Dinosaurs stomp through Sinking Ship

Mix Daniel Cook with Don Henderson of Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum and you get Dan Henderson – the name of the lead character in Dino Dan, the new CG/live-action kids series from Toronto’s Sinking Ship Entertainment.

‘Dino Dan’s not your typical show,’ says producer, director and writer J.J. Johnson. ‘We bring the dinosaurs to present time, thanks to CGI work.’

The series is led by 11-year-old Jason Spevack (The Stone Angel) who, as Dan, asks a question at the beginning of each show such as ‘How tall were dinosaurs?’ The following episode sees Dan conjuring up dinos all around him to answer that question.

‘You might see dinosaurs up against a school bus or in the street,’ says Johnson, who co-created the series with Cook, the 11-year-old best known as host of This Is Daniel Cook.

Johnson’s known Cook for more than six years, having worked with him on the hit kids series that saw him interview the likes of former PM Paul Martin and Kim Cattrall. He even co-hosted an episode of Oprah. Johnson is familiar with Cook’s love of all things prehistoric.

‘The one thing that’s always defined him is his love of dinosaurs,’ says Johnson. ‘He started filming This Is Daniel Cook wanting to be a paleontologist, and 100 episodes later he still wants to be just that.’

Cook doesn’t act in Dino Dan, but will appear in webisodes.

Blair Powers, Matt Bishop and Johnson, partners at Sinking Ship, exec produce. The 26 x 30 series is budgeted at just over $210,000 per episode. It is filming on weekends until next September at a school in Toronto’s upscale Forest Hill neighborhood. Andrea Martin guests as a quirky art teacher and Kevin McDonald appears as a librarian.

Toronto-based Optix Digital Pictures is creating the CGI dinosaurs and related effects in a process that they estimate will take eight months. There’s roughly 2.5 minutes of CGI dinosaurs per episode. Dino Dan’s world so far has 18 dinosaurs, 14 that are photorealistic and ‘four babies that are ridiculously cute,’ says Johnson.

Laurence Cymet, CG supervisor at Optix, says R&D began in April. ‘The tricky thing here is there’s no visual reference,’ says Cymet. ‘Much of the artwork around [about dinosaurs] is wrong, so we’re working with Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum for accuracy on all on our models.’

This is Optix’s first major dinosaur project. The constant back and forth with the museum required a pipeline with major flexibility to allow for updates to the models. Each dinosaur went through eight passes before being locked in a process Johnson calls ‘painfully thorough, but necessary.’

‘But it also means these dinosaurs are going to be cutting-edge,’ says Cymet.

‘The museum kept saying, ‘You’re too mammalian-thinking. You’ve got to remember they’re reptiles.’ So we went back to the drawing board a few times,’ says Johnson. ‘Now our triceratops moves like it should, like a lizard.

‘We’re trying to live up to what kids’ imaginations peg dinosaurs at,’ he adds. ‘And Daniel is always the voice in my mind as to what kids are interested in.’

Dino Dan is expected to go to air in January 2010 on TVO, Access Alberta, Knowledge and SCN in Canada, as well as Noggin in the U.S. and Nickelodeon Australia.