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17 September 2014
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Behind the scenes: Killer Dinosaurs

Filming on location

We spoke with John Leonti from The Moving Picture Company about the computer generated 3D animations featured in The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs.

What was your role on the programmes?

I was the visual effects supervisor, managing a team of 10 to 15 people over the six months it took to create the computer generated animations for the programmes. We didn't start with 15 people but built up to that number.

The guts had been in the desert sun for several hours and it didn't smell very good.
John Leonti

This was such a big project that we ran it like a film project. I had specialists who only did one thing. For example, there were modellers who only did modelling, animators who only did animations, etc.

On smaller jobs we often have people who do more than one thing. On The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs we set up a pipeline. One person would model the skin, for example, and then pass it along. Someone further down the chain would texture the creature.

What are the steps you take to animate the dinosaurs?

Bill Oddie films a scene in the studio.

Bill Oddie films a scene in the studio.

We started by building maquettes (models) and talking with scientists to work out what the dinosaurs' bodies would have looked like. They helped us work out how much muscle they would have had and how they would have moved. There was a lot of going back and forth to get it right.

Then we scanned the maquettes to transfer them to a computer. This left us with a computer model that's basically made up of a bunch of polygons.

And then we cleaned up the scan to make it easier to animate.

Next we add on other layers and textures like the skin and feathers. We have software called skin relaxer that makes the skin move realistically. We also used a muscle simulator, which models the muscles under the skin and makes them move as you'd expect them to.

It took us about four months to write the software that made the feathers on the Velociraptor move correctly. We needed to write new software because there were so many shots of Velociraptor and it needed to look really good. And we needed to correctly move the feathers on a per-shot basis.

We've heard some pretty nasty stories about the scene where Velociraptor eats its prey.

John Leonti

John Leonti creates dinosaur remains with offal in the desert heat.

That was disgusting! The associate producer got some offal from a butcher's shop in black bin liners. We put on some gloves and arranged it on the sand to create the remains of an animal. We also threw it to create the effect of Velociraptor cutting into its victim.

The guts had been in the desert sun for several hours and it didn't smell very good.

We used offal because it's a hell of a lot easier than trying to generate it in 3D. Generally you try film anything you can and animate things when it's really needed.

In the scenes where T. rex eats the Triceratops, the guts are computer animated. We did that because we needed huge guts for the bigger dinosaurs.

How did you figure out the colour of the dinosaurs' skins?

A lot of it was educated guesswork in consultation with the scientists. For example, we think T. rex lived in forests, so maybe he had camouflaged skin that helped him fit in with his environment. One of the many references we used was the skin of a Gila Monster. We also worked with textures from bits of fossilised dinosaur skin that have been found.

Also, our T. rex doesn't have a tongue as such. He does have one, but one similar to a crocodile's that doesn't lift off the base of the mouth.

  • Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia written by its users, has more about Gila Monsters.)

Were the landscapes also computer animated?

Tarbosaurus bataar attacks Ankylosaur

The finished product - Tarbosaurus bataar attacks Ankylosaur.

No, we filmed at real locations. One was in Colorado and the other in Oregon. All the dinosaurs' interactions with the landscapes, including things like the clouds of dust they kicked up when they ran across the sand, were animated.

On the set we had wooden heads to mark the positions where the dinosaurs were meant to be. In the scene where Bill Oddie pulls a tooth out of T. rex's mouth, he pulled a cast of a real T rex fossil tooth from a clamp on a wooden head. Then we animated over that. The tooth is animated up until the point that Bill pulls it out.

Did you know much about dinosaurs before you started?

Just what you learn at school. But it's really fascinating! One of the things that amazed me was how big dinosaurs were. I know you hear it all the time, but they were really immense. The scenes where Bill is in the studio with the dinosaurs probably give some idea of how big they were.

We learned a lot about dinosaurs during the project. As an animator you have to learn as much as you can about what you're animating. You do what you can to make things look real on screen.

One thing we learned was how Velociraptor's tail moved. In other films, it moved like a whip. But the scientists have studied the fossilised tails and think it would have moved more stiffly. It was a challenge to animate it so it looked right.

What are the ways people can get into your industry?

I started as a runner and learned as I went. That's the main reason people become runners. They're interested in the business and want to learn. You just get on with it.

Many people take the college route. There are lots of 3D animation courses. Every year we go to see what students have done and who the next hotshots are. There are a lot of people interested in this kind of work and there's plenty of competition.

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