Costing£1m an episode, ITV's latest Saturday drama is an ambitious mix of fantasy and emotion.
Costing £1m an episode, ITV's latest Saturday drama is an ambitious mix of fantasy and emotion.

Producer:Impossible Pictures
Start:7pm, 10 February
Length:6 x 50 minutes
Commissioning editor:Nick Elliott

Hot on the heels of Robin Hoodand Doctor Who, Saturday evening telly is about to receive another welcome dose of drama. This time it's ITV getting in on the act with Primeval - a series that gives dramatic life to the creatures first seen in the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs.

Primeval's co-creators, Tim Haines and Adrian Hodges, first worked together seven years ago on BBC1's adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. 'I was really keen to develop a fantasy format, but this was pre-Russell T Davies' Doctor Whoand fantasy was something British TV hadn't done for years,' recalls Hodges, who won a Bafta for the BBC1 drama serial Charles II.

Hodges had the germ of an idea for a series about a man who had lost his wife in mysterious circumstances, but little more. Haines - the co-founder of Impossible Pictures - was keen to develop a drama showcasing the computer-generated monsters from the Walking withseries. The duo combined their ideas and ITV drama boss Nick Elliott commissioned a six-part series in 2005.

Impossible Pictures' Primevalmixes 'high concept and heart', says Haines, with Hollywood providing the role model: 'If you look at Indiana Jonesor Jurassic Park, the tone is fantastical but you've also got strong emotions: people falling in love, people in danger and humour. There's something for everyone.'

In Primeval, professor Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) and a team of young scientists are hot on the trail of dinosaurs, sea monsters, mammoth spiders, even a dodo, that have entered the modern world through a hole in time. Cutter is also searching for his wife and fellow evolutionary scientist, Helen (Juliet Aubrey), who disappeared eight years earlier. When he travels back to a prehistoric world and finds her camera, Cutter realises that Helen's disappearance is part of the same mystery.

The creatures, as much as the actors, are the stars of Primeval. Fortunately the programme-makers eschewed the anthropomorphism of Disney films. 'They are extremely believable. We didn't want them winking and making silly jokes to each other,' says Haines. 'We've put them in situations where their natural characters come out.'

Technology has moved on apace since visual effects supervisor Tim Greenwood worked on the Walking with series. 'We're doing far more advanced animation and complex camera shots. In Walking with, the creatures walked, ate and slept; now they have to have more character and interact with the actors,' says Greenwood, who worked on Primeval'ssecond shooting block.

On set, Greenwood and his Framestore colleague, Christian Manz, the visual effects supervisor on the first three episodes, worked closely with Primeval's shooting crew. Each interaction that creatures have with people and objects had to be choreographed and recorded on set. And the actors acted to an empty space because the animation was added in post-production.

'The challenge on set was giving the actors something to focus on. We took the designs of the creatures showing how tall they were but someone had to stand in for them holding a ball on a stick,' recalls Manz.

At a cost of more than £1m for each 50-minute episode, Primevalis expensive by British TV standards - computer-generated animation devours budgets. '[To keep costs down] we were given a limit of 90 [dinosaur] shots per episode. We had to plan scenes carefully to keep a handle on it - it would have been easy to get carried away,' says Jamie Payne, who directed the second block. The young director, who numbers BBC1's New Tricksand ITV1 thriller Child of Mineamong his credits, says Primevalhas been his most enjoyable job. 'We hit every genre: horror, thriller, comedy, romance and straight drama. That's a lovely balance to play with,' he says.

As soon as the film was in the can from a day's shoot, it was sent to Framestore's studios - where animators could begin adding the creatures. Most of the dinosaurs are historically accurate, having been based on fossilised remains by the sculptors Jeremy Hunt and Nigel Booth. They made clay sculptures of the creatures, which were then scanned and turned into 3-D computer data. Next, the animation department added the creature exteriors such as scales, fur or feathers, and then a skeleton and muscle system.

In total, the studio completed more than 400 computer-generated creature shots. 'If you were making a film and wanted your creature work to look this good, it would probably take several weeks per shot for the animation alone,' says visual effects producer Matt Fox. 'We were aiming to turn around shots in four days for the animation, half a day for lighting, a day for compositing and then delivering them to the cutting room. It was an incredibly quick turnaround.'

Once the animation was finished, the creatures were placed in the live-action shots. Compositors could then add shadows, footprints and even splashes of blood to create a seamless world peopled by actors and animations.

Primeval will air on Saturdays in an early evening family viewing slot. Comparisons to BBC1's Doctor Whoare unavoidable, but can the ITV series pull off the same trick of appealing to all ages?

'You can deal with big emotional story lines as long as you pitch it at the right level, so the kids don't get too restless,' says Hodges, who offers the Russell T Davies' revival and Buffy the Vampire Slayeras evidence. The mistake, he adds, would be to 'write down to kids. In any case, I wouldn't know how to do it. Unless it's a story I can relate to, I can't tell it.'

Production credits
Co-creator/lead writer:Adrian Hodges
Co-creator/executive producer:Tim Haines
Writers:Richard Kurti, Bev Doyle, Chris Lang
Directors:Cilla Ware, Jamie Payne
Producer:Cameron McAllister
DoP:Jake Polonsky, Adam Suschitzky
Production designer:Anthony Ainsworth
CGI:Framestore CFC
Producer:Matt Fox
Supervisors:Christian Manz, Tim Greenwood
Visual effects:The Bluff Hampton Company