"Walking With... What the heck is that?"

Dec 24, 2002
So, the Discovery Channel is now showing a two-hour special called “Before the Dinosaurs”, which I have to admit I watched with some glee. It gives us a glimpse of some of the more infamous animals from various pre-Jurassic periods. I do have one small complaint, however – too much emphasis on vertebrates.

I have joked about vertebrate ‘slant’ in zoology in the past with such memorably embarrassing terms as “vertebrate phallus waving”, but I have to laugh at the lack of invertebrate coverage given in these “Walking With…”-style series. My paleontology instructor came in to class on the first day and said “If you wanted to take a class on dinosaurs, you’re outta luck. This class will deal mostly with animals like this…” He then held up a clamshell. He then continued, “Invertebrate natural history is our history, so get used to it.” I appreciated his candor, and he was right. Most of our time was spent on the Burgess Shale and End-Permian events.

The fact is, (like politicians) most life on this world lacks a spine, and the ecology of the various time periods in the past, as well as our very evolution has been shaped by our interactions with the spineless masses.

That being said, I still have to give the show a thumbs up, mostly because it DOES manage to make the connection between ecology and morphology, and does give a lot of air time to such beasties as Brontoscorpio, Hibbertopterus, and Arthropleura. I feel more should have been said about ammonites and fossil cephs, but there is one or two that play a role in the story, so I think it bears a look.

Sushi and Peace, All

True, there isn't enough on prehistoric inverts. You know what the problem was with Walking with Monsters?? 3 episodes! If they did a full 6 or 7 then they'd have been able to include more inverts, focus more on others, and the whole thing wouldn't seem rushed. We already know just how much life there was back then, so why not nclude it? I suppose people wanna see big monsters like Labyrinthodonts and Thecodonts, Placoderms etc, not the Burgess Shale or Ediacaran fauna. Pity really, but then I'm guessing way too many people thought that Dinos were the earliest animals before that show! I'd actually like to see a show dedicated to the evolution of Cephs! Hmmm, I wanna work with the BBC, maybe I should do my own show: Walking with Molluscs, or Life of Molluscs or something!! Yeah!!

Yep, I totally agree with you Graeme. It would have been nice to have six episodes as with Dinosaurs and Beasts, maybe one episode covering each period from the Cambrian to the Permian. I expect this was not done for a number of reasons, mainly down to time and money. These are just my thoughts, so please pick apart, but I expect these were the main reasons we got a three parter:

1) Unlike dinosaurs, invertebrates are probably less marketable. There is a risk they would not pull in as many viewers, so a six parter would be more of a financial gamble, especially given world-wide sale situation.

2) The sheer cost of a six part series.

3) Dramatic license problems; the Cambrian, and especially the Ordovician and Silurian would be similar episodes. Would most viewers tune in for three weeks to see trilobites? (I know we would, of course).

4) It's more difficult to write dramatic storylines for crinoids, nautiloids and brachiopods than it is dinosaurs.

Well, although I'm sure many of us would have liked a more authoritative narration, or at least a scientific commentary on the DVD (a missed opportunity), at least we briefly saw nice CGI reconstructions of the bizarre and peculiar early life on earth on prime time television on BBC1. If it inspired a few kids to look up these animals for themselves and learn, then that can only be a good thing.

I'd be interested to hear TONMO member Nik's take on the series as he is involved in Impossible Pictures.

Graeme, we also have a thread on these series here if you would like to take a look:

"Swimming With Sea Monsters" TV mini-series

Phil, you've hit the nail on the head there methinks, apart from number 4! The only thing stopping people from writing a good dramatic storyline would be the fact that they were not motivated or too lazy to think up something. In fact, I think the problem MAY be that the series was written by a production staff when it should have been written by paleobiologists, or a 50/50 collaboration of both! it was a good series, but I just feel that the amazing marketing scheme they had for it (ie. NONE!) meant that only the 3 eps were justified. If they had done a big publicity thing then I'm sure they'd have had no bother producing a full series, since everyone would have known about it... oh yeah, and if they kept it at the same bloody time slot every week! I missed the last one.:cry:

Oh, and I watched the previous series, it was OK, but I think they shoulda lost Nigel Marven instead of having him running about putting his head in dinos' mouths and stuff.:yuck: That was just annoying to me.

Ok, ok, i'll weigh in here.

Firstly, i didn't work on Monsters, i generally don't get too involved in the prehistory stuff, so i can't answer for all the decisions that were made in the production. Secondly, we make the programmes, we aren't given any choice about the time they will be shown or the final number of episodes there are (sometimes we start off making, say, 4 programmes and then the broadcasters decide they want to squash them all into 1 or 2 longer programmes). Given the choice, we'd make much longer series', but the money doesn't always stretch to that. We also have no say on the publicity, that is all paid for by the broadcaster. Obviously, we want more viewers so we want as much publicity as we can get :smile: but that's not our decision to make. Regarding the total length of the programmes and the amount of creatures, well, these things cost a lot of money to bring to life. There are so many stages involved in making them (illustration, modelling, scanning, animation, texture painting, cycle design, rendering, compositing to name a few) that the costs soon add up. Add a new creature and you add a lot more to the budget. The people involved in the series love the science and the biology that goes into it and would love to be able to do tons more - but with all the series' like this (mine included) we are restricted by budget as to what we can do. What we don't want to do is make something and do a bad job of it because we didn't have enough money. This means that it's usually the bigger, sexier (yes, i hate that too) more violent or active creatures that get in there - because that's what the broadcasters want and that's because they get more viewers that way. Working on the marine series that i'm involved in, i'd love to have more cephs (and more of everything, in fact) but cephs are extremely hard to get right, and the animation of arms is very time consuming - we're actually prevented from having some of the shots we would like, simply because they would take weeks to render.

Just a point about the science - all of the programmes we make involve tons of research and i can assure you that many more than half of the people involved in that side of things are respected experts in their field with a great deal of published work to their names. But these people don't always make the best storytellers, so we have to collaborate to make an accurate but engaging programme. If we get anything wrong (heaven forbid) it's because we like to make programmes about things that are either extinct, or are virtually impossible to observe naturally - these are contentious areas so there's always debate. We know we can't please everyone, but what we set out to do is get people interested in areas they wouldn't otherwise encounter. If we can get people interested in science or inspire kids or young people to get into marine biology, paeleontology, botany, whatever science area as a career then we consider that job done - but we also want to entertain people too.

Btw, the idea that we're "not motivated" enough or "too lazy" to write dramatic storylines is a little offensive. Apologies if you don't enjoy the stories we do tell, but i don't think that's a fair comment. If you saw the number of drafts of stories and scripts that we produce for each of our programmes and the mountains of scientific papers that i go through when writing you may change your mind on that...

Sorry, this is a bit long and rambling and i probably haven't addressed all the points that were being discussed, but hopefully it gives you more of an idea of the kinds of pressures on us and why we do things the way we do. If you want to know anything specific, just ask and i'll see what i can do. There are lots of different groups of people involved in these series' and they don't all agree with each other - we have to try and please everyone of them and also make an enjoyable and coherent series - that's our challenge and i think we do a pretty good job.

Oh, I'm not disputing that you did a good job or anything, far from it! Also, I understand that it's not you guys who make the decisions about the content and stuff. I love the series, I just think that the media are very fickle about such things. It' a shame really. I'm sorry if my statements about storylines sounded offensive, that was not my intention at all. I wasn't specifically refferring to these programmes. It's just that the series appeard to be losing wind, since it only had 3 episodes compared to the previous series. I dunno about not being able to write plots, I'm far from an expert, but is it not the case that you can only take it as far as your imagination goes? Maybe I Should've read through that post first, and clarified it.

No worries, Graeme. I hope my post explained a bit about why we do things the way we do though. Sadly, although i think the writers here do have the imagination to work out plots for pretty much anything we would want to, sometimes the people who pull the strings higher up don't follow our way of thinking. If tonmo commissioned a film however, that could be interesting...

yeah that's kind of what I was trying to get at, I'm afraid I aint always great with words.

By the way, Nik I need to ask you a few questions regarding your job. I was hoping to try and pursue a career in research for nature documentaries once I've (hopefully!!) graduated in May. You said you don't deal with the prehistoric docs, so are you involved with other documentaries? I've been doing a little research into how to apply and stuff, but I was wondering if you had any advice or suggestions about where to go or who to talk to etc?? I'm not asking you to name-drop me or anything, I'd never do that, but just wondered if you had any advice? I'm also putting together a portfolio, but it's begining to look like more for my own, since I don't quite think I'm good enough to be a professional cameraman or photographer. What series have you worked on?
Sure, PM me and ask away!
I started out researching and writing natural history docs and then expanded into all sorts of other areas. Mostly i do the bulk of the initial research and develop the films from a basic idea into a full series or one-off film. I've developed quite a few things for Discovery and National Geographic as well as lots of series for regional TV (which i'd rather forget about to be honest :goofysca: ) and i turn my hand to most areas now, science, history, arts, nature, you name it. The oceans series is the highest-profile thing i've worked on - i doubt you'd know any of the other films and series i've made, although they were, of course, expertly researched :cool2:

I don't do much work on the prehistoric docs mainly because we know so many experts in the field now (plus the two directors of the company know far more than i do about the subject) that we go straight to them for the research. As far as specialist researchers (without TV experience) go, we often get people in who are just completing phds or have just graduated and they're always great to work with. But that's normally on a case by case basis (eg when we started on oceans we got in a great researcher from SOC who was just completing her phd in marine bio, specialised in hydrothermal vent biology) so it depends on what we're making at the time as to whom we will get in. A long time ago my Dad was a lab tech for Malcolm Clarke so when i was a kid he used to teach me about squid nervous systems and stuff like that, guess i got the research and ceph bug back then, but making TV about science appealed to me more than academic research.

Feel we're a bit off topic here, but please do PM if you want any advice and i'll be glad to help if i can.

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