Friday, November 19, 2010

An Inside Look at Reign of the Dinosaurs

RealScreen, a site dedicated to documentary filmmaking, currently features a story on Reign of the Dinosaurs, the Discovery Channel mega-blockbuster ratings monster scheduled to debut next year. It’s the first good look that we’ve had at the making of the series, so it’s well worth a read for anyone who's into dinosaurs.

I came away from the story with mixed feelings, the common attitude of "cautious optimism." In part, I'm excited; for instance, it will do away with narration, instead using three short interstitials per hour-long episode to provide scientific context. This is a sign that some sophisticated film-making techniques will be on display, and instills a sense of trust in the audience.

Erik Nelson, president of the project’s production company Creative Differences, invoked some pretty big names, including Avatar. “‘The best sequences in that film are the visual scenes where they take you into Pandora,' he offers, also citing the opening of Pixar's Up and the dialogue-free stretch of Wall-E as significant signposts.” While I haven’t seen Avatar, the portion of Wall-E the story mentions is one of my favorite pieces of animation, ever. A role model like that for a dinosaur documentary is exactly what I’d hope for.

Then again, I’m a little confused over another sequence in the preview shown to the audience at Comic-Con, in which a “mother dino comforts its young, but is distracted and annoyed by the noises of a smaller dinosaur off in the distance. The mother eventually bites the head off of the noisemaker, and the sequence ends with the headless dino running chicken-like, to and fro.”

My apologies to all involved, but this sounds stupid.

It brings to mind some less lofty examples of CGI, like Jar Jar Binks stepping in a bantha turd or Tom Cruise chasing after a runaway eyeball in Minority Report. I have absolutely nothing against slapstick done well. Done poorly, it’s brutal. In my opinion, the sequence as described is slapsticky to the detriment of the science. I’ll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here, but this is where I append the “cautious” modifier to my optimism. Werner Herzog liked it, though. So it has that going for it.

This story has stirred up some interesting questions for me, which I’ll be mulling over as I prepare to take part in the science and art discussion at ScienceOnline 2011. What are my expectations for a series like this? What should they be? In what ways do we apply humor to nature, and does it have a place in science communication or nature documentaries?

I don’t want to be an alarmist crank for the sake of it. That’s an aspect of the blogosphere that I find pretty annoying. Given the pedigree of the talent behind the series, especially that of director David Krentz, I’m still hopeful. I’m not averse to spectacle; after all, it’s a big reason we love dinosaurs. I’m happy to see the team trying new techniques to teach this stuff. We’ve had some very cool discoveries in the decade since Walking With Dinosaurs aired, and events like these are probably the best way to deliver the goods to people. I just hope they don’t stuff the package with a bunch of unnecessary crap.

Feel free to tell me how much of a sour-faced killjoy I am in the comments!


  1. I'm right with you on your points, David. I cannot wait to see the program, but I don't want to invest too much in it at this point.

    I do have to say that I've heard good things so far from some pretty reliable sources. So maybe I'm just a bit less "sour-faced" about it.

  2. I'm still optimistic, but that whole sequence with the headless dinosaur definitely raises some flags for me too. There are plenty of examples of well-done subtle and understated humor in nature documentaries to go by - no need for them to resort to that kind of slapstick. I agree about Wall-E, which helps keep my hopes up for this series.

  3. I'm so curious about that preview. Kind of surprised that more hasn't leaked - the writer talks about how the blogosphere didn't go crazy with criticism afterwards, but really there's been next to nothing written. and no leaked video! tight security, i guess.

  4. The headless chicken part sounds painful.
    We may need to relax and accept that it'll be beautiful visually but make sacrifices of scientific accuracy on the altar of pop storytelling.
    Of course, it won't be sold that way.
    Fingers crossed that it'll satisfy on all levels, but that's a hard thing to do.


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