The Lost World

Creating realistic dinosaurs has helped drive the art of special effects from the very earliest days of motion pictures. And with dinosaurs still as popular as ever, the BBC decided to stretch the boundaries of special effects once again and create a state-of-the-art remake of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novel The Lost World which was aired at Christmas and soon to be released on DVD.

CG dinosaurs were at the heart of the two-part adaptation but the production also used some more traditional methods for creating its monster cast. Jez Gibson Harris, head of special effects company Crawley Creatures, took two teams to New Zealand armed with crates of dinosaur heads and ape men ‘suits’ to film the animatronics scenes. The company had previously worked on the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts ‘wildlife’ documentaries. However, instead of re-using old animatronics the team created new models from scratch, improving on their predecessors.

There were two different types of creature creations – heads for the array of monsters including an Allosaurus, and other body parts such as tails and feet.  Harris said: “We never made a full Allosaurus head for ‘Dinosaurs and this one’s a little more stylised compared to the one used in The Ballad of Big Al (the one-off ‘Dinosaurs spin-off documentary). We made it look different with a larger crests, it’s overall more exciting.”

Creating the models was a long and painstaking process. First a clay master was sculpted. This was then covered in fibreglass and left to cure. Once ready, the clay was removed creating a negative image. More clay was then put inside, backed by another layer of fibreglass. The clay was removed and the gap between the two fibreglass shells filled with foam latex or silicon, which when set, was painted with a ‘plasticised’ paint which stretches and flexes with the model’s movements.

Jointed ‘under-skulls’ and body-forms were then sent to the animatronics department which fitted out the models with specially constructed radio controlled mechanisms that move eyebrows, eyes, noses and mouths. All these movements can be combined to make the models blink, roar and snap their jaws.

In order to create realistic ape men the ‘ape’ actors were given full body casts which were used to fashion prosthetic skins. These suits were sculpted with broad chests and finished with hand-knotted hair to create that authentic Neanderthal look. The team also created a sculpted muscle suit to wear under the skin. A total of 25 prosthetic suits and two dummies were made for the shoot.

Even more effort went into designing the ape man faces. Denture casts were taken to create ape man teeth that pushed out the actors’ lips. These combined with specially designed jaw extensions which helped create the heavy Neanderthal features. Ape-like contact lenses were also used – although these caused some problems due to the weather. Harris said: “Where we filmed it was very, very dusty and the wind kicked up the dust which kept going in the actors’ eyes. I had to keep the contact lenses clean all the time.”

With the shooting and animatronics completed, the raw footage was passed over to computer animation and post-production specialist Framestore, which had also previously worked on ‘Dinosaurs and ‘Beasts. The company added the computer-generated dinosaurs and digitally enhanced many of the scenes – a laborious process that took nine months to complete. The team responsible for the effects included five animators, two technical directors, two visual effects artists and two production staff. In addition to this there were members of Framestore who worked on creating 3D models, as well on the telecine transfers and grading.

Similarly to Crawley Creatures, Framestore didn’t just re-use the CG Dinosaurs they had already created for ‘Dinosaurs, but built on the basics to improve the realism of their creatures. Scott Griffin, the visual effects producer for The Lost World, said: “All the dinosaurs are based on Walking with Dinosaurs creatures, but we made better models for improved detail with new colour and texture designs.”

A sculptor was commissioned to create highly detailed 3D miniatures which once finished are laser scanned to create three-dimensional, digital still-life dinosaurs. Griffin said: “A crude version of each character was generated in order to allow animators to track movement and check positions without overloading the system with too much data. It was only towards the very end of the process that we added detail such as skin colour and texture.”

Once the monsters had been superimposed onto the footage by the animators, the sequences were passed over to a compositing team which added extra details and finishing touches to the shots. For example, in a scene were an Allosaurus is skewered through its top jaw by a spear, the team decided to add some breakables for the injured animal to crash through including a small hut. They also colour-corrected the various digital components so they matched the real elements within the frame, added shadows, kicked-up dust and blood dripping from the creature’s mouth. The finished sequence seamlessly blends the real and digital elements.

Framestore’s main challenge was to integrate the dinosaurs in a way which did not compromise the style of the film, such as the use of moving cameras. Griffin said: “The main thing we didn’t want to do was restrict the director in any way, it was important to let him move the camera in a way he would if no dinosaurs were in the shot.” He added: “This amount of moving cameras meant that we were unable to track all the shots using our existing method, the solution was to use Inferno’s new 3D tracker.”

The longest shot to create involved the construction of a fake background that was used behind the team of human explorers during their crossing of a gaping chasm to a mountain pinnacle. The scene was put together using some of the most powerful animation software but still took five weeks to complete.

“The pinnacle crossing needed a lot of generated fake background – the chasm that we shot was only 20 feet deep,” said Griffin. He added: “These were done using Inferno’s integrated 3D tracking system and projection texture maps. This sequence was probably the most time consuming for William Bartlett – head of compositing – as this was an untried technique.”

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger has come a long way since he first transferred from page to screen in the silent 1925 cinema adaptation. That film inspired a young Ray Harryhausen to pursue a career as an animator – perhaps the BBC’s new £10m adaptation will have a similar affect on a new generation of dinosaur lovers.