Interviews TV

Bringing the Past to Life: How Prehistoric Planet’s Filmmakers Up the Ante for Season 2

There’s something special about dinosaurs. They fascinate us, they scare us, but there is a majestic beauty they carry. Maybe it’s because they were extinct long before humans’ arrival that makes us so curious about them. Whether it’s in movies, or in museums, their presence on Earth is still felt today. 

While there is a plethora of research about them, you still can’t help but to wonder what a day in the life of a dinosaur would visually look like. How did they interact with other species? Were they really apex predators? That’s where Apple TV’s Prehistoric Planet comes in. In 2022, this show fascinated the world, going into extraordinary detail about the dinosaurs we all know and love.

Prehistoric Planet is back and this time it wants to show us something new. The goal for this season is exploring the dinosaurs that don’t always get the spotlight. Combining extensive research (and making some new discoveries), breathtaking CG, and the comforting voice of Sir David Attenborough, season 2 feels like an epic documentary, extensively examining the lives of dinosaurs backed with an emotional and intense score by Hans Zimmer that elevates carefully crafted scenes.

In celebration of this historic season, The Koalition spoke to Mike Gunton (Executive Producer), Tim Walker (Showrunner) to learn more about season 2, the beauty of dinosaurs, baby animals, CGI and more.

“The process started really over 10 years ago when Mike had the first idea, and it took about six or seven years to finally get the right people in the right place and the right circumstances. Mike [then got] together with John Favreau and then with Apple TV+. Once all of those stars aligned, we then put the team together to start researching all the stories. We work very closely with a group of wonderful wildlife filmmakers who are the producers [and] who’ve spent years and years filming animals in the wild. They know the type of behaviors the animals have [and] they know how to film it.”

Spanning five new habitats; the active volcanoes in India, the marshlands of Madagascar, the deep oceans near North America, and more, Prehistoric Planet is an examination of the psychology of dinosaur behavior and their interactions with other species around them and other dinosaurs. Featuring recreated footage, the series also focuses on the history of fossils and facts.

“We wanted to do a natural history series, not a dinosaur series. We want a natural history series set in a very narrow period of time. The best time: in the time of the dinosaurs, which was the last period just before 66-ish million years ago. It’s a wildlife [series] which just happens to have dinosaurs in it. Of course, the other reason why we chose that time is because it’s got the coolest T-Rex. We could not make a series about dinosaurs without T-Rex and the T-Rex actually lived only a relatively small period of time. Those were the reasons why we chose these animals in this time, but then, of course, it’s what sort of stories these animals can tell,” said Gunton.

“As Mike said, we’re in this little narrow window of time at the end of the dinosaurs’ period but it was a really rich world and there were loads of other animals [that] lived alongside the dinosaurs. We wanted to show that mammals were around during the time of dinosaurs. I think lots of people think the dinosaurs got wiped out and then the mammals came, and we wouldn’t be here if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out, but the dinosaurs and the mammals were around at the same time just for over 100 million years,” said Walker.

“The mammals were really tiny, like little shrew kind of things and then they started to get bigger and bigger and by the time we get to our Prehistoric Planet window, we saw they developed into about the size of a badger, so we feature those mammals. We feature snakes, birds, fish and all amphibians. We’ve got a great story about a giant frog called The Devil Toad. All of these different animals then lend themselves to different types of stories. Building on what Mike’s just said, we wanted to create this really rich tapestry life,” Walker finished.

“Tim mentioned The Devil Toad. That’s a love story and if we were filming a story of a toad today, you might tell it as a love story of a male frog trying to find a female frog, the trials and tribulations. This is a story of true love for a giant frog, but it never ran smoothly. In this case, the thing that gets in his way is a giant Sauropod dinosaur, but all the stories connect,” said Gunton.

Using the latest scientific research and stunning visual effects, season two of Prehistoric Planet brings audiences up close and personal with new, never-before-seen species on-screen, such as:

  • Isisaurus – An Indian sauropod (long-necked, plant-eating dinosaur) that made its home in an extreme volcanic region known as the Deccan Traps, laying eggs in volcanic heated terrain. 
  • Pectinodon – a fierce hunter and fond parent, this bird-like North American feathered dinosaur was part of the troodontid family. A sharp-clawed, long-legged predator, it was an adaptable hunter, its teeth and jaws suggesting that many sorts of small animals would have been on the menu. 
  • Quetzalcoatlus and Hatzegopteryx – The biggest creatures ever to soar the skies, these gargantuan pterosaurs (prehistoric flying reptiles) were the size of a giraffe or small aircraft and are some of the show’s most charismatic characters.

“You want scary stories, you want parental care, you [want] parents looking after their young, you want hunting stories, you want courtship stories, and so then you start to pick the animals that can best to best tell those kinds of stories. We know that everybody loves babies, so we’ve introduced more baby animals into season 2 and, as we know, lots of baby animals don’t always make it, so there’s lots of anxiety,” said Gunton.

“If you think about making a contemporary wildlife program, if you’re making Planet Earth, you have the same problem. There are eight million species on planet earth today. You have to choose the ones you think are going to be the most interesting, the most entertaining, the most thought-provoking, the most relevant to your story. It’s a bit like casting a movie. Who are your superstars? Who are your comedic characters? Who are your romantic characters? The only difference is, here we’ve got to try and interpret this by from basically bones and fossils what sort of lives these creatures would have lived. Scientists have taken all this evidence to create a life story for all these different species. It’s a remarkable piece of science and scholarship.”

The exploration of these species and lesser-known species creates, “Not just a great wildlife series, but it’s also a fantastic safari. It’s as if you booked the ticket on the ultimate safari around the world, but it was 66 million years ago. If you want to go on safari, you want to see everything [and] that’s what we tried to give people. [We tried to give them a] wide range of what they could see.”

Prehistoric Planet is a product of a highly skilled team of filmmakers, natural historians and paleontologists. It’s this meeting of the minds that not only makes the series possible but makes it feel so real. Research in the dinosaur world moves quickly. With new discoveries made every week, it was a challenge for the Prehistoric Planet team to keep up.

For example, when the team needed to find out how fast a Mosasaur could propel itself through water, which was research that had never been completed. The results of this inquiry were then not only included in the show but also helped add to the research in the scientific community.

“We’ve got a wonderful relationship with the paleontological community and our finger is on the paleo pulse. We started to talk to them and this all started round about four and a half years ago. We then kicked this second season off about three and a half years ago and spent the first year or so just researching and researching and researching. We researched what we know about the fossils, how those fossils can tell us about the possible daily lives of the animals, the type of environments those animals lived in and, therefore, the kind of stories we could tell.”

“Then, when we get into the filming process, that takes a big chunk of time, and the CGI process then takes around about a year for every sequence. We’re making all the sequences at the same time. There are about 35 sequences in this second season, at about 30 or 35-ish. Lots of them are being made at the same time but the actual CGI process itself finally takes about a year to go through.”

“The computing power that is required to do this is insane. All these animals have to be rendered in computers and it takes 11 hours to render one frame of image. Imagine there’s 25 frames a second and there’s obviously 25 times 60 in a minute, so imagine how much computing power that is to do. It’s just madness and the speed of computing power has increased really quickly since we started. When we started, it was even slower than that. It is a technological marvel our colleagues at MPC, the visual effects company, [what they’re able to do is] truly a mind-boggling process. I don’t even know how they do it. It’s like a magic trick.”

“Mike has this great stat, which is, if one computer was used to render all of the final images across the series, it would take that computer 3000 years to do it. That’s on top of the 10 years of planning and then the four and a half years of making. We’d have to wait three thousand years if one computer was going to do it. Luckily, we have lots of computers.”

To learn more about Prehistoric Planet, the addition of baby dinosaurs and the technology behind this series, check out our full interview in the video above.

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