Making something from nothing Making this kind of programme is nothing like making a normal natural history documentary. We cannot just hide in a bush with a film camera and wait to see what happens. Sadly, there is no way to film extinct animals going about their everyday lives. To make a documentary like this, we have to do everything completely in reverse. Rather than go out filming to see what happens, we have to work out exactly what will happen before we've even shot a single frame.
Selecting the cast The first step was to dive headlong into the sea of scientific research and work out what our animals would have been doing. As with Walking with Dinosaurs, each programme in the series is about one particular point in time. We looked at the last 65 million years and it soon became obvious which periods of time we had the most scientific evidence for, and which animals would be of most interest to people. Choosing our list of characters for each of the episodes was relatively straightforward. The next bit was considerably harder.
Indricothere calf Programme three follows the story of an indricothere calf.
Building a story The storylines in these programmes are tremendously important. We didn’t want these programmes to feel like the viewer was being presented with a list of animals and how they lived. We wanted the narrative to draw the viewer in so that they really cared about the animals and wanted to know what would happen to them next. Many natural history programmes do this extremely well, others don't.
Before writing the storylines, Nigel Paterson (the other producer) and I sat down in front of a TV with a pile of tapes and overdosed on animal documentaries. If you watch enough of these it soon becomes apparent what works and what doesn’t. We ended up with a different type of story for each of the six programmes. For example, programme three follows an indricothere calf for the first few years of his life, while programme four follows a whole group of Australopithecus who have fallen on hard times.
Lessons from the past This exercise only gave us a framework. The meat of the programme would be the twists and turns of the plot and how the animals behaved. That kind of detail can only be guided by the evidence. I can assure you that the details of our storyline are not based on fiction. We've followed what the fossils tell us very strictly. The work that we have put in ensures that our scenes are as accurate as possible. Every scenario put forward is checked by the researchers and in turn the whole treatments are shown to our consultant scientists.
Going filming By the time we started filming we knew exactly what our animals were going to be doing. Having found a suitable location, our crew of ten people hopped onto a plane with some camera equipment and a few crates of extinct rubber animals. That’s when the surreal bit began…
Mammoth model Film-makers used models as well as computer graphics for some of the shots.
Filming without the cast Usually we went on location to film absolutely nothing. As the computer-generated creatures didn’t yet exist, much of the job of shooting was imagining where the animal was going to be and then pointing the camera there. Then you had to make up for its absence by filming the footprints, splashes or whatever the animal was going to do.
Take the invisible mammoth we were filming as it didn’t trudge through the snow. Had the mammoth been there it would have made dirty great footprints as it went. So we had to do those for it - watching one of the crew strap giant plates on his feet and then go lurching through the snow pretending he was a mammoth is one of my enduring memories of making the series.
Using animatronics Not everything was imaginary. We did a lot of work with animatronics. These life-size models of our beasts were fantastic for getting close-up shots that would have been very hard to produce using computer graphics.
Having something real and physical to film is a nice change from filming emptiness, but trying to direct someone wearing a Smilodon's (Sabre-tooth cat) head strapped onto his shoulders is no less surreal. After four or five weeks of bizarre filming per episode we returned to the UK with rolls and rolls of film featuring hairy animatronics close ups and backgrounds without animals. That’s when the really time consuming part began - the computer animation is not something that you can explain easily. You can show it but explanations are very technical. Basically, we start with a clay sculpture that is scanned into the computer using a laser system. It gives us a very complicated computer model. This is the foundation to build an animated model that the animators can use. That is a very simplified version of what is an incredibly complicated process in the case of Walking with Beasts.
Clay model The first stage of the animation process is to make a clay model.
Movement The difference between mammals and dinosaurs is the movement. Mammals have got lots more moving parts, there are lots of wobbly bits. Take the face of a dinosaur – it has moving eyelids and a jaw, and that’s about it, the rest of the face is rigid. But mammals have quivering whiskers, eyebrows, floppy cheeks, wobbly lips, perhaps long noses, so there’s a whole lot more to animate. Every frame has to be moved in a lifelike way, so it’s a long process to move them realistically.
The audience is also more critical of the movements of beasts than dinosaurs. We know how mammals move and people would easily notice if movements weren't re-created accurately. We don't really know how dinosaurs moved so there was a bit more leeway in making dinosaurs.
Animation ‘cycles’ Animating the beasts in Walking With Beasts comes in several stages. The very first is to animate a walk, as that’s what gives the creature character. Animators do what is called a ‘walk cycle’, which means that after you’ve animated it, it can repeat the cycle, keeping the creature walking. Tweaking this continual cycle can take a week to get right. You might spend a week getting the character of the creature. Then you move on to things like a run. After that we work on what we call a ‘chill cycle,’ which is what the creature does when it’s not doing anything. That might be scratching its leg or nibbling at a piece of grass or looking around. If it lies down to sleep or rest then you need to cater for that too.
At that point you’ve got the basic character of the creature. Now you can start actually animating the shots. You can take the walk and mix it with the chill cycle, so the creature walks in and eats something.
Incorporating background Because we’re animating against previously shot material, with the movement of trees and leaves, the animators have to take extra care. If there’s a leaf waggling, the creature’s head has to move too. If there’s a splash in a puddle, then the creature’s foot has to land at exactly the time of the splash. It does add to the work but the rewards are great, because any bit of interaction like that sells the shot completely. The moment you see the background moving as a reaction to the creature, it looks like it’s real.
Our ancestors Early man was a challenge to animate - their movements had to suggest apes and humans.
Almost human Probably the most difficult task of the series was animating an early human. The hominid in question is called 'Lucy' because when the scientists found her fossils in Africa, they were playing the Beatles song 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' on their camp radio. Lucy is one of the earliest hominids ever to be discovered. The difficulty for us was how to make her seem more than an ape but less than a human, in terms of her movement. We spent a lot of time with palaeontologists trying to get a movement that would suggest the two.
“We love Woolly” My favourite creature has to be the Woolly mammoth. It was the one that we thought would be the most trouble because of the long fur, but in the end it came very easily to us. The model looked brilliant, the fur looked excellent, and we really enjoyed animating it. When we saw the shots we were really pleased. I’m very fond of the mammoth.
Smilodon in action Smilodon in action.
Smilodon populator, the greatest sabre-tooth cat of them all, was reconstructed by Nigel Booth. Like Smilodon, every other star of the series had to be lovingly crafted as a scale model first before being scanned into the computer in 3D. At each stage of the reconstruction care was taken to ensure scientific accuracy.
Building the base To form a solid base for the wax model, Nigel first had to put together a strong wood and wire structure called an armature. This had to be built to take the weight of the all the material that would be added. It was also carefully measured so as to get the initial proportions right for the animal. In this case, Smilodon populator is quite an unusual shape for a cat.
Putting on the flesh Unlike the better known North American Smilodon fatalis, this South American sabre-tooth has a shape more like a hyena, with very strong front legs and a sloping back. Nigel worked from drawings and photographs of the skeleton, and then sketched out each layer of muscle to make sure that the shape of the animal was right. Each model took several weeks to build.
Beasts in Brazil Meanwhile, producer Nigel Paterson was out in Brazil filming the backdrop for Smilodon's programme. When he returned in January he had a story to tell...
"We have just returned from Brazil, having finished filming for a programme about what is impressively known as 'The Great American Interchange'. The hero of the piece is Smilodon, the sabre-toothed cat, and the need for an appropriately grand backdrop for such a grand character led us to central Brazil and some of the most staggeringly beautiful locations so far encountered this series."
Battling the weather "Filming in Brazil in winter should have distinct advantages over being in the UK at this time of year - missing out on the horrible weather that usually blights this country. However, the timing of our arrival could not have been worse. Squeezed into a tight schedule, our filming in the grasslands of Brazil was due to take place towards the end of the dry season - unfortunately not only had the rainy season started early, but it was also the wettest they had experienced for 15 years."
"Being told 'it's not normally this wet' while standing ankle deep in water in a marsh that four hours ago was a dry grassy plain doesn't raise a crew's spirits - no matter how well meaning the comment is intended. Neither did being tormented by newly invigorated mosquitoes."
"The greatest problem with utterly unpredictable weather, aside from not knowing what to wear from one day to the next, is continuity of scenes. With locations 2-3 hours apart, a number of days were spent chasing rain from place to place. Rain appeared at what was a 'good weather' location while 'bad weather' locations had rained themselves out and were now not that bad... all very complicated and hugely frustrating."
Model smilodon heads Animatronic heads were used for extreme close-ups.
Filming the invisible "To anyone unfamiliar with the filming process for the series, it must look dull. Except for the animatronic heads of the Smilodon used for extreme close-ups, the cast of characters never grace the set but remain firmly in their proverbial dressing rooms - in this case the computer banks at the animation house back in London."
"Consequently filming involved a lot imagination by all concerned. I often caught myself explaining to the crew: 'In this scene our non-existent Smilodon is being harassed by another non-existent predator, but a second non-existent Smilodon intervenes...' The most effective method of ensuring everyone has the right idea is often to act out the scene. This can lead to ugly squabbles about who plays what - no one wants to be the prey animal when they could be the hero cat."
Putting feathers in one at a time Putting feathers in one at a time.
Animatronics is the process of building robotic models of humans or animals, or in this case, beasts. They are programmed to perform intricate, lifelike movements in time with a pre-recorded soundtrack.
Our animatronic beasts were made and operated by Crawley Creatures and Associates and below they describe the process of working on Walking with Beasts.
Dinosaurs versus beasts After working on Walking with Dinosaurs we thought Walking with Beasts would be a little easier, but it wasn't. The creatures became bigger and bigger, and in contrast to the dinosaurs, hairier. The process became more complex: as well as covering such large beasts with fur, we had to do more animatronic work to produce a greater range of facial expressions than the dinosaurs, as the mammals have to be more believable to our critical eyes.
Travelling with the animatronics Finally came the difficulty of getting the animatronics ready to be transported to locations in the far-flung reaches of the world, trying to avoid a rainy season in one place or a winter in another.
We headed for the snows of the Yukon in Canada with a full-sized mammoth, only to chase the snow across the territory as it melted. All of these things made the animatronic build schedule difficult to stick to.
There was so much work that our core team of seven grew to eighteen, with additional support from several specialist out-workers. The majority of the team had an art college background - the experience of life drawing and figurative sculpting provided a good knowledge of anatomy.
Creating the models First, we used the reference material provided by the BBC research team to sculpt the creatures in water-based clay or Plasterlene. The sculptures were then moulded in silicone and/or glass re-enforced plastic (GRP), to provide negative moulds. From these moulds we produced a foam latex or silicone skin, an under-skull and a body-form.
The under-skull and body-form went to the animatronics "mechy" department, where radio-controlled mechanisms to move eyeballs, eyebrows, noses, ears whiskers, arms and legs were built from scratch. All these movements are combined when the model is operated to create snarls, snorts and blinks, and other facial expressions.
Model andrewsarchus head A member of the crew operating a model andrewsarchus head.
Moving the models around Larger engineering work went into producing Steady Arm rigs, (similar to a Steady Cam rig worn by cameramen) that support the smaller heads during puppeteering.
The mechys also produced the Sand Dolly, a counter-balanced arm with universal movement. The Sand Dolly could be quickly assembled and positioned onto a light-weight framework with Quad Bike all-terrain wheels, and was used for operating larger heads such as those belonging to the mammoth, Woolly rhino and Entelodont.
Making the hides and pelts Meanwhile another team transformed the foam and silicone skins into hides and pelts with flocked hair and fake fur. This had to be dyed to the correct colours, pattern cut and applied to the skins by a special process to keep the skins flexible.
Often the technicians had to apply the hairs one at a time, which was extremely time consuming and required a lot of patience. The full-sized mammoth took several months to make with several thousand pounds (Sterling) worth of Yak hair applied to the skin. However, some of the beasts weren't hairy and needed only a hide, which required a skilled paint job and a few whiskers, with some guard hairs punched in for good measure.
When the skin and mechanisms were completed the two elements were brought together with the skins being adhered to the mechanised skull and body. Once final touches and mechanical checks had been done, the completed animatronic beasts were shipped to location for filming.
Over 40 animatronic elements Over the one-and-a-half year duration of the project, the team made and operated over 40 different animatronic elements. There was a wide range of beasts, most of which were animatronic heads. For example the two Smilodons, the sabre-toothed cats, who fight it out in Episode five, and the giant hopping, shrew-like creature Leptictidium, which features in Episode one, were all made for filming in close-up.
Waterproofed electronics were needed to help achieve the skilful underwater puppeteering of the early type of elephant Moeritherium. This enabled the film crew to achieve the close-up shots of the head interacting with the surface of the water and feeding on the seabed around the Florida Keys, USA.
Several full-sized bodies of creatures were also made for shots involving interaction. For example, bodies being dragged along or falling to the ground and moving the dust or water, or being eaten by other creatures and having blood and guts dripping from them. This can be seen in Episode six when a full-sized Cro Magnon tribe and the Neanderthals butcher a mammoth carcass for food.
Neanderthals The actors playing the Neanderthals wore prosthetic make-up appliances designed by our make-up team. Prosthetics were used on their faces, also wigs, bad teeth (dentures) and beards for the men were added to complete the look. A prosthetic make-up appliance was also used on an actor for an extreme close-up shot of the male Australopithecus. The actor also wore full-sclera contact lenses that cover the complete eye.
Most of the animatronics creatures were filmed in real landscapes on location, and our work didn't stop with the completion of the build and the packing of the crates. All of the creatures were puppeteered by two of our creature operators, often in difficult conditions. An array of beasts travelled from Florida to Mexico, Java to Arizona, Brazil to South Africa and to the frozen Yukon Territory in Canada, where they made to walk the Earth again. Music
Look at the sounds page find out how the beast sounds were created or read this article by Ben Bartlett that tells us about how he composed the music for Walking with Beasts.
A question I am often asked when talking about my work is, 'Do you get to see the pictures when you write?' The answer is, it would be almost impossible without them. However, what is obvious to a composer may not be so clear to an audience viewing the final result.
Music is the glue that links each scene together
Viewing the pictures The process starts like this. The director and I would sit together viewing a particular episode. There would be almost no sound at all on this, maybe some basic growls and thunderclaps, but overall a fairly mute experience.
As we worked through the episode, certain scenes would stand out as being in need of music. I then took away a copy of this episode and it was here that my work really began.
Pictures as inspiration Another question I am often asked is, "How do you start?". Well, in essence the pictures are my inspiration. They demand a certain musical answer. Scenes may be slow and beautiful, or fast and bloodthirsty. The feel may be epic and emotional with music at the forefront, or delicate and sensitive needing music that’s almost imperceptible.
I always have an over-riding objective: narrative coherence. The glue if you like, that makes each scene link together to create the sense of a whole and a feeling that each scene is both essential and inevitable.
Musical glue So how do I 'glue' things together? Well, to take an example, a scene of a mother and child might be accompanied by soft cuddly music. Later, another scene might depict the mother teaching the child the hard realities of life with violent or rhythmic music. To glue them together I make the two pieces have similar harmonies or melodies even though they are ‘dressed’ in contrasted sounds and rhythms.
I like to go further than this if I can. The scenes above might take place in a certain landscape, so this gets glued in too. Or they might be separated by many years, although only minutes have passed in the actual episode.
A common theme throughout Then why not link all the episodes? Why not find a theme that is common to all the stories in Walking with Beasts, to join everything together? It is this challenge that is the hardest and it requires planning and imagination. With Walking With Dinosaurs I discovered a feeling of epic grandeur. Large orchestral sweeps and sophisticated themes. The dinosaurs were on the Earth for a long time and they commanded their world with great power. This was my model for their music.
It deliberately disobeyed all rules of sophisticated harmony
However, the 'beasts' were much harder to characterise. I realised that the ‘beasts’ were less refined than dinosaurs. "Think blood, mud and desperation" was my reasoning, so I wrote Hogs Blood to get me started.
It deliberately disobeyed all rules of sophisticated harmony. Simplicity was the key. It contained big blocks of sound that crash in uninvited. I used the orchestra almost like a huge pair of tribal drums hitting one section, then the other, and then back again. Crudely I even introduced a musical limp by removing some beats from certain bars.
My crotchets became hooves and my quavers became bristles.
I now had my musical DNA in place, the backbone. A crude system that could withstand many disguises and yet could remain coherent from creature to creature. I was now free to hang many new experimental sounds on this backbone.
You can hear all the music from Walking with Beasts in the soundtrack, which is available at the BBC shop. The start of sound Making the animal sounds for the Walking with Beasts series was a brilliant experience. Together with my partner, Jovan Ajder, we began recording foley sound effects, which are ‘recreated’ sounds made with a variety of props, for film, television and radio productions.
We created animal movements and a lot of footsteps, generated by ramming a large log into the ground to get a hollow ‘thud’ for the bigger mammals. The resulting CD still makes me laugh! It is a cacophony of about ten odd-sounding tropical birds with an imaginary creature tearing another apart.
Sound quality The demo was first auditioned on the PC belonging to executive producer Tim Haines - to my horror - it wasn’t quite the quality I had intended. Actually, it was a good test because many of the creatures needed to sound right on the average television, as well as high quality systems.
This gave us an early insight into just how much work was involved in putting together a series on this scale. First we had to generate a sound library and do as much preparation as we could. We had one of two ways to create these sounds: we could either use a huge library of readily available effects (FX), or we could make a smaller library of good FX, manipulating them to give us a much tighter sound.
Jovan phoned several countries round the World, had a hilarious conversation in French about Rutting Deer, and investigated umpteen web-based sound FX companies. In despair he approached the Tape Gallery when our monkeys didn’t cut the mustard! Eventually we collected a library of sounds far bigger than we had ever anticipated.
Weeks spent at the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol proved unsuccessful. Theoretically a rich vein of sound, they were not always completely ideal. We needed variety within each creature to develop character, and the sounds needed to be clean of background noise.
We consoled ourselves knowing that we had a huge range of weird and wonderful sounds for backgrounds with the odd distant and bizarre animal spot FX. We had a great archive, matching or closely covering everything, completing the library and ready to start designing with.
Entelodont The sound effects for Entelodont were made in a similar way to those for the Star Wars tie fighters.
Synching up We had to start working on each programme before the animation was finished, which meant animals walked without their legs moving and talked (as it were) without their lips moving.
We worked alongside the series editor and the animators, and luckily the appropriately named TITAN software helped us to track changes in each programme with every new edited version.
From an early stage we had a blockomatic (think South Park but more basic) of the early animations with some animatronic shots. We then compiled all the sounds for each programme onto CD and let the animators and directors listen, to get a feel for what we were about to do. The animators were happy when they could physically manipulate the animal according to the sounds we created.
We made temporary mixes of the animals for the fine cut (the technical polishing of a near complete programme). They were mixed together with a guide commentary read by either the director or a trained voice artist.
The final lock The dreaded time would come when the pictures would lock and we finally had to make it all come together. Seamlessly fitting all the sounds to the pictures meant that when each animal opened its mouth, the right sound came out. We had a foley session covering movements like footsteps and tearing leaves from branches. Finally, but by no means least, we dealt with all the background sounds. Insects, birds and the completed music and voice over all had to fit perfectly.
The final dub took place with Chris Burdon who took our premixed animal sounds, 48 tracks of background sounds, spot FX, foley, music and voiceover. It took a grand total of 64 tracks to produce one polished stereo mix for television.
How we made specific animal noises The Entelodont sound was a combination of donkey, snake and an elephant growl (similar to the sound used in the original Star Wars film for the Tai Fighter Spaceship!) along with a couple of others, which probably makes it the most complicated of the creatures in the series. It took about ten times as long as any other to do anything with and five times as long to mix.
The baby Indricothere was mostly bear and rhino. The main problem was that the baby had to convey several emotions and that did prove tricky, as we didn’t want to miss a trick when he was called upon to pull heartstrings, as it were.
Embolotherium was played by a Walrus.
Chalicothere was played by our favourite, a hippo.
Megatherium was played by goat bleats, pitched down low.
After an amusing session with a human voice and harmoniser, we opted to do the hard work for Australopithecus and use real monkey sounds. I am very glad we did as I think the results may have been too much for anyone to bear.
The research for Walking with Beasts was a big job. Researchers Alex Freeman and Paul Chambers worked on the project fulltime for nearly two years, with Assistant Producer Annie Bates in charge of researching the plants and choosing locations for the first nine months.
Indricothere Indricothere was taller than a London bus.
Deciding what to film The first task was to choose when each programme was going to be set and which animals should feature. There were a few animals that the team knew they wanted to include, such as the mammoths, and the largest land mammals ever (the indricotheres). Then it was a case of finding really good fossil sites around the world, which represented the 65 million years that the series covered. In fact, more than six sites were considered, and it was hard to have to lose some potentially great programmes, such as one set in Australia based on the Riversleigh fossil site.
Choosing filming locations Once programme settings had been decided, the researchers' next job was to start collecting fossil information about the animals and plants. Annie Bates started talking to palaeobotanists, who study the fossil plants, about where to locate the best place to film living plants similar to those found millions of years ago. Then she had to find out whether it would be possible to film there. Finally, Annie visited the sites, armed with a video camera, to give the producers an idea of the terrain.
Working with the sculptors Meanwhile, Paul Chambers and Alex Freeman started to work with the sculptors who had to build accurate reconstructions of the animals to be animated. Paul and Alex consulted experts on each animal, getting advice on how they might have looked and behaved, and worked with the producers to develop a storyline to include as much behaviour as was known for each animal. For some of the animals in the series, this was the first time that a model of the creature had ever been built.
Putting feathers in one at a time Putting feathers in one at a time.
Adding fur and sounds Once the models of the animals were ready, the researchers worked with the skin designers to develop appropriate fur colours, and the sound designers to come up with suitable sounds that the animals might have made. For the more recent animals there were cave paintings that gave a very good idea of what colours they would have been in real life, but for a lot of others it was educated guesswork.
Bringing the models to life Finally, the researchers worked closely with the animators, bringing in experts to look at the movement of each animal, and advise on the behaviour each animal might have shown. After all that it, was an amazing experience to bring the fossils to life and see the "real animals" moving on the screen at last!
The team Research for a series like Walking with Beasts needed specialist skills, and each of the team had a different area of expertise.
Paul Chambers has a degree in geology from the University of Portsmouth(UK), and a MSc and PhD in palaeontology from University College London. He has worked at the London Natural History Museum but more recently has been working as a writer and scientific advisor. He lives in London.
Alex Freeman did a degree in zoology at New College, Oxford University, where she undertook research on reconstructing animals from their fossils, and made some early attempts at using computers for 3D modelling of fossils. She then did a doctorate in animal behaviour and evolution at Linacre College, Oxford University, before becoming a researcher for science and natural history films.