Under the Radar

Director Barry Cook Explains 'Dinosaurs' Tech

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If you're spending the holidays with kids, they're going to want to go to the movies. Or at least one of their parents is going to want them out of the way  and suggest that you take them. The trick is finding the movie that won't leave you feeling brain-dead afterwards.

Walking With Dinosaurs is a 3D kids movie based on the BBC TV documentary series that aired here on Discovery back in 2000. The new version adds a family-friendly plot and updates the technology. We talked to director Barry Cook and he offers some background insight that should help keep grownups entertained even if you don't think you like kids movies.

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Tell us about “Walking With Dinosaurs” and, the technical side of how you rendered the dinosaurs and how this is different than dinosaur movies people might have seen before?

As the director, I don’t really get into the nuts and bolts of the technical aspects, but I rely on the technical innovations and modern tools to bring the dinosaurs to life on the screen. So I couldn’t really tell you technically how it's all done, but I can tell you how we used the technology as a means of telling the story.

Most of the movie, the backgrounds, were shot as live action in the real world. We filmed in Alaska and also in New Zealand and camera systems developed by Cameron Pace. That’s Jim Cameron and Vince Pace's company in California. They had recently used the same type of camera systems on the live action portions of Avatar. Some of the same crew who worked on our film had just finished Life of Pi. These camera systems enable you to capture live action cinematography, the real world if you will, in 3D. We call it stereo, but not to be confused with audio stereo, but visual stereo 3D imagery.

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So for all the backgrounds for each shot of the film, we filmed the backgrounds, of course, with no dinosaurs in them and then we brought that live action footage back into the animation studio, the visual effects house. We worked for about a year and a half at Animal Logic, in Sydney, Australia, off and on, between shooting and coming back to the studio, to marry the animated characters into the live action backgrounds.

Another technique we used along the way was something that may be very familiar to certain military members of your readership or this website. That’s LiDAR, L-i-D-A-R. That’s a surveying method where you can scan a location and basically make a three dimensional record of that location, whether it be a building or a house or a compound. And in this case, it was just the natural terrain of the environment. Then you can accurately pinpoint certain spots on the topography and marry the computer generated dinosaur models that the animators used to create the action of the animals. You can marry that precisely to the LiDAR'ed ground plane or topography.

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It's funny because the survey crew, they're really cool guys who survey for all sorts of government projects, big construction projects. They do a lot of work with military stuff, but of course they couldn’t talk about that much. LiDAR’s a great tool for many applications and we've applied it now to filmmaking and a lot of Hollywood movies make use of that technology.

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What’s the story you’re telling with this movie?

The plot centers on one particular family of dinosaurs. At the beginning of the film, the father is a very key figure. And the father, maybe it's a spoiler alert, but the father is very protective of his family, and he bites off more than he can chew when he gets into a battle with a Gorgosaur. A Gorgosaur is like a T-Rex. They're smaller but they're a lot faster. But they look pretty much like you would imagine a T-Rex to look. The father shows a lot of bravery and protects his family and really inspires his two sons to follow in his footsteps. That’s sort of the human version of the story, but it's also dinosaurs in a very naturalistic setting of what it's like to grow up and try to survive in the herd.

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There are also the natural enemies you encounter, the predators. These dinosaurs that are the heroes of our story, they're vegetarian. That isn't exactly the correct word, but they don’t eat meat. But they're constantly trying to escape or protect one another from the attacks of the Gorgosaur, the predators, and other predators that might do them harm. So part of the story is about survival in a very hostile world and how you and your family survive through that.

For me a big theme when working in the film was not how we survive, but why we fight to survive and why we fight to protect families and those we love. Maybe love is a strong word to apply to a herd of dinosaurs, but that bond of that herd of animals and how they work together to defend their territory or fend off predators is a great aspect of the film and the story.

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How long does it take to make a movie like this one and what’s the process?

Well, I worked for the film for about 2 ½ years. And that was beginning with a rewrite of the original script, working with the writer, John Collee. He wrote the screenplay for a great film, Master and Commander, that Peter Weir directed. So we were very fortunate to work with John Collee on the screenplay.

Through the live-action shooting we did pre-visualization work on all the dinosaur action before we actually went out and shot live action. And then we went back to the animation studio in Sydney, Australia. And by the time the score was being composed, the music, it was about 2 ½ years for my involvement on the project. The genesis of the project started a little earlier than that with BBC Earth.

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Tell us about your connection to the military.

I have a niece who served in Kuwait and a nephew who served in Afghanistan. And then I have on my ancestry side an uncle who served in Vietnam. And I have another nephew who is in the Marine Corps Band as a tuba player for a few years. The closet I ever got was being an Eagle Scout, so I didn’t take the next step. My good buddy, my best friend as a kid, he went on to be an Air Force – he's just retiring this year. He was an in flight refueler commander.

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Anything else you want to share?

I think it's a great family film that kids, especially boys that are like from 8 to 11 years old will love. In the previews we've had, they just flip over the movie. They just love it. And the tiniest members of the audience, there may be some things that are a little scary, but we've tried to make them in a way that they're not traumatic in any way to the viewer. It’s a great family film and I really encourage dads to see it with their kids. I think it would be a great way to spend an afternoon.

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