Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Planet Dinosaur, episode one - review

After almost comical hype (including featuring as an item in the Six O'Clock News), the Beeb's latest dino-fest is finally here. Planet Dinosaur is the other great CG dinosaur documentary event of the year, alongside Dinosaur Revolution (which David has already written about), although it is more in the Walking With Dinosaurs mould. It looks expensive. It features John Hurt's dulcet tones. And it's somewhat flawed. Looks like we're going to have to wait a bit longer for that dream CG dinosaur show.

(Above: the Planet Dinosaur Spinosaurus. Copyright the BBC, used with the assumption that it'll probably be alright, guv.)

Of course, there was much to commend here. For one thing, most of the speculation about the behaviour of the animals was backed up with fossil evidence, whether it was spinosaurs attacking pterosaurs or intraspecific competition in large theropods (although the assertion that such fighting was "likely territorial" was a spurious one). The animals looked pretty good for the most part, with the head of the show's star Spinosaurus being the closest that any CG documentary has yet come to the real thing, while Rugops had appropriately ridiculous, atrophied and largely immobile forelimbs.

That's the thing though - the forelimbs. Oh, theropod forelimbs, why must you trip people up so? For the most part in Planet Dinosaur they just look suspicously...human, but the pedantic dino-nerd is at least kept sated by the fact that the animals aren't adopting the classically erroneous bunny-hands posture. But then - gah! - the Spinosaurus does just that while attacking a sawfish. Shame.

At a more fundamental level, there's the animation. Say what you like about Jurassic Park 3 and that fight sequence, but at least you were left in no doubt there that the creatures smacking each other about were big. Here, while we're repeatedly told that Spinosaurus and its adversary Carcharodontosaurus were bloody enormous, the animation gives little impression of this. There's just no weight shifting, no sense of all that tonnage being smacked around. In fact all of the animals in Planet Dinosaur look unconvincing in this respect.

Still, at least the animals' behaviours were pretty convincing and, as I said before, frequently backed up with fossil evidence (although namedropping some of the palaeontologists involved in the research would've been nice). When Carcharodontosaurus was depicted hunting ornithopods in a forest, it didn't run out in full view, roaring and firing pistols into the air, unlike so many dino documentaries. When it tackled its prey, the show didn't skimp on the cruelty as the quarry hobbled away, bleeding copiously. Equally, Spinosaurus was depicted partaking in pleasingly plausible heron or grizzly-like fishing behaviour rather than tossing fully-grown Rugops about (as in certain other shows I won't care to mention).

Rugops did feature, however, and was described as having "weak jaws" and therefore being a "natural-born scavenger". Groan...

Oh, and that ornithopod? Well, that was Ouranosaurus, who must be too old for this shit. And I mean that literally, as Ouranosaurus lived millions of years before any of the other animals in the show. Well, bugger.

There we have it then - a mixed bag, with apologies for the cliché. Some good points - like including actual science in a dinosaur show! - and quite a few bad ones. I'm still looking forward to future episodes, which promise us properly winged dromaeosaurs if nothing else. If you've seen the show and think I've been too harsh (which I probably have), then do drop a comment.


  1. Hi!

    I'm looking from some place to see this series, can you tell me any?



  2. @Luis: It's broadcast on BBC1 every Wednesday at 8.30, and available to Brits afterwards on BBC's iPlayer. As for internationally, I'm not aware of any other legal way of seeing it...

  3. I agree on all points -- though nuanced towards the lenient side, as is of course my wont. ;)

    Although that error about Ouranosaurus is surprising, given its consistent provision of evidence (which I really enjoyed).

    I agree too about some of the animation, which is rather a shame. The animals themselves do look very beautifully rendered for the most part. I think the one real concern I have for now is the emphasis on the 'killer' aspects. I'm not so sure about the dramatic relish with which the camera is often be-spattered with blood either. But I do hand it over to them for managing to not make a Fight Club out of it all the same.

    There is more to like than dislike for me though, and I enjoyed it. Also: John Hurt as narrator = win.

  4. Too bad the primaries on said winged dromaeosaurs are attached to digit III and not digit II and the secondaries extend back towards the body past the end of the ulna...

    I have yet to see this episode, though I will shortly.

  5. Hi there, Marc,

    As the Co-writer of this episode and director of all the scientific 'motion graphics' sections of the series, I wanted to write and comment on a couple of things.

    First of all, thanks very much for taking the time to watch the show and write a review - Glad to hear that you enjoyed it. despite your misgivings about forelimbs and weak jaws!

    To be completely open about our intentions when writing this series, we wanted to produce an engaging dinosaur show where nothing was shown that wasn't reasonably backed up by fossils. So every piece of drama has been extrapolated from robust fossil evidence. And as far as the biomechanics and morphology of the animals goes, we sought the most up to date and comprehensive paleontological sources at every turn to build dinosaurs that felt as real as possible.

    Whilst the models and movements of our dinosaurs won't satisfy everyone, I can assure you that many, many experts were consulted and a huge amount of work went into them (including the forelimbs) and I think that you'd be hard pressed to find better rendered or more accurate dinosaurs anywhere else on television.

    As far as Ouranosaurus goes - Well... Whilst the holotype of Ouranosaurus was found in beds several million years older than Spinosaurus, Iguanodontid footprints have been been found in the Kem Kem beds in Morocco, which was the fauna that we based this episode on. But this raises a fundamental problem with making stories based on fossils - Inevitably, any fossil baring horizon will only give you a partial picture of the animals that one might reasonably expect were there - you will never get a full picture. Strict adherence to even the best preserved environments will always be a distortion of sorts. As programme makers, the best we can hope for is to listen to the experts, be open and honest about our sources and make our best guess in a dramatic and entertaining context. Which is exactly what we've done on this show. We've depicted a cretaceous North African fauna, as a fascinating and complex environment with all its ecological niches and environmental pressures, in a way that - I hope - people have enjoyed.

    Anyway, I'll wrap this up... Glad that you liked the show. Sorry you didn't enjoy Spino's forelimbs, but our reconstruction was based on a LOT of expert advice, which can certainly diverge a little, especially on dinosaurs with as little post cranial material as Spino.

    So, anyway - toodle pip, take care and all the best,


  6. @Tommo: Thanks for taking the time to comment. As I said, that you backed up the assertions about dinosaur behaviour using fossil evidence was definitely my favourite aspect of the show (as hopefully I made clear in the review, mentioning it twice!).

    I'm glad to hear that you consulted with experts as much as possible. Regarding the Spinosaurus forelimbs, of course they are unknown. However, no theropod dinosaur yet discovered was able to rotate its forearm in the manner that humans do (pronation) so that the palms of the hands faced the ground. In order to achieve this, the animal would had to have splayed its entire limb.

    I must confess though that this is a minor nitpick (just a particular chip on my shoulder concerning previous docus) and doesn't detract too much from the show.

    I stand by my comments about problems conveying the animals' size and weight, but you're right in that there certainly hasn't been a better portrayal of these animals yet on television.

    Toodle pip!

  7. Thanks.
    Well I'm Portuguese so I will wait until this series comes to Portugal ... I really hope that comes here, it looks awesome.

  8. I thought the show was fantastic. All of the fossil evidence shown was a welcomed part. I especially love how it shows how much of each dinosaur has been found. That has always been a fascinating thing for me.
    I agree that the weight of these animals is iffy at times and the shakey-cam helps to hide this very well, but I didn't see any of the horrible mistakes with CG that I saw in the Dinosaur Revolution Doc.
    That being said, I was sad that most of the backgrounds were built with CG rather than live footage, but I suppose that's necessary at times to recreate an extinct environment.
    overall I found this episode to be great. These really are some of the best CG dinosaurs on screen. I'm so glad that someone out there isn't going to settle for the shoddy CG of so many TV shows.

  9. Marc is 100% right about the forelimbs. There is no conflict in expert opinion on this matter. Theropods simply couldn't do that. It is a beginner error, and one I had hoped the BBC would correct.

    Of the show itself, I felt the diagramatic visuals were excellently produced in representing the information. As a result I felt it was vastly more informative than other shows of this nature. The other main complaint I had with the animated segments was the jittery and constantly shifting camera moves.

  10. Saw it. Very impressed, to the point that I'd happily call it my favorite paleo doc yet. Citing actual fossil finds was so great, giving context to the animation. I loved the use of the vernacular "spinosaur" to refer to the big guy and other relatives. I think the idea of "tribes" of related dinos is a concept that the general public can grasp and profit from. The few complaints against it definitely do not take away from its quality, that's for sure. I'm with Niroot - more to like than dislike. And fucking John Hurt!

    Dino Planet makes great strides toward what I'd like to see, greater "transparency," but I think that it could still be pushed further. For instance, instead of saying Rugops was an obligate scavenger, just say that it's one view with certain evidence to support it, and that's what influenced this particular reconstruction. Nothing wrong with that. No need to pretend to be presenting the definitive window into the Mesozoic.

    Seeing it in stark relief to Dino Revo makes clear the difference between a project that was conceived as a doc from the get-go, and one that was shoehorned into doc format because some idiot execs got a tummy ache.

    Let's put it this way: I'm way into this stuff, and I came away from Dinosaur Planet with a better understanding of what I know, and new knowledge to boot. That's how I know it's successful. Can't wait for the next installments.

  11. I watched this first and then the final episode of Dinosaur Revolution. Although I was let down by both, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them back to back. They sort of complemented each other for me.

    And for the first time in years, I actually learned some stuff from a dinosaur TV show! But as interesting the science segments were, they were frustratingly frequent, and took me out of what little story there was to be told. This wouldn't have been as irritating if the episode itself was longer, or if they were gathered together as some kind of "Evidence segment" at the end of the episode. Since this way, the episode had a very little entertainment value for me.

    There were a few stylistic choices (at least I presume they are) I didn't get either. Every other shot had me thinking "Who would place the camera there?" Many sequences seemed to have lacked a defined flow, and the lack of the motion blur effect and the choppy, sped-up movements of the dinos during the fights was hard on my eyes. What was that about, anyway? Why not show them in normal speed?

  12. I think you summed it up beautifully in your last paragraph, David.

  13. Kinda unrelated, but kinda related.
    Here, and on dinosaur toy blog and a couple other places, I see over and over again, "Oh noes teh bunny hands!" but I never see anything about the "right" way for a dino to have its hands.

    As an aspiring artist, I'd prefer if I could draw things at least mostly correct, but I cannot seem to find any info about this. Just lamentations of how its done wrong.

    Does anyone have any links to articles about this, OR even better, could you guys do a blog post about proper dinosaur hand etiquette?

  14. @Yotebeth - We've never done a comprehensive takedown here, but we've talked about it a bit. Dave Hone of Archosaur Musings put it most memorably - they should be "clappers," not "slappers" ( Maybe I'll round up a good list of links about this, but I ain't got the time at the moment!

  15. I think if we could get the artistry of Dinosaur Revolution and the accuracy of Planet Dinosaur we would be so much closer to perfection.

    To me a lot of the animation seemed a little unfinished the animals were too clean, smooth and light reflective. I agree that they didn't flex and wobble as nicely as WWD.

    One thing I really appreciated about Revolution was the smoothness of motion they give their animals, these dino's felt like they were stomping emphatically as they moved.
    Also the Ouranosaurus had a cow jaw wobble, a minor thing, but I thought they couldn't wiggle their jaws side to side like us mammals can. And where you could have seen jaw muscles bulging as they chewed you got sunken in holes instead (another minor detail, but one of my pet peeves).

    Otherwise I loved the basic story told and the way the evidence was knitted into the narrative, without the gratuitous "look at the paleontologist sitting in a fake lab" breaks. It kept the story progressing and it was wonderful to see the actual fossils in question highlighted!

  16. To add to the theropod manus reconstruction and use discussion I just want to point out that it's completely rediculous to suggest that Spinosaurs were using their claws to tear off chunks of meat. No extant predator uses its claws to carve up the carcass. Claws are used to grip the prey while the teeth and jaws rip it apart/slice off chunks of meat. If ancient theropods behaved anything like their extant relatives (birds and crocs) then they likely swallowed things whole or in HUGE disgusting chunks. They didn't pick at it like a picky third grader and leave partial carcasses lying around. That's just silly! They had those huge heads and extensible throat pouches (in the case of tyrannosaurs and all extant theropods and crococdilians) for a reason: BIG bites!!!! Stop animating theropods taking mincy little nibbles!!!!! its soooo laaaaaaame and totally WRONG!

    Also, I'm bothered less by the pronation than the reconstruction of the spinosaurs arms. So they messed up the movement, but at least get the proportions and shape right. If spinos had arms anything like its relatives it had really robust arms and thick broad claws, and the arms were likely about 25% shorter than the long gracile raptor arms they put on their spino. Again, they were likely gripping prey between their hands and twisting big nasty bites off of it with the shorter more robust teeth toward the back of the skull, something like what modern crocs do with the help of other crocs and tree roots.

  17. And maybe I'm trolling, but here's a quick list of other stuff that is pretty certainly inaccurate that I noticed while I watched:

    -ouranosaur skin texture is wrong. There are a number of skin impressions of ornithschian dinosaurs and they all have pebbly scaly skin, not smooth leathery skin.

    -Tails not thick enough on either theropods or ornithopods. Extant reptiles and mummified dinosaurs have shown us that the caudofemoralis is mighty. beefy. thick.

    -sawfish migrating into fresh water to breed - the saw fish of the kem kem lived pretty far from the ocean and their teeth are more abundant than any other vertebrate fossil in that formation. It is more likely that they were permanent fresh water inhabitants... just like modern freshwater sawfish...

    -spinosaurus walking up to and biting a small ouranosaurus seems like an unlikely feeding strategy for a theropod perfectly designed to lurk in a body of water like a crocodile. IF spinosaurs even bothered with eating dinosaurs.

    -none of the crocs behave like actual crocs. Big crocs don't act all hyper and hissy and jumpy. They sit there and stand their ground because they know nothing can mess with them. Only when Steve Irwin pulls their tail do they lunge around like "wtf mate?". Little crocs on the other hand don't face down big dangerous animals (like spinosaurus) they haul ass into the water and disappear.

    -pterosaurs had hair.

    -When predators charge a potential prey item they don't roar. That would scare the prey away.

    -I don't think Spinosaurus would've won against a large Charcarodontosaur. Charcaros made their living by murdering other dinosaurs. Spinos made their living by snagging passing fish. Also Spinosaurs had a great big sail on their back that may have reduced combat between Spinosaurs by providing a big showy display. Charcaros likely duked it out for mates and food.

    Much respect to Tom for defending his work, and certainly the motion graphics segments are all really well designed and informational, but the creatures featured leave something to be desired, both in the reconstructions and their behavior. The behavior is a lot better than Dino Revolution (which borders on cartoonish at times), but some of the modeling and lighting in Dino Rev is downright beautiful. Anyway, Tom if you're reading this, we're only taking the time to discuss and critique because we love this stuff and we all want to see paleo docs continue to evolve.

  18. Saw the first episode and I have to say, pretty much, without a doubt this is the best dinosaur related documentary since WWD. The CGI is beautiful, both on dinosaurs and environment, the science is perfectly attached to the "story" and best of all it's good science. I actually learnt something with it!

    In short: great! Although it maybe lacks ten to fifteen minutes in order to flesh out more the space and time that is telling about.

  19. Gosh, laughed my ass out at the "shows I won't care to mantion". Just watched *It* some days ago, and it was frankly hilarious.

    I haven't watched Planet yet, but that still of spino really made me more curious than suspicious.

    You look grumpy and fun. Loved the blog. A fucking new vice, you provided me.

  20. Good show, best I've seen sofar. But...

    Although I'm not too much bothered about *much* of the science, there is one major exception: the "natural born scavenger" bit, because of the suggestion that a) a huge obligate scavenger is an energetic possibility, b) you can divide predators into 'pure killers' and 'pure scavengers' and c) scavenging is something for which 'weak jaws' are perfect. These misconceptions have been around for far too long by now.

  21. @Ilja Nieuwland: That bothered me too (hence the mention in the review).

  22. @Marc Vincent

    After having watched PD episode 1 myself, I have to disagree w/you about the Spino: AFAICT, its palms were facing down only when its elbows were pointing out (Like this: ).


    I don't see what's wrong w/the Spino being picky, given that grizzly bears are the same way when there's plenty to eat ( ). Also, as you can see in the following vid (Pause at 8:20), the pterosaurs were definitely hairy. Those are the main things that stuck out in your comments (although there are probably others).

  23. Hadiaz, although I'm all for looking at modern analogues, I don't think grizzly bears are the best to look at when imagining Spinosaurs. Bears are extremely smart and very dextrous and they have to quickly put on weight for icy winters. Spinosaurs were not likely so smart, nor as dextrous, and probably never had to hibernate.

    Also, as far as I know, there really isn't any precedent in modern carnivorous archosaurs for being picky or selective about which parts of the prey item are consumed. Reptiles and birds have amazingly powerful and efficient digestive systems, and many are capable of digesting even hair, horn and bone. If anybody can provide examples to the contrary please share. For now, check this out (crocs are so cool!):

    as for the pterosaurs, i couldn't see the hair on youtube... that's on me.

  24. @Historian

    "Bears are extremely smart and very dextrous and they have to quickly put on weight for icy winters. Spinosaurs were not likely so smart, nor as dextrous, and probably never had to hibernate."

    "Bears aren't true hibernators" ( ).

    "If anybody can provide examples to the contrary please share."

    Raptors ( ).

    "For now, check this out (crocs are so cool!):"

    As indicated by this "Evolve" episode (See 8:36), large theropods were more like birds than crocs digestion-wise:

    Looking back at your previous posts, there are other things that stick out.

    "There are a number of skin impressions of ornithschian dinosaurs and they all have pebbly scaly skin, not smooth leathery skin."

    "Hadrosaurids appear to have had rather thin, leathery skin" ( ).

    "Little crocs on the other hand don't face down big dangerous animals (like spinosaurus) they haul ass into the water and disappear."

    The little croc (probably female) did "haul ass into the water and disappear" the 1st time. It probably didn't do so the 2nd time b/c it knew the big croc (probably male) had its back. Also, as indicated by this "Croc Files" episode, big crocs do "act all hyper and hissy and jumpy" when they're defending their territory or mate, which was probably the case in PD:

  25. ...both that 'Evolve' episode about T-rex's eating habits, and the Wikipedia article about plucking posts actually support my position that theropods take/took big nasty bites and/or often swallow their prey whole. Although modern raptors pluck avian prey (which have unusually voluminous integument) modern birds that eat fish (like spinosaurs) tend to eat the whole prey, scales, guts, bones and all. Also, more specific to a spinosaur eating a sawfish, what part of a shark would a spinosaur NOT want to eat? Sharks are packed with muscle, their body cavity is mostly filled by a HUGE nutritious liver, and their skeleton is mostly cartilaginous!

    As for the hadrosaur skin, there's no point in debating wording. Here is an actual hadrosaur skin impression:
    Even if you choose to describe that^ as 'leathery' (which I wouldn't) I don't think it looks anything like the weird plasticky texture they gave their Ouranosaurs.

    And with regards to the crocs, your rebuttal to my argument is ill-founded in three ways:
    1) the crocs depicted in PD were two different species, and thus wouldn't have been mates.
    2) even 'Monty' at his grumpiest doesn't act anything like those weird fake crocs in PD. Sorry if I worded my criticism poorly. But crocs just don't move or behave the way they were animated in PD.
    3) Monty has 'just reached big bloke status' (Steve; 8:50) So he really isn't that large of a croc, especially by sarcosuchus standards.

    Also, for the record, I'm not arguing these points to detract from your enjoyment of Planet Dinosaur, nor to discredit you personally. I just really like thinking about and imagining prehistoric animals, and I think it's good for the development of the paleo doc genre if people point out obvious flaws (like wrong skin texture) and discuss the behavior of these animals.

  26. @Historian

    "1) the crocs depicted in PD were two different species, and thus wouldn't have been mates."

    Source? I haven't seen any complete species lists for PD & Sarchosuchus is the only croc species I've seen mentioned in reference to PD.

    "Also, for the record, I'm not arguing these points to detract from your enjoyment of Planet Dinosaur, nor to discredit you personally. I just really like thinking about and imagining prehistoric animals, and I think it's good for the development of the paleo doc genre if people point out obvious flaws (like wrong skin texture) and discuss the behavior of these animals."

    It's OK. I see our disagreements were more a matter of wording (I'm a literalist).

  27. There was a diversity of bizarre crocs at the time:

    Look at the different skull shapes. Although they don't mention it by name, they went to great lengths to create a different model for that croc. Notice that it lacks the distinctive narrow jaws and downward curving rostrum of Sarcosuchus.

  28. I have searched on the internet and every reconstruction of Rugops found has very small forelimbs and is said to be a scavenger, can you please source that there is evidence otherwise?

    1. Reconstructions aren't exactly evidence, and strong jaws aren't necessary for predators - perhaps Rugops preyed on smaller animals? It needn't have been bringing down huge animals to be a predator. Sereno seems to think it was a scavenger because of its lightly built skull, couldn't the opposite - a very heavily built skull - also serve a scavenger? Either way, we're in speculation territory.

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