They’re very enthusiastic about dinosaurs in Japan, Neil Nightingale says by way of explanation as to why we’re talking on a crackly line as he travels by car to Heathrow airport en route to Japan. Nightingale is a busy man. Creative director of BBC Earth, the global brand for all of the BBC’s natural history content, he’s also the co-director of a groundbreaking 3D movie, Walking with Dinosaurs. It’s this latter project which is causing him to fly to the other side of the world to talk about creatures from the Cretaceous era. For a man with a lifelong enthusiasm for nature and the natural world, though, it’s clear that spreading the word about the wonders of our planet, even our pre-historic past, is more passion than promotional duty.
Nightingale was head of the BBC Natural History Unit from 2003 until 2009. He was responsible for major TV series including Life, Planet Earth, David Attenborough’s Life In Cold Blood and Life In The Undergrowth, as well as Elephant Diaries, Galapagos and Natural World. He was in charge when feature films including Deep Blue, The Meerkats and Earth, the most successful ever documentary feature film produced in Britain, were made and released.
For many of us, what we know of the natural world is likely to have been shaped, at least in part, by the work Nightingale has created. Now he’s made his first foray into Hollywood.
Science and technology
Walking with Dinosaurs combines state-of-the-art technology with the latest scientific discoveries to tell the story of Patchi, a plucky Pachyrhinosaurus (it means “thick-nosed lizard”), as he embarks with his family on their annual migration. The family-friendly, classic underdog story might seem more entertainment than education, but Nightingale insists the balance is just as he’d like it. Perhaps the reason for this is the astonishing accuracy the film-makers have achieved, combining cutting edge technology in both 3D filming techniques and animation with new discoveries made by paleontologists.
“In the last 10 or 20 years there have been so many new dinosaur discoveries,” Nightingale says, “far more in the last couple of decades than in the last 100 years. Everything that’s in the movie is inspired by real dinosaurs.”
The cast of dinosaurs will be an education alone – there’s no terrifying T-Rex or dawdling Diplodocus, Patchi’s world is populated by a new cast including the ferocious Gorgosaurus, packs of Hesperonychus (also known as “killer chickens”) and the giant Edmontosaurus, duck-billed dinosaurs who eat only vegetation. Animators at the renowned Animal Logic studios had the unenviable task of bringing these creatures to life, working with paleontologists and paleo-artists to create the most photorealistic dinosaurs possible.
The animation was developed painstakingly through a process that began with technical drawings of skeletons created by paleontologists, before muscles were added, using the scars on the bones to position them accurately. The next step was to add skin and scales. The team then did tests with paleontologists to get the basic movements right before a computer system was used to create the complete movement.
“The animators didn’t have to animate every bulge of every muscle because the software gives the animation the properties of real muscles,” says Nightingale. “As the dinosaurs move, the muscles move almost automatically – you can see them jiggling up and down. The animators can fine tune it but it gives it a much more realistic appearance.”
‘Life of its own’
Animal Logic, the same studio that won an Oscar for its work on Happy Feet for which they created software called Quill to animate feathers on the animated penguins in that movie, adapted that system into one they named RepTile to animate the skin and scales of the dinosaurs.
“Each scale moves independently giving it a kind of life of its own,” says Nightingale. “As the body and muscles move under the skin, the scales move automatically.”
Of course, the dinosaurs are only one element of the movie. The backdrops against which they are set were captured on location in Alaska and New Zealand, using 3D filming techniques. It’s not possible to know exactly what the Earth looked like 70 million years ago, but Nightingale believes they’ve found locations that are as close as we can get.
“Southern Alaska and New Zealand have that kind of temperate climate which represents the period very well. The world was a bit warmer then, so they would have had 24 hours of sunshine in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter.
“We went to great lengths, not just to shoot backgrounds, but we shot forest fires and there’s a sequence when a young dinosaur gets chased by a Gorgosaurus and falls into the river, that was a very dramatic shoot using a helicopter and shooting from a 3D camera rig in the front of a rubber boat going down rapids in New Zealand.”
The other element which augments the movie’s authenticity was using what is known of modern animals’ behaviour to create a “behaviour matrix” – gestures which correspond to certain moods for the dinosaurs. “No-one know what gestures dinosaurs used but we used the natural history unit archives to work out how their body language might’ve worked,” says Nightingale. “We know they couldn’t smile because they don’t have muscles to smile so the dinosaurs in the movie only do things that dinosaurs anatomically could do. It’s speculative but it’s based on what we know of modern animal biology.”
‘Building dinosaurs from drainpipes’
So the dinosaurs were the most accurate ever created and the locations were as close to the Cretaceous era as could be imagined. But there was still a problem. How do you really imagine what a giant dinosaur would look like as you film on location?
“It was all story-boarded but what we didn’t have was the dinosaurs – we had no actors,” says Nightingale. The team’s solution was as unexpected as it was ingenious. “We ended up building dinosaurs out of PVC drainpipes from a plumbing supply store.” They made life-size models of the dinosaurs to enable them to frame up the shot and imagine its scale and the camera angles. “It was very effective,” he says. “They were like stick dinosaurs made out of drainpipes.”
It also added, Nightingale says, to the thrill of seeing the animated creatures added to the shots they’d captured. It was, he says, “like magic”.
For a man who has had a key role in revealing some of the most astonishing wonders of the natural world, Nightingale can instantly pinpoint the moment he first became aware of his own connection with nature.
“I know it was before I was five years old because we moved when I was that age, but I remember those experiences. I’d play out in the woods, collecting skeletons that I found, collecting birds eggs, as we did then, although you’re not allowed to do that now.” Those early experiences still inform every aspect of his work.
“Today, 80 per cent of people in the UK live in towns and cities so a lot of people don’t have these early experiences. So whether it’s wildlife films or dinosaur movies, I think they have an even more important role in helping to inspire people with the wonder of nature.” And that’s really his motivation in a nutshell.
“I want to inspire people to love nature. The world we live in is the only one we have so it’s very precious. Of course it’s important to understand what’s going on in our world, but ultimately it’s our emotions that drive us. There’s lots of awareness, lots of news stories about the environment but this other side, of people caring about nature is important because if they don’t care then what’s the point of the awareness? It’s about helping people to fall in love with the natural world.”
• Walking with Dinosaurs (U) is on general release from Friday.