The unprecedented nature of the project pushed the filmmakers and their large team to come up with a singular production plan, which entailed capturing images in the real world to later manipulate them digitally. More importantly, they developed programs to make the dinosaurs and lemurs on screen as realistic as possible while still being anthropomorphic. These ancient beings needed to talk and emote.
First, they took some major creative liberties with timelines and the physiognomy of the Iguanodons. Lemurs didn’t exist at the same as dinosaurs (they separated by about 50 million years), but the furry animals provided a familiar humanity that supported the emotional through-line. On the other hand, Iguanodons had beaks, but these didn’t allow for the expressiveness needed in the protagonist, so they opted from removing them and instead adding lips that would make for a more humanoid movement when talking.
Animators worked with Mug Shot, a tool that allowed them to blend shapes within the popular Maya program to manipulate facial expressions in their digital dinos. Similarly, there was great attention to muscle structures that comprise each of their bodies and to the way the skin reacts to movement. Even some of these elements seem commonplace for our 2020 standards, two decades ago these were revolutionary advancements.
One of the most astounding technical achievements the “Dinosaur” team pioneered was designing a digital mechanism to cover the bodies of the lemur family with believable fur, which had to react to wind, dust, and water. This new tool was later employed to create the grass we see on screen. Originally the team tried to implement images of real grass patches, but these were too still and didn’t interact properly with creatures’ movement. A curious fact is that grass didn’t exist during that period, but the anachronistic choice helped enliven the CG set.
Impressively, the backgrounds featured throughout include live action footage shot across the globe. In the six-minute opening alone there are vistas from Venezuela, Hawaii, Samoa, Florida, Australia, and Southern California. Once the storyboards were completed, live-action units would scour the world to find locations that would match what the story demanded and photograph it.
That initial photographic reference from multiple corners of the world would be brought back into the studio for the team to translate them into a tridimensional model using 3D WorkBook, a program that allowed them to work on the camera angles and have a real sense of the dinosaurs’ dimensions within the spaces. Then the live-action filmmakers would return to those real locations and shoot the scenes taking into account the blocking information created digitally to capture scenes pretending as if the dinosaurs were actually there. Only resources like those at Disney could support the globetrotting process.