“If Walking with Dinosaurs was a natural history programme, this is the safari.” Tim Haines explains the storytelling and science behind his spectacular new experience, Dinosaurs in the Wild.
Dinosaurs in the Wild, a ground-breaking new dinosaur experience, is set to open June 24th in Birmingham. Combining theatre, cutting edge technology, themed experience and the latest science, it takes visitors back through time to the world of the dinosaurs. Live sets and actors are woven with cutting-edge computer-generated imagery and animatronics to create a believable prehistoric world.
Blooloop spoke with Tim Haines, Creative Director of Dinosaurs in the Wild, about the inspiration, science and pure fun of his latest time travel exploration.
From Jurassic Park to natural history
Haines graduated with a BSc in Applied Zoology before becoming a science journalist, screenwriter, producer and director. He is the award-winning producer of the iconic BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs and the ITV drama Primeval.
“The intention is to be different and distinctive from everything else and I believe we are,” says Haines. “The starting point was the desire to give people a visual quality of experience that they won’t have had anywhere else.”
“The aim with my original TV series Walking with Dinosaurs was to bring the graphics that everyone loved from Jurassic Park into TV natural history programmes,” says Haines. “With Dinosaurs in the Wild the aim is to get people as close to dinosaurs as possible.”
This, he explains, is achieved in three ways. First up is good storytelling. Secondly, everything has to look as realistic as possible. The third important factor is scientific realism. Haines points out that films such as Jurassic Park were often unable to make dinosaurs look as strange as scientists now believe they were, as the producers could not update the films and brands quickly enough to keep pace with the rapid advance of new discoveries.
“Back when I made Walking with Dinosaurs they were talking about feathers on a few of the dinosaurs that were related to birds,” says Haines. “20 years later not only are all the dinosaurs that are related to birds covered in feather but many of the others are too. In fact, it’s not just feathers. Dinosaurs had a whole variety of things covering their skin. There was shag, spines, hair like feathers – all sorts of what scientists call the integumentary system, what makes up the skin and its appendages (hair, scales, feathers, hooves, nails).”
A Very Well-Respected Team
Haines explains that the Dinosaurs in the Wild team has nothing to do with the original Walking with Dinosaurs now. “I was a BBC producer when I made that,” he says, pointing out that the BBC keeps tight control over its brand.
He laments the follow-up film in which the dinosaurs talked. “I was very disappointed by that. So I had to set off and start again somewhere else.”
While working on the live show Haines had met producer Jill Bryant. They decided to work together and turned to investors Cocoon Wealth to arrange the major financing for the project. Going forward Cocoon will be driving the international expansion of the business.
[Anyone who loves dinosaurs should check out the less well known Walking with Dinosaurs: Sea Monsters TV series. Also produced by Haines this is a superb example of time travelling storytelling blended with solid science. The drama is derived from an excellent turn by zoologist Nigel Marven whose spirited interactions with real ‘sea monsters’ ranging from a Dunkleosteus to a Mosasaur make for a thrilling AND scientifically accurate documentary.]
Storytelling is Key
A richly-imagined mythology underpins the whole experience, creating a formidably credible world.
As you would expect from Haines, the whole experience follows a well thought out story arc. The journey begins with a jump back in time, followed by a spectacular dinosaur-spotting ride across the prehistoric plains, then a tour of the labs before a thrilling finish which may make guests jump.
The backstory for the experience is that a company called Chronotex Enterprises invented time travel in the early 1970s. “The company has been working with several deep time bases,” explains Haines. “And now it’s opened up one to the public so you can go there.” Visitors get to travel to TimeBase 67.
“As you can imagine there are lots of safety guidelines. We have our own little safety films and a mockumentary about the company when you arrive. So we create a whole sense of the reality of it. Then you climb into a machine which is basically a dark ride. You’re taken back in time and then transferred to a vehicle.” A thrilling drive takes visitors across the late Cretaceous plains (in fact a lake in Oregon) surrounded by herds of dinosaurs.
Visitor Flow is Planned to the Minute
The entire experience takes 70 minutes. Everything is planned meticulously. “They are delivered out of the time machine in groups and taken through with a guide,” says Haines. There is a whole schedule with six minutes for each lab.
“In some of the labs its quite free flowing in that you can wander around and try various interactive elements. In others you’re given a bit of a performance. For example, the autopsy scientist is performing the autopsy so you’re sitting down watching it. You’re having different experiences so texturally it feels very varied.”
The guides then take each group up to the Lookout. “Essentially you watch an eight-minute film. The stories unfold around the Lookout.” The huge windows of the research station’s Lookout allow visitors to see ‘live’ dinosaurs – and also offer the scope for a few surprises (and shocks).
Visitors Feel Part of the Research Lab
Haines is keen for people to experience and learn, as well as stare in wonder. Activities within the labs are varied and interactive, to grab and hold the visitor’s interest.
On arrival at TimeBase 67, visitors get to explore the laboratories. The creativity is immense. The heart of a huge Alamosaurus is displayed in a glass cylinder, vividly showing how much energy it took to pump blood up the five-metre long neck of the giraffe-like giant.
They can also watch scientists conducting a live autopsy on a five-metre long crested Pachycephalosaurus. The creature is suspended across an operating table lit by surgical lights to reveal details such as the cross-section of its huge skull.
Then there is the Hatchery. Three incubators hold different species of dinosaur eggs. Baby Triceratops can be seen squirming inside their shells. Visitors can witness eggs communicating with one another. There are also some deceptively cute Dakotaraptor hatchlings to watch.
“There is a scientist there who will pull an egg out and hatch something in front of you,” says Haines. “You’ll be able to see the little hatchling squawking at you.”
Feeling Dinosaur Poo – a Truly Interactive Experience
Visitors certainly aren’t kept at arm’s length. For example, they can get their hands into piles of dinosaur poo. “There are fume cupboards and big thick rubber gloves,” says Haines. “You can stick your hands in. Coprolites are fossilised poo and they’re very important to palaeontologists. You can tell a lot from what the animal dumps. So we have a bit of predator poo and a bit of herbivore poo and you can stick your hands in them and try to find bits of bones and stuff like that.”
There is even the chance to test your arm strength against a Tyrannosaurus Rex. “Everyone thinks T. Rex arms are little,” says Haines. “Whereas in fact they’re three times stronger than ours.
Technology Gives Dinosaurs Real Bite
Technology has moved on in leaps and bounds since Haines made Walking with Dinosaurs. “They had done a great job making the dinosaurs for the live show of Walking with Dinosaurs,” he says. “They moved very smoothly and normally big animatronic dinosaurs are very heavy -they wheeze and hiss, and jolt about. So it takes a real stretch to believe these things are real.”
But for Dinosaurs in the Wild Haines wanted more, much more. “For me, personally, what can be beautiful and does look real are digital dinosaurs.” However the problem was how to get people close to digital dinosaurs. “Naturally they’re on a screen – it’s the only place they can be.”
However, even though Haines saw 3D was “dying” in cinemas and television, he could see how it could be applied in this scenario. “Everything is designed to make you think that the screen of the monitor is glass of a window. The moment you take that on board then instantly you’re walking around inside a greenhouse with dinosaurs all round you.
“I think that’s as close as you’d get to a dinosaur anyway short of having the bars of a cage. You would always be separated from dangerous animals. People accept that. Therefore you can stand there in the presence of a T. Rex at its true size and its resolution is fantastic.”
Seeing Through the Eyes of Dinosaurs with VR
What did the world look like to dinosaurs? A virtual reality experience enables you to see through the eyes of various dinosaurs. “You’ve got heads on poles and you stick your head in,” says Haines. “You have to find either the prey or the predator before they find you. Otherwise you get jumped on.”
It’s fun but it’s also a learning experience. Haines points out that everything has a scientific basis as well as being entertainment. “You’ll notice with the herbivore that you can see 180 degrees around you. So you can spot the predator more easily. With the predator you’re seeing in a much more focused way. You see more clearly in the centre so you’re judging distances much better.”
Interactors add to the Reality
“Visitors feel as if they’re part of the research lab,” says Haines. The verisimilitude of the experience is increased by a cast of actors. Haines explains that there are essentially two groups.
“Firstly you have the guides. They introduce the place and give little talks. Then you go through the labs and you meet experts. There’s an autopsy scientist and there’s a hatchery scientist. There’s someone we call a chrononaut, which is a name for a time traveller. He’s there talking about what it’s like outside.
“He’s got non-lethal weapons because he’s not allowed to harm any dinosaurs because that would change time. So the poor man has to try to survive with Mace and a cattle prod.”
In fact, a great deal of thought has gone into the characters of the experts to make interactions more interesting, “for example, the hatchery scientist is very friendly but the autopsy scientist is a bit of an arse!”
Providing Curriculum Resources for Teachers
The adventure is superb family entertainment. However there’s also a strong educational aspect to the production. “Educationalists have been working on this for a few months,” says Haines. A variety of packages have been developed for teachers. Curriculum-linked resources are designed to support English and Science lessons. Science resources on animal adaptation and classification are followed up by creative writing resources.
“I’ve seen some of the work they’ve done and it’s fun,” says Haines. “It’s not just about dinosaurs … Teachers always need something to motivate students. This would be of huge benefit. There are all these modules where, for example, you imagine you’re a TV journalist. You have to write a report. It’s using the experience to fire off different disciplines in education.”
Cloning the Show around the UK and Overseas
The experience will open at the NEC in Birmingham on Saturday 24th June. It will transfer to EventCity in Manchester on 7th October.
The future certainly looks very exciting. “It’s not announced yet but we have a site in London,” says Haines. “There is already someone who’s taken a licence in another country but again it’s not officially announced.”
He points out that the major spend has already been done. “One of the huge advantages of spending millions on very high quality imagery is you don’t have to do it again. The cost of a third site would be immediately be a quarter cheaper. We might well clone it if it were successful. I can see we would continue to tour this one and clone one off to a new area.”
Dinosaurs in the Wild really does raise the production bar for live-action experiences. Tim Haines puts it like this. “If you imagine Walking with Dinosaurs was a natural history programme, then the live event was more of a circus. Dinosaurs in the Wild, however, is the safari.”