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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/24/00

Walking with Dinosaurs
1999 (2000) - BBC/The Discovery Channel (20th Century Fox)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Walking with Dinosaurs Program Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/B

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Episodes
180 mins (6 episodes - 30 mins each), NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), custom slipcase packaging, 29 minutes of behind-the-scenes video (available via "picture-in-picture"), animated film-themed menus with sound effects, scene access (6 chapters per episode), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: The Documentary
50 minute documentary (The Making of Walking with Dinosaurs), NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, custom slipcase packaging, 2 promo trailers, animated film-themed menus with sound effects, scene access (8 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

When I was young, two subjects captured my imagination like no other, and sent me into long fits of daydreaming: spaceflight and dinosaurs. If you've read this website for any length of time, you're probably aware that I'm a space nut. But by the time I was 6 or 7, I knew the names of dozens of different kinds of dinosaur, gleaned from a shelf-full of books on the subject. And I had several empty ice-cream pails full of cheap plastic dinos, which were among my favorite toys. You know the ones I'm talking about - I'd bet some of you had them too. They were all kinds of bright colors - red, yellow, blue, green - and you could get a bag of them for $1.99 at the corner store. They were almost completely inaccurate (the set always came with a caveman), but I didn't care. They were fun and my imagination filled in the rest.

Given that love of the subject, imagine my surprise when, a few days ago, a DVD screener copy of Walking with Dinosaurs arrived on my doorstep. I'd seen the promo spots for the series on The Discovery Channel (the 6-episode series is set to make its U.S. premiere on the cable network on April 16, and the DVD version will street 2 days later). I was definitely looking forward to "tuning in with the world" as they say. So here it was in my hands, more than two weeks early, making me one very happy camper. But when I opened the set and give the first disc a spin in my player, I was in for an even bigger surprise.

The series is absolutely magnificent. Imagine that you wanted to direct a documentary series on dinosaurs, and you had a time machine at your disposal, to send an intrepid film crew back to capture the real creatures on film. That's the feeling you get with Walking with the Dinosaurs - it's a natural history piece on a world that hasn't existed in 65 million years. Produced by Tim Haines and John Lynch with the BBC (the program aired last year in the U.K. to dazzling ratings - some 51% audience share), the production assembled a team of animators, puppeteers and paleontologists to bring these creatures to life. And they succeed brilliantly.

These are dinos as I always imagined them as a kid - eating, sleeping, swimming, flying, fighting, migrating, even mating. We don't have to settle for the contrived entertainment of watching a T-Rex rampaging in a modern-day amusement park (in Jurassic Park), or God forbid actually talking (as they do in Disney's forthcoming Dinosaurs). Instead, we just get to watch dinos being dinos. Every behavior that you would imagine seeing in a real animal today is depicted here, creating an amazing "you are there" feel. Using everything known about dinos today, from fossil records to leading theories of behavior, the production staff journeyed to the far corners of the earth to shoot real location "plates" for the series, along with close up footage of certain shots using live animatronic puppets. State-of-the-art digital effects were then used to render the massive monsters into each scene, and have them interact with the background - some 40 species were re-created in all. And while the effects aren't quite as photo-realistic as ILM's work for Jurassic Park (you can tell the images were digitally created at times), they're still very, very good. And as you watch, I guarantee that you'll be very quickly sucked in, treated to breath-taking images the likes of which you've never seen before.

The DVD release includes all 6 episodes of the series on one dual-layered disc. Each episode deals with a different era in the history of the dinosaurs reign on Earth, and a slightly different niche in the environment. One episode, for example, shows you prehistoric life under the oceans, while another covers flying dinos. There's an episode that deals with life at the heavily-forested South Pole (which was much warmer millions of years ago), and the final episode of the series depicts Montana in the late Cretaceous (detailing T-Rex and the comet impact that ended much of life on Earth). Each episode runs about 30 minutes in length, and all are narrated by the acclaimed actor/director, Kenneth Branagh.

As for quality... well, I was very much blown away. The video looks terrific, and is presented in full anamorphic widescreen. It boasts generally excellent clarity and fine detail. There's good contrast with nicely deep and detailed blacks. And the color you'll see is stunning - vibrant and true at all times. The vistas presented here are fabulous and colorful, including snowy volcanic peaks steaming against richly-hued sunsets, lush jungles and deep-blue undersea scapes. All of them look simply wonderful. And that's amazing, given that the video bit rate is almost always under 5mbps - the compression here is very well done indeed. Occasionally, you'll see the slightest bit of digital artifacting, and there is some small amount of edge enhancement. But unless you look for it, you probably won't notice.

The audio is also surprisingly good, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, from which your Dolby Pro-Logic decoder will glean some very nice rear channel effects, creating a nice feeling of ambience in the environment. The dialogue is crisp and clear, with sounds spread across the front of the soundstage. Bass is adequate and the expansive musical score is perfectly woven into the mix.

So what do you get in the way of extras? Well, to start with, the first disc has a feature that allows you to get snippets of "behind-the-scenes" information via a picture-in-picture window as you watch the episodes. There's some 30 minutes of this footage in all, in which series producer Tim Haines will explain how a particular effect was done, or the science behind a particular idea. Then there's a second DVD disc, that contains an excellent 50-minute documentary, The Making of Walking with Dinosaurs. It's also in anamorphic widescreen (also narrated by Branagh) and will show you exactly how the series was created - an effort which took some 3 years to bring to fruition. You'll learn all about how the special effects were achieved, and how paleontologists worked hand-in-hand with the animators (sometimes learning a new thing or two themselves about the dinos in the process - the way they moved among other things). It's completely entertaining, and even includes some tongue-in-cheek jokes. The opening, for example, shows the film crew sneaking up to film a T-Rex mother feeding its chicks. Then they cut, and the director walks up to the Rex and starts giving direction. In another shot, the T-Rex screams at the camera... and actually steams up the lens with its breath - funny. One last note - the second disc also includes a pair of promotional TV spots for the series that aired on the BBC.

I enjoyed this 2-disc set immensely. Walking with Dinosaurs is an amazing experience, and given that the episodes are only 30 minutes each, it's not hard to watch them all back-to-back in a single sitting. Most of you will get your first look at this series next month on the Discovery Channel, and I bet a lot of you will find yourselves cueing up to purchase the DVD a couple of days later. If you dig dinos or you just want to watch some amazing DVD video, Walking with Dinosaurs definitely fits the bill. Absolutely don't miss it.

Bill Hunt
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