Attenborough and the Sea Dragon

Client: BBC

In this one hour special for BBC One, Sir David Attenborough brings the story of an ancient creature to life as he studies an extraordinary 200 million year old fossil that has been trapped high within crumbling cliffs in Dorset. Along with experienced fossil hunter Chris Moore and a team of leading scientists the fossil of an Ichthyosaur is extracted from the cliffs before the winter storms arrive. The bones are so well preserved that state of the art imaging technology is used to reconstruct and visualise the Ichthyosaur skeleton, enabling cutting edge analysis and CGI techniques to give new insights into the lives of these exceptional creatures, raising the question of whether this could be a new species of Ichthyosaur.

As the curious story unfolds, Sir David uncovers new revelations about how these predators looked, behaved and moved, comparing the Ichthyosaur to animals that are alive today. Through painstaking forensic work the team realise that the Ichthyosaur was attacked, most likely by the most ferocious predator of the seas at that time, the Temnodontosaurus.

Along with the film’s branding and art direction for graphic sequences, Hello Charlie were engaged to create the detailed visual representation of the Ichthyosaur and Temnodontosaurus. It began with a precise and meticulous build, rig and texturing of an accurate animating CGI model that utilised the latest research, scanned fossil data and builds from leading scientists. Working closely with the BBC Natural History Unit and the film’s director Sally Thomson, we brought the Ichthyosaur to life by studying their closest living relatives for movement and behaviour, discussions with scientists about body proportions, colour and texture to the finest detail and in particular colouration hypothesis, the discovery that the Ichthyosaur would have been countershaded after finding such well preserved skin within the fossil.

Utilising a combination of filmed and CGI backplates, the Ichthyosaur and Temnodontosaurus were placed and composited within their environment, creating a sense of the prehistoric scenes and reconstructions that were needed for the film’s editorial, paying close attention to details such as the reflections caused by the sunlight shining through the waves above, the effect of light on the Ichthyosaur and the behaviour of an underwater environment. These fully CGI shots had to be indistinguishable from the filmed backplates and sit within the editorial seamlessy, to help tell this remarkable story.

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