Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Documentary Review: Walking with Beasts

Walking with Beasts (WWB) is a 6-episode miniseries which aired in late 2001 as a direct sequel to Walking with Dinosaurs (WWD). It was produced by BBC Natural History Unit and distributed by BBC Worldwide. In the United Kingdom, each of the six episodes aired on a weekly basis from November 15th to December 20th. In the United States, where it was retitled “Walking with Prehistoric Beasts”, these individual episodes were edited together and presented as a single 3-hour long documentary in December of the same year on Discovery Channel. The UK and US broadcast versions of the series were narrated by Kenneth Branagh and Stockard Channing respectively.

As with WWD, the narrative of WWB is presented in the style of a traditional nature documentary. Empty landscapes were filmed in various locations around the world and computer-generated animals were inserted later, shown interacting with the environments and with other animals. Animatronic models were used mostly for closeup shots of the head and life-sized puppets were built for carcasses. Each episode follows the life of a specific animal which serves as a window through which the audience views the world around it and the creatures with which it coexists. The nature documentary style is further reinforced by a few scenes in which the CGI animals interact directly or indirectly with the camera, such as when a young indricothere aggressively charges and knocks over the camera or when a rock thrown by an australopithecine collides with the camera lens cracking it.

Animals featured within Walking with Beasts. Source

While the main focus of the series is on its animal subjects, each episode indirectly addresses an important theme or concept.
  • Episode 1 (New Dawn) touches on the recovery and diversification of mammals after the K/Pg extinction, in the process highlighting some of the adaptations which enabled their success.
  • Episode 2 (Whale Killer) introduces the global climate change that was set in motion largely by the isolation of Antarctica and the subsequent formation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, an event which would become a significant driving factor in mammalian evolution through the rest of the Cenozoic.
  • Episode 3 (Land of Giants) shows how mammals recovered and adapted after the Grande Coupure, or the Eocene-Oligocene extinction event, which was likely caused by the aforementioned climatic changes shown in the previous episode.
  • Episode 4 (Next of Kin) depicts the origins of the human lineage as well as establishing how much more familiar the mammalian fauna of the Pliocene would be to us compared to earlier episodes.
  • Episode 5 (Sabretooth) touches on the Great American Biotic Interchange (GABI) by showcasing some of the animals that evolved in isolation on the former island continent of South America and how invading predators from North America changed its ecology.
  • Episode 6 (Mammoth Journey) shows how certain types of mammals have adapted to survive at northern latitudes during glacial cycles, as well as showing how humans have progressed and spread from their ancestral homeland.

Anamatronic entelodont head used in episode 3 of
Walking with Beasts. Source
WWB set a major milestone among paleo-documentaries. While most, including WWD, focused on dinosaurs and other animals of the Mesozoic, WWB places its focus exclusively on the Cenozoic Era. Due to the popularity of (non-avian) dinosaurs, the period after their extinction and the animals that lived during that time have remained relatively unknown to the general public with the exception of more “mainstream” creatures such as sabertooths, mammoths, sloths, and hominids. While much focus is indeed placed on these animals in the latter half of the series, we are also introduced to a variety of interesting creatures which had never before been portrayed on television, or at least not with such attention to detail. In the first episode alone, we are introduced to such creatures as the bipedal mesocarnivore Leptictidium, the walking whale Ambulocetus, and the cat-sized horse Propalaeotherium.

Leptictidium is one of many animals to be depicted on television
for the first time in Walking with Beasts. Source
Watching this series as a young paleontology enthusiast had a profound impact on me. I was captivated by the selection of animals being depicted, most of which I had never heard of before. WWB series sparked in my then 13 year old mind a desire to learn more about these creatures and ultimately led me to shift my research interests away from dinosaurs and toward Cenozoic mammals. Apart from the improved visual effects and storytelling, I found the WWB soundtrack to be much more enjoyable than that of WWD, and to this day I often play it on loop while drawing or writing. In fact, the animals presented within WWB are generally more anatomically accurate in their movement and appearance because most of them have living relatives that could be used as analogues. The series has aged relatively well and is a good introduction to Cenozoic paleontology despite its flaws/inaccuracies, most of which can be attributed to budgetary constraints or limited knowledge at the time of production. These will be elaborated upon in smaller posts in which I will review each episode on its own merits. I will, however, briefly mention a few general problems that I noticed throughout the series;
  • The Paleocene and Miocene are completely skipped over in WWB. While this omission is unfortunate, the decision to do so is understandable from a practical standpoint. The Paleocene is the least understood portion of the Cenozoic. Meanwhile, the Miocene comprises a massive 18 million year gap with many interesting and well-known faunas across the world to choose from, and is thus probably deserving of its own documentary unto itself.
  • As with all the Walking with miniseries, WWB regularly utilizes recycled animation or repurposed creature models. At numerous points, specific clips may be repeated two or more times over the course of a given episode. At others, CGI models may be given a different skin and reused in a later episode. Similarly, the juveniles of some species are simply shrunken down replicas of the adult models. Such “cloning” is fortunately mostly limited to those animals to which less screen time is given and much more differentiation can be seen in those that are on screen most frequently, with some even showing sexually dimorphic traits. Other problems with the models include some shrink-wrapping in the more short-haired/feathered animals, and keen-eyed viewers will note some minor differences in appearance between the CGI animals and their animatronic counterparts.
  • What I found most memorable about the Discovery Channel broadcast of WWB were the brief and informative paleontology segments that were interspersed before commercial breaks and between episodes. In these segments, scientists would give brief explanations of the fossil evidence, thus providing additional information and credibility to what was being portrayed in the main program. These segments were, unfortunately, not included in the DVD release of the series. The decision to not include these segments always confused me, especially since later programs like When Dinosaurs Roamed America and Dinosaur Planet have shown that such a format works quite well (though it should be noted that these programs were produced by Discovery Channel and not BBC).

Side-by-side comparison between the Smilodon mode used in episode 5 and
the Cave Lion from episode 6. Source1 & Source2
These problems do not distract from the stories being presented. It is a worthy successor to its critically acclaimed predecessor WWD and improves upon the formula in many ways. In terms of its coverage and portrayal Cenozoic animals, WWB greatly outclasses older documentaries such as Paleoworld (1994-1997) and Extinct (2001), the latter of which dabbled in CG animated storytelling. Overall, I recommend WWB to anyone who is interested in prehistoric life and I will be using this series as a benchmark when reviewing other paleo-documentaries.

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1 comment:

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    Animal life