This 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 the landscape.

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 Channel.]

David Loftus


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.
David Loftus, Writer -


Tim Haines—Series Producer
John Lynch—Executive Producer
Tomi Bednar Lewis—Executive Producer
Jasper James—Producer
Mike McGee—Visual Effects
Mike Milne—Computer Generated Effects
Kenneth Branagh—Narrator

1999, 180 minutes


1999 Technical Achievement in the Field of Animation, Annie Awards
2000 Best Original Television Music (Benjamin Bartlett), British Academy
2000 Innovation (Haines, Lynch, Milne), British Academy
2000 Emmy: Outstanding Achievement in Non-Fiction Programming, Sound Editing
(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" Award, Royal
Television Society (UK)
2000 Best Factual Program, TV Quick (UK)
2001 Peabody