How to Bring Back a Mammoth

For Netflix’s Life on Our Planet, cinematographer Jamie McPherson had to capture action that simply wasn’t there.

In the eighth episode, titled “Age of Ice and Fire,” McPherson framed this shot of cave lions facing off against woolly mammoths. Some creatures from the series went extinct millions or even hundreds of years ago, but not the woolly mammoth — they went extinct 12,000 years ago.   

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“They’re essentially elephants and lions, so we have a sense of how they move,” explains the DP, who notes that VFX supervisor Jonathan Privett of Industrial Light & Magic supplied him with early mockups of how these long-gone creatures would interact. “We do walk and run cycles, so you can get a feel for how fast a mammoth walks,” notes Privett, who used studies of the animals’ modern evolutionary descendants to understand these ancient beasts.

Since all that remains are their bones, Privett’s team reconstructed the skeletal forms digitally before adding textured fur and facial expressions.

“There’s actually a skeleton in there,” he says, which is the first step in crafting realistic portrayals of the lions and mammoths. While nature docs usually capture wildlife in their native habitat, Life on Our Planet had to reimagine — and stage — the action.

“The basis is an amazing interaction we would hope to film in the wild with real creatures,” says McPherson. “Something absolutely fantastical happens, but we hope it’s still engaging, exciting and emotional for the audience.”

This story first appeared in a May standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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