‘Those close-ups are where it all lives and breathes’

The directors of Prehistoric Planet–Andrew R. Jones and Adam Valdez–reveal the secrets behind the live-action/CG hybrid nature documentary series.

As soon as viewers caught the first glimpse of Apple TV+’s Prehistoric Planet, the five-part dinosaur documentary made by the BBC Studios Natural History Unit, featuring Jon Favreau as showrunner and narration by David Attenborough, it was clear that a new level of nature documentary was here.

That’s partly because the series leverages photoreal and naturalistic visual effects from MPC, following its somewhat similar approach on The Lion King and The Jungle Book, and because it was also directed by Andrew R. Jones and Adam Valdez, who both worked on those films as animation supervisor and visual effects directly, respectively (Jones was also series animation supervisor on Prehistoric Planet).

In their new roles here, the directors share with befores & afters what approach they took–from early tests of prehistoric creatures featuring the latest scientific imaginings, to animation to dealing with dino close-ups–in delivering a new level of realism with the CG dinosaurs, which were realized against both live-action backgrounds and completely synthetic environments.

b&a: What was the brief for what this series should be? Was it ‘realistic’? Was it ‘fantastical’? Where did you sit on all that?

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Adam Valdez: Mike Gunton (creative director, factual – BBC Worldwide) had seminal ideas about where it all begins. And it turns out–I don’t want to call him the Granddaddy of the BBC Natural History Unit–but it’s kind of the case. It’s his thing, and he’s been doing these shows for so long. It’s 100% in line with his shows. They are science-based but super engaging through story. They always find an interesting story in the real world. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

Andrew Jones: The early talks between Jon Favreau and Gunton and Adam and I were all about, how do we do what we’ve been doing on Lion King and Jungle Book, but trying to pull off the ultimate magic trick of completely photoreal animals and then take it to the next step, where you’re not just recreating a lion, that we all know what it looks like, where we’re making it talk. But instead now we’re recreating dinosaurs and prehistoric animals that did exist on this planet. That fascinates everybody universally.

It was also about using the latest science and latest thinking, and all the latest in terms of technology for animation and rigging–all the stuff MPC’s developed over the years with Jungle Book and Lion King, like muscle systems and skin sliding. How can we really truly bring these dinosaurs to life? That was the pitch.

Previs frame. Courtesy of MPC.
Final shot. Courtesy of Apple.

b&a: Because it was aiming to show a new perspective on dinosaurs, what was some of the research done here?

Andrew Jones: Visual effects-wise, we went through an early test to make sure we were on the right track. Those were the T-Rex and the T-Rex babies, the beach scene that you saw in the opening episode of Coasts, where the babies are playing with the baby turtles. The baby turtles are real and mixed with our photoreal elements of our baby T-Rexes. The test was about seeing how close we could get to making this feel like something we could have shot documentary-style, and natural history-style. Also, making sure we could have those long lenses in the field when we went out to, say, Costa Rica to physically shoot. Those early R&D tests were things we showed to Apple to show that it was possible, and that it could be something truly groundbreaking.

Adam Valdez: I think that’s the right angle, because it’s not like there was anything in this no one had ever done before with visual effects. Although, I do think what Andy was saying is really important–the idea that we’ve done muscles and skins before, and animals before, but how do you take what was in the scientists’ heads about that and show it? There’s been a lot of controversy about what a dinosaur’s skin is like. You might think it’s really thick, like a dragon or something, in your head. But their skin is actually pretty thin. Which then also affects how it actually looks and behaves.

In terms of VFX R&D, Andy and I have also gotten really comfortable with virtual camera techniques. That meant when we were building the scenes, we had that R&D already in our back pocket about how we would visualize things.

Final shot. Courtesy of Apple.

Andrew Jones: Yes, we did lay out the scenes similar to what we did with Lion King, like an animated master scene. So, knowing the beats beforehand, we would animate a lot of pre-animation and figure out what was interesting about the scene. And then we’d figure out where to put our cameras to shoot it. So instead of in traditional animation, where you just have storyboards and the animator does that two second or three second storyboard of animation, we just submit it to the editor. It was completely different. It was really more along the lines of shooting almost like live action where you’d animate two to three minutes of a scene, and cover it with multiple cameras. This depended on the type of scene it was, we’d limit our coverage to what BBC would naturally do.

We’d work with their cinematographers and their camera team, and say, ‘Hey, if they really were covering a scene like this, where would they really have gotten to? How close could they have gotten to the animals?’

Say it’s a crazy predation scene. You would have maybe one or two camera positions and they’d be on sticks and you’d just be following and be so excited that you got to see it, instead of trying to do very over the top camera moves, that then kind of take you out of it, where it’s now not feeling like a nature documentary anymore. It’s more like, you happen to go there and capture this amazing moment.

Previs frame. Courtesy of MPC.
Final shot. Courtesy of Apple.

b&a: In terms of shooting it and doing pre-animation and then going on real locations, how did that work? Were you doing any kind of AR / virtual camera set-ups on set at all?

Andrew Jones: The intention was to do some AR on location. And we did a little bit. We attempted simulcam with an AR system, but it was super tricky to get that to work. And working with the amount of time and the amount of shots we needed to get per day on these locations, we just found it a bit cumbersome. But, on the iPad we still had all the previs and all the camera work that we had already cut together with all of our camera positions. So we knew we had a really good roadmap of what to shoot when we got there. A lot of those locations to shoot were just ticking the boxes of where we could shoot this particular shot.

That was especially the case for a lot of those types of close-ups, which is the fun thing too about documentary filmmaking. They do this all the time in natural history shows, where they cut together completely different locations. They cut them together because they’re in a close and a wide and you don’t realize–that’s why some of those really tights are so out of focus in the backgrounds. Because you don’t realize that the lion is in a different spot, but they’re making it feel like it’s all part of the same action. And we try to do the same thing.

So, a lot of times we’d be like, ‘Okay, we’re going to shoot these rocks here during the day.’ And then we’d be like, ‘Oh, but the lighting’s so much nicer now we’re in the afternoon over here. I know our dinosaur is supposed to be there, but it’s fine, it’s a close-up.’ And nobody notices. Because we want the lighting to be right. Or we want it just to be a beautiful shot. They’ll shoot lions for a month and then they’ll cut together all these different days and the most beautiful lighting that they could find. And it makes it feel like one scene, but if there’s inconsistent lighting, that actually makes it feel like a documentary. Which I think is something fun that we did on the show as well.

Previs frame. Courtesy of MPC.

Adam Valdez: Just to be clear, there’s a range of stuff in the show. The show’s mostly real backgrounds. But a lot of underwater stuff is full CG and there are hybrids as usual. What Andy’s talking about is the intentional sense of mismatch, where actually, it was highly planned.

Some people are like, ‘Well, what are you directing exactly?’ It’s like, ‘Well, first you have notions of stories and you have to dramatize those.’ Then we have to pretty much design every shot. For example, Andy has a sequence with the lizard crawling over these sleeping animals. And you’re following this tiny little creature over the landscape, which is other animals. And you’re not just going to go shoot some random stuff and make that work later. It’s so precise.

Also, there are no other human actors or stunt cars or something else that are grounding every shot. It’s just empty. So the only thing you’re worrying about is whether or not that camera is going to support that exact shot. And because we were held to such high standards for exactly how the camera should behave, I think there was more scrutiny on these as shot designs, not just an idea of what it could be.

I don’t remember, Andy, what your editorial process was like, but I would deliver a director’s cut to them. And then also a bin full of all my takes. Those takes would be long. And they said it was a lot like combing through field footage.

Final shot. Courtesy of Apple.

Andrew Jones: That’s right.

Adam Valdez: Lots of takes and long over length and like, ‘Oh, you chose these little bites, but we sort of liked this shot.’ And then you’d go back and forth on that.

Andrew Jones: There was also a previs editing process where they’d go back and cut, or over cut, some of the choices Adam and I make, and make suggestions here and there. But mostly it was our own previs and virtual camera teams, building these sequences. We even scored them and put temp tracks to them and everything, and just delivered it back as a director’s cut, essentially.

It was a cool process because, well, they’re also the BBC. I have a lot of respect for the people there. And they’ve been doing this for years. So it was an interesting mix of what Adam and I do in animation and storytelling, in a kind of CG world, versus what they do and learning a lot from the melding of the minds.

CG models. Courtesy of MPC.

b&a: Is this the first thing each of you have directed?

Adam Valdez: It’s my first credit, but not Andy’s, he’s got a few already.

Andrew Jones: I directed a segment for The Animatrix way back when. I’ve done some short films here and there. But that was the taste of a real production with a budget. We’ve also both been animation supervisors. You’re so close to the storytelling aspects of it in that role. Working with Favreau, too, has been really cool, because even on Jungle Book and Lion King there’s a lot of ideas and sharing of information. I’m always trying to figure scenes out together. I think that’s why John, with Adam and I, trusted us with this series. He was worried if it wasn’t Adam or I doing it! I think he knew that it needed to be somebody with a strong sensibility towards what this medium can bring, yet also have good storytelling prowess.

b&a: Could you talk about one particular sequence or shot in one of the episodes that you each directed that was maybe one of the tougher ones? Can you think of one shot or sequence that was more memorable than the others?

Adam Valdez: The one that ended up being the most dynamic was in Coasts. Where the baby Alcione, the little pterosaurs, leap off this rock tower and they make it to the beach. Well, not all of them do. In Coasts, the T-Rex scene is actually Andy’s one. And originally Coasts was my one. So there’s a couple we shared.

Andrew Jones: That’s why we shared credit on a couple of the episodes as well.

Previs frame. Courtesy of MPC.

Adam Valdez: And it’s funny because in Andy’s opening one, there’s a baby death. And then the very next one, it’s like, ‘baby death, baby death, baby death.’ I mean, these series are famous for putting babies in jeopardy, right? I just thought, for a babies in jeopardy story, it really is like, ‘holy crap, they wake up, they’re born and they look out and they’re on this tower and instinct drives them to cross this bay, but there’s literally predators everywhere.’

That was a sequence originally we were thinking of setting in fog. It’s just one of those sequences that had all these little chapters in it, little story moments throughout it, the way it builds. And then you finally see the one little guy land in the trees and I just thought it was exhausting to watch, in a good way.

It was also interesting to try to do an aerial scene. I’ve never done that before. I’ve never done a Top Gun or something like that where you’re trying to describe dynamics that are happening in mid-air. I also did a lot of underwater and I found that really hard. You’re not based on a ground context where you know where you are. And so that was a little confusing. It took a lot of working through. Just finding the story, hitting the right notes throughout the story, and then building the aerial component.

And then there’s some cool shots, like where you have the little baby and this giant shadow and a spaceship comes up behind it. And you’re like, ‘Argh!’ So there are just some cool shots sprinkled in and I was happy with it in the end.

Previs frame. Courtesy of MPC.

b&a: What about you, Andrew?

Andrew Jones: I’m kind of fond of a few. The Quetzalcoatlus nesting scene, just because it’s one of my favorite historic animals. It’s like a flying giraffe. When I first heard about it, I knew about pterosaurs, but I never knew they were this big. And there’s things that I just found out while working on the show that were just so astounding and we got to actually try to bring these things to life for a new generation. That was amazing.

For that sequence, there was a good combination of set interactions that were filmed. I think they shot that in Black Park, in the UK. They hooked up fishing wires to little poles to make it in time with the poles and the nest and the smashing of the eggs.

Adam Valdez: That’s Black Park, really? Wow, that’s so cool.

Andrew Jones: They were shooting during COVID. We wanted to shoot all over the place. We wanted to shoot in real swamp areas and really crazy locations, and because of COVID, we just couldn’t get anywhere. So they became very resourceful about shooting in their own ‘backyard’. And then we shot, of course, a lot in America.

I like the little fight that happens when the nest owner shows up. It was kind of sad, of course. My daughter was almost crying when the eggs were getting eaten. She was like, ‘It laid those eggs for so long and now they…’.

Previs frame. Courtesy of MPC.
Final shot. Courtesy of Apple.

b&a: Since you both have, of course, that animation background, I wanted to ask you about the style of animation. A few years ago, I was talking to [MPC VFX supervisor] Elliot Newman about Lion King. And what I remember him telling me was one of the things they were having to train MPC animators on was that it often needed to be very subtle. I mean, there are lots of attacks and crazy animation in Lion King, and there are in this series, too. But it almost feels like a different kind of approach needed for animators. As directors here, how did you communicate that subtlety?

Andrew Jones: The best way to describe it for me is, what makes Anthony Hopkins a great actor versus any old Joe? It literally is the subtlety. It is the subtle little nuances of his performance. Say when you think of him in The Silence of the Lambs, and those tight close-ups on his face. The way he made that choice never to blink in any of his takes. It’s all in the details when you’re talking about realism and performance and believability. For me, that’s something I’ve been chasing my whole career as an animation supervisor. How can we pull off this magic trick and, like in Avatar, how do we make these people feel as realistic as possible?

It was the same thing on Lion King and Jungle Book. How do we make you believe these animals are real? Bagheera is talking, sure, but it’s a real animal. That all comes with subtlety. The more you exaggerate it like traditional animation does, it then loses its realism. It becomes something else. And I think it can, especially if it looks real and it’s exaggerated performance, disconnect a little bit. So you’ve got to be super careful and find that line of how far, and how do we live right on that edge? I mean, obviously there are a lot of humans that are–Jim Carrey comes to mind–almost like caricatures or cartoons of a human performance. And they’re still real.

So obviously you can be on that edge and make something fun and still feel real. But this show was trying to live in that realism moment. Those tight close-ups on the faces are all about believing that this animal is thinking and feeling for itself, even in those subtle moments of thought process, like the eye, the way the eye darts around the environment and is followed by the head movement.

As animation supervisor for the series, I’ve been working with the team and we’re really trying to get the close-ups perfect. And then of course the other stuff comes along with it. But those close-ups are where it all lives and breathes.

Final shot. Courtesy of Apple.

Adam Valdez: I might just add, we know there’s a range of performance styles, even with real people, like Andy said. You’ve got a genre range. Sometimes you want performances to be broad and other times, not, depending on the story and the tone. In this case, because you’re scientifically accurate, it’s obvious where you’re going. I would say maybe to counterpoint the thing Andy was saying about the detailed close-ups, there’s a couple of shots, like where a dinosaur puts a foot down and that act itself, especially if they’re stalking or whatever, is really beautiful to just watch and see how they do something that simple.

I think that the trick for us might be how do you do that, and tune everybody to that wavelength, and then get dramatic stories as well? You might think, to have drama or big moments requires big, sloppy or broad animation. But you can get a lot of power out of how you cut it to build tension without having to resort to big, crazy things.

That’s where the dramatic scenarios, or the drama, is inherent in a lot of the survival stories, when you consider the subject of a lot of these shows. Mike would always talk about the prehistoric planet as the name, Prehistoric Planet. It’s one of the planet stories. That’s why it’s ecosystem-based and you’re watching stories in these environments, and that’s why the themes are so common about survival, predation, mating, things like that. Because they’re out there surviving every day. And they have to work every day in all these forms just to live. It’s inherently dramatic, so you don’t have to juice it up too much. You just have to be truthful and authentic.

Just on that, one of the little tricks is going slightly high speed on the camera. Just a kiss of slow motion, a lot of the time, gives it this kind of grace and delicacy.

Andrew Jones: 30 frames a second is our standard. We’re going to push that back to 24 or 25. That means everything, even animated, is a little bit slower than it would’ve been.

Adam Valdez: And that allows you to appreciate what you’re seeing. Fleeting moments, that might to the naked eye, kind of come and go. Everything from how water is bubbling or ripples or how the fish are swimming underwater. You just get the chance to soak it in a little bit. You have all of these things that add to the alchemy of style that people at the BBC Natural History Unit have crafted over many decades of making these.

Final shot. Courtesy of Apple.

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