In the beginning, there was Jurassic Park. Well, OK, that wasn’t the beginning; Jurassic Park was actually just one in a long line of movies that attempted to trick audiences into believing they were seeing living (non-avian) dinosaurs on the big screen. But as everyone knows, it did so in a way that no film had ever managed before. Much of that was due to advances in special effects technology, of course, but there was also a concerted attempt to look to nature and really make the dinosaurs feel like animals that inhabited our world, not just monsters. (To an extent, anyway.) The Jurassic Park creatures may have been modern-day clones interacting with humans in an artificial environment, but they felt like they slotted into the animal kingdom in a way that no other movie dinosaurs had quite managed.
The next step was obvious – make a lucrative sequel against Michael Crichton’s better judgment. Well, OK, that wasn’t the only next logical step; the technology also opened up a new opportunity to bring the long-vanished Mesozoic world to life. What if you could film dinosaurs as if you were creating some prestige, high-budget, Attenborough-narrated wildlife documentary? It was a thrilling new possibility. And so, six years after JP, Walking With Dinosaurs debuted on the BBC. It was a hit – but how well has it aged, 20 years on?
Better than you might think, as it happens. When reminiscing about the series, it’s easy to focus on the more dubious decisions that were made at the time, as well as the aspects that have simply been rendered outdated by subsequent advances in palaeontology. The blue whale-sized über-Liopleurodon, apparently based on some pretty wild extrapolations from fragmentary material, was very silly. The giant pterosaur that appears in the fourth episode, Giant of the Skies, was also based on an extreme interpretation of material that hadn’t yet been described (referred to in the show as “Ornithocheirus“, it actually represents the larger Tropeognathus).
Elsewhere, the show famously featured Dinomorph-compliant stiff-necked Diplodocus and an odd approach to feathering birdlike theropods. The Jurassic theropod Ornitholestes is described as being closely related to birds, and features some curious quills on its neck that it raises in display. The even more birdlike dromaeosaurs that feature in later episodes, however, are completely scaly. To be fair, this was very normal in the 1990s, and the look of the creatures was likely locked down long in advance. Still, it’s an odd inconsistency.
In spite of all this, when I watched the series again recently, I couldn’t help but be impressed by just how much the series got right, especially when compared with subsequent efforts. The CGI may have aged, but the animation of the animals remains superb in the main. My favourite creatures in the show are probably the allosaur-alikes (Allosaurus itself, the ‘polar allosaur’, and the Eustreptospondylus that was blatantly based on the same model), and that’s entirely down to the way they’re animated. As they walk, their carefully planted steps are fittingly birdlike, and the animals keep their heads level even as their bodies shift. When a polar allosaur cautiously approaches a carcass guarded by a rival, it lowers its head and maintains its gaze (and doesn’t start roaring like a lunatic). When stalking prey, they’ll remain silent, tread carefully and make small head movements, as if trying to locate a sound or scent. All these little nuances add up to thoroughly believable characters.
It’s also notable that as they walk, they hold their hands in the ‘correct’ neutral position. Although theropods do display more flexibility in their arms than we’d now consider accurate, a skulking allosaur is never shown with its forearms fully pronated and curled up into its chest, Predatory Dinosaurs of the World-style. There are odditites in some of the models (the Allosaurus‘ horns are over its eyes rather than in front of them, for some reason), but the overall approach in bringing them to life has to be applauded.
In fact, virtually all the large dinosaurs in the show move in a convincing fashion, like they’re carrying a lot of weight. Very, very many artists continue to get that wrong, and we end up with giant dinosaurs bouncing and jiggling around all over the place, as in various subsequent documentaries and the Jurassic World movies. Bouncy multi-tonne dinosaurs make no biomechanical sense. Much of the CGI in WWD might look a bit shiny and plasticky now, but it’s easier to suspend one’s disbelief when the animation is so good. When a brachiosaur strides onto the screen, the camera panning up as dramatic music swells, you really buy it.
Naturally, the dinosaurs follow a very sleek, 1990s aesthetic, and there’s little in the way of speculative flaps, pouches and spines such as we see in modern palaeoart. Nevertheless, they are convincingly fleshy, very rarely (if ever) egregiously shrinkwrapped, and mostly well-researched. This does mean that any missteps stick out a mile – like the Tyrannosaurus, which is simply horrible. Its head sits perched on the end of a weedy, saggy neck that looks like a wet sock. It’s also prone to roaring rather more than is necessary, but hey, gotta have that roaring, slavering Tyrannosaurus.
That’s not quite fair, mind. Yes, some dinosaurs are rather more vocal than seems likely, but WWD is obviously concerned with presenting dinosaurs in as naturalistic a light as possible. So, what we see on screen are mostly believable behaviours. There’s no anthromorphisation and very little sentimentality. We are invited to feel pity for the old Tropeognathus as it collapses from exhaustion while unsuccessfully trying to attract a mate, but in the next scene we see its corpse being cannibalised by younger animals, and are reminded that ‘nature wastes very little’. There’s no room for whimsy, here. If anything, the ultra-serious tone of Kenneth Branagh’s narration can get a bit cloying and montonous sometimes – there’s nothing wrong with a little brevity now and then. Fortunately, this was improved in the follow-ups.
One contentious aspect of WWD then and since is the way that it, out of necessity, presents speculative reconstructions and behaviours as ‘fact’. To point out what was based on fossil evidence, and what was based on informed speculation, in the middle of the show would break the whole conceit and the viewer’s immersion. As such, it never really bothered me – if you wanted more background on how and why certain decisions were made, there was always the supplementary material, like the Making Of documentary and the book Walking With Dinosaurs: The Evidence (written by David Martill and someone named Naish). However, I can understand the frustration among scientists at the main show being taken as an authoritative source, and many of its speculative floursishes (and dubious extrapolations) ended up being copied in other works. I think Planet Dinosaur reached a good compromise in this respect, and is a successful evolution of the WWD formula, carefully balancing crowd-pleasing life reconstructions with referrals to the evidence, and not breaking the pace of the show.
In addition, WWD brought about the proliferation of horrendously ugly CG dinosaurs in popular dinosaur books, as publishers chased that particular look with little regard to quality. Of course, one can hardly blame the show itself (or its makers) for being so influential, and WWD (which strove to be accurate and naturalistic) was at least a better source than Jurassic Park. In terms of its legacy, there were naturally many imitators, although very few came close to matching WWD‘s quality. It also spawned a veritable Walking With-verse of spin-offs, including a stage show and a film with beautifully designed animals but…problems. Many problems.
In my mind, the most significant follow-up to WWD is probably Dinosaurs in the Wild. Many of the same creatives were involved, including Tim Haines and the production company Impossible Pictures (who created WWD) and Crawley Creatures, who created the puppets and physical effects seen in the original series. Conceptually, it’s a step forward again in that it takes audiences into the documentary, to be surrounded by dinosaurs that are once again restored in as naturalistic a light as possible. As the science has moved on, so the appearance of the dinosaurs has evolved to reflect the current scientific consensus (and trends in palaeoart). And the T. rex looks great this time. It seems that Naish character might have been involved somewhere.
Sure enough, I remarked in my review of Dinosaurs in the Wild that the animation of the dinosaurs ‘just looked right’. What I’d forgotten then was just how much of that skill had been honed in making Walking With Dinosaurs. Even 20 years on, the latter can still be held up as an example of ‘doing it right’, and thanks to superlative location scouting and shooting (which I hadn’t even mentioned before now!), it still frequently looks gorgeous in spite of aged special effects. If it’s been a long time since you’ve seen it, go and give it a rewatch – it’s held up surprisingly well in spite of everything.
P.S. What about the music? Well, Rohan Long wrote an excellent guest post about that a couple of years ago. Go and read!
P.P.S. There was obviously so much more I could’ve written about WWD. I thought about posting a review of each episode but in the end, well, time. As it happens, Tim Haines is due to speak at TetZooCon next week, and I’ll be there – so I might well have more to say on this subject yet.