Over the past decade and a half there has been a major surge in paleo-themed educational programming on networks such as the Discovery Channel. Despite all of the advancements in the technology behind these sorts of programs, there is one aspect of them that never seemed to catch up... despite it being a simple fix that any trained compositor should know how to do.
Many of these programs like to simplify the production process, as well as enhance the believability of the images by filming background plates, and compositing the animated extinct beasties into the shots. This is a great technique, which provides photo-real environments (since, well, they are real) without requiring digital artists to recreate entire paleo-environments from scratch.
Putting aside any problems and inaccuracies in modeling, shading, or animation of the creatures, these programs almost never seem to be well composited into the environments. Sure lighting is taken into account, secondary effects like footprints, splashes, or rustling of plants are added, and everything is done correctly when rendering the images out of whatever package they may be using. But what needs to be realized, is that simply rendering the thing out and slapping it on a background isn't all it takes to sell these things. It is only the first step.
The images need to be tweaked and tweaked and tweaked, then watched, and re-tweaked until they are as integrated as they can be for the given production timeline and budget. Most of the time, the images are very close to being final, but there is always one part that the people working on these programs somehow always miss.
Film has artifacts. There is film grain, motion blur, depth of field, lens flares, noise, lens distortions and film scratches that happen as a result of shooting live plates. When images are rendered out of CG software, they have a tendency to look too clean. These clean, sharply high resolution images layered on top of filmed footage (with plenty of grime and artifacts) simply look wrong. It takes the viewer out of it. The fix to this is to dirty up the rendered frames in the composite. It is way easier to dirty up clean, sharp, unnaturally perfect renders than it is to clean up dirty film. I understand that a lot of time is put into the textures and shading of the animals, and one might not want to dirty up his or her images because of all that time put into making everything beautiful, but these renders are only one element of the final image. If the composites aren't convincing, the viewer will have a hard time believing they are looking into the past, no matter how good everything else is.
It is a very simple fix that not enough people seem to take the time to do. Adding and adjusting grain, noise, and defocus nodes to a comp, as well as simply grading them properly, is a relatively simple final step to making these things feel fully integrated.
Here's an example to help illustrate this from a personal school project of mine (click image for larger view):
This post was inspired by the fact that I just finished watching David Attenborough's "First Life" on discovery channel in full HD. It was gorgeous, and the animation, and shading in particular, of the critters was truly top notch...possibly even the best I've seen on the Discovery Channel to date (the rendering of Opabinia was particularly inspiring).
This being said, the final step in compositing mentioned above wasn't taken into account as much as it should have been. It was way better than a lot of these types of programs, but some things still seemed just too sharp. It took me out of the informative narrative and encouraged me to write this post.
Sorry for the length...I really didn't mean for it to go this long. Moral of the story, we need better (or at least more attentive) compositors in the realm of paleoart programming. The end.