How ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Made The Most Realistic Dinosaurs You’ve Ever Seen

How ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Made The Most Realistic Dinosaurs You’ve Ever Seen

Prehistoric Planet is a new five-part series on Apple TV+ that shows the life and times of Cretaceous-era dinosaurs and pterosaurs as never before. Each episode focuses on a particular habitat from 66 million years ago, and recreates the flora and fauna of the time in breathtaking detail, using the most up-to-date research, to accurately depict each life form. That means velociraptors with feathers, T. rex that can swim, and plesiosaurs that swallow stones whole.

The series is narrated by David Attenborough, with music by Hans Zimmer and Bleeding Fingers Music. The show is filmed in the style of a traditional nature documentary, lending the footage a sense of realism independent from the quality of the computer-generated imagery.

This week, Gizmodo interviewed Darren Naish, a paleozoologist who worked as the show’s chief scientific consultant, and Tim Walker, the series’ producer and showrunner, to discuss the making of Prehistoric Planet. Below is our conversation, lightly-edited for clarity.

Isaac Schultz, Gizmodo: The very first scene of the show opens with a male T. rex swimming with his brood across a body of water. Why was that scene chosen as the viewer’s first image of our prehistoric planet?

Tim Walker: The big ambition of the series is to emulate a BBC Natural History Unit wildlife documentary, the kind of which we’ve been making for the last 60 years. Over the last 20 years or so, we’ve produced things like Planet Earth and Planet Earth 2, Blue Planet, Frozen Planet. These documentaries showcase the natural world like no one else can. We show its beauty, we show the behaviour of the animals and plants that inhabit it in a certain way… one of the things that these series do is they bring unknown bits of behaviour to the viewer.

Although it’s set 66 million years ago and most of the animals that we feature are no longer with us unfortunately, we still want to show unusual behaviour displayed by well-known characters. And so what better way to bring that to the forefront than the series by kicking off with the most famous familiar dinosaur, but doing a very unusual bit of behaviour. Now that will hopefully surprise people. It might shock some people. The dinosaur looks slightly different to what people have got used to in pop culture. You know, our T. rex has a slightly different build; the internet has gone crazy for the way he looks. He’s a father with his brood of young, and he’s taking them to learn a little bit of niche behaviour where they learn to hunt for themselves.

How ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Made The Most Realistic Dinosaurs You’ve Ever Seen

Darren Naish: [T. rex] appears to have been a habitat generalist and it appears to have eaten a wide variety of animal prey, so we have every reason to think that it would have exploited coastal resources the same as big modern predators do.

Its anatomy shows us that it almost definitely would have been a good swimmer. It’s got a very muscular, powerful tail. It’s got massive spreading feet that mean it would have been quite confident on soft substrates — it wouldn’t have worried about sinking into the sand or what have you. And the animals most similar to Tyrannosaurs today in terms of proportions and body shape are big flightless birds, which are excellent swimmers. They can they can cross massive rivers and swim at sea.

Finally there’s direct fossil evidence that this group of dinosaurs that includes T. rex (the group is called the theropods, the predatory dinosaurs) — we’ve actually got what we call swim traces — marks made on the sea floor and lake beds where the tips of their toes have actually scraped across the bottom as the animals either gone into shallow water or going into deep water.

Add all of that together, I’d be absolutely certain, even if there was no fossil evidence whatsoever, absolutely certain as dinosaur expert, that T. rex would have been a good swimmer, and on occasion it would have gone swimming.

Gizmodo: How much did recent research shape the series’ content? How did your team balance newer findings from research with more well-established, longstanding consensus?

Walker: On a Tuesday every week, we have what we call the Dr. Darren Dino Download, in which we all get together as a team and Darren gives us a little breakdown of what’s going on during that week. And one of the things he tells us is that at the moment, in fact, during the time that we’ve been making the series, there’s pretty much been a new description of a dinosaur or other prehistoric animal one a week over the time. So we’re talking about, you know, 170, 175 new descriptions that have occurred during the time we’ve been making it.

It’s indicative of the fact that we all working very, very closely with the paleocommunity. That’s not just dinosaur experts. It’s people that work across all the animals, all the botany. We also do paleoclimate modelling to give us datasets so we can look to see what the environments were like at the time and we’re keeping our finger on the pulse to ensure that what we’re depicting in this latest series of Prehistoric Planet, is the most scientifically accurate depiction of the animals, their behaviour and the environment.

How ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Made The Most Realistic Dinosaurs You’ve Ever Seen

Naish: We haven’t made a point of deliberately featuring discoveries that are brand new. I would say rather, it’s the fact of this remarkable escalation in discoveries that’s happened. It’s a combination of people finding new stuff, more people working on this stuff than ever before and more people than ever before applying new techniques and new technologies to fossils. This all means that some of the most exciting, compelling, and best supported stories have only been discovered since since 2010. We’re in the middle of a dinosaur revolution, which has been going on for decades, it’s going on since the 1980s, it’s not necessarily young. But some of the most amazing things we know that will surprise people.

We’re mostly reflecting the fact that there’s just this enormous outpouring of research, which is really exciting, which is mostly happening now, which is one of the reasons why this is the best time to make Prehistoric Planet.

Gizmodo: When people think about dinosaur sounds they may immediately jump to the roar of a theropod. But Prehistoric Planet has a lot of dinosaur rumbles, squawks, and chirps. Without soft tissue to guide the way, how did you make your best guess at how dinosaurs sounded?

Walker: I’m going to say one thing and then pass it over to him: #Phylogeneticbracketing, ok? #Phylogeneticbracketing. Let’s get that trending.

Naish: There’s so many things where we’ve got direct fossil evidence. But think of all the things you want to portray in a natural history TV show there’s no fossil evidence for at all. Sounds are an excellent example. In a case like that, we use what Tim has already mentioned: phylogenetic bracketing. You have to know where your extinct animal is on the tree of life, and hopefully it’s on a part of the tree of life where it’s surrounded by living relatives. 

With extinct dinosaurs, we’re very lucky because dinosaurs aren’t extinct. There’s a group of them that’s still around today: birds. Birds are dinosaurs. And then further away on the tree of life, on the other side of extinct dinosaurs, non-bird dinosaurs, there are crocodiles and alligators. We’ve got these two living groups that bracket our extinct one. If there are “rules” — and an air quotes because nature is such a mess; there’s no black and white, everything is shades of grey — if there are “rules” in the living animals that bracket the extinct one, then you can apply them to the extinct one with quite a degree of confidence. 

We’ve got firstly every reason to think that extinct dinosaurs would be very vocal because crocodiles and alligators and birds are. We’ve got every reason to think they would have made a load of low-frequency grumbles because big birds — cassowaries, emus, ostriches, etc. — and crocodilians actually make pretty similar sounds. They make them in pretty similar ways as well.

That’s the theory. What are the actual sounds actually sound like? Well, we worked with a team of technicians who got access to like a million animal sounds — obviously BBC Natural History united — so we work with people that have all this stuff actually in their library. Actually, I shouldn’t say this, because this is giving away Tim.

Walker: We’ll reveal more about how we where we think the sounds and the magic of the series in weeks to come. Suffice to say that, you know, we’ve looked at the animals that surround our animals on the evolutionary tree and look to see what is applicable and have created a wonderful suite of prehistoric sounds.

How ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Made The Most Realistic Dinosaurs You’ve Ever Seen

Gizmodo: The scientific effort behind Prehistoric Planet speaks for itself. Are you satisfied with the makeup of the science team? Should we get a season 2, would you change it in any way?

Walker: There’d be no change in approach to how we make Prehistoric Planet. We have created a series that looks and feels as though we’ve been back in a time machine with a group of filmmakers, And that was the that was the ambition right at the start. Many years later, we’ve achieved that. I think there’s a lot of the prehistoric planet to explore. There’s a lot of dinosaur evolution to explore. We would jump at the chance to, you know, bring more more of that exciting world to the viewer. But in terms of our approach, we’d remain exactly the same.

Naish: It’s been very rewarding and exciting for me to be embedded within the team right from the start and to have contributed to, you know, so many of our decisions. I’ve found it crucial to be embedded in this and it’s been thrilling to see it come to life. And we have a whole team of other experts that we consult with according to their appropriate specialisation.

Gizmodo: A lot of people will see, the hyper-realism of some of these dinosaurs and just begin to doubt everything that they’re seeing. What is CGI, what is not? How much of the paleo environments were CGI versus real? And specifically, I was curious about the time lapses of coral and fungi. I mean, were those modelled and then visualized?

Walker: We’re not going to disclose exactly how we did it. Suffice to say that it’s a blend of real world locations and CGI animals. In weeks to come, we will probably be revealing more about the the in-depth processes that were required to make the series.

But we have showcased the natural world by great cinematography. We don’t just focus on the animals, we feature the landscapes as well, which is part and parcel of the signature of the BBC’s natural history output and something that Apple were very keen for us to explore as well, along with Jon Favreau. That marriage of real world locations and CGI animals, I think has created a wonderfully spectacular visual which carries across the whole series.

Gizmodo: One element that obviously would not have been there 66 million years ago, but I think really added to the viewer’s experience of the show, was the music. What sort of conversations, if any, did the science team have with Hans Zimmer and the Bleeding Fingers team about what you were trying to get out of every scene?

Walker:  [Lead composers] Anže and Kara were involved along with Hans right from early doors when, when we were planning the series. We’ve worked with Hans and the team before, and the requirement for a cinematic score is once again part and parcel for this type of filmmaking. It brings such an emotional drive to the series and the ambition with the music was to create a suite of symphonies that represented the different habitats that we showcase in each episode, but with the overlying theme of Prehistoric Planet. 

I think the music is absolutely fabulous. It can prompt you emotionally, it can provoke you emotionally. Both before the events and after an event it can give you that little bonus that you sometimes require just to make you think about either what you’re about to see or what you have just seen. It can guide you through a landscape or through a set of behaviours that can make you associate certain sounds with either the habitats or the characters that are being shown.

How ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Made The Most Realistic Dinosaurs You’ve Ever Seen

Gizmodo: In 20 years, how much do you think the science depicted in Prehistoric Planet will have changed?

Naish: The get-out answer is we really can’t predict the future, so we don’t know what will be changed. But I think we have to assume that things will be different in 20 years time. I think it’s always worth emphasising the fact that science is a process. We’re constantly changing what we learn according to the fact that we constantly learn new stuff. It’s not just collecting facts and saying this is how it is. We have worked as hard as we can to be as up to the minute as possible.

The main take home would be this is the view of 2022. This is the view of right now. And we can’t predict the future. We have to assume things will be different. But hopefully, given that we’ve been as up to the second as possible, then things won’t be that different. Hopefully.

Gizmodo: Around the time that the Q&A is published, the public will have probably seen one, maybe two episodes of Prehistoric Planet. Is there anything that you’d suggest that they keep an eye out for in the upcoming episodes or any upcoming scenes that you may want to tease?

Walker: I would say just keep on watching because each episode is amazing. In the Freshwater episode, we showcase dinosaurs doing unusual stuff that you’ve never seen before. From the spectacular to the humorous in the Forest episode, we showcase some dinosaurs that are super cool and people won’t really have seen very much on the screen once again going into unusual places, performing unusual behaviours. And for the Ice Worlds episode, I mean, what would be cooler than dinosaurs and snow? We stick the two together, so just keep on watching.

Naish: This is a big thing for science nerds like myself. If you see something weird in the background and you’re like “What was that? I want to see more of that.” Stick around. Stick around and watch the rest of the series. Because if we’ve made a model of it, we’re not just going to have it as a background thing, are we?

The first three episodes of Prehistoric Planet (‘Coasts,’ ‘Deserts’, and ‘Freshwater’) are now available to stream on Apple TV+, and the final two episodes will be released over the next two days.