound Editor
“My role was to have ears across all episodes to ensure the world sounded consistent, in addition to designing sound, managing sound created by the other sound editors, dealing with picture changes and attending mixes. It also entailed a bit of admin, scheduling, liaising with production, etc.
“Working closely with Dr. Darren Naish, we’d start by creating from scratch specific vocalizations. Once these were approved, we’d then have to expand from those elements into a whole plethora of screams, squawks or rumbles, depending on the action, and multiply them into herds, colonies and packs of dinosaurs.
“The first challenge was getting the approval on the vocalizations. Sometimes that would come quickly, other times it would take several attempts to get right. Another difficulty was having to create ambiances that were period correct. There were fewer birds in the cretaceous, certainly nothing like our songbirds, so those usual signifiers of an environment had to be very carefully managed. As we were working on these stages, the animation would be coming together and the edits would be finalizing, so there’d be a fair bit of adjusting to follow these changes as we went along, often right into the mix.
“Managing those changes would be impossible without conforming software (Matchbox). The newest version came out just in time to help with this. We used every technique at our disposal — some old, some new — to hopefully make these animals sound as full of life and impressive as possible. Alien, yet strangely familiar at the same time.”