TV: Prehistoric Planet ‘can ignite the imagination for any viewer’

Adolescent Velociraptors <i>(Image: PA)</i>
Adolescent Velociraptors (Image: PA)

Prehistoric Planet should act as a “stark reminder that the world is a fragile place”, says producer Tim Walker.

Narrated by Sir David Attenborough and executive produced by Jon Favreau and Mike Gunton, the award-winning natural history series delighted viewers with its exploration of the Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, Triceratops, Dreadnoughtus and other species when it first aired last year.

Now, a year on, a new season – set to air over a week on Apple TV+ – offers audiences a second chance to travel back 66 million years in a bid to discover more dinosaurs and ancient habitats.

Expect the active volcanoes of India, the marshlands of Madagascar, the deep oceans near North America, and beyond.

It’s both educational and fascinating, begins Walker. “I think it’s really rather poignant that if we ignore the past, we don’t know what will be coming in the future,” he reasons.

“Making this type of series about long-lost animals proves to be a stark reminder that we’re just here, as any organism is just here, for a brief moment in time. The dinosaurs were around for over 150 million years of evolution, and then they suddenly were wiped out in a geological blink of an eye.

“We also know that interest in dinosaurs is universal. Everybody loves dinosaurs, especially when they’re kids, and it’s an entry level into finding out more about the natural world.

“So showing the prehistoric planet as if we’d filmed it for real – not just a fighting show, claws and jaws, bones and stones, but showcasing the incredible animals that lived alongside the dinosaurs and the landscapes – can ignite the imagination for any viewer.”

“It’s thought provoking, as Tim said,” mirrors Gunton, whose recent series include the record-breaking Planet Earth II, and animal behaviour series Dynasties.

“We are wildlife filmmakers, we love making films about wildlife, and what greater wildlife is there, what greater challenge, to try and tell stories about animals that are extinct?” he questions.

“We have created an experience and a representation that hopefully feels like they’re still around, or that we have been able to go back and be with them.

“The science behind it is all about asking questions, trying to understand, and using deductions to come up with theories. So it is an entertainment show, it’s primetime television, but it’s also quite scholarly. It’s a benchmark of what we understand about this world in 2023.”

The new episodes – complete with Sir David’s narration and an original score by Hans Zimmer – combine wildlife filmmaking with the latest palaeontology learnings and cutting-edge visual effects to unveil the Earth’s ancient inhabitants for a one-of-a-kind immersive experience.

It’s a chance to meet never-before-seen apex predators, such as the formidable Tarchia; the giant Mosasaurus, a 55ft aquatic lizard capable of accelerating through the water at incredible speeds; the Isisaurus; and airborne beasts such as the giraffe-sized Quetzalcoatlus.

“The ethos of the series is that we draw lines and evidence from many different quarters,” Gunton says of new discoveries. “A lot of it is actually from contemporary biology, understanding the rules of nature, the rules of life that apply today. And then using that as a telescope to look back in time.”

“We’ve got a very good relationship with the world of palaeontology; we have an embedded scientific consultant, but then we work with upwards of about 40 different consultants worldwide, and they’re all talking to each other, we’re talking to them…” Walker chimes.

“And whilst we’ve been making the series, we’ve incorporated new aspects of research that we knew were about to be published,” he reveals. “So for example, we introduced lips on many of our theropod dinosaurs, which four or five years ago wasn’t the done thing.”

“We’re privileged to have been swimming in this amazing sea of knowledge that the scientific community has given to us,” Gunton adds.

“A good metaphor for the project is that what you see on the screen is the tiny little tip of an iceberg, or tip of a pyramid. And it’s based on this absolutely insane amount of work and deduction. It’s absolutely remarkable.

“When I went to see David, to talk about this project, and another, one of the things that was said was, ‘How is the science going?’ So I thought I would take all the science that I have in my possession, which was two holdalls full of papers and documents. That’s the amount of information.”

“He’s not joking!” quips Walker. “We produced big books of material research for every animal, every environment, every storyline that we pursue. That’s why it takes so long.”

Add to that process the matchless CGI which enables audiences to experience the Cretaceous period like never before, and witness dinosaurs moving with a level of realism unseen in movies or on television.

The series paired the BBC Studios Natural History Unit with the Moving Picture Company’s visual effects team, which has worked on 3D animated movies, to make the series as authentic as possible.

“We work with John Favreau, he is the guru when it comes to this, and he has these wonderful cooking analogies…” shares Gunton. “So the secret sauce in this project is the people working on this who, from a production perspective, have spent cumulatively 500 years or so watching animals and filming them.

“So when you see something, you go, ‘That looks right’ or ‘That looks wrong’. You could argue it’s not a scientific filter, but it’s an incredibly good one. And that’s why the animals look so realistic, not just physically, but in every little movement, micro gestures that you only recognise if you’ve done it for a long time.”

As for the skeletons, they are created and rebuilt in a CGI world, Gunton says: “All the articulation, all the movement, and where the muscles attach, all are accurately created or joined, so to speak. So that when you press play for this creature to move, all these things are firing in a completely accurate way.”

Piqued your interest? As well as watching the small screen, fans can listen to the show’s companion podcast, suitably named Prehistoric Planet: The Official Podcast.

The four-parter sees Gunton dive into the making of the landmark series.

An in-depth interview with Favreau will feature, as will special guests including expert palaeontologists, animators and more, as they reveal the tools used to bring the magnificent habitats – and the creatures who roamed them – to life.

“The other thing that’s really important about this series, compared to the last, is at the end of each episode there is, joined on, a science explainer called Prehistoric Planet Uncovered,” concludes Gunton.

“It takes one story from the episode and then deconstructs the science behind how we were able to make it. Which is very satisfying for the audience, but also very satisfying for us.”

Prehistoric Planet is available on Apple TV+ from Monday May 22.