Gotta Catch ‘Em All!

Prehistoric Park is a new series of dinosaur adventures currently being aired on ITV. The production is the latest collaboration between Impossible Pictures and Framestore CFC, which partnership has previously produced award-winning shows in the Walking With?Ķ series, as well as Space Odyssey and Ocean Odyssey. The six one-hour episodes star Nigel Marven, presenter of several previous Impossible Pictures dinosaur documentaries, as well as a host of familiar ?Äì and new ?Äì saurian stars.

Framestore CFC worked on Prehistoric Park for 18 months, from planning and storyboards, through creating and animating the CG creatures and visual effects, to the final Digital Intermediate given to each episode. Altogether, a team of over 70 artists, technicians and producers created around 750 shots (including 630 CG shots), featuring 22 different species of prehistoric creatures, many of them with variant looks for different ages.

Bringing fresh life to a successful formula is always tricky. With Walking With Dinosaurs and its sequels and specials, Impossible Pictures single-handedly invented the dinosaur documentary genre. With increasing sophistication, the shows progressed from straightforward documentaries, wherein the dinosaurs were seen in their natural prehistoric environments – shot ‘straight’ – in the style of a modern wildlife documentary, to the more recent programmes, which introduced Nigel Marven as presenter. Marven was seen actually in the shots with the prehistoric creatures, interacting with them in increasingly inventive ways.

Now, with Prehistoric Park, Executive Producer Jasper James and his team have brilliantly made the leap to a fully realised dramatic adventure. We follow the intrepid Marven on his quest to stock his eponymous Park, using ‘time portals’ to jump between the present and the past. Each episode contains several story threads, with Marven’s adventures in a variety of prehistoric environments contrasting with those of his team of Park staff in the present ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® including Bob (Head Keeper) and Suzanne (Vet) ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® as they work to ensure the safety and comfort of the captured prehistoric creatures.

In addition to the (naturally) magnificent prehistoric creatures, Prehistoric Park features some beautiful cinematography in a variety of stunning locations. Three directors ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® Sid Bennett, Karen Kelly and Matthew Thompson ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® handled two episodes each. The park footage itself was shot in South Africa, while the ‘prehistoric’ locations to which Marven travels included the Yukon, Brazil, Chile, Florida, Australia and New Zealand. The educational component is still there ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® Marven manages to pass on a lot of information about the dinosaurs whilst on his jaunts ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® but the ‘romp’ factor has been considerably boosted. Overall, the series conveys a marvellous sense of fun, wonder and excitement.

VFX Supervisor for the show was Framestore CFC veteran of twelve years, George Roper, who had already worked on a number of previous Impossible Pictures collaborations. “One of the things I think we all enjoyed about Prehistoric Park,” he says, “Was the different slant that the programme makers took this time around. It was great to be able to put on our light entertainment hats, so to speak.”

Each episode required about a month on location, and senior Framestore CFC staffers Mike McGee, Tim Greenwood, Sirio Quintavalle, Christian Manz and Pedro Sabrosa supervised these shoots, which proceeded throughout Spring and Summer 2005. Meanwhile, work had begun in London on the creatures. Animation Supervisor Neil Glasbey recall, “The first maquettes (clay models used to design the look of the creatures) started coming through in the Spring of 2005. Some of the creatures were old friends. Triceratops, T. Rex, Woolly Mammoth were all creatures we’d worked on before. But there were differences. For example, the T.Rexes, this time, were two juvenile specimens captured in the first episode, which we then follow as they grow to maturity. Also, this time around, a good 50-60% of the shots featured the dinosaurs interacting with human performers ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® being fed by them, chasing them and so on, so there were new challenges even there.”

“In addition,” continues Glasbey, “There were a number of dinosaurs we’d never before tried. Incisivosaurus, a bird-like, feathery raptor with big buck teeth, for example, for whom I had to choreograph a little mating dance ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® that was great fun. Truoodon ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® another raptor/bird-like creature ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® was another newcomer; and a sixty-foot long crocodile called Deinosuchus.”

The technical challenges of producing such an enormous bestiary in a relatively short time are considerable. “With such an ambitious project, both in terms of quality and quantity, you have to be both ultra-organised and also work smarter,” says CG Supervisor Laurent Hugueniot. “One of the great challenges was the large number of different creatures, each of them requiring modelling, texturing and rigging. Once animated, we had to recreate the lighting from each location, using onset digital photography, so that the creatures would appear to receive the light from their environment. The TD team performed brilliantly, I think, doing a fantastic job.”

Hugueniot also has a positive slant on the challenges created by the higher level of interactivity in Prehistoric Park. “In this show,” he points out, “The creatures are interacting a lot with their environment. Kicking trees, cages, bushes, or even attacking humans. This is harder to achieve, but well worth doing, as it reinforces the illusion that the creature is seated in the environment.”

Compositing started in October 2005, with a small team (led by Roper) of 4 or 5 compositors putting it all together over the following 8 months. Other 2D elements that were brought into play included a number of matte paintings ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® volcanoes and other environments, including the park itself ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® and, of course, the time portal effect. The time-doors through which Marven and the animals travel are activated by a small device planted on the ground, and take the form of a shimmery, slightly liquid distortion of the air. As Roper modestly puts it, “I didn’t want to be too Stargate about it, but you always seem to feel yourself being pulled in that direction…”

he very last step in Prehistoric Park’s journey through Framestore CFC was a visit to the company’s Digital Lab. Colourist Asa Shoul helped give the episodes a final tweak. “The Super 16 material had been superbly technically graded downstairs in our TK department first, but all the other film that was to be cut in between ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® stuff without visual effects ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® was one-lighted by another company on a different machine, so that there were matching issues. My job was to balance everything, pulling it all together.”

There is every sign that ITV ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® who have given the show much promotion, and time-slots aimed at a broad family audience – will have a hit on their hands with their first foray back in time with Impossible Pictures and Framestore CFC. For their part, the Framestore CFC team seem to have really enjoyed pushing their prehistoric creatures into new and more dramatic directions. And there are bound to be a few species that were missed the first time around. Like the Pokemon slogan says…

Prehistoric Park
An Impossible Pictures Production for ITV in association with ProSieben/M6/Animal Planet
Executive Producer Jasper James
Producers/Director Karen Kelly, Sid Bennett, Matthew Thompson

For Framestore CFC
Director of Computer Animation Mike Milne
Visual Effects Supervisors George Roper, Mike McGee, Tim Greenwood, Pedro Sabrosa, Sirio Quintavalle, Christian Manz
CG Supervisor Laurent Hugeuniot
Lead Animators Neil Glasbey, Kevin Spruce
CG Animators Barth Maunoury, Brad Silby, Catherine Elvidge, Darren Rodriguez, Gopal Dave, Jacques Comes, James Farrington, John Kay, John Lee, Julian Howard, Laurent Benhamo, Mark Brocking, Mathieu Vig, Matthieu Poirey, Rhiannon Nicholas, Rosie Ashforth, Ross Burgess, Stuart Ellis
Technical Directors Carl Bianco, Dan Sheerin, Fabio Bonvicini, Jason Baker, Jason Mayo, Joe Leveson, Matthias Zeller, Mike O’Neill, Oliver Mcluskey, Partick Lowry, Rob Richardson, Saul Reid, JP Li
Compositors Astrid Busser, Alberto Montanes, Luke Drummond, Rachel Wright, Sirio Quintavalle, Wendy Seddon, Richard Scarlett, Lorraine Cooper, Kate Porter
CG Modellers Sarah Tosh, Donald Pan, Grahame Curtis, Neehar Kohli, Romain Segurado, Ronan Carr Fanning
Digital Paint and Textures Daren Horley, Elsa Santos, David Woodland, Jason Horley, Laurence Peguy, Mark Taylor, Nathan Hughes, Rebecca Melander, Virginie Degorgue, Danny Geurtsen
Cyberscanning Guy Hauldren, Sean Varney
Tracking Michael Thompson
Visual Effects Editorial Carey Williams
Visual Effects Producers Matt Fox, Jo Nodwell
Visual Effects Line Producer Kirsty Morgan
Visual Effects Co-ordinators Lorna Paterson, Sophie Woollven, Jon Keene

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