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Dinosaurs Alive! Interview: Co-Director Bayley Silleck

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Co-Directors Bayley Silleck (left) and David Clark at Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, where the IMAX team filmed 200 million year old fossilized trees. Photo: Duncan Clark.

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: May 22, 2007

Veteran filmmaker Bayley Silleck speaks with BMZ on the making of his latest film, DINOSAURS ALIVE! 3D.

  

Category: Interviews

As a director and producer, Bayley Silleck has made number of Large Format films including the Academy Award nominated film Cosmic Voyage. His latest film, which he co-directed with David Clark, is DINOSAURS ALIVE!, a 3D film that features the earliest dinosaurs of the Triassic to the monsters of the Cretaceous Period.

BMZ: How did you get involved in the IMAX/Large Format industry? What attracts you to making IMAX films?

Bayley Silleck: For several years in the late sixties and early seventies, I worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Europe. In '69, MGM sent me to Ireland as press agent and featurette producer for David Lean's Ryan's Daughter. Lean and his crew were shooting the film in Super Panavision 70 – same format as Lawrence of Arabia and basically the same crew. For a year, I got to watch David and DP Freddie Young set up shots in those rugged, beautiful seacoast locations and then screen the dailies. I was -- and still am -- a huge fan of the cinematography that David and Freddie achieved in Lawrence and then on Ryan's Daughter. It taught me a lot about shot angles and composition on the big screen.

But it wasn't until 1981 that I got the chance to do my own giant-screen work. That's when I was hired by Francis Thompson to work on an IMAX film for the United States Pavilion at the 1982 World's Fair. Francis was a former artist who had made groundbreaking avant-garde films like NY, NY and multi-screen films like To Be Alive! and he was one of the first to recognize the huge visual potential of the IMAX 15/70 format. His company had produced the first two films for the National Air and Space Museum, To Fly! and Living Planet and, even in his seventies, he was always like a kid in a candy store when he started a new LF project.

That enthusiasm for experimentation was infectious. Francis was by no means the easiest guy to work with, but by the time we did a second film -- On the Wing for NASM -- he had come to trust my judgment and was very generous in allowing me a fair amount of artistic freedom. I learned a lot from him and am very grateful for the opportunities he gave me.

BMZ: How did the idea of a dinosaur film originate? Was it always intended to be filmed in IMAX 3D?

BS: The idea for Dinosaurs Alive! originated with David Clark. He had worked often on television films with a cinematographer named Bob Elfstrom and one day Bob sent Dave a book titled Dragon Hunters, which told the amazing story of Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History and his expeditions to Mongolia's Gobi Desert in the 1920s. It was a story full of adventure and scientific discovery. Andrews and his colleagues found a vast treasure trove of new dinosaur species and revolutionized our understanding of those ancient beasts.

Ironically, in 1999, when I was working with AMNH on another project, I had seen huge photos of Andrews in the Gobi surrounded by dinosaur bones. I was told that he was the inspiration for George Lucas's Indiana Jones character. I remember thinking, now that would make a great LF film! But Dave Clark did more than think about it -- he approached AMNH and obtained rights to the wonderful original 35mm footage shot by a Hollywood cameraman on one of Andrews' expeditions, as well as the right to accompany one of AMNH's modern expeditions to the Gobi. Dave also approached the Maryland Science Center as a theater partner. MSC's then-executive director Greg Andorfer and senior director Jim O'Leary were immediately interested and supportive. At some point, I heard about the project and was initially regretful that I hadn't pursued it myself. But only a few months later, Greg, Jim, and Dave contacted me and asked me to come on board as co-writer and co-director. Now, that is serendipity!

Initially, Dave and MSC conceived Dinosaurs Alive! as a 2D film, principally because of the cost of 3D and the potential challenges of shooting with 3D equipment in a harsh, remote environment like the Gobi Desert. But over the long development and fund-raising period, it became clear that more and more LF theaters were converting to 3D and that a very substantial number of institutional theaters would be needing 3D product with strong scientific content in the future. Also, the box-office success of T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous caught everyone's attention. Pioneers in LF 3D such as Stephen Low, Ben Stassen, and Sean Phillips were demonstrating that, while 2D was still attractive to LF audiences, especially on the Dome, they were starting to expect a 3D experience on the flat screen. So Dave and the project partners decided to shoot in stereo.

BMZ: Can you tell us a bit about the dinosaurs featured in the film? What led you to choose these dinosaurs to feature?

BS: Well, first of all, Dave and I decided that, in addition to the Gobi creatures that lived in the Cretaceous Period, toward the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, we needed to show what dinos looked like and how they lived at the beginning, some 140 million years earlier. We also wanted to demonstrate vividly what our Narrator says at the beginning of the film: "Dinosaurs came in amazing shapes and sizes." Our science advisors told us about the extraordinary discoveries of very early, Triassic Period dinosaurs at Ghost Ranch in the high desert of northern New Mexico. So the Gobi Desert and Ghost Ranch became our two principal locations -- and determined our choice of dinosaur species to animate.

In New Mexico, we decided to "star" two very different kinds of dinosaurs -- the 220 million-year-old Coelophysis and the 160 million-year-old Seismosaurus. Though they never co-existed, they offer a remarkable contrast. Coelophysis was a nine-foot-long, two-legged carnivore of exceptional speed and agility. It was a kind of miniature evolutionary model for the big, ferocious predators to come, like T. rex, Allosaurus, and Tarbosaurus. And Seismosaurus was a 110-foot-long, 30-ton vegetarian, emblematic of the giant dinosaurs of the Jurassic.

For the Gobi sequences, Dave and I again went for contrasting species to illustrate the great variety of animals in the dinosaur kingdom. One of our favorite sequences is a dramatic encounter in the sand dunes between the dominant predator Tarbosaurus, a close relative of T. rex, and the squat, four-legged Tarchia, covered in armor from head to tail. The outcome may surprise our viewers.

The other Asian dinosaurs we chose to feature were the Velociraptor, Oviraptor, and Confuciusornis. Scientists have determined that Velociraptor and many other species were actually feathered and they are shown that way in our film. CGI sequences with these dinos help us dramatize the startling scientific theory, now accepted by the great majority of paleontologists, that feathers originated on non-flying dinosaurs and that at least one lineage of dinosaurs did evolve the ability to fly. Today, we call them "birds."

BMZ: What was it like filming in the Gobi Desert? Were there many difficulties filming in such a remote area?

BS: Well, we filmmakers are fond of describing the trials and tribulations of LF filming in faraway lands -- if only to impress others that we were not just sightseeing. And of course it is true that when you get far away from North America or Europe, production logistics get a lot tougher. Certainly, we had our share of challenges, including backside-pounding drives over rutted roads that were like ravines, flights in aircraft with highly dubious safety records, a brief but ferocious rain and sand storm, gastrointestinal misadventures, and Russian Army surplus trucks that found new ways to grind to a halt almost daily. But I think I speak for Dave, Greg, Jim, DP Bill Reeve, our indefatigable line producers Bruce Elfstrom (Bob's son) and Keero Birla, and all the rest of our crew when I say that just being there, in the immensity of the Gobi Desert, was an amazing experience. It's one of the principal reasons we do LF films -- to follow in the footsteps of explorers like Roy Chapman Andrews and to live for a time in strange and beautiful lands.

The Gobi surprised us every day. This vast desert, second only to the Sahara in size, had had constant rain before we arrived. As we looked out from our gers (nomadic tents), all we could see was a carpet of green. "Why so much grass?" we asked our Mongolian guide Badral. He picked some and suggested we eat it. Okay … It turned out not to be grass but chives -- all of it -- covering thousands of square miles. And this year (2006), there were large lakes, with wind-whipped waves, where arid valleys had been. It was a very uncommon summer in Mongolia, but it helped us tell one of the key stories of Gobi dinosaurs and their surprisingly pristine fossils -- how massive rainstorms buried entire nesting grounds and herds of creatures large and small.

BMZ: I understand David Clark co-directed the film with you. What was it like co-directing? Did you each work on certain aspects of the film separately, or was it more collaborative?

BS: Co-directing isn't a common practice, for good reason. For one thing, all directors have different visions, different sensibilities, different habits. And directors are directors because they enjoy being in control and making the key creative decisions. For some, ego is at stake all the time.

I'm happy to say that it wasn't like that on Dinosaurs Alive! Dave is one of the hardest-working, yet most upbeat and affable filmmakers in the LF and television worlds. Even in the toughest circumstances, whether it's bad weather, bad equipment or bad-news people, Dave hangs in there -- with remarkable aplomb. So, in addition to his role as producer, he was a terrific co-director. Most of the time, it was indeed very collaborative, and we agreed quickly on each camera set-up, often freeing one of us to hike or drive off to find the next angle or location.

Sometimes one of us took charge of a particular sequence. Dave loves crane shots and often operates the crane himself. I love doing aerials from almost any kind of aircraft, even a huge, ungainly Russian MI-8, because I get to see these exotic and remote locations from a spectacular perspective -- a chance I may never again have. Finally, Dinosaurs Alive! -- particularly the 3D creature animation -- was such a complex undertaking that both Dave and I were glad for the creative partnership and mutual support.

BMZ: How did Michael Douglas get involved in narrating the film?

BS: As always, we compiled a list of potential narrators, trying to avoid both "Voice of God" types (focus groups tell us that they dislike the "received wisdom" style of narration) and the very idiosyncratic voices, no matter how talented or famous the actor or actress, which tend to call too much attention to themselves. [We] compiled the most comprehensive list of potential narrators and we all voted on a short list, which prominently included Michael Douglas. Others were Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman, and Hugo Weaving (the favorite of our on-camera grad-students, big fans of V for Vendetta).

In the end, we all agreed on Douglas, for his vocal range, credibility, and seemingly effortless authority. He had never agreed to narrate an LF film before, but we knew that he was an admirer and supporter of the American Museum of Natural History, a project partner. Dave contacted his agent, learned that Michael liked the film concept, had a couple of days of availability in New York within our narrow time frame, and a deal was negotiated. On the appointed day, the contract was still unsigned, but there we were in a New York sound studio with the guy who dominated Wall Street, had a fatal attraction to Glenn Close, and a basic instinct about a femme fatale named Sharon. In my experience the greater the actor's talent, the easier they are to work with. So it was with Michael Douglas, who gave us another of his great performances. Like the rest of us, movie stars don't mind picking up hefty checks for four or five hours of work, but Dave and I wondered what else might have motivated Michael to say yes to our LF project. His answer: "This will be the first film I've done that I can take my kids to see!"

BMZ: It seems new information about dinosaurs is always popping up. Were there any characteristics about dinosaurs that surprised you now that you've made this film?

BS: Yes, it's true. Not only new information, but completely new species of dinosaur are being discovered at a greater rate than ever before. The first thing that surprised me is that only about 2% of all the dinosaur species thought to have existed on Earth have been found so far. That means that the next generations of scientists, using more and more sophisticated technology, will have a rich field to explore and study.

I was also surprised by the sheer variety of what are called dinosaurs. We're all familiar with the giant plant-eating Sauropods like Seismosaurus, but there were many dinosaurs the size of dogs and chickens. For the last few years, there have been amazing discoveries coming out of northern China which show an immense array of small feathered dinosaurs, some of which were flightless, some which may have glided, and a few that almost certainly flew.

I was also amazed by the animal found by grad student Sterling Nesbitt in the American Museum's bone collection, 60 years after it was collected at Ghost Ranch, still in its original plaster cast. He named it Effigia (ghost, in Latin). Effigia, as we show in the film, looks exactly like a dinosaur, apparently walked on two feet, but it's actually a crocodile relative. So in the earliest days of dinosaurs, they must have had to compete with reptiles very much like themselves. In our film, Sterling and his colleagues find yet another new creature at Ghost Ranch, probably the earliest dinosaur ever found in North America. They are working on it now, and once they put the skeleton together and publish a scientific paper about it, we may have exciting news to post on the Dinosaurs Alive! website.

BMZ: For the most part, it seems the general audience's knowledge of dinosaurs comes from the Jurassic Park films. What do you hope audiences get out of watching this film?

BS: The Spielberg films were wonderful entertainment and the CGI dinosaurs were quite well done, but in the few years since then, scientists have revised a lot of their views. As I mentioned before, it appears that many of the small to mid-size dinosaurs were covered with feathers, notably Velociraptors, which in Jurassic Park terrorized the kids in the kitchen scene. Now we know that they were more like non-flying eagles or vultures, no more than two or three feet tall. But, as we show in the film, they were very agile, intelligent, and aggressive carnivores. The other important difference with our film is that it shows vividly the process of dinosaur paleontology, from dig site to laboratory. And it profiles a range of successful scientists, male and female, some at the height of their careers and others just starting out. We hope that kids who see the film will be inspired not only to read more about dinosaurs, but to consider science as a career. What is more exciting than bringing a new dinosaur to life in the scientific sense, trying to learn how it lived and how it died?

BMZ: With the onslaught of IMAX DMR and now digital 3D, will the traditional IMAX edu-tainment/documentary product survive, and thrive?

BS: As you well know, this is a major topic of debate in the LF world, one that BMZ and others have done a great job of covering. I don't pretend to have any special insights or forecasting skills, but I do think that we filmmakers will continue to do original photography on film for the next decade or more. I hope it will continue to be mostly 15/70 film, as that remains the gold standard of LF cinematography, but, as digital technology advances, it will be increasingly mixed with full-frame 35mm, 8/35, 8/70, and of course 4K or higher digital. For wildlife films, where you have to capture certain behavior, smaller film formats and digital capture are very useful and cost-effective. Also, as we see with commercial cinemas, it is taking longer than expected to convince them to dump their film projectors in favor of digital systems. I think it will take at least 10 years or more for the perfection of a digital projector that can equal the image quality provided by 15/70 film projectors, so I doubt that you will see many institutional large-format theaters converting in the short-term. As far as films go, I think traditional "edu-tainment" will go on for some time, as there are many subjects yet to be tackled. I would hope that we could do more dramatic films, along with documentaries, with themes that are a bit more cutting-edge and even controversial. While we do have a family audience, we need to provoke as well as educate and entertain, in order to keep selling tickets.

BMZ: What's next for you? Any Giant Screen projects coming up that you can share with us?

BS: Since I made Cosmic Voyage in 1996, I've wanted to do another film on deep space. In the last few years, astronomers have found dozens of planets in other solar systems and this year a European team found one very like Earth. That's exciting. I also find the discovery of new asteroids and comets, many on Earth-crossing orbits, to be a fascinating subject. Maybe that will be next. I have also been developing a project about a visionary North American wildlife project that would be really spectacular on the giant screen. And there's an epic-scale historical subject that I'm extremely passionate about, but it would also be premature to talk about that. You always have to have several projects in development, since you never know which one is most likely to be financed. We'll see …

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