I often joke that I grew up watching “Flintstones” reruns when there were only like 3 dinosaurs: a brontosaurus, a pterodactyl, and whatever the hell Dino was supposed to be. By the time I had joined the Air Force, “The Land Before Time” came out and it wasn’t a lot better. You had longnecks, duckbills, three horns, flyers, and a large dumb spikey kind.
To be fair, experts knew far more than that even then, but our understanding of prehistoric life continues to increase rapidly and it has expanded into mainstream culture and consciousness. Thanks to movies like “Jurassic Park,” and TV productions like “Walking with Dinosaurs,” my children have grown up with an innate and detailed knowledge of prehistoric life. “Prehistoric Planet,” a new documentary series from Apple TV+, has set the bar with the most scientifically accurate and visually epic depiction of prehistoric life yet conceived.
The 5-part series reveals what we know about prehistoric life in stunning detail. It shares how various species lived and hunted, courting and dominance rituals, survival tactics, and more. Each of the five episodes focuses on a specific biome: Coasts, Deserts, Freshwater, Ice Worlds, and Forests.
You know it will be amazing just by looking at who is involved. Hans Zimmer provides the music. Sir David Attenborough narrates. Jon Favreau is an executive producer (Can we talk about how Favreau has his hands in just about every amazing movie and show in production right now?). For my kids, though, those names pale in comparison to paleontologist Dr. Darren Naish. They’ve been huge fans of his work.
Passing the Mic to the Expert
When I told my kids I was offered the opportunity to interview Executive Producer Mike Gunton, Showrunner Tim Walker, and Dr. Darren Naish to talk about the series, one of my sons, Dalton Duong, gave me an amazingly thorough and intelligent list of questions to ask. I am a fan of dinosaurs, but Dalton is essentially an expert on the subject, so I told him I would feel like an imposter asking his questions and invited him to join me and conduct the interview of his idol Dr. Naish himself.
The first question Dalton asked was how much of the behavior or morphological depictions in the series are based on speculation versus hard evidence. It is an important question. We are talking about creatures that existed more than 65 million years ago, so it’s not like we have any first-hand accounts to go by.
Dr. Naish noted that this is the first time that a qualified, working paleontologist has been involved full-time on a project like this. He explained, “We went to the most extraordinary lengths that we could to ensure that everything was as technically accurate as possible. So absolutely every decision we made is backed up by an enormous amount of technical research which we’ve archived and kept.”
He added that obviously there are things depicted for which the fossil record does not necessarily provide the answers. For example, Dr. Naish pointed out that the fossil record is utterly useless when it comes to understanding the sexual behavior of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
He conceded that some might call that speculation, but stressed that what they depict is based on scientific deduction that relies on all lines of evidence available.
“In particular, we use this technique called phylogenetic bracketing, where you look at the behavior in the living animals that surround the extinct one. So, if you want to know about something like soft tissue anatomy, or behavior that isn’t represented in the fossil record, you look at what the living animals do, and you can apply that to the extinct ones. And we use that for soft tissue anatomy for specific aspects of behavior, even for stuff like the sounds that they made,” he stressed. “So, we are as confident as we can be that we are portraying things according to our current scientific understanding.”
Dalton asked them if there were any ideas or creatures they really wanted to include that got scrapped. Perhaps some things they were relatively confident in but felt they were perhaps a bit too speculative.
The short answer was no. Mike said that they actually focused on being quite conservative—maintaining a center of gravity on the conservative side of speculation, so it gave them greater confidence that they were depicting authentic behavior.
That authentic behavior might be unbelievable, though. Tim pointed out that nature documentaries over the last half century have captured some truly outlandish behaviors that nobody would believe if there wasn’t video to prove it. In some cases they have ascribed similar behaviors to prehistoric creatures like titanosaurs that were 10 times the size of an elephant.
Our understanding of prehistoric life and prehistoric creatures has shifted dramatically over the last few decades, so the next question was whether there was any concern that our knowledge of the creatures or behaviors they incorporate in the series will change and render elements of the series wrong or scientifically inaccurate in hindsight.
Tim noted that natural history is part of science, and science is all about questioning, answering, and requestioning. “What we know today is different from what we knew 25 years ago, or 25 years before that. What we’ll know in 25 years’ time, or 25 years after that could be completely different. We’re representing a moment in time.”
Mike provided an example from more recent natural history. He said that he has done documentaries on lake crocodiles three times over the last three decades, and every time they did it so much more had been learned that it was a completely different story and understanding of the creatures. It didn’t undermine the integrity or credibility of the earlier projects. That just science.
Dr. Naish also stressed the point. “It’s very important to use this as a teaching moment for the public that science is a process. It’s not just the collecting of facts. We say many times this is our view right now, in the early 2020s. We’re mirroring reality as best as we understand it, but we fully appreciate and make clear that things will change, the more we learn, and we’re in such a vigorous time in terms of our understanding of the distant past.”
Dalton asked if they had a vision in mind for a Season 2 if that happens, and if there are specific locations, or species, or even time periods they might explore.
Mike responded to say that there is just an abundance of material to work with. They only had 5 episodes, but there are many more species and biomes just in this same time period they haven’t touched on. He didn’t suggest that they would return to the same period—just that it is an incredibly diverse subject and they haven’t even really scratched the surface.
Dalton asked them what their personal favorite prehistoric creature is—a question they have gotten a lot.
Tim chose deinocheirus. “To see our depiction of deinocheirus come to life and see this thing that looks as though it’s out of a space movie, right? It’s got this giant duckbill, it’s the size of a t-rex, covered in hair,” adding, “We show a brand new interpretation of it doing a little bit of cool behavior for me. It’s like a dream come true realization of over a decade’s worth of thinking.”
Mononykus was Mike’s pick. “Partly because of the execution. I just think it is so perfectly executed in terms of the CG but also in the behavior and also the relationship between its behavior and the ecology.”
Dalton guessed that Dr. Naish’s selection would be azhdarchids. Dr. Naish concurred. “This is an entirely new group to the majority of people. The majority of people have no clue that there are giraffe-sized pterosaurs that can walk with folded up limbs.”
I did have one question of my own. After watching a couple of the episodes, I was curious how much of what we see is actual nature footage and how much is CGI. He explained that one of the reasons they chose to focus on the Maastrichtian timeframe is that the environments are the closest to what we still have today. “We wanted to use real backplates, real environments, because Mother Nature is still a very, very good CGI artist. She can still do better work than we can.”
In some cases they even use real creatures because things like sea turtles haven’t changed that much. “But, the majority of the things that you see animated and animals are created in CG,” said Mike.
Check It Out
All 5 episodes of Prehistoric Planet are available now on Apple TV+. Each episode also has complimentary bonus content that digs into more of the science behind the episode. You will need an Apple TV+ account to watch the series, but I highly recommend that anyway. There is tons of awesome content on Apple TV+, but Prehistoric Planet is worth the price of admission by itself and you should also watch Ted Lasso and Severance.