“Building An Actual Time Machine Would’ve Been Easier”: The Making Of “Terra Nova”

How Terra Nova executive producer Brannon Braga realized Steven Spielberg’s vision, managed the most expensive TV budget ever, and survived all those friggin’ dinosaurs without losing his mind.

“Building An Actual Time Machine Would’ve Been Easier”: The Making Of “Terra Nova”

Being in charge of an epic, Steven Spielberg-backed, eco-themed, sci-fi time-travel tale with digital dinosaurs and a reported $15 million pilot is pressure enough.


Now add a revolving door of writers, mounting executive producers, debate over
pilot length, rain-deluged sets in an Australian rainforest, insufficient footage,
visual effects delays, and a circling vulture press and it’s amazing Terra Nova executive producer Brannon Braga wasn’t carried off in a straightjacket. Good thing sci-fi fans don’t have strong opinions, at least. (A vivid enough emoticon has not yet been invented to indicate the level of sarcasm in that last line.)

“It’s been a hell of a journey,” says Braga, who’s best known for executive-producing Star Trek: Voyager and 24. “Building an actual time machine would’ve been easier.”

Terra Nova, which premieres
Sept. 26 on Fox, chronicles a small colony of settlers lead by Avatar‘s Stephen
Lang, who travel 85 million years back in time from an ecologically ravaged
Earth of 2149 to give civilization a second chance–only to have to contend with
dinosaurs, rival marauders, and each other. Hard to say who has it tougher, Lang’s character or Braga.

“The scope of this show requires a healthy budget and promises a certain
amount of pressure. Plus, I don’t want to screw it up,” Braga tells Fast
. “But it isn’t only about having dazzling dinosaurs. At the end of the
day, it’s not a nature documentary. You need people and close-ups of engaging
emotion. No amount of money and budget can create great characters.”


The first hint of vindication from the blogospheric gossip came after its San Diego
Comic-Con screening and panel, when Terra Nova topped Twitter’s Fall TV buzz,
according to social media tracker Wiredset. Happy with the
results he’s finally seeing onscreen, Braga can begin to poke fun at the behind-
the-scenes drama bandied about in the press.

“There were less executive producers on this show than 24!” he laughs. “It’s no
different than any other writing staff, although making the pilot and episodes at
the same time–that’s not typical. It’s the most unique and spectacular show I’ve
been involved with, like giving birth to a baby, with lot of giant companies and
opinions involved. But the scope is big enough that I’m grateful there were more
people involved to help.”

For his part, Spielberg suggested scenic flourishes, like handing protective breather
masks to ancient Earth settlers upon arrival to control the flow of oxygen-rich
air overwhelming lungs accustomed to breathing pollution, to avoid oxygen
poisoning. “I thought, ‘What a cool detail,'” says Braga.

Preeminent paleontologist Jack Horner,
the Jurassic Park franchise technical advisor, approved dinosaur looks and
behaviors. Production designers Carlos Barbosa and Joseph Hodges found creative ways of
blending 22nd-century technology with a prehistoric setting. “We completely
embraced their vision,” says Braga. “It’s a look you’ve not seen before–floating
computer interfaces in a bamboo set.”

The time travel/quantum physics/sci-fi expertise was handled by Braga
and René Echevarria, an old Star Trek colleague he brought on to help executive-produce. “We worked on Star Trek for 15 years–that stuff’s in our DNA,” Braga says. “And don’t think the asteroid [that may have wiped out the dinosaurs] won’t be a story. They have technology in 2149 to deal with it.”

The hardest challenge was maintaining CGI dinosaur quality in TV’s tighter
production schedule–six weeks of post-production compared to film’s three
to six-month period. Braga’s secret weapon was visual effects supervisor
Kevin Blank, who experimented with various production methods to expedite
dinosaur animation. He streamlined tasks by running rough versions of animation
through lighting, shading, rendering, and compositing. By then the final dinosaur
animation had been perfected and could be dropped into the final step with
minimal adjustment, “like a stand-in for animation,” he adds.


His team at digital effects house Pixomondo also used cost-effective software–animating
in Maya, rendering in LightWave
, compositing in After Effects and Nuke, and creating landscapes in Terragen 2.

To give the reptiles a greater sense of weight, Blank’s team grafted human
walking motion, gleaned from motion-capture technology, onto digital dinosaur
models, augmenting their upper bodies and tails with key frame animation. “At
one point, we tried having actors use their hands for dinosaur jaw motion,”
laughs Blank. “That didn’t work out so well, but it was entertaining to watch.”

“In every episode, we’re working out the kinks,” adds Braga. “Even though the
show focuses on character, we wanted to make sure we didn’t get into a situation
of ‘Where did all the dinosaurs go?'”

[Images: Courtesy of Brannon Braga/Fox]

Follow @fastcompany.

About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science, autonomous vehicles, and the future of transportation. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Scientific American, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel and the West Bank, and Southeast Asia