Tayte Simpson, the Executive Producer of  Mentorn and Channel 5’s Dinosaur with Stephen Fry, explains how the virtual studio event show came about.

How did you come up with the idea for this series?

The idea for the series came out of a discussion with Channel 5 about dinosaurs and how technology could be used to find a fresh approach to the subject.  We wanted to cover the story from the dawn of the dinosaurs through to their extinction, to reflect the latest research and to challenge some of the preconceptions and stereotypes. However, our main aim was to be able to immerse Stephen Fry in the world of the dinosaurs, to walk in their habitats, to interact with them and observe their behaviour.  We started looking into different virtual studio technologies and began working with Dock 10, who created a virtual Tokyo for the Olympics. The possibilities of the technology then fed into the development, and we refined the idea, so each programme focusses on an iconic dinosaur from the different eras.

How does this series differ from other documentaries in the prehistoric genre?

The main difference is the level of immersion for the presenter and the technology used to bring the dinosaurs to life and create the environments.  Other programmes that involve a presenter interacting with dinosaurs tend to rely on plate shots where the CGI is added in post after filming, which can be expensive and take a long time.  We used the ‘Unreal Engine’ software which works with virtual camera technology, so all the CGI environments and dinosaurs are generated in real time in the studio, which provides a lot more flexibility.

The technology is a key part of the series – what makes it so exceptional?

With Unreal Engine and the virtual camera technology, we are able to view all the animations in the studio in real-time.  We filmed inside a large green screen studio with four cameras all fitted with sensors that work a bit like augmented reality.  Each virtual world is a fully realised 360 environment and the dinosaurs have a variety of animations which we can cue them to perform.  This gives the technology two big advantages.  Firstly, it’s much easier for the crew and presenters whilst we are filming as they can see on monitors what the animations are doing and can react.  Secondly, because we can cue the animations over and over, and film them from different angles, we were able to create a lot of unique B-roll CGI content.  As a result, over half of the final programme is CGI animation which would have been prohibitively expensive if it was produced the traditional way in post.

What was it like working in a studio, against a green screen? Did you notice a difference from working on location?

We tried to film the studio material as if it was on location, similar to a wildlife documentary with a presenter.  A lot of the animation sequences, like a T-rex attacking a triceratops, were filmed using handheld cameras.   This gave us a lot of natural looking shots that you don’t normally get with CGI, like searching for focus and reframing.  However, the camera operators could only see the animations when they were looking through their viewfinders, if they looked up all they would see is the green screen studio, making it easy to get disorientated, so the crew took regular breaks.  Although the virtual world was massive with miles of forests and prairies, the crew was limited with the physical cameras moves by the size of the studio.  When tracking alongside a large walking diplodocus they would quickly run out of floor space.  However, with virtual green screen technology, when the camera gets to the end of the physical zoom, the virtual camera can keep going. We kept refining until we figured out the best way to successfully combine the physical and virtual spaces.

Dinosaur with Stephen Fry starts on Sunday 12th February at 7pm on Channel 5 & My5


Jon Creamer

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