Planet Dinosaur

Wed 14th Sep 2011, by Paul Hellard | Production

Planet Dinosaur

CGSociety :: Production Focus

14 September 2011

Planet Dinosaur is a 'six by half hour' series for BBC One, entirely constructed in CG by Jellyfish Pictures in London. This is the first major dinosaur series for BBC One since 'Walking with Dinosaurs'.

This ambitious series will cover some 50 dinosaurs across six episodes from giants to lethal killers to flying and swimming monsters. There has been a considerable amount of new knowledge and information collected on dinosaurs over the last ten years and many of the most remarkable stories and discoveries will be told. Jellyfish Pictures collaborated with BBC Science in creating the look and approach for the series, coming up with a solution that would work for a TV budget.

The advances in CGI and in particular the pipeline developed by Jellyfish has allowed them to meet the huge ambition of creating entirely CGI environments as well as some 50 different dinosaurs for a third of the budget of Walking with Dinosaurs. The major challenge is to deliver a series that will not only look spectacular but also successfully engage and tell the stories in a way that hasn’t been achieved before.

Planet Dinosaur

In order to succeed the decision was made early to limit the length and ambition of shots making sure that roller coaster shots that go from very wide shots to super close-ups all in one go were avoided whenever possible.

Using a very fast cut rate with a hand held feel that makes the action play like a fast paced drama, shots could be constructed relatively quickly while still not compromising on quality.

Phil Dobree, Creative director of Jellyfish Pictures, realised that the only way to achieve the ambition was to model the workflow on an accelerated feature animation production.

Te Hu Ford
All images © BBC & Jellyfish Pictures.

With over 2,500 shots to deliver in little over a year, meant that efficiency, specialism and precision are key features of the pipeline and workflow. The tasks are very much divided into specialist sections with every person in the pipeline absolutely proficient in their area of expertise.

From asset and model creation, right through to compositing and editorial—the different skills involved included: base modeling, sculpting, texture paint, technical setup and rigging, storyboarding, pre-visualisation, animation, shading, lighting, FX, compositing and Digital Matte painting. Environment builds were a major challenge on the series. The solution that Jellyfish come up with, was to use features in compositing, using NUKE X, to construct the environments from a series of matte paintings and projections, combined with some 3D assets to construct a “stage set” at the end of the pipeline where flexibility is paramount and speed essential. This also future proofed the series should a stereo 3D version be required, which is very likely. Some tests have already been done with exciting results.

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The role of Jellyfish Pictures on this series was fairly unprecedented as they were more of a production partner than a CG facility. Phil Dobree insisted the entire series should be continually edited in-house at Jellyfish in order to facilitate the speed of feedback to keep a project of this enormous scale moving. The BBC series producer Nigel Paterson worked at Jellyfish Pictures full time, along with his research team to help facilitate the process. Often in heavy CG series for television where time and budgets are severely restricted compared to film (up to 50 times less budget per shot) time and speed of response are critical.

The workflow was constructed in such a way as to give Nigel Paterson maximum input into the series while still keeping the show moving. By working from script—to storyboard—to layout (a kind of storyboard animatic), to pre-visualisation, all the editorial story telling was very much loaded up front where changes are considerably cheaper. After passing to animation, lighting, rendering and compositing costs go up considerably to make changes and this is often where things can go badly wrong, if input and feedback hasn’t been signed off earlier in the process. With the huge number of shots produced by a relatively small team (around 40-50 in all over the year) it was essential that absolutely nothing got wasted.

Planet Dinosaur

As usual with BBC factual series it was essential that the quality of the information and science was second to none. Nigel and his team had to be extremely thorough in ensuring the veracity of their stories, getting the right blend of factual accuracy along with engaging storytelling that works for animation. Many of the stories were taken directly from knowledge on recent finds of Dinosaurs. Some stories were older discoveries that haven’t been told before due to the enormous complexity involved in realising them. Phil and his team tried to engage as much as possible with the stories to find solutions that made it possible to bring them to life.

For example one particular sequence involved the discovery of several hundred dinosaur remains all in one place at one time. The evidence pointed to a massacre on an huge scale. The conclusion is that these centrosaurs met their end not only at the hands of giant predators but also a huge flood. Normally this would have been a huge obstacle for a CG series (crowds, blood and gore and flooding/water), however using the workflow, camera cuts, and editorial pacing the team was able to bring this story to life in a compelling way.

Factual accuracy was of course paramount in terms of the dinosaurs themselves. The BBC spent a considerable time researching finds and remains to help accurately reconstruct the creatures. In the past it would have been normal to build machetes (clay models) of all the dinosaurs before they went anywhere near a computer. Jellyfish’s creature pipeline was based around base modelling, sculpting and painting all actually in the computer. It was considerably quicker and more flexible.

Planet Dinosaur

The basic size, shape and proportions of the animals were all created relatively quickly in the base model (around two days work), changes were also relatively quick. Having signed off the size, shape etc, it’s ready to go to the more detailed stage of fine sculpting and modelling, where muscle definition, scales, weight and detail were added (see attached images). When that step is complete, it goes to texture paint where patterns and colour got created. This was always an area of some speculation, and Nigel spent some time finding patterns and colours that would suit the various dinosaurs—based on type, geography and current bird and animal markings. For months, Jellyfish Pictures’ studio was littered with images and books on the Jurassic period and the creatures that roamed.

Much of the science and factual evidence for the BBC One ‘Planet Dinosaur’ series is being told in a unique way, using 3D motion graphics (a kind of 2D explanatory graphic technique) that seamlessly ties in the CG stories linking and helping setup the sequences. Jellyfish’s motion graphics department use the same pre-viz techniques to construct the shots and sequences before going on to finals to finish off the sequences. Tom Brass, working both for the BBC and Jellyfish led the motion graphics team helping to storyboard and visualise the sequences before they were realised on computer.

Planet Dinosaur
All images © BBC & Jellyfish Pictures.

“The collaboration between the BBC and Jellyfish on Planet Dinosaur has been a unique opportunity to create a new model in VFX production,” Andrew Cohen, the BBC Head of Science & Executive Producer of the show said. “With the BBC team embedded in the Jellyfish production base in Soho we have been able to innovate both visually and editorially at all stages of the production. It's been over ten years since the BBC produced a landmark Dinosaur series and so expectation around this project is sky high but the finished sequences suggests that this will be one of the factual highlights of 2011. Combining the very latest paleontological findings with a unique visual style this series brings a new generation of dinosaurs to life to a new generation of viewers.”

CG and VFX director – Jellyfish Pictures – Phil Dobree
Producer – Jellyfish Pictures – Mark Sherwood
VFX Supervisors – Jellyfish Pictures – Luke Dodd and Haz Dulull

BBC Series Senior Writer and Director – Nigel Paterson
BBC Executive Producer (head of BBC Science) – Andrew Cohen


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