In 1996 Jana Bennett, the then head of BBC Science, started a policy of encouraging producers to pitch landmark series. The ambition was to get more science on to the BBC - especially BBC One - and to raise the bar in science programming. The recently signed joint venture (JV) with Discovery Channel in the US also offered the opportunity to boost budgets for the right programmes.
There were commissions in areas such as geology, medicine and natural history but science producer Tim Haines suggested a landmark series in palaeontology.
Initially the idea revolved around the history of palaeontologists with some reconstructions, but this was not deemed ambitious enough. Haines realised that if the whole programme was one long reconstruction then he could make it look and feel like a natural history programme, which was a genre that played very well on BBC One.
Unfortunately it was only a couple of years since Jurassic Park had introduced the world to photoreal digital dinosaurs and this would be the expectation of the audience; at the time the only dinosaur reconstructions on TV where either graphic animations or animatronics.
Haines investigated the cost of digital graphics and decided he could only afford a small amount of dinosaur animation and the rest of the programme would have to be made up of plants, insects and landscapes. After seeing several companies in Soho he was fortunate to meet Framestore's head of computer graphics, Mike Milne. Milne generated three shots showing how, with simple models and natural history filming techniques, the cost of the CG per second could be brought down. Haines then went back to Bennett with a proposal for a 6x30 natural history series about dinosaurs. He misremembered the film Dances with Wolves and called the series Walking with Dinosaurs, which was only ever meant to be a working title.
Together with Milne, Haines costed it at £6 million, making it one of the most expensive television documentaries ever. The BBC liked the idea but was nervous about whether it was achievable. At this point it was also pitched to BBC Worldwide and it was agreed that a short pilot should be made first at a cost of £100,000. In the spring of 1997 Haines went to a national park near Paphos in Cyprus with a single cameraman to gather plates for the three minute pilot. Milne gathered a small team at Framestore to generate the animation and composite the plates. The story revolved around a giant pliosaur being beached on a beach in Jurassic Oxfordshire. Dr Dave Martill of Portsmouth University was the science advisor. BBC Worldwide was keen to test the market with the idea quickly so the first shots generated by Milne's team of plesiosaurs hunting fish were cut into a short trailer together with stills to sell the idea of Walking with Dinosaurs. This went down well and so even before the pilot was fully finished there was a lot of co-producer interest. Eventually by early summer 1997 Framestore had completed a six minute pilot. Jana Bennett championed the idea to Michael Jackson controller of BBC One and Mike Quattrone at Discovery. Approximately a third of the budget came from BBC One, a third from Discovery and the rest from BBC Worldwide with major investments from ProSieben in Germany and Asahi in Japan. Michael Jackson greenlit the show as he was leaving the BBC. Haines was the series producer and creator of the show and had a team of three others at the BBC. Jasper James was appointed as a producer/director and made episodes 3 and 4 as well as directing episode 6. Haines produced and directed the rest. Alison Woolnough was production manager on all the shows. Mike Milne headed up a much larger team at Framestore . At the BBC Jana Bennett left Science and Glenwyn Benson took over appointing John Lynch as executive producer. He consulted on scripts and storyboards. Peter Salmon replaced Jackson as controller. Filming started late in 1997. And the rest – as they say – is television history!