Armed with assorted storyboards and importantly, two clips intended to tantalize the tough crowd, Nelson and the cast of top-flight animators and dinosaur artists that signed up to take part in creating the series wowed the audience with a presentation that not only highlighted the talent behind the project – more on that later – but also the sheer ballsiness of the series’ central idea. Reign of the Dinosaurs is intended to be a blockbuster, make no mistake. But in choosing to tell these fully-CGI animated stories steeped in the most recent scientific research without typical narration, the six-part series set to debut in 2011 might emerge as a game-changer not just for dino-centric programming but for factually-based TV as well.
“It was a premiere in front of one of the toughest audiences in the world that is not usually looking at Discovery Channel programming or any factual programming, and they just loved it,” explains Nelson months after Comic-Con, back into the thick of production on the series.
Had it gone differently – if the blogosphere exploded into rants of disgust and poisonous ridicule after the presentation – the results could have proved catastrophic. Thankfully, dino fans and other assorted geeks at Comic-Con officially anointed the series as one worth being very excited about indeed, serving as a second greenlight to a project with its origins reaching back to 2008. At that time, then-Discovery Channel president/GM John Ford approached prodcos with an RFP for the ultimate dinosaur series – one that would add to the legacy of Discovery dino programming established by the monster ratings success, Walking with Dinosaurs. Airing in the U.S. in 2000, the BBC/Discovery/Pro-Sieben/France 2/TV Asahi copro won Emmys for animation and visual effects and set an all-time U.S. cable ratings record, to be broken seven years later by Planet Earth. A new dino series would have pretty big footprints to fill.
Pitching their take on a character-driven, cinematic series with 36 four-to-eight minute short stories animated in state-of-the-art CGI, Nelson and Creative Differences got the nod to proceed that November. But the deal had still not been completely finalized by the time Clark Bunting replaced Ford as Discovery Channel head in late 2009.
“Animation is expensive and time-consuming so I went out to visit Erik in Los Angeles with the intention of killing the project,” admits Bunting with a laugh. But after meeting with Nelson and some of the paleontologists he’d brought on board and seeing a presentation, Bunting fully committed to Reign.
“I truly believe that this will reset the bar that Walking with Dinosaurs established all those years ago,” he enthuses. “It’s that different, it looks that new and is that contemporary. I think it compares favorably to animation anywhere up to and including Avatar.”
The ‘A-word’ pops up often in the conversations with Bunting and Nelson, and not only in reference to the quality of the animation, currently being executed by studios around the world, from the UK to Montreal to Hawaii. James Cameron’s 3D milestone also served as a validation of sorts for the decision to move forward without narration, according to Nelson. “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.
In one of the scenes previewed for the audiences at Comic-Con, the dialogue-free approach was displayed to comic effect. 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. Nelson says that after showing the “headless” sequence to legendary director and frequent collaborator Werner Herzog, the clip’s dark sense of humor got the thumbs-up, much like it did at Comic-Con. “He said it made Jurassic Park look like kindergarten,” laughs Nelson.
Combining dramatic, humorous stories with the latest research in paleontology also worked for Walking with Dinosaurs. But while that series had narration to guide the viewer (Kenneth Branagh for the UK edition), Reign is depending on the strength of the visual storytelling to carry the series and draw the viewer into the science being offered, which will be expounded upon via three narrated interstitials per episode. Risky, but Bunting and Nelson both feel the tactic will ultimately separate Reign from the dino TV herd.
The success of the approach hinges on the caliber of artists involved and their ability to wed the scientific research brought to the series by such noted paleontologists as Thomas Holtz and Scott Hartman with jaw-dropping imagery. Thus, early on, Nelson brought renowned dino artist Ricardo Delgado (creator of the graphic novel The Age of Reptiles) into the picture, who then assembled his “dream team” of talent to design and assemble the characters and digital models for the series. They include such former Pixar and Disney artists as Tom de Rosier (Lilo and Stitch, Mulan), Mishi McCaig (Iron Man), Iain McCaig (Star Wars 1, 2 and 3), Pete von Sholly (The Mask, Darkman) and David Krentz (Disney’s Dinosaur, John Carter of Mars).
Krentz, a modern master in PaleoArt circles, serves as director of the series, having come on board originally to storyboard and design “half of the 150 characters we have in this thing.” At Comic-Con he called Reign one of the best working experiences he’s ever had, citing the collaborative nature of the project as well as the trust given by Discovery to the team to create the stories from the art up.
“Although a lot of animated movies start with a script, what winds up on screen is often nothing like the script,” says Krentz. “As animation is a visual medium, when it’s boarded and you see it all cut together, that’s what sells it and makes the story.”
A clay sculptor, Krentz is using ZBrush, the 3D/2.5D modeling, texturing and painting tool that he calls “the digital equivalent of clay,” to create the CG models. The main creative team constructs storyboards in consultation with the paleontologists, Nelson in Vancouver and Discovery EP Alan Eyres in Silver Springs via teleconferencing. Once the stories are locked, the boards are converted to animatics, then re-examined for flow and impact.
From there, the story bibles emerge and are shipped off to the studios, including Toronto/Hawaii shop Entrenched, London’s Kinkajou, Montreal’s Mokko and Los Angeles/New Zealand outfit Sauce FX, where it’s all worked on by close to 150 artists in total.
‘As a creative process, it’s great,” says Eyres. “At every stage, I’m seeing the story as a series of images, rather than translating from the written word on the page. You know pretty instantly if something works or not. The idea behind these stories is always to make maximum emotional impact, so from a creative point of view, the simplest responses are the best. Do I care about the characters?
“And here’s the amazing thing,” he adds, regarding the process. “All this happens on paper, before we’ve spent any money on the expensive bits [such as] back plate shooting, animation, post. So you are making all your changes while it’s still comparatively cheap.”
But time and budgetary concerns aren’t the only things on the minds of the artists and producers behind Reign. Bunting calls the series a ‘radical collaboration,’ designed to bring together next gen science regarding the 200 million year reign of the dinosaurs with state-of-the-art CGI and a new approach to storytelling. Sounds like a tall order. Dino-sized, in fact.
“This is hardly an art project,” sums up Nelson. “It’s designed to be a primetime ratings monster, devouring all in its path. That’s our goal.”