TIM SMYLLIE: WHEN DINOSAURS BECAME REAL
A large portion of success is choosing the right people for the job. There are a number of factors which are qualifications but in the world of animation (as with most parts of the entertainment industry) talent is paramount. When you know the right person to help you create your vision, you’ll do almost anything to enlist them. This was the case with Jellyfish when they were preparing to make the miniseries that would become the hit TV production “Planet Dinosaur.” Even though Tim Smyllie had (amicably) left Jellyfish, CEO & founder Phil Dobree knew that he needed to persuade this designer and animator to return to work on this new project when it arose. He achieved his mission and with great benefit to the project. Tim’s previous three highly successful years at Jellyfish vetted him as the ideal professional for this massive creative undertaking. Working in a select design team to create the motion graphics for the planet dinosaur project, Smyllie brought his cutting edge mastery of contemporary software and artistic eye to create an ultrarealistic production for Jellyfish. Phil Dobree confirms, “To have total confidence in someone’s ability is reassuring. Planet Dinosaur was a big responsability for Tim to take on and he didn’t disappoint. When I was picking the design team, Tim’s name was right at the top of the list. He was my head of design at Jellyfish for 3 years and we had a great working relationship. The motion design aspect to this project was vital. I didn’t want the series to solely rely on the dinosaur VFX. Info graphics put everything in context. I loved the way it turned out. It elevated the entire series to something fantastic. It’s leaders like Tim that I look for at Jellyfish. It was a sad day when he left the company; we were lucky to have him.”
“Planet Dinosaur” is a six-part television series produced by the BBC and narrated by famed actor John Hurt. The series tells the stories of the biggest, deadliest, and weirdest creatures ever to have walked the Earth. Fossil evidence and immersive computer graphics were used throughout to create different prehistoric species and their many varied environments. Jellyfish created over 2,500 shots for the series (three hours of full CGI). Unlike the BBC’s earlier iconic series, “Walking with Dinosaurs”, which was created as a natural history documentary, “Planet Dinosaur” was shot like a drama in a more subjective, immersive, and visceral style.
“Planet Dinosaur” took approximately 12 months to produce and was meticulously organized because many talented artists needed to manifest it. Due to the fact that Tim was the head of design, he was empowered to shape and develop his team and their work. The scale of the production gave Smyllie the opportunity to stretch the artistic vision as well as the abilities of himself and his team. Explaining his view on the relationship between talent and technology, Tim states, “Over my ten years in the industry I haven’t changed the approach in my work. Software advancements and general technical skills over time have opened up new creative opportunities which were previously harder to realize. I have moved from just using Aftereffects to using Cinema 4D (one of the most powerful 3d packages on the market) to using some of the advanced plugins, such as x-particles and advanced renderers like, Octane. Ultimately the job of an art director is to direct a creative vision to myself and my team. Technological clout isn’t what I’m judged on. The most important tool I possess is my design skills and creative eye. These principals will never change but technology relentlessly advances. Creatives that are seduced by technology, who don’t have the critical eye, won’t have the ability to elevate something that’s eye candy to having real substance.”
Smyllie and his team at Jellyfish were very particular in regards to the look they wanted for “Planet Dinosaur.” The concept was to transport the viewer back to the dinosaur age enabling them to feel up close and amongst the dinosaurs. Tim wanted to give the audience a stylized cinematic experience that was both immersive and visceral, achieving a new level of realism as if filmed with a real camera. Cinematic cues are evident throughout the series, from camera focus pulls to blood splatters hitting the camera lens, epic camera angles, natural sunsets, lens effects, etc. Because this was the first BBC factual series that used stereoscopic 3D, Smyllie had to learn the 3D software available in Aftereffects. He also utilized Adobe’s Photoshop and illustrator as his main tools for this production. While the use of software was prominent in the creation of this world, the team also drew upon their design skills to clearly and stylishly portray the information in the most seamless and engaging way possible. To be concise and accurate as possible while still entertaining the audience was a challenge that was well met. The information graphics which Tim created had to work seamlessly in this cinematic world. The information interfaces lived directly in the same environment as the dinosaurs and were integrated with the same lens and lighting effects. This led to an information graphic system that Phil Dobree was immensely proud of and which gained much acclaim when the show aired. The info graphics seamlessly integrated into the world of the dinosaurs rather than being cold singular diagrams and factual information. These were very much part of the immersive experience and complimented the grounding VFX quality of the dinosaurs.
Garnering awards from the VES Awards, WorldFestNomination 2011 (Outstanding Visual Effects in a Broadcast Miniseries, Movie or Special) and from the New York Festivals 2011 (Gold Medal Animation), “Planet Dinosaur” was lauded by industry insiders and public viewers alike. Perhaps the toughest critic was the Art Director himself. He communicates, “When you’ve worked on something solidly for so long, you often take for granted how ground breaking the work is. Tunnel vision can sometimes be common in this kind of work. I watched ‘Planet Dinosaur’ when it aired on TV. I was pleasantly impressed with how it came out. Friends that saw it were similarly impressed. What I was most proud of was the originality of the series and the genuine innovation. Nothing like it had been seen on TV before. The cinematic approach broadened the appeal for the factual division of the BBC. The sense that we not only entertained but also helped to cultivate a new part of the BBC is something I’m very proud of as a member of the entire team. I’m not selfless though, the awards ‘Planet Dinosaur’ won helped to further cement my reputation as one of the top designer art directors in the country. That’s the real award.”