Prehistoric Planet! 5 Episode Series Showcasing Dinosaurs
The highly anticipated Apple TV+ natural history event series “Prehistoric Planet,” from executive producers Jon Favreau and Mike Gunton, and BBC Studios Natural History Unit (“Planet Earth”), and narrated by Sir David Attenborough is set to debut globally on Apple TV+ from Monday, May 23 through Friday, May 27. The five-episode groundbreaking series will transport viewers 66 million years in the past to discover our world — and the dinosaurs that roamed it — all in stunning detail and set to an original score by multiple Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer. Rolling out with one new episode per day, “Prehistoric Planet” combines award-winning wildlife filmmaking, the latest paleontology learnings and state-of-the-art technology to unveil the spectacular habitats and inhabitants of ancient Earth for a one-of-a-kind immersive experience.
We caught up with Favreau, Gunton, showrunner Tim Walker and Paleontologist Dr. Darren Naish to learn more about what inspired the series, the tech used, the time period selected and why the whole family will enjoying the series together!
Risen Magazine: What inspired you to make this series?
Mike Gunton: The inspiration started actually about 10 years ago. It’s had kind of two phases. The initial inspiration actually was standing on a mountainside in Africa with Sir David Attenborough. And he was introducing a series we were making called About Africa. And he said nowhere on earth does wildlife put on a greater show. Those were his lines.
And sort of remember saying thank you, that’s it. Wrap. We’ve got that. And I sat there thinking, I wonder if that’s always been true. I wonder if there was a time when that was not the case. When would the most extraordinary time have been? And I reckoned, the time of the dinosaurs, when they were walking across that mountain, that would have been the most extraordinary time when wildlife put on its greatest show. So, I thought, could you get everybody standing on that mountainside including Sir David, the crew, all the directors, all the experts, all the camera kit, stick it in a time machine, go back to the time of the dinosaurs, and make a wildlife film that showed them doing that.
And that was bubbling away in my mind for a number of years. And then, about four years ago, it started to all come together. We all met. And I met Jon in Jay Hunt’s [PH] office in Apple. And we started talking about lions actually. And obviously, it was a kind of meeting of minds. And we thought then actually now we can build that time machine. We now can get everybody in that machine and go and do the show. And that’s what we’ve done. That’s Prehistoric Planet.
RM: What was the biggest surprise you learned during the actual making of this project, something that blew you away, something that you had never considered in all these years leading up to this moment?
Jon Favreau: You know, remember we’re coming from two different worlds, this team. This team, other than me, they have worked on all of those Planet Earth documentaries, all of these really rich scientific, entertaining, long-from cinematic, new-style of documentary that was such an inspiration for the team that I’ve been working with. We’re more of the CGI tech team. When we were working on Lion King and Jungle book, we were looking at these documentaries and trying to emulate what they were able to do.
So, there was a big learning curve where the group of people I’ve worked with had to learn how documentaries are made. And the documentary teams had to learn how to use technology to help create the magic trick of making it seem like it was happening and unfolding before your eyes. So, I would say I probably learned the most because I had no background in any of this. And so it’s been about two or three years. And the gentleman sitting over there, Darren Naish, he’s a paleontologist. And he’s been on all the calls with us.
So, between Tim and Mike and Darren and then we would have, you know, remote teams from all over the world on all calls, and I got to learn a lot about, not just about dinosaurs, but about biomes, about the way that the world developed. Part of what made this such a fun project for me is I got to get a front-row seat to the state-of-the-art technology as it related to
how the cinematic approach, to how we shot the plates but also a front-row seat for the latest paleontological… Am I saying that right? …Paleontological research.
Because I didn’t realize this. But we’re living in a golden age of dinosaurs where there’s new discoveries made on a monthly basis. And each one of those discoveries cascades down throughout our understanding of what the ancient world was like and how life developed on this planet. So, to me, I’m very grateful for the rich education I was able to get from the leaders of these fields.
RM: What were the keys to making this series look so incredible and like we’ve seen footage of real, living animals?
JF: I was very fortunate to be collaborating with an effects house called NPC. I started working with them on Jungle Book and then later on The Lion King. We developed a set of cinematic tools that allowed us to emulate what it would be like to really film real animals using real camera equipment. And that was translated to, you know, you hear people talking about the metaverse. I guess technically it would be there.
On Lion King, we never even left the studio. And we were able to render all of these images and create it in a photo-realistic way thanks to all of the groundbreaking technology that’s happening in that space with ray tracing, with all sorts of sims for fur, for particular, things that sound boring in a conference call but that are really exciting and interesting when you see them unfold. And all of those little innovations that we had developed for that, I was able to plug this team in with that team.
And as we collaborate together, I was hopefully able to shepherd people who had never really worked in the visual effects space, like our documentary side of the team, into this so that now after two, three years, they’re all experts in this area. And hopefully, I’m coming up to speed on documentaries. And so, we really were able to plug into a team that had been building over many, many, many years and using research that we had developed for other projects. And to me, this was the pinnacle of the application of it.
Because instead of having animals that were doing scenes together or singing together here we were actually trying to fool the audience into believing that they had a privileged view into the past to be able to be a fly on the wall as these creatures just behaved in a naturalistic way. And the reaction so far is really promising. Because the technology seems to disappear. And that’s the goal, right? The goal is to make it look like we just had a camera, we went back there. And this should sit alongside of the body of work that these gentlemen have done in the past. And I think it really feels like a continuation of that into another world.
Tim Walker: I think part of that is also the grammar. That what Jon was saying, the learning between us. The grammar of how you shoot a documentary, a wildlife documentary, is very specific. You know, we only ever have one camera usually when we’re on location. And you can only put that camera in certain positions. So, we reflect or replicated those constraints ourselves. Because obviously in a CGI world, you can put a camera anywhere.
But, in the real world, you can’t. So, if you’re gonna be authentic about as if you are actually filming these animals for real, you have to replicate that. So, you know, there are shots which are impossible which you can’t do. So we didn’t do them. But so, when you see that, I think that when you see the images in the show, they feel as if they were filmed by real people in real-world environments. So, you can’t get a shot up a T-Rex’s nose. ‘Cause if you try to do that, the T-Rex would eat you. So, the camera has to be a long way away on a telephoto lens, all those sorts of things.
And that’s because we’re wildlife filmmakers. We’ve spent 30 years doing that. So, we know those are the kinds of rules.
JF: And by the way, unlike Lion King, they actually did go out in the field. And they did go to these environments.
TW: Yeah, I mean, we took the expertise of the workflow that Jon had established with colleagues Andy Jones [PH] and Adam Valdez [PH]. And then, we married it with the sensibilities of the BBC’s natural history unit and went out into the field to film amazing locations to give the cinematic grandeur that is part of the grammar of blue-chip wildlife filmmaking.
So, we’ve got the most amazing dinosaurs. We’ve got fabulous storytelling. And we’ve got the earth as you would showcase it in any other blue-chip wildlife documentary. It’s just that it’s got dinosaurs in it.
RM: Why did you choose the Cretaceous period to make this docuseries?
Dr. Darren Naish: We essentially chose the very last part of the late Cretaceous, a particular chunk of Cretaceous time called the Maastrichtian partly because it’s got this superstar cast of phenomenally interesting dinosaurs that are, you know, the household names.
Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops are from this section of time. But because it’s the youngest part of not just the Cretaceous but of the whole age of dinosaurs, the Mesozoic era. It’s also the bit for which we have the most amount of information. Because it’s the youngest bit. it’s the bit that’s best-preserved in the fossil record. So, we don’t just have Tyrannosaurus Rex, for example, is a comparatively well-known dinosaur. There’s over 40 specimens. Most fossil dinosaurs are only known from one or two specimens.
You don’t just have the animals themselves well-represented but their environments are better known. The animals and plants that they lived with are better known. So, if you want to portray behavior realistically, if you want to portray real environments realistically as we’ve done, you kinda have to start with the Maastrichtian. So, that’s our main justification for it.
RM: How did you choose the species of dinosaurs to feature? And is the one you’re most excited for viewers to see?
TW: Well, I mean, I think we’ve probably all got our own favorites. But the way we chose them, was, as Darren was saying, you know, we looked at the period of time we were going to feature, and the dinosaurs and the other animals that were present in that period. And that gave us our cast of characters. So ranging from T Rex and Triceratops, the very famous ones, Velociraptor, and then a whole host of other dinosaurs.
I think that’s one of the beauties of the series, is that we showcase some really new dinosaurs for a lot of people. One of my favorites is Deinocheirus. And it’s a ginormous thing. It’s the size of a T Rex. It’s got massive claws, you know, this long. It’s got a great big duck bill. It’s covered in feathers. And we show it doing a really cute bit of behavior, the kind of thing that you see animals do for real when you spend a lot of time with them out in the field.
JF: I like the Pachyrhinosaurus and Nanosaurus, in the cold with the… And you see more interesting feathered patterns. I guess it was part of surviving the cold biomes. But I had never understood before starting working on this project, how ubiquitous dinosaurs were throughout the entire-in every ecosystem.
So I thought it was-to me, I love-there’s just something really that offers a different perspective to me, to see the driving snow, and the blizzard, and the hunt going on in that environment. I guess I grew up thinking dinosaurs lived in jungles, and ate ferns, and that was really it. I guess I was still grounded in the old, original interpretation of it that slowly evolves. And what was interesting here is that, you know, this is, you know, we definitely step into a lot of conjecture as far as what we think their color array was, or the feather patterns.
And we could determine a lot from fossil evidence. But you’re also looking, as I think Darren was alluding to, you’re looking at the evolutionary trees to see what the closest relatives were, and you look in the real world now to see how these creatures actually behave, and how they look, and how they’re colored. And you could make a lot of inferences. And I think one of the most interesting parts of it, for the people that I’ve shown, give kind of sneak peeks to in my living room, has been the accompanying material. Which is, how did you know this? Why did you make this choice? What makes you think T Rex could swim?
With each episode, we have accompanying material where we actually show the science behind it. And to me, as somebody who comes from Hollywood, where you could kinda make up anything and put anything on the screen, to show that there are underpinnings here, and that there was a tremendous amount of discussion, debate, research, so that everything that we show is plausible with the latest science.
We could never know for sure. But everything we present there, we could… Now, this may all change, by the way, in a year. But right now, we could point to everything we’re doing, and none of it is done for flash, none of it is done for spectacle. Everything is done… Or to be controversial, or contrary to what others have believed. This is all set in the science. And to me, honestly, that’s the part that I really geek out the most on. Is to be able to talk to Darren, and Mike, and our experts, and ask why we’re doing these things. And a lot of the conversations spiral off into the science behind it.
RM: Speak to the series being something the whole family can watch together…
JF: It’s so hard as a dad, it’s so rare, and I so appreciate when different generations within the family all want to sit and watch the same thing. And the work that Mike and Tim have done, those are some of the, you know, memories that I’ve had with my family of recent years, ’cause my kids are getting older, some are off to college, you know. For us to all want to gather around and watch the same screen at the same time is something I grew up with and took for granted.
It’s funny to talk about, like, thinking about TV nostalgically, because at the time, it felt like that was a disruptor. But thinking back of everybody sitting around watching the same thing and enjoying it, and what I’m so appreciative for is that when we put these images on the screen, it seems to cross generations. It seems to cross, it seems to travel around the world. Like there’s a common language here.
Because it’s visual storytelling, and these animals in their anthropomorphism are relatable because they’re going through all of the same things in a much more dramatic way that any species do, and that we do. So I think that there’s something that draws you to looking at images of nature. And there’s something about dinosaurs inherently. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every time there’s a new technology, everybody wants to show dinosaurs.
First time they did stop motion. The first time CGI. You know, this has been something that’s been a fascination with storytellers and humanity since the original discovery of dinosaurs. Before they even knew what dinosaurs were. Before they really even understood the nature of evolution and science. When, you know, they found the first skull, and, you know, and it was the whole story about how Napoleon captured this skull ’cause they didn’t know what it was.
I’m getting out of my area of expertise now, but I think even back as far as that, our only context for science at the time was the Bible. Was this a Leviathan? What was this? And then slowly as people were fascinated more and more with these fossils, that led to innovations in science. Because the story and the fascination was what helped motivate it. And so I think if this becomes the door that brings people in through the fascination and enjoying this storytelling, I think it opens up the next generation to becoming curious about science.
And I think that that’s a very valuable thing to bestow upon the next generation is this curiosity so that the next generation could surpass us. But they have to be drawn to it, and you have to show them how exciting it is and how fun it is and how alive it is.
RM: What is it about dinosaurs that keeps kids and adults coming back for more?
DN: I have one take on this, having considered this at length, the various books I’ve done, I’ve written various kid’s books about it and spoken to, you know, people of all ages including kids a lot, there’s something that’s been missed about dinosaurs. And it’s not that we just like them because they’re, you know, like symbolic monsters or they remind us of dragons. They are super animals. They’re off the charts. Now it’s absolutely normal for people throughout the whole of history, all cultures, people are enamored by animals. We’re obsessed with animals.
We adore big cats and sharks and the great whales, and, you know, all these other amazing animals. And, you know, if you know anything about the natural world, you’ll be part of this club. You know, we adore animals. I think inherently people get this about dinosaurs. They get the idea that, wow, a big crocodile or a lion is a spectacular animal. But now compare it to Tyrannosaurus rex, which is a hundred times bigger. And has a skull the size of a person. An animal that its jaw muscles alone would weigh as much as a person.
These animals are just off the charts. And I think, you know, kids often instinctively get that. They don’t have to be staring at a skeleton in a museum. Just reconstructions and toys depict this as well. I just think we inherently get the fact that they’re just off the charts. They’re super animals. They’re amazing.
JF: I respectfully have an alternative take on it based on my background. Again, I haven’t been dealing with dinosaurs, except with this group here and Darren has a very deep understanding of it. But as a storyteller, I go to the monomyth and the mythological aspects of it. There are certain things when you’re designing creatures from scratch, even, that everybody continues to be drawn to. And I think just as you could take a cat that’s never seen another animal, and you could put it in a room with a mouse, it reacts in a certain way. And I think that our firmware has a deep, deep, deep understanding of predators that date back to when we were, you know, first standing upright in the fields.
And the animals that we had to understand were predators, and it was baked deeply into us to be afraid of. And it tends to be grouped into certain categories like birds and eagles or snakes or bears. Things we teeth. Things with claws. Predators. Apex predators that, you know, we were not apex predators when we evolved. And we have still inherited that hardware. You know, we just happened to develop larger brains and happened to really cooperate well.
But other than that cooperation, we don’t really stand a chance against most creatures out there. And so our nightmares are built of the same things that build our stories and the same thing that makes Stan Winston or Guillermo del Toro develop new fantasy creatures. But they all seem to have those qualities that medieval dragons might. Or griffons. They’re a mixture of snakes and bears and eagles. [LAUGH] And they’re big. And they can kill us.
And I think that deep down, when you see a dinosaur for the first time as a child, and you see what it is and you see those teeth and you see that T-Rex in the museum, and you look up at it, it hits something deep in you. Just for the same reason we’re fascinated with lions and the big cats. Because it’s baked into us. And all of the stories that have developed over the years, this all pre-dates. And so that’s why you see, you know, in the Arthurian stories, they’re going after, you know, or medieval mythologies there, it’s slaying the dragon.
It’s the serpent. And these are serpents, these are the perfect combinations of a kitbashing super-monster that would inhabit your nightmares. And so you become fascinated with them. So I think that that’s why people jump to them immediately. And then the sense that these may have really existed and what would it be like if you found yourself in proximity with them. I think it’s fascinating.
MG: Can I just add one anecdote that might just join both of those together? Just to finish off with my contribution, is that, we talked about ages and how it appeals to people who are young and old. Sir David Attenborough was 96 last weekend. And, well, I told him we were going to do this project ages ago. He said, “My God, this sounds amazing. I can’t wait to see. This is gonna be incredible.” Partly for the reasons both Jon and Darren said. But then when we finally showed him the stuff, and he was sitting in the dubbing theater in the recording booth with his headphones on recording the commentary for the second episode, actually, and there’s a scene where two T-Rex are nuzzling each other in this sort of courtship display.
And, you know, at the end of it, he takes his headphones off, his glasses are all square from this, sort of peering out of this. We’re doing via Zoom and he says, “Mike, it was as if I was there looking at them through a pair of binoculars. It was absolutely incredible. When can I see the next ones?” I think for David to say that, who has seen everything, I mean, he’s the most traveled, most experienced, and altruistic filmmaker, knowledgeable person in the world, for him to say that, we all said, “I think we’re doing okay.”
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