- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

The "Jurassic Park" films proved technology could imagine how incompatible man would have been with the dinosaur. For the upcoming ABC/Hallmark Entertainment TV miniseries "Dinotopia" (airing on WJLA, Channel 7, at 7 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday), special-effects supervisor Michael McGee needed to show the opposite.
He and his London-based team at FrameStore had to not only convey the realism of the extinct beasts, but also help actors, cameramen and ultimately viewers visualize that dinosaurs could coexist with man.
"The biggest challenges in creating the visual effects of 'Dinotopia' was making the dinosaur believable as they interacted with humans in ways that dinosaurs haven't done before," says Mr. McGee from his London studios.
"We knew that we had to show the mythical world, with its architectures, stone, glass, plants, clothes and human skin textures as a basis of reality and work with the CG [computer graphic] images of dinosaurs that would look and be believable to the human eye."
Author and artist James Gurney's paintings and books about a fantasy world peacefully inhabited by dinosaurs and people are the basis for the TV event. He was a dinosaur fan as a child. Mr. Gurney's wonder about a such a world led to the first Dinotopia paintings, Waterfall City and Dinosaur Parade, in the late 1980s.
In 1992, the artist expanded that universe, releasing the illustrated book, "Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time," and then in 1995, "Dinotopia: The World Beneath." With these, he created every element of a mythological world from the power-giving sun stones to dinosaurs that weigh more than 4 tons.
"James Gurney made the books the reality that they are and he has been supportive of the film, adding another dimension to the myth and giving 'Dinotopia' another sense of reality," Mr. McGee says.
The series' sense of reality did not come without cost. The production, which explores how two "off-worlder" brothers survive stranded in Dinotopia, employed an equal number of crew members as it did actors 250. Filming took more than six months on location in Wales and on more than 42 sound stages at the historic Pinewood Studios in London with a total projected budget of $85 million.
While the artistic challenges to the more than 70 FrameStore team members were many, including developing the 18 main digital dinosaur characters and implementing 1,700 special-effects shots, they found solutions that are now being used by the crews filming ABC's weekly "Dinotopia" series.
It took more than 14 months to create the film's vast digital effects. One of the more technically innovative feats was the creation of an on-set computer that allowed the cameraman and actors to actually see how the digital dinosaurs would be incorporated into each scene.
"This is a first for any film, because normally the cameraman would use a wide lens and then try to imagine the dinosaur in the scene," Mr. McGee says. "By moving the computer onto the set, linking it to the camera, as the cameraman filmed the scene, he could see firsthand the dinosaur walking down the street, showing how the crowd was really parting around the beast. This allows for a heightened sense of realism, giving the film a certain live-action feel."
Not all of the special effects solutions were as high-tech as computers that work with cameras. The group also learned to develop eyeline reference tools for the actors and cameramen that were as simple as extended fishing poles with ping-pong ball eyes, which would help the actors to know exactly where to look.
"We had to be careful of things such as the stenonychosaurus' tails, that would in a real environment, knock over a chair or plant," Mr. McGee says. "A low-tech solution to this was to create styrene cutouts of the CG characters that could be spun around on set to ensure that the real world set would accommodate the CG actor."
Viewers will be astounded by the dinosaur inhabitants of this mythical world, but what should be most breathtaking are the many levels of Waterfall City, Dinotopia's governmental center.
It took an exterior set that was almost 5 acres in size, in addition to sound-stage sets incorporating more than 85 miles of scaffolding and costing more than $2.7 million to create it.
"In terms of what was digitally built to add to the set, we created a whole 180 degrees of building and street," Mr. McGee says. "The digital sets were built in such highly modeled detail that you could literally walk down streets of Dinotopia that you never see in the miniseries, but that are being used in the upcoming television series."
Mr. Gurney's paintings and books have received accolades for more than a decade, and this miniseries is destined to bring these modern-day classics to a whole new generation of dinosaur and mythology fans.
"As an artist, I knew that the beauty of creator James Gurney's drawings was the way the humans interacted with the dinosaurs, holding hands, touching, dinosaurs wearing clothing and doing things that dinosaurs just did not, such as sitting in chairs or playing pingpong," Mr. McGee says.
"I am so pleased that we have been able to achieve this and that it came out as wonderful and as beautiful as it did."

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail ([email protected] washingtontimes.com).

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