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You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > Prehistoric Life > TV & radio > Walking with Beasts

Model Making

Smilodon in action

Smilodon in action.

Smilodon populator, the greatest sabre-tooth cat of them all, was reconstructed by Nigel Booth. Like Smilodon, every other star of the series had to be lovingly crafted as a scale model first before being scanned into the computer in 3D. At each stage of the reconstruction care was taken to ensure scientific accuracy.

Building the base

To form a solid base for the wax model, Nigel first had to put together a strong wood and wire structure called an armature. This had to be built to take the weight of the all the material that would be added. It was also carefully measured so as to get the initial proportions right for the animal. In this case, Smilodon populator is quite an unusual shape for a cat.

Putting on the flesh

Unlike the better known North American Smilodon fatalis, this South American sabre-tooth has a shape more like a hyena, with very strong front legs and a sloping back. Nigel worked from drawings and photographs of the skeleton, and then sketched out each layer of muscle to make sure that the shape of the animal was right. Each model took several weeks to build.

Beasts in Brazil

Meanwhile, producer Nigel Paterson was out in Brazil filming the backdrop for Smilodon's programme. When he returned in January he had a story to tell...

"We have just returned from Brazil, having finished filming for a programme about what is impressively known as 'The Great American Interchange'. The hero of the piece is Smilodon, the sabre-toothed cat, and the need for an appropriately grand backdrop for such a grand character led us to central Brazil and some of the most staggeringly beautiful locations so far encountered this series."

Battling the weather

"Filming in Brazil in winter should have distinct advantages over being in the UK at this time of year - missing out on the horrible weather that usually blights this country. However, the timing of our arrival could not have been worse. Squeezed into a tight schedule, our filming in the grasslands of Brazil was due to take place towards the end of the dry season - unfortunately not only had the rainy season started early, but it was also the wettest they had experienced for 15 years."

"Being told 'it's not normally this wet' while standing ankle deep in water in a marsh that four hours ago was a dry grassy plain doesn't raise a crew's spirits - no matter how well meaning the comment is intended. Neither did being tormented by newly invigorated mosquitoes."

"The greatest problem with utterly unpredictable weather, aside from not knowing what to wear from one day to the next, is continuity of scenes. With locations 2-3 hours apart, a number of days were spent chasing rain from place to place. Rain appeared at what was a 'good weather' location while 'bad weather' locations had rained themselves out and were now not that bad... all very complicated and hugely frustrating."

Model smilodon heads

Animatronic heads were used for extreme close-ups.

Filming the invisible

"To anyone unfamiliar with the filming process for the series, it must look dull. Except for the animatronic heads of the Smilodon used for extreme close-ups, the cast of characters never grace the set but remain firmly in their proverbial dressing rooms - in this case the computer banks at the animation house back in London."

"Consequently filming involved a lot imagination by all concerned. I often caught myself explaining to the crew: 'In this scene our non-existent Smilodon is being harassed by another non-existent predator, but a second non-existent Smilodon intervenes...' The most effective method of ensuring everyone has the right idea is often to act out the scene. This can lead to ugly squabbles about who plays what - no one wants to be the prey animal when they could be the hero cat."

Next - Animatronics

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