The Apple TV+ series that revives original creatures

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A prehistoric planetBBC Studios Natural History Unit’s amazing nature documentary, which premiered on Apple TV+ in 2022, and returns for a second season starting 22 May. Reported by David Attenboroughthe series follows in the footsteps of another BBC Planet row (Blue Planet, Planet Earth, etc.), in using modern cinematic technologies to capture images of the most amazing creatures on Earth. All series of A prehistoric planet explores different dinosaur species that are spread across a variety of landscapes. Now, this series offers a unique and unique look into nature documentaries because, spoiler alert, dinosaurs have gone extinct. A prehistoric planet renders his original creatures using the latest advances in photorealist technology (such as those used in The Lion King remake), creating the closest version of prehistoric “reality” ever to hit the screen. Although the visual effects are at the forefront, the series includes the enduring nature documentary of personifying its animal subjects. And yet, even though the show uses one of the oldest rhetorical strategies for the genre, its personified animals feel fresh.


‘Prehistoric Planet’ personifies its dinosaurs

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Photo via Apple TV+

Nature documentaries have a long history of personalizing their animal subjects. This device is used as a kind of cinematic translation, explaining the instinctual, normal behavior of animals to human viewers. Now, it’s important to note that “personalization” here does not refer to the same type of personification found in an animated fiction film, such as Zootopia or The Bad Guys. Nature documentaries are non-fiction, after all, and are intended to present the facts of the world in an informative manner. The personification of nature documentaries turns their animal subjects into sympathetic characters and organizes non-human behavior into comprehensible stories for human viewers. Some naturopaths wear their personification on their sleeves, such as Disney’s catalog of nature films, which are largely organized around influential stories about eponymous animal subjects. Others, like those at the BBC Planet collection, more subtle, but still assigning human stories to the animals studied, many of them based on mating and parenting.

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However happy the personalization trope may be, it takes away the documentary quality of most nature documentaries because of its indeterminacy. Although the visuals that make up the body of these films and series capture the actual behavior of animals, skillful cinematic strategies are used to personalize the depicted behavior for the human audience. The enduring trope of personification produces a constant tension in the nature documentary between actual animal behavior and indeterminate translation.

‘Prehistoric Planet’ truly reinvents the personalization category

prehistoric planet
Photo via Apple TV+

A prehistoric planet this is no exception in using the trope of personification. As with any documentary, the selection and arrangement of shots determines what stories the series offers. To mediate empathic responses, nature docs appeal to “universal” relationships, such as those between mates or families. Audiences can then instantly recognize the dynamic on screen and relate to it. A prehistoric planetand the first episode, “Coasts,” features a Tyrannosaurus leading his children through the sea to the shore to look for food. The T-rex is shown as a father parenting his young children. There is a man in “Forests,” in the fifth episode Carnotaurus trying to impress a woman with a display of his colorful arms. The scene offers a hopeful romance between the two animals. The two examples are more similar than putting two dinosaurs in the middle with extremely small arms; stories about relationships, whether familial or romantic, are instantly recognizable to viewers and much less information is required to understand animal behavior.

Although narratives are known as the basis for the personification of animals, a number of cinematic strategies are used to support their presentation. The most obvious strategy is voice-over narration. A prehistoric planet the use of this supporting strategy in the sequences where Attenborough describes the dinosaurs using human characteristics. In the episode “Ice Worlds,” there is a family of Antarctopelta return to their forest. When one of the dinosaurs can’t get into the cave, Attenborough says, “the brotherly bond starts to wear a little thin.” A sequence later in the program focuses on a herd of Pachyrhinosaurus. While two of the herd are shown fighting, Attenborough reports, “less strong males still try to push their way up the social hierarchy.” The two minutes in this episode show how the voiceover personifies the animals on screen by explaining their interactions in human terms. Viewers can better empathize with the creatures on screen if they are looking at “bonds of brotherhood” or “social norms”. These recognizable human elements offer a more interesting story of animal interaction.

The cinematography and editing subtly support the personification of the animals through emphasis. Most famous in A prehistoric planet is the practice of intimacy. Multiple programs follow a pattern similar to a dinosaur looking for its lost offspring by cutting close to the front. For example, in “Forests,” a flock of Triceratops a trip through a pitch-black tunnel. As the dinosaurs regroup, mother Triceratops he cannot find his calf. The camera then focuses on the dinosaur’s face as it crashes into the tunnel. Historically, the cinematographic close-up has been used to highlight an actor’s mood, giving insight into the character’s emotional state. This technique is used in nature documentaries to the same effect, giving viewers an insight into the emotional state of an animal. So the close-ups use human storytelling techniques to non-human characters.

What makes these methods so successful A prehistoric planet because of their special relationship to reality. Even though the modern effects are relatively convincing, every frame is created through CGI. Unlike other nature docs that use personalization strategies to observational footage (reverse engineering narratives out of existing footage), A prehistoric planet apply these techniques to completely artificial images. The stories selected for the program are not only curated from surveillance footage but are created pixel by pixel. Instead of creating friction between real images and interpretation, personalization strategies work together with the digital images to create a unified vision of what this reality would be like.

Of course, the whole ‘Prehistoric Planet’ is speculative

Prehistoric Planet-triceratops

Even with the latest scientific knowledge, and even with Attenborough opening each episode with a museum-based monologue to offer a seal of credence, every pseudo-observational picture is speculative. Since this piece is not written by Dr. Ross Geller, there is no interest here in arguing with the science that supports the series of dinosaur photos. However, without being able to see the behavior of dinosaurs (which, again, would be difficult since they no longer exist), we can only see hypothetical scenes of prehistoric life. The speculative nature of the film, however, is key to the success of impersonation here. Because the series offers an explanation of what dinosaur life could be on the face of it, it is perfectly reasonable to support that vision with explanatory strategies.

Since the images on the screen are artificial, and since the pseudo-visual images are speculative in nature, the personification of nature-doc has finally found its perfect home in A prehistoric planet. Finally, the various cinematic strategies used to create sympathetic animal narratives in documentary form do not detract from the impact of the reality of the narrative mode. The relationship between personification and generic speculation allows the series to retain the poignant quality of previous nature documents without compromising its informative aim. One can only hope that the marriage of impersonation and non-fiction photorealism will not disappear.

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