Sunday, April 16, 2000

'Walking with Dinosaurs' makes you believe you are

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If National Geographic shot Jurassic Park, the result would be Walking with Dinosaurs.

What: Walking with Dinosaurs
When: 7-10 p.m. today. Repeats 10 p.m.-1 a.m.
Where: Discovery Channel
Making it: See how they did it on The Making of Walking with Dinosaurs (9-10 p.m. Monday, Discovery Channel).
        All dinosaurs, all the time. No humans to snack on.

        Yet the Discovery Channel's amazing re-creation of life 225 million years ago, which premieres 7-10 p.m. today, is no less dramatic than Stephen Spielberg's two creature features.

        These dinosaurs dine on each other — in amazing lifelike detail. The three-hour, $10-million co-production with the BBC is a stunning cinematic achievement.

        In this Lost World:

        The sleek little Coelophysis, some no bigger than a child, leaps onto the back of a 2,000-pound Postosuchus. With help from his buddies, they kill the plodding carnivore and literally rip its guts out.

        The 60-foot Liopleurodon, possibly the largest sea carnivore of its time, flaps four paddle-shaped flippers and snatches a dolphin-like Ophthalmosaurus in its 10-foot-long mouth.

        With a single blow from his boney tail, a 61/2-ton Ankylosaurus clubs a Tyrannosaurus Rex to death.

        An Ornitholestes gobbles up a baby Diplodcus, barely 12 inches, while its brother escapes to grow into monstrous 98-feet long sauropods.

[photo] Show recreates the world of 225 million years ago
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        Run, Dino!

        So convincing are the computerized animation and robotic puppets, and the depiction of the prehistoric ecosystem, that you'll think you're watching PBS' Nature.

        These dinosaurs mature and mate. They claw and shriek. They even poop and pee. Narrator Avery Brooks notes that the adult Diplodcus drops a ton of dung a day. (Clean up on Aisle 5!)

        You'd never guess that more than 1,000 shots were edited together to make the documentary. Or that series producer Tim Haines circled the globe to find authentic settings in Tasmania, New Zealand, California, Chile, New Caledonia and the Bahamas.

        Already these dinosaurs have been proven dangerous to human viewing habits. More than 51 percent of all available viewers watched Walking with Dinosaurs premiere in England last October.

        But not everyone will be thrilled. Some paleontologists will quibble with every step of these beasts.

        “There's always concern about when you restore a dinosaur, how much of it is speculation,” admits Thomas Holtz Jr., a University of Maryland lecturer and a consultant for the documentary. “Just remember that other than seeing a bone in the ground, anything beyond that has some degree of speculation.”

        “I think (for) every single thing we presented, you'll find a scientist who will flatly disagree with it,” says Mr. Haines, a zoologist. “Trying to get agreement among paleontologists is like sort of making a hole in water.”

        Discovery's The Making of Walking with Dinosaurs (9 p.m. Monday) shows scientists working with animators at England's Emmy-winning FrameStore (Merlin, Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels) trying to figure out how the animals moved.

        They drew chalk lines on elephant legs to determine that a 20-ton Diplodocus probably only had one leg off the ground at at time.

        They studied a man using broomsticks as canes to surmise how the Ornithocheirus, aPterosaur with a 40-foot wingspan, could walk with such long appendages.

        “This series fits in with a tradition that has been going on since we discovered dinosaurs. Paleontologists like to work with artists to try and bring their vision of the past alive,” says Mr. Haines, a BBC science producer since 1988.

        To populate this Land Before Time, producers constrained themselves to “knowledge of the (dinosaur) physical anatomy, their closest living relatives, their descendants, birds and crocodilians ... and large-bodied mammals,” Mr. Holtz says.

        Story lines about predators and their prey were based on scientific data, not Michael Crichton's fertile imagination.

        “Our dinosaurs didn't have to act,” Mr. Haines says. “We were not really obsessed with whether the creatures eat lawyers or whatever.”

        The FrameStore animators' most controversial invention is the sauropod egg-laying tube depicted tonight. It's animators' best guess on how a beast with 6-foot legs could bury eggs without breaking them.

        “There isn't any evidence of an egg-laying tube in the sauropod, though associated animals like turtles or whatever have them ... We asked the scientists, and we thought it was a legitimate speculation to do that,” Mr. Haines says.

        “We had to sort of answer a question that hadn't been asked by scientists,” he said.

        Some questions will never be answered. Specifically, is Walking with Dinosaurs totally accurate?

        It doesn't matter. Since we'll never go walking with a T-rex, these digital dinosaurs are an astonishing alternative. Grab a seat for this virtual tour of Jurassic Park, and exercise your brain.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.