Whatever one may think of it as a movie, 1993’s Jurassic Park forever altered the way that we view dinosaurs. That film’s computer graphics brought the creatures to life in a way unimagined by prior visions, and it helped make millions much better aware of the different critters.
The film’s influence affects additional works, as we see during When Dinosaurs Roamed America, a recent program from the Discovery Channel. The show relies heavily on computer-animated creatures to tell its tale, as we watch their evolution through different eras until their eventual demise millions of years ago.
Actually, although Jurassic Park launched the on-going dino renaissance, Roamed owes more to a different piece of work. As I watched the show, it seemed very clear that it was cut from the same cinematic cloth as 2000’s Disney flick Dinosaur. Both used live action backgrounds as the settings for their computer critters, and they worked out ways to effectively get the non-existent beings to interact with their surroundings. Dinosaur did this more effectively, as the backgrounds of Roamed mainly exist in a static way; the creatures interact with each other and additional elements, but the settings are fairly inert. However, since Dinosaur clearly had a much higher budget and scope, I don’t regard this as a flaw of the Discovery Channel program.
During Roamed, we occasionally find comments from paleontologists who are seen among historical relics. However, the emphasis remains on the creatures themselves, as the vast majority of the show depicts them in their day-to-day lives. Narrated by John Goodman - I guess because of his starring role in The Flintstones - the program follows different species of dinosaurs across the epochs, as some go away and others emerge. The different varieties are detailed in a quick but efficient manner that reveals basic details. It doesn’t provide a great deal of depth, but it covers a lot of ground in an effective manner.
Roamed is a decent program, but I must admit it left me a little cold. I’m interested in dinosaurs, but I can’t claim to be fascinated with them. Still, I thought I’d be more entertained by the show. Part of its problem stems from the way it attempts to straddle the world of story and history. Roamed never anthropomorphizes dinosaurs ala the Disney film, and it tries to present them in a natural and accurate manner. As such, it doesn’t really form any kind of actual storyline, though species are covered in chronological order until T-rex and triceratops marked the end of the line.
While the program creates no plot, it does seem to attempt a flow that resembles a narrative. We see how different species evolve into newer forms, and though that subtext seems logical, it becomes a little unwieldy at times. In a way, because it somewhat suggests a storyline, it means that the absence of a concrete tale seems even more apparent. I hate to fault the program for its somewhat ambitious sweep, but I feel this straddling of the line between narrative and free-form becomes awkward.
Nonetheless, When Dinosaurs Roamed America offers a reasonably solid view of those creatures’ history. To be certain, its parade through the millennia works much better than the inane coming of age story found in T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous. Roamed’s production values are good but unexceptional. Computer-animated critters mesh acceptably well with live action backgrounds, though the results certainly don’t compare with work like Dinosaur, and the quality of the artwork also doesn’t match up with the Disney effort. However, I’d have to assume that Roamed had a much smaller budget, so I didn’t expect visuals on the same level.
Although When Dinosaurs Roamed America didn’t greatly light my fire, I feel that it provides a fairly well-executed and interesting examination of the creatures. It strives for a high level of accuracy and it focuses squarely on the beasts themselves rather than extraneous material. The show works as a whole and will likely please budding paleontologists in the audience.
When Dinosaurs Roamed America appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.77:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, the program offered a very fine picture that suffered from virtually no significant problems.
Sharpness usually appeared nicely crisp and distinct. During a few wider shots, I thought the image became a little soft, but this was a very minor concern. For the most part, the show stayed detailed and well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and I also witnessed no signs of any print flaws. Grain, grit, speckles or other defects seemed to be absent from the proceedings.
As one might expect from this kind of piece, Dinosaurs featured a naturalistic palette, and the DVD replicated the earthy tones well. Browns and greens dominated the piece, and they seemed to be accurate and warm. When brighter colors appeared, they also came across as vivid and concise. Dinosaur blood looked oddly purplish - were they related to Klingons? - but that was clearly a design choice; I guess the show’s producers wanted to keep the proceedings family friendly, which meant unrealistic blood.
Black levels appeared nicely deep and dark, and contrast was solid. Shadow detail seemed to be clear and appropriately opaque, with no signs of heaviness. Sometimes the image looked slightly bland, but that was due to the video source material and the settings; all those forest shots could be a bit drab. Nonetheless, I found the picture of When Dinosaurs Roamed America to be a very satisfying affair.
Also good was the program’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Music was the most prominent element of this mix, which mainly favored the forward channels. The score showed find stereo imaging in the front, and the music also spread neatly to the rear channels. Effects occasionally became involving, but they often remained more subdued. The front speakers showed some good localization and panning at times, but mostly the mix provided general ambience such as insect noises. Some louder scenes brought the track to life, and those could become fairly exciting, but mainly the mix stuck with a more atmospheric, music-oriented affair.
Audio quality appeared to be solid. Dialogue always sounded natural and warm, and I heard no problems related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects were accurate and precise, and they showed no signs of distortion. Those elements could have displayed strong low-end, though; while their bass levels were decent, the stomps of the dinosaurs and other aspects of the track could have been richer and louder. Music demonstrated fine clarity and dynamic range, as the score blasted effectively throughout the show. Ultimately, this was a good soundtrack that worked well for the program.
Although When Dinosaurs Roamed America includes a mix of extras, this list is somewhat deceiving. On the surface, the DVD looks like it features a ton of materials, but the reality is less exciting.
Two Behind the Scenes pieces appear. The first lasts for three minutes and it discusses the technical processes used to create the show. The second runs for 150 seconds and it takes a closer look at the connection between dinosaurs and birds. Both are very promotional and superficial; they add little depth to the subject.
The Dinosaur Quiz offers 10 questions about the topic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really test the viewer because each multiple-choice query and its answer appear on the same screen! The material is decent, but this took any potential fun out of the contest.
Dinosaur Facts provides additional information about the creatures. We find 10 topics such as “How dinosaurs are named”, with accompanying text details. These were mildly interesting but unspectacular.
More text information appears in the Paleontologist Interview and the Animator Interview. Why these aren’t offered as video programs is anyone’s guess, but instead we find written notes. The former chats with Jim Kirkland and Doug Wolfe, while the latter gives us comments from Doug Waller. Both were decent but not terribly eventful, though they did shed additional light on the show and the subject matter.
Biographies adds text entries for the “on-air paleontologists and consultants”. Essentially these consist of credential listings for Karen Chin, Philip J. Curie, Thomas R. Holtz Jr., James Kirkland, Paul E. Olsen, David Weishample and Doug Wolfe. Each participant receives one screen of information. Music Score adds an additional biography for composer Christopher Franke.
A couple of video pieces round out the package. The 115-second Music Video simply consists of behind the scenes shots of the animators and elements of the live action shoot combined with a bouncy pop-rock tune; I won’t ever watch it again. Dinosaur Graphics provides animated turnarounds in which we see a mix of beasties as they spin slowly in front of us. The 85-second piece offers a little additional detail to our observations, but not much.
Despite that mixed bag of extras, When Dinosaurs Roamed America offered a reasonably positive package. The show itself was a little dry at times, and its attempts to create an overarching narrative fell slightly flat, but as a whole, it seemed well made and compelling. The DVD provided very fine picture and sound plus a minor complement of supplements. Dinosaur fans should enjoy this set.