Making something from nothing
Making this kind of programme is nothing like making a normal natural history documentary. We cannot just hide in a bush with a film camera and wait to see what happens. Sadly, there is no way to film extinct animals going about their everyday lives. To make a documentary like this, we have to do everything completely in reverse. Rather than go out filming to see what happens, we have to work out exactly what will happen before we've even shot a single frame.
Selecting the cast
The first step was to dive headlong into the sea of scientific research and work out what our animals would have been doing. As with Walking with Dinosaurs, each programme in the series is about one particular point in time. We looked at the last 65 million years and it soon became obvious which periods of time we had the most scientific evidence for, and which animals would be of most interest to people. Choosing our list of characters for each of the episodes was relatively straightforward. The next bit was considerably harder.
Building a story
The storylines in these programmes are tremendously important. We didn’t want these programmes to feel like the viewer was being presented with a list of animals and how they lived. We wanted the narrative to draw the viewer in so that they really cared about the animals and wanted to know what would happen to them next. Many natural history programmes do this extremely well, others don't.
Before writing the storylines, Nigel Paterson (the other producer) and I sat down in front of a TV with a pile of tapes and overdosed on animal documentaries. If you watch enough of these it soon becomes apparent what works and what doesn’t. We ended up with a different type of story for each of the six programmes. For example, programme three follows an indricothere calf for the first few years of his life, while programme four follows a whole group of Australopithecus who have fallen on hard times.
Lessons from the past
This exercise only gave us a framework. The meat of the programme would be the twists and turns of the plot and how the animals behaved. That kind of detail can only be guided by the evidence. I can assure you that the details of our storyline are not based on fiction. We've followed what the fossils tell us very strictly. The work that we have put in ensures that our scenes are as accurate as possible. Every scenario put forward is checked by the researchers and in turn the whole treatments are shown to our consultant scientists.
By the time we started filming we knew exactly what our animals were going to be doing. Having found a suitable location, our crew of ten people hopped onto a plane with some camera equipment and a few crates of extinct rubber animals. That’s when the surreal bit began…
Filming without the cast
Usually we went on location to film absolutely nothing. As the computer-generated creatures didn’t yet exist, much of the job of shooting was imagining where the animal was going to be and then pointing the camera there. Then you had to make up for its absence by filming the footprints, splashes or whatever the animal was going to do.
Take the invisible mammoth we were filming as it didn’t trudge through the snow. Had the mammoth been there it would have made dirty great footprints as it went. So we had to do those for it - watching one of the crew strap giant plates on his feet and then go lurching through the snow pretending he was a mammoth is one of my enduring memories of making the series.
Not everything was imaginary. We did a lot of work with animatronics. These life-size models of our beasts were fantastic for getting close-up shots that would have been very hard to produce using computer graphics.
Having something real and physical to film is a nice change from filming emptiness, but trying to direct someone wearing a Smilodon's (Sabre-tooth cat) head strapped onto his shoulders is no less surreal. After four or five weeks of bizarre filming per episode we returned to the UK with rolls and rolls of film featuring hairy animatronics close ups and backgrounds without animals. That’s when the really time consuming part began - the computer animation…
Next - Computer graphics