Creature feature

Creature feature

British wildlife documentary veteran Neil Nightingale tells us about revisiting the prehistoric era in his big-budget new film, Walking with Dinosaurs 3D

By Adam Zacharias (

Published: Tue 17 Dec 2013, 2:50 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 4:57 PM

NEIL NIGHTINGALE IS looking to introduce a whole new generation to the majesty of the dinosaur world with his new $85 million movie.

Walking with Dinosaurs 3D, based on the 1999 BBC documentary series of the same name, uses CGI dinosaurs against real-life landscapes. The storyline is set in Alaska 70 million years ago and follows a migrating Pachyrhinosaurus family, as well as the ensuing challenges the creatures encounter in a dangerous prehistoric world. Among the voice cast are Hollywood actors John Leguizamo (Moulin Rouge) and Justin Long (Live Free or Die Hard).

Neil, who co-directed the film with American animation specialist Barry Cook, is a longtime BBC wildlife documentary producer – working on projects such as The Private Life of Plants (1995), Wild Africa (2001) and The Meerkats (2008).

We spoke with Neil as part of the Dubai International Film Festival, where the movie screened shortly before the fest’s 2013 edition closed for another year.

You’re a veteran in the field of documentary making. How different an experience was it blending fact and fiction for walking with dinosaurs?

Very different, because when people come to the cinema they expect to be entertained. If I had one ambition when I started this movie, it was to get people to fall in love with dinosaurs, particularly children. And there’s nothing like a movie, especially in 3D, to feel like you’re being taken back in time. I think we’ve created something absolutely unique that’s inspired by everything we know about dinosaurs.

How did you approach telling a story about creatures which have been extinct for such a long time?

Creatively, the great thing about dinosaurs is that the science is a bit like forensic science. When you go to a murder scene, it might be a day or two old, but here you have a scene that’s 70 million years old. A lot of the clues are missing, which leaves a fantastic creative space to tell a story.

Surely, of all the things that could be presented in the 3D format, there are fewer cooler things than dinosaurs jumping out at you.

We thought hard about this. It’s like going back in a time machine to a real prehistoric world and immersing you into it. And there’s nothing like 3D to give you that extra sense of realism with these fabulous creatures.

What was your first experience of dinosaurs as a child?

I’ve been interested in nature since I was four, and I remember seeing the big diplodocus in the Natural History Museum. But the first time I realised just how special dinosaurs were was actually quite late in life. The very first television documentary that I directed and produced was a series with David Attenborough called Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives (1989). It was all about fossils, and one programme was about dinosaurs. That meant I travelled the world to the best dinosaur finds in Africa and America and Europe. And it was a time of the great explosion in dinosaur research, when we realised they weren’t just scary monsters, but they had parental care and were actually quite sophisticated.

How, as co-director, did you blend the real background with the computer animation?

We filmed backgrounds in southern Alaska and the south islands of New Zealand. We wanted to film a real environment to give the idea of what cretaceous Alaska was like, but of course we were directing every shot without any actors! The dinosaurs were being created in the graphics studios, but it was a feat to imagine these dinosaurs behaving in front of us. We found a very simple trick actually: we made little wooden models for the babies and for the bigger dinosaurs we used drainpipes to create a sense of scale. As a director, it was a magical moment when we finally put the backgrounds and the animation together.

And how did you provide the dinosaurs with distinct personalities?

We built the dinosaurs from the fossils upwards, but in terms of expressivity we wanted them to be real animals. Of course, no one knows what dinosaurs were like in that way, but we used our knowledge of modern animal behaviour and how they express happiness, fear and so on. We used those little tilts of the head and body movements to help understand the emotions of the dinosaurs. We put a huge amount of effort into that.

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