Ice Age Giants: Filming animated creatures in the wild

Thursday 16 May 2013, 10:18

Mags Lightbody Mags Lightbody Producer

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During the last Ice Age the northern hemisphere was teeming with fabulous megamammals –  terrifying sabre-toothed cats, huge woolly rhinos, bizarre glyptodonts – but they all disappeared as the planet moved into a new, warmer era.

I'm one of the producers on the new series Ice Age Giants, who along with the rest of the team, was tasked with bringing those long extinct animals back to life.

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Step back in time to meet the Ice Age megamammals

The CGI brief was to create animals that looked as real as possible so that the animation could pass as natural history footage.

Having never worked on a creature animated show before, I was excited and curious about how it all worked.

We drafted a storyboard of what we wanted our animals to do, and set off to film the backplates - the 'real life' backgrounds that we drop our animated creatures into.

sloth storyboard The shasta ground sloth has seven-inch long claws to defend itself

For the most part the backplates were shot where the animals once lived, so the sabre-toothed cat was shot in LA, the mammoths just outside San Francisco, the armadillo-like glyptodonts in Florida and the ground sloth in the Grand Canyon.

It's a complicated process, but the key things were to put the animal in context and try to film it as we would an animal in the wild.

All very well, but the animal in question wasn't actually there. This is when we realised that we, the production crew, would have to stand in.
 
As you can see in our video, we were given a ball by the animation team. One side was grey matte, the other silver mirror.

Smilodon CGI Mags Lightbody Mags filming the territory of the iconic sabre-tooth cat in Los Angeles

The ball was to be held in the approximate position of the head of the animal and we should carry it through the action sequence we were filming.

The silver ball would record the direction of the light so that when they came to build the animal, they could light it accordingly and it would fit in naturally to its surroundings.

So having recorded several vital details for the animation team – focal length, height of camera off ground, distance from animal etc, I found myself filming just below the iconic Griffiths Observatory in LA, as had James Dean before me.

Instead this time I was pretending to be the sabre-toothed cat, or smilodon - that's me in the clip.

Repeated takes of me holding a silver ball, slinking up to a ridge overlooking downtown LA, whilst a crane swung above me, were watched by many confused onlookers.

To add to my acting credits I can also claim to have been the startled shasta ground sloth in episode one.

By planning the sequence carefully and thinking about the animal’s behaviour, we were able to film movement that would let the animated animals interact with the environment – such as eating bushes, splashing water and kicking up dust and snow.

We returned the footage to the animation team at the post-production company The Mill (who have also worked on Doctor Who). They set to work on by far the most complicated process of all, building the animals.

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See how the special effects and production teams create realistic Ice Age giants

From a concept drawing, they carefully constructed grey-scale drafts which we sent to our experts around the world for comment on shape, size, etc.

The animation team then rigged the creatures - meaning they prepare them for movement.

They build an internal skeleton, then overlay it with muscle and skin and then the figures were animated, creating creepily realistic movement.

The visual effects team's attention to detail was excellent – our sabre-toothed cats had ears that twitched when flies bothered them, and the paws of the cave lion splayed as it prepared to pounce.

They developed existing technology for Ice Age Giants, so that over three million hairs are visible per creature!

We were delighted with the results, as were our experts. The creature animation really took us back in time and brought these Ice Age giants to life!

Mags Lightbody is a producer on Ice Age Giants.

Ice Age Giants begins on Sunday, 19 May at 8pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    Dudes Man!
    The animation really made it, like shooeee!
    Even my Dad watched it and he's not normally into natuyre stuff. Cept maybe Alice Ro.
    Very Well Done.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    Hi there, Really glad you liked the show and especially the animation. We did try very hard to make it as real as we could. Thanks for the great feedback, from all of the team! Enjoy the rest of the series!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    Firstly 10/10 BBC for a fantastic show! Secondly, I have a 30yr-in-the-making left-field solution to the megafauna paradox; it's Jupiter's 100ky cycle which gives extra equatorial tidal strength to the Earth's oceans, even pushing warm currents into the Arctic Basin at times. This is the trigger for the onset of a Heinrich event when the glacial thickness has built-up sufficiently enough. Following this logic, it makes sense to assume that it's the Moon which provides the new-science millennial cycle found in the Greenland ice core data. Many thanks for listening.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    First I would like to say I really like this program, new & interesting info well presented & excellent animation of the extinct species...that said, I cannot understand the scene with the single mammoth being trapped in the dead end valley.. showing just 3 or 4 Neaderthals throwing a few smalls stones (& perhaps a stick or two) that bounce harmlessly of the mammoth's back & then the giant creature suddenly collapses, dead(perhaps an extreme 'small stone' allergy?). This is clearly ludicriously unrealistic & should never have been included in the final cut. Why go to so much effort to make the extinct species look so real & then waste all that effort on such an obviously ridiculous scene. lazy & careless & oh so very stupid.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    Really liked the programme but why have you got subtitles for the guy talking about cave bears? His English is very clear, possibly clearer than the presenter herself. Just a bit off-putting having the subtitles to be honest.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 6.

    Hi All, thanks again for your comments.
    Alan - I'll forward your Jupiter theory to Prof. Maslin our climate consultant! Great that people are coming up with new ideas about the mystery.
    Stuart - the Ntl/Woolly Mammoth encounter was always going to be tricky. We wanted to recreate Matt Pope's idea of the mammoths being caught in a 'dead-end' but didn't want to spend too much time and money on recreating the Ntls - as we thought they would detract away from the animals we were trying to showcase. That said, all the Ntls would have had were stones and throwing spears which we assume is all they had to bring down the mammoths. Sadly, the cost of an epic reconstruction of a more realistic encounter was a bit too much for our budget so we did the best we could. Certainly we weren't being intentionally lazy, careless or stupid.
    Stefan - I feel we've met before on twitter! But in case not - it was a last minute decision to include subtitles, which I agree were not needed by most people. But we decided that it was more important that everyone could understand what they were saying than a few missing out. Marius and Sergey indeed have excellent English and it was only a few sentences so hopefully no harm done.
    Thanks again for your comments - your feedback is really much appreciated. Hopefully you'll all enjoy the last episode on Sunday - it brings everything together! Cheers, Mags.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 7.

    In this program the Mastodons' teeth were described as "... designed ... (as superb munching machines, or something like that). From a scientific point of view, to say "designed" is wrong. They should be said to be 'evolved'. There is a huge difference in meaning. I suggest it is important that the BBC gets this right. Do my fellow science viewers agree?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 8.

    Great program. I have been working on a theory about the creation of ice ages. This is how I see the extinction of Mammoths may have come about. The 3 surviving animals mentioned on the program Horses, Bison and Deer all have one thing in common they graze on very short sprouting vegetation hence grasses were very short and any that did sprout were quickly consumed. Where as the Mammoths ( as Elephants do ) rely upon long grass, shrubs and trees. With no long grasses or shrubs the only food source available to Mammoths lay in the canopies of the trees, and it was their effort to retrieve this food source is what led to their horrific injuries. My conclusion therefore is that the Mammoths extinction was brought about by starvation. Hope this helps.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 9.

    Thank you Mags. The last episode mentioned that the North American megafauna demise was found to have happened *after* the climate change which removed their grassland habitat and therefore another mechanism was needed. I suggest that it's the two different methods of calculating these dates, one for the animals and one for the plants, which is at fault. For example, the carbon dating proxy data for the megafauna is based on the assumption of a simple extrapolation of a curve on a graph. The Laschamps geomagnetic excursion at circa 41,000 B.P. involved a temporary reduction of the Earth's magnetic field which would allow cosmic radiation to alter the carbon isotope ratio of the atmosphere. Higher levels of carbon 14 would have been produced during the period of low field strength. This is the reason that carbon dating is only reliable up to this date imo. Smaller excursion events since this mega-event, which are perhaps not as easily detected as the Laschamps, could similarly have caused a change in the atmosphere's carbon isotope ratios and therefore lead to an aberration in the carbon dating mechanism. Thanks for listening once again.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 10.

    The extra tidal forcing hypothesis also has major implications for the Greenland ice core dating method. The oxygen isotope assumptions from evaporating seawater would be compromised. Nutrients would be brought up from the ocean bottom which would alter the biological systems on the ocean surface. It will probably be deduced that the peak of the last ice age *does* coincide with the demise of the megafauna. A drastic reduction of precipitation would turn the grasslands into barren deserts. A lifeline along the coastal regions, even into the Arctic Basin due to the increased ocean currents, would provide refugia from where the population could recover when the climate improved. I have spoken extensively with experts in this field who have shown that most of the megafauna finds are more northerly than the graphics shown in your programme. This theory in it's entirety requires a new interplanetary force on the plane of rotation which is evidenced by the equatorial Earth flyby anomaly imv.. It may sound far-fetched, but it makes a lot of sense given enough open-minded consideration. Thank you once again for giving me the opportunity to share this with you.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 11.

    How long could the mammoths survive without long grass, perhaps asking existing elephant trainers and experts. A bit mengele for you however humans only last is it 74 days on water alone and a sudden demand by a great number of animals would cut the grass really fine and very regularly. A bit like why you cannot put sheep in the same field as cattle, the cattle starve. There would still be waterholes however a sudden band of drought a bit like the Mayan civilisation that seemed to have the rains pushed down 200 miles for two years causing a very severe drought breaksdown society and humans can communicate better that the big mammoths. The smaller deer etc would also be nimble enough to evade the big beasts and as the big ones would not be carnivorous enough vs tigers/lions they could not feast on the flesh rotting that it would be of fallen beasts. Without the lush mega sized plants fast growing the bigger beasts would not be able to grow as much. Food for thought. Well done BBC proud of your efforts Gavin Palmer

  • rate this
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    Comment number 12.

    I would of thought the long sabre toothed tiger was more suitable to either ripping the soft throat out or ripping open the soft belly of a beast. Of course the advantages are massive blood loss leading to slowing down then collapse with the belly attack. The throat attack is more marginal and higher risk. Lions these days suffocate on the neck which also keeps the dangerous antlers etc away as the hide of the animals is also very hard to penetrate somewhat surprisingly. Perhaps evolution has toughened animals hides enough to make strangulation the better and more probably successful outcome. Hmmm food for thought!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 13.

    A quote from the paper 'Holocene Treeline History and Climate Change
    Across Northern Eurasia' confirms the validity of the additional tidal forcing hypothesis as the primary driver of the 100ky ice age cycle:
    "During the period of maximum forest extension, the mean July temperatures along the northern coastline of Russia may have been 2.5° to 7.0°C warmer than modern. The development of forest and expansion of treeline likely reflects a number of complimentary environmental conditions, including heightened summer insolation, the demise of Eurasian ice sheets, reduced sea-ice cover, greater continentality with eustatically lower sea level, and extreme
    Arctic penetration of warm North Atlantic waters. The late Holocene retreat of Eurasian treeline coincides with declining summer insolation, cooling arctic waters, and neoglaciation."

  • rate this
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    Comment number 14.

    I've just made a discovery when using the 1,800 lunar tidal model of arctic environment of Northern Russia during the last 20,000yrs and the assumption of a millennial peak triggering H1 at 17,000 B.P. See Fig 1. of paper 'Radiocarbon Variability in the Western North Atlantic During the Last Deglaciation' (2005) by Laura F. Robinson et al. which can be matched at 10,000 B.P. with the Fig 3. in paper 'Holocene Treeline History and Climate Change Across Northern Eurasia' (2000) by Glen M. MacDonald et al. I've put the two together by expanding the tree data graph by 152% on the photocopier machine and then scanning.

    The Maximum Forest Extension is 2 cycles of 1,800 yrs, showing peaks at 4,400 and 8000 yr B.P. (uncalib) which fits with the lunar tide into the arctic basin cycle and extrapolates to the date of 17,000 yr B.P., the onset of Heinrich 1. The tree data shows dips due to the lunar tidal minimums .

    You can see the graph compilation here [url=http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=249553&st=0]1,800yr Lunar Tidal Cycle Fits Glacial Data[/url]

  • rate this
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    Comment number 15.

    Ice age & millennial cycle bacterial bioprecipitation due to increased ocean currents bringing nutrients to the surface. The amount of time that water vapour is in the air is reduced which gives short bursts of rainfall with overall less cloud cover and therefore more sunshine. The reason why megabeasts were able to thrive in an ice age.

 

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