Is Planet Dinosaur a Documentary?
By Mark Carnall, on 9 November 2011
Nearly three years ago I wrote a book chapter called Walking with dragons: CGIs in Wildlife ‘Documentaries’ the abstract can be found here. For one reason or another the book will only just be coming out someday soon, which means the content of the chapter went from state of the art, through to snapshot of thought in the noughties and is now practically an historical essay, such is the speed in which visual technologies change. The short summary of the chapter is that (chiming with Sir David Attenborough’s recent comments) CGI documentaries like Walking With Dinosaurs are a product of fact inspired fiction and presented as educational programmes. Ideally, this means that they should be as intellectually transparent as possible, the facts that inspire the fiction should be highlighted so audience members can get an idea of where porgramme makers have used artistic license to create an entertainment product. Can this be achieved in CGI documentaries without taking away from the spectacle of shows like Walking with Dinosaurs? This fact from which the fiction is derived can be called paradata and my book chapter examines how the paradata can be shown in these kinds of programmes.
Idiot-box fans amongst you will have seen a new CGI dinosaur series Planet Dinosaur. UCL colleague, and friend of the Grant Museum, Dr Paul Upchurch has thisto say about it. Cynics have suggested that the new series is merely an easy cash-in for the BBC that is having very public problems at the moment. I for one welcome dinosauriness of any kind. I was a child who grew up on all kinds of dinosaurnalia and it inspired me to work in museums. Much luckier are the generations today who get to experience lovely action packed sequences and graphical reconstructions when compared to the dinosaur documentaries I grew up on.
Returning to my shameless self-promotion in the opening paragraph, the reason why I mention this new show is because I was interested in how Planet Dinosaur would show its paradata, compared to the Walking With series. As much as I loved the Walking With series, I have them all on DVD and I was even lucky enough to see the amazing live show, the series toed the line between fact inspired reconstruction and purely a work of entertainment. Inaccuracies aside (of which there were some), it is entirely understandable why series like these do use dramatic license to perhaps push beyond reasonable extrapolation and reconstruction. If the show makers stick to only the most watertight concrete empirical facts about dinosaurs, the show is a)very very boring and b)doesn’t reflect the way palaeobiologists work. Science is a self improving system, reconstructions and models are made on sound basis with current information. New discoveries or interpretations may change the consensus. That’s absolutely fine. What I do find problematic is when the paradata isn’t made available to watchers of these series, especially as these shows are billed as educational and presented in the same style as other educational programmes.
Planet Dinosaur does a great job of showing the paradata in the programme, the on screen action pauses and mini screens pop up to show the evidence for the dinosaur behaviour we’ve just seen happen on screen. Even a dinosaur fan such as myself was halfway through calling out some of the scenes as unrealistic when BAM! The fossil evidence pops up on the TV. The programme manages to show action-packed CGI sequences then punctuates it with some seriously cool recent discoveries without slowing the pace of the programme down to a crawl.
I do have one complaint though. The graphics are a bit ropey in places. I know the BBC is suffering a great deal of cuts at the moment but some sequences don’t seem to be up to the level of graphic quality we expect in the most recent video games, animated films or even adverts. Technically it is impossible to apply the uncanny valley to (non avian) dinosaurs as nobody has seen one to know what they should look like but some of the dinosaurs are animated in such an ‘unnatural’ way that you know that no creature on earth ever looked or moved like that. Walking With Dinosaurs and Jurassic Park haven’t aged too well but I don’t remember ever thinking that the reconstructions were a bit chonky at the time. A minor complaint against an otherwise very watchable series.