The resulting documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs used state of the art effects to resurrect the dinosaurs and expand our minds by presenting them as more than just movie monsters. For that, it quickly became a truly groundbreaking phenomenon.
Walking With Dinosaurs: Originally broadcast from April 16, 1999 to December 25, 2000
One could be forgiven for thinking that the BBC had it easy creating a series around a subject that has fascinated for centuries. The uncovering of a tiny prehistoric bone is still enough to get the scientific community in a fluster and since the 1800s we have flocked to museums just to stand beneath reconstructions of grand skeletons.
But that didn't mean Walking With Dinosaurs creators Tim Haines, Jasper James, John Lynch and Andrew Wilks could snooze through the project. They needed to find a new angle to make them stand out in a saturated market. Dinosaurs were featured on screen since the dawn of cinema itself and it had been just six years since Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park raised the bar to Brachiosaurus heights.
Walking With Dinosaurs had to be fresh if it were to stand a chance of wowing an audience and become something more spellbinding than the countless other documentaries before. Yes, it had modern technology, but what it really needed was a modern approach too.
So the idea was that Walking With Dinosaurs would do away with beardy paleontologists pointing at fossils. Instead it took on the guise of a straight nature documentary with Kenneth Branagh as narrator, thereby creating the illusion that these incredible creatures were still roaming the earth.
To do this, real-world locations were used as a backdrop to the CGI and animatronics. Film crews dispersed across the globe to places like Chile, the Bahamas, New Zealand and California to create footprints in sandy beaches and rustle leaves as though a Stegosaurus was crashing through.
Resisting the temptation to recreate a prehistoric environment on a computer screen was a smart move, as part of the reason man is still craving knowledge about dinosaurs is that we know we will never be able to see them in the flesh. But this absolute truth disappeared when watching Walking With Dinosaurs. They were no longer lost to time, they were just in a different place - one far away, but accessible to a camera crew.
In order to keep up this sense of realism, it was imperative that the dinosaurs were seen behaving more like animals then legendary creatures. They mated, migrated and hunted. They were no longer invincible forces of nature towering over puny man, but vulnerable lifeforms. Droughts, typhoons and other disasters were frequently shown wiping out even the most dominant of predators.
Many episodes gave the dinosaurs a narrative - a trend again associated with contemporary nature programmes. The second instalment 'Time Of The Titans' follows a female Diplodocus from birth to adulthood as her siblngs are slowly picked off over the course of time. It ends with her being saved from an Allosaurs by another of her species - a feel-good ending that is of course as scripted as can be, but still feels genuine.
Another notable example is the Christmas 2000 special 'The Ballad of Big Al', which constructs a story for a real Allosaurus skeleton found in Wyoming in the 1990s. Again, the episode documents the dinosaur's entire life and depicts him as being tragically fallible - he dies from injuries sustained tripping over a log.
Like any documentary, Walking In Dinosaurs aims to educate and enlighten as well as entertain. Naturally, it makes plenty of time for the most prominent varieties like the Triceratops, Raptors and the T-Rex (the fact that the latter is kept to the final episode of the series is pretty telling), but it also shines a light on the lesser-known animals.
The show busts down the doors on Jurassic Park and ventures through time periods spanning 155 million years, introducing us to creatures we didn't even know existed. The first episode showcases the mammal-like reptiles and lizards that ruled supreme before dinosaurs came to prominence, while later ones explored the seas and skies.
Walking With Dinosaurs wasn't prepared to sacrifice scientific accuracy just to please the crowd either. For example, it presented the mighty T-Rex as a scavenger in keeping with evidence emerging at the time. A respectable decision, considering they probably could have given the casual fanbase the ultimate predator they were expecting and got away with it.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment about Walking With Dinosaurs is that there's not enough of it. It did spawn sequels like Walking With Beasts and Walking With Cavemen - as well as a movie that's currently in the works - but at the time there was so much more to explore. It easily could have warranted another couple of series.
But for six half-hour episodes and a sole sequel, it did pretty well at guiding us through the dinosaurs' time on Earth. So much so, that when that deadly asteroid hits in the final part of the series, there's a sense of genuine loss. To feel like that for animals that died out millennia before our earliest ancestors is not only bizarrely wonderful, but testament to the power of Walking With Dinosaurs.