February 2023

Behind the scenes: Channel 5's Dinosaur - with Stephen Fry

Behind the scenes: Channel 5's Dinosaur - with Stephen Fry

‘Dinosaurs – with Stephen Fry’ is described by its broadcaster Channel 5 as a landmark documentary series that chronicles the creatures' 165 million years on earth – from the dawn of the dinosaurs to their extinction.

For once, this is a series that really does live up to its ‘landmark’ billing. ‘Dinosaur – with Stephen Fry’ represents a revolution in documentary making. Produced by independent TV production company Mentorn Media and created by the virtual studios team at dock10, the series has drawn on cutting edge technology used in high-end video games to create incredibly lifelike, animated dinosaurs that Stephen Fry can interact with in a TV studio in real time.

The real time element of ‘Dinosaur – with Stephen Fry’ is what makes the series stand apart. Traditional documentaries or films about dinosaurs add impressive VFX creatures in during the post-production stage, which can make for a time-consuming, resource-heavy and costly process.

For this series, dock10 used games industry animation tool Unreal Engine 4 to create all the dinosaurs and their pre-historic environments, in consultation with professional palaeontologists, before filming began.

The documentary was then produced inside a green screen studio, HQ3, at dock10, with the interaction between the dinosaurs and Stephen captured live and in real time. Stephen could then review each scene in full on a monitor straight after it was filmed, seeing his performance with the virtual dinosaurs. He could then adjust his performance, if necessary, rather than the production team having to ‘fix it in post’ at great cost.

"It's a much more accessible, cost-effective way of making a programme with virtual creatures and environments," says dock10's head of production innovation Richard Wormwell, who has led the studio's adoption of ground-breaking virtual production techniques.

Building prehistoric environments

dock10 has quickly established a reputation in the TV industry as a pioneer in virtual studios. Its creative teams have helped to produce many programmes that feature impressive virtual sets, including UEFA EURO 2020, Match of the Day and BBC Bitesize.

All this expertise has been applied to ‘Dinosaur – with Stephen Fry’, the first documentary to be made at dock10 using virtual production techniques.

Until then, dock10 had built impressive virtual sets that recreated traditional studio environments, ‘Dinosaur - with Stephen Fry’ took the virtual studio technology in a completely different direction and saw dock10 recreate five virtual pre-historic environments from the jungles of the Jurassic through to the plains of the Cretaceous periods.

Each of the virtual spaces were three dimensional and huge, stretching for over 30 miles, and built at a one-to-one scale – so that everything was to scale when Stephen and the dinosaurs joined the environment.

Creating the dinosaurs

dock10's team also built seven species of dinosaur for the series, from the diplodocus to the T-rex, working closely with expert palaeontologists for advice. "We went into great detail," recalls Richard, explaining that the team would consult on how wide apart a dinosaur's nostrils should be or how many scales it would have on the back of its neck. "There were many rounds of feedback...we just kept on refining and refining."

The dinosaur models were first built in Maya, then imported into Unreal Engine which has the capabilities to create impressive hair, feather and scale details for the different dinosaur skins featured, as well as lighting capabilities to make each one look photorealistic.

Once they had been approved, skeletal rigs were built. These provided the bone structures for each dinosaur to be animated. Seven ‘idle animations’ were created for each dinosaur – showing them walking, grazing, breathing or maybe roaring. Then dock10 created ‘signature’ animations, like a T-rex trapping its prey, a diplodocus laying an egg or a pair of rutting triceratops.

dock10 also began animating the pre-historic environments, introducing moving clouds or rustling trees and the odd pterodactyl. "We wanted the environments to breath and feel alive rather than look like an oil painting," says Richard.

Andy Elliott, lead virtual studio developer at dock10, oversaw the creation of all the digital content for the series, having previously worked in games industry on many AAA titles.

As an example of the accuracy that the series strove to achieve, he recalls being called down to the studio on the final day of recording to be shown what looked like an orange flower in the virtual grass. "There were no flowering plants in the late Jurassic period," says Andy. "So, I quickly checked - it was actually an orange dead leaf, not a flower. That was the level of accuracy we aspired to."

A team effort

dock10 had a core team of seven people working on the series but supplemented them with a further 30 artists, animators and visual effects artists from 18 locations around the world, from Australia and Brazil through to the Dominican Republic, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam.

dock10 production development producer Hannah Robinson's role was to keep the production process on track, working to coordinate deadlines and briefs with Mentorn, the researchers and palaeontologists, and the artists, animators and visual effects artists.

"Trying to co-ordinate time zones was a big part of my job," recalls Hannah. "There were some days we were finishing about 10 or 11 o'clock at night, just so we could brief the artists for the start of their day as we were going to bed."

Two weeks before filming began in the studio, a team of four virtual studio operators began placing individual animations of dinosaurs in their virtual environments. Over 300 individual animations were placed in multiple locations and shown to the editorial team for approval before filming started in the studio.

Virtual studio operator Tom Daley describes the job as akin to playing God in a virtual environment - controlling all the animals, making the trees move in the wind and ripples appear on the lakes.

"I could change the sky or the position of the sun or add meteors. Essentially, I was in charge, of animating the virtual world to make it like a real world," says Tom.

Filming in the studio

By the time Stephen was ready to join the production, dock10 had prepared and pre-programmed hundreds of sequences of dinosaurs interacting with their environment. "We could load up, say, the late Cretaceous period with a T-rex by the lake and run it as a sequence," says Richard.

Each scene would first be rehearsed, with a floor manager standing in for Stephen on the green screen stage, while Stephen himself watched on the monitor to see how the scene would play out. When Stephen took his place on the set, green balls on the end of sticks would represent the dinosaur's heads, so he knew exactly where to look while presenting.

Unreal Engine allowed dock10 to place Stephen right in the middle of the environment, with the dinosaurs able to run in front of or behind him while he informed audiences about each one, revealing interesting specialist factual content along the way. Experts were also able to step into this photorealistic environment, tracking down dinosaurs across the landscape to reveal the secrets of the prehistoric world.

"We tried to include a lot of foreground elements, such as trees and ferns, so that it looked like Stephen was fully immersed in the environment," says Richard. The camera operators could also zoom into specific details, or give it a handheld feel, to make it seem more like a nature documentary.

dock10's HQ3 studio is approximately 4,800sq ft – a big space for a virtual production. This allowed Stephen to walk the full length of a dinosaur and for the production team to film big, sweeping jib shots. The dock10 team also developed a ‘flying camera’ technique, which delivered the virtual equivalent of dynamic drone shots that showed off the scale of the prehistoric environment.

"Working with Stephen was a joy," says Richard. "He has a real passion for dinosaurs, knows the subject matter inside out and is an incredible presenting talent. He made the whole thing very easy for us.

Tech challenges

The other key technologies employed in ‘Dinosaur – with Stephen Fry’ were Reality Engine from Zero Density, which allowed for real-time broadcast compositing of the images. Also crucial was Mo-Sys' real-time optical camera tracking system StarTracker, which helped to accurately match what is seen in both the real and virtual worlds.

During the production itself, the virtual studio operators would check the keying and masking, and work alongside the lighting director to make sure that Stephen and the other presenters fitted seamlessly alongside the virtual elements.

Stephen was in the studio for a week interviewing palaeontologists and presenting his pieces to camera; another two days were spent recording pick up shots.

Richard says there is a "definite art" to a virtual production like ‘Dinosaur – with Stephen Fry.’ "You have got to be quite selective with your shots: some look amazing, but others can look a bit CG. But because we are shooting multi-camera, there are options."

Looking ahead

Richard thinks the possibilities of virtual studios for documentaries through to light entertainment shows are "endless", especially with the recent release of Unreal Engine 5. "The quality is going to get better and better."

Until now, LED volume stages used by the likes of ‘The Mandalorian’ have grabbed most of the headlines around virtual production, but they work best for single camera shoots like dramas, films or commercials.

By comparison, virtual studios like those offered by dock10 allow for multi-camera shoots, using game engines, camera tracking technology and green screens to place presenters in virtual environments that can be manipulated in real-time.

"The sky's the limit," says Richard. "The more that production companies realise the opportunities that virtual studios provide, the more we can explore their amazing creative possibilities."