three-hour scientific spectacle was the BBC television event of
the year in late 1999. It garnered an estimated 52 share, meaning
more than half of all the TV sets that were switched on in England
tuned to the show when it aired (roughly 19 million viewers).
The following April, "Walking with Dinosaurs" made only
a little less of a splash in the U.S., on the Discovery channel.
The program made use of the very
latest in paleontological knowledge and theory as well as animation
techniques, combining computer graphic animation, animatronics,
and live location shots from the California State Parks and the
Bahamas to Tasmania and Chile into a (nearly) seamless whole that
enthralled its viewers. Its sly "storytelling" approach
to dinosaurs’ lives made it something more—and perhaps less—than
a true-life nature special or scientific study: more to the average
viewer, less to the hard scientist and dinosaur aficionado.
With narration by Kenneth Branagh,
each of the six half-hour episodes focuses on a semi-specific
era and/or habitat between 220 million and 65 million years ago.
The episodes move from the earliest to the most recent in chronological
sequence over the life of the series.
What I call its "storytelling"
typically wraps each segment around a particular species or individual
creature, which the episode follows through its triumphs and trials,
building sympathy in the viewer, and digressing to examine other
species who either threaten its existence or peaceably share its
locale in space and time. Usually the focal species has something
familiar, preferably cute and cuddly, about it—from the hairy,
plucky mammal in the first episode named Cynodont, who ducks around
below the dinosaurs of the Triassic, and holds up the standard
for mammals (and man) in anticipation of their distant, ultimate
triumph; to the peppy, dolphin-like Ophthalmosaurus who zips about
"A Cruel Sea"; from the sociable, clicking Leaellynasaura
of the Antarctic, to the scavenging marsupial Didelphodon who
scutters about underfoot as Tyrannosaurus and Quetzalcoatlus march
toward extinction in the very late Cretaceous. (The "protagonist"
species also tend to have especially large eyes, which always
worked for puppies, infants, and Mickey Mouse.)
Each episode also has a subtle
story progression: a year in the life of Ophthalmosaurus; the
first year and adolescence of Diplodocus; the final transoceanic
flight of Ornithocheirus; the darkness-to-darkness year of Leaellynasaura
in the mid-Cretaceous Antarctic; Tyrannosaurus vainly struggles
against the impending doom of all the dinosaurs.
There are rare but welcome bursts
of wit in the presentation as well, which are noted below.
At the same time, this is not a
wholly cuddly or PC presentation. There’s some violence—though
not the roaring, pitched battles between titans we’ve seen in
past dinosaur specials and dramatic films. Such clashes are threatened
several times, but "Walking With Dinosaurs" limits most
of them to threat displays and a quick retreat by one party before
they come to blows.
There is a fairly graphic enactment
of Diplodocus egg-laying (early in part 2), and passing references
to pooping and passing gas. Some viewers may be quietly appalled
by the brief glimpses of parents eating their young, and children
feeding on the carcasses of their defeated mother.
The $1 million-plus reportedly
sunk into animation for this production mostly shows to excellent
effect. Much of the time, the computer-generated dinosaurs look
pretty lifelike in their real-world surroundings, although the
combination tends to work better in environments the human eye
does not know as well, such as the skies in episode 4 and the
prehistoric Antarctic in episode 5 (where animals and background
blend the best because they’re both washed-out greys in the cold
and darkness). At other times the creatures contrast slightly
with the settings, being in either sharper or muddier focus than
In the general introduction to
the series, there’s an impressive reverse-action sequence in which
a rural highway scene melts into the landscape, forests pop up,
and mountains heave and fall, as we travel visually back to the
Cretaceous and further. The sequence will be replayed forward
at the end of part 6.
Perhaps the most impressive if
subtle effects are achieved at the nexus between real landscape
and computer image: watch for shadows beneath the animals, puffs
of dust, an allosaur running along a riverbank and splashing through
water, an adolescent diplodocus dipping its head in the river
and scooping up water and splashing, the explosion of real seawater
as a computer-generated Ophthalmosaurus joyously breaches. This
is where the seams between real and fake are most likely to show
… and mostly do not.
[Note: A lavishly-illustrated book
tied to this series, Walking With Dinosaurs by Tim Haines,
was published by BBC Worldwide in England and by Dorling Kindersley
in the U.S. A 50-minute documentary about "The Making of
Walking With Dinosaurs" also aired and was available to people
who bought the initial VHS set. The "making of" documentary,
while interesting, did not adequately address the issues of how
the experts chose the bright colors and odd sounds they gave the
dinosaurs. It and 29 minutes of "behind the scenes"
footage are included in the DVD package. "Walking With Dinosaurs"
threatens to become a franchise: in 2001, an hour-long spinoff
called "Allosaurus: A Walking With Dinosaurs Special,"
featuring the life cycle and behavior of a precursor of Tyrannosaurus
the show nicknamed "Big Al," aired on the Discovery
Paleontologist is one of the few
things David Loftus ever wanted to be when he grew up—probably
between the ages 6 and 10. The decision not to grow up at all
scotched that plan. Loftus is irrationally proud of the fact that,
of about 30 dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures mentioned
but not identified in print and onscreen over the course of this
series, he discovered by later consulting
the book tie-in that he managed to spell 13 of them correctly
in his notes, with another 10 only one letter off, even though
he’d never heard of more than half of them.
Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com
Tim Haines—Series Producer
John Lynch—Executive Producer
Tomi Bednar Lewis—Executive Producer
Mike McGee—Visual Effects
Mike Milne—Computer Generated Effects
1999, 180 minutes
Technical Achievement in the Field of Animation, Annie Awards
2000 Best Original Television Music (Benjamin Bartlett), British
2000 Innovation (Haines, Lynch, Milne), British Academy
2000 Emmy: Outstanding Achievement in Non-Fiction Programming,
(Simon Gotel and Andrew Sherriff, Adelphoi)
2000 Emmy: Outstanding Animated Program (for Programming More
Than One Hour)
2000 Emmy: Outstanding Visual Effects for a Miniseries, Movie
or a Special
(Timothy Greenwood, visual effects supervisor; Jez Harris, lead
special effects supervisor; Daren Horley, lead cgi artist/animator;
Alec Knox, lead cgi artist/animator; Virgil Manning, lead cgi
artist/animator; David Marsh, lead cgi artist/animator; Carlos
Rosas, lead cgi artist/animator; McGee and Milne)
2000 Best Documentary Series, Broadcasting Press Guild
2000 Design & Craft Innovation, and "Production Team"
Television Society (UK)
2000 Best Factual Program, TV Quick (UK)