20 Years of The Future is Wild

[This blog post is a written counterpart to my presentation at Specposium 2022]

On June 25, 2022, a little show finished its run on educational TV stations in the UK. At the end of that year, an hour-and-a-half edit version aired on American television. It spawned a multimedia franchise that extended into publishing, museum exhibits, children’s cartoons, and a manga. That’s right, today we’re talking about The Future is Wild.

“All these organisms are plausible. Are they going to happen? We don’t know, but they could, and that’s part of the beauty of it.” – Stephen Palumbi, The Future is Wild, 2002

The Future is Wild is the brainchild of producer Jo Adams. With a background in documentary production, she came up with an idea: what would life look like in the future? This was an idea that would mix creativity and scientific grounding, that would make education fun, that would inspire people, and that couldn’t be easily copied by other networks as with other nature documentaries (Adams et al. 2000; King 2003). The first thing she did was bring Dougal Dixon aboard – as you may know, Dougal Dixon is the pioneer of future speculative evolution, having written After Man (a book with a similar premise) in the early 80’s. To get that desired scientific grounding, she assembled a team of consultants to help design the future world and the creatures within. Among these were paleontologist Phil Currie, marine biologist Stephen Palumbi, zoologist R. McNeill Alexander (who also worked on National Geographic’s Extraterrestrials), paleobotanist (and wizard) Bruce Tiffney, and malacologist William Gilly (who, as I found out during my research for this, offers dead Humboldt squids to interested science classrooms).

[side note: Adams is trans; older The Future is Wild media credits her by her deadname]

The process of designing The Future is Wild was three-fold. First, the geography. Geologists were consulted on how tectonic drift would change the arrangements of the continents at 5, 100, and 200 million years in the future. Predicting future plate tectonics is a topic I’ve talked about here before. Ultimately, the show used the Novopangaea model (i.e., the supercontinent forms as the Pacific Ocean closes, and the Atlantic forms the next superocean). Next, the climate for each of the three times was predicted; this would guide the environments that would be featured. 5 million years was predicted to be an icehouse world, with large ice caps over the poles; 100 million years was predicted to be a hothouse world, with global swamps and worldwide tropics; 200 million years was predicted to have a global climate similar to that of the Triassic, based on the presence of the supercontinent. That all checks out, and stands up as plausible, except maybe the ice world; one study estimates that anthropogenic climate change will likely delay the return of a glacial period by at least 100,00 years (Ganopolski et al. 2016). After that, then the creatures were designed to fit these environments. Most of the creature design work was done by Dougal Dixon and R. McNeill Alexander (Adams et al. 2000, Naish 2014).

After all that was planned out, they went out and filmed at various places across the world (they got a lot of mileage out of Argentine national parks). Overall, the series had a budget of about 5 million GBP – comparable to the budget of Walking with Dinosaurs. While the series prominently uses CGI, there were some practical effects as well – at least two flish props were made. I wonder what happened to them. The CGI has.. not aged particularly well, but since this was released in early 2002, it is forgiven. I will note that one of the reasons why mammals go extinct so quickly (with only the poggle left by 100 million years) is likely because hair is hard to render with 2002-era CGI. Even Walking with Beasts, with its relatively large budget of ~7-8 million GBP (Haines 2002), “cheated” by giving most of its mammals flat textures, with only a few (such as mammoths) having individually rendered hair.

The scientific plausibility of the Future is Wild’s creatures has been discussed time and time again; Pavel Volkov has an exhaustive critique here. So I’ll try to give a bit of insight on the “whys” behind the designs. As well as the aforementioned constraint on furry creatures, the series avoided reusing any specific concepts from After Man because, at the time, After Man‘s film rights were with Dreamworks, and they wanted to avoid any potential legal issues (Naish 2014). Nevertheless, a few ideas used in Dixon’s earlier works show up again here, including large marine birds, things evolving naked mole rat-style eusociality, and amphibious cephalopods. The general process seems to have been: someone comes up with an idea; Dougal Dixon fleshed it out into a full creature; it got reviewed by the biologists for plausiblity; it got reviewed by the animators to see if it could be visualized (The Future is Wild Ltd. 2002). Although some of the ideas may seem implausible, there were ideas that were shot down by the consultants for being biologically impossible (Adams et al. 2000); those have never been revealed, so you can only imagine what those were. Some of the critters are heavily inspired by real animals living or extinct (which is unsurprising; ). Here are some notes:

  • Humans were removed early on in development because they wanted natural processes to run without human interference (Adams et al. 2000)
  • The Carakillers are very strongly modeled on terror birds, down to having the clawed fingers that terror birds were thought to have had at the time
  • Apparently the Great Blue Windrunner, a four-winged bird, had nothing to do with Microraptor, since the first four-winged specimens of Microraptor weren’t published until after The Future is Wild stopped airing; Phil Currie came up with the idea independently (Naish 2014)
  • Similarly, Deathgleaners, being large flighted predatory bats portrayed as feeding terrestrially, remind me of azhdarchids, even though terrestrial stalking in azhdarchids wasn’t recognized until 2008 (Witton and Naish 2008)
  • The size of the Toratons were based on R. McNeill Alexander’s calculations for how big a turtle could get, even if it were to end up not resembling a turtle very closely at all (Adams et al. 2000)
  • A whole course of plant evolution was mapped out for the future, but only bits of it made it into the show (Adams et al. 2000)
  • An early version of the Rainbow Squid had more obvious rows of bioluminescent spots, more closely resembling a giant firefly squid (Adams et al. 2000)
  • The Flish came from a thought experiment, to see whether a flying animal could evolve directly from an aquatic animal without going through a terrestrial phase. The musculature of the Flish was worked from modern fish musculature to get it to fly; the musculature around the base of the neck are super beefy and, according to R. McNeill Alexander, would taste good. Concept art was made for multiple species of Flish with different color schemes, including those based on terns, grebes, cormorants, and avocets (Adams et al. 2000)
  • The terrestrial cephalopods came about from discussions between Dougal Dixon and R. McNeill Alexander; the latter apparently managed to calculate a way for cephalopod arm musculature to support an eight-ton animal on land, which led to the development of the Megasquid (Radford 2003)
  • It’s been noted online that the dynamic of the Silverspiders and the Poggles parallels the dynamic between the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine (the former lives in caves and collects food for the latter, which is in turn eaten). Dougal Dixon has cited this book as one of his biggest inspirations (Naish 2014), so if it’s intentional this would be a cool little reference

Honestly, scientific plausibility aside, I love all the Future is Wild creatures. They have such charisma. My favorite is the Gannetwhale.

The beach is inhabited by friends.

The Future is Wild aired on TV across the world. It has been aired in three formats: 13 half-hour episodes, 3 half-hour episodes (one for each time period), and the 1.5-hour-long edit that appeared on Animal Planet. While most of the series implies that humans went extinct, the Animal Planet edit provided an alternate explanation for humanity’s disappearance: we moved to space, and periodically sent back space probes to check in on evolution on Earth. This is the version I grew up with, so I have a lot of nostalgia for it. Apparently this approach was mandated by Animal Planet, who had a bee in their bonnet about wanting to know where humans went. So we have two versions, the more serious documentary that Europe got and the more family-oriented American cut (Coules 2015). I think it works – both approaches have their merits. Allegedly in 2008, the Discovery Channel aired a special that combined clips of The Future is Wild with a feature about the development of the video game Spore. Information on this is incredibly difficult to find, and the only primary sources I can find for its existence are an IMDB page and this post on the GameFAQs forums.

And it only grew from there. Dixon and Adams coauthored a book about the series (Dixon and Adams 2002), and an updated ebook version that implemented VR was released in 2014 (Dixon and Adams 2014). Takaaki Ogawa, previously known for making a manga adaptation of Dixon’s earlier spec evo book The New Dinosaurs, made one for The Future is Wild as well (Ogawa 2006). I personally love it. An educational CD-ROM was released in 2006, in which the player collected data on future environments and creatures. I love educational CD games from the early 2000s and would love to get my hands on a copy, but unfortunately it’s near-impossible to find (so if you have one, contact me). An animated kids’ TV series co-produced by Canadian animation giant Nelvana was aired in 2007. Exhibits opened up in France, Australia, Germany, and Japan; these combined models of the future creatures with augmented reality. The Kingman Museum in Battle Creek, Michigan apparently shows a 20-minute The Future is Wild film in the planetarium; based on trailers and stills, it looks like new footage was rendered for this. If it’s still showing, I gotta go there.

Apparently the French exhibit Les Animaux du Futur sold a poggle plush in the gift shop. I would kill for one of these.

Where is The Future is Wild going next? A few projects have been announced, but not much has been heard in the past few years. Vanguard Films was announced to be producing a sci-fi action-adventure series based on The Future is Wild (Whittock 2016), but nothing has been heard about that since. I hope it’s still in development. Some projects have failed: a planned film adaptation was quashed by the success of Avatar, and they were planning on making a second season of the series, but the Discovery Channel decided to shift towards reality TV and cut the funding (Naish 2014). The Future is Wild VR, an in-development virtual reality game, was announced in 2016 with the showcasing of a few tech demos. Jo Adams and Dougal Dixon are still involved, and two creatures confirmed for the VR game were revived from the Future is Wild archives, presumably originating with the canceled second season (Hillmann 2017). This announcement got a lot of people hyped, but initial excitement at its announcement faded to disappointment and controversy with the reveal of…

… the titan dolphin. Yeah. Not only does it look like, uh, that, it was also listed as existing 200 million years in the future – when, according to FiW canon, mammals are extinct. Thankfully, according to developer Cornel Hillman, this is a placeholder based on an early concept. It’s intended only to be used in tech demos, and probably won’t be present in the final concept (there will be lots of revision and feedback cycles before it’s done). The VR game was reported to still be in progress in 2019 (Hillmann 2019), but little word has come since then. But don’t take the lack of updates as a sign that it’s dead. Projects take a lot of time to develop, and it’s common practice to be very hush-hush until it’s near time to release. So give it some time.

What do I think, personally? For all its flaws, I love The Future is Wild. My biggest grievance with it scientifically is that everything happens too quickly – I don’t think we’d be down to one mammal in 100 million years and no tetrapods at all in only 200. I’d prefer it if it were more stretched out chronologically. But the creativity and charisma of each of the future animals, and the fact that this was the first project to really lay down a timeline for the far future (continental drift and all), has endeared it to me. Plus, I grew up with it, so there’s the nostalgia factor as well. The fact that it stretched hundreds of millions of years into the future was just cool to child me. I wanted to visit the deserts of Pangaea II. And nothing else could give you that, until people who grew up watching this started making their own speculative evolution projects and put them on the internet. It hooked me on the concept of speculative evolution for life. And I for one will be eagerly looking forward to more The Future is Wild material.

If you want to watch The Future is Wild, preowned DVDs are commonly available online, and it’s apparently streaming on Tubi right now (or, alternatively, you can look for it on YouTube or Dailymotion or something). The books and manga can be purchased online if you know where to look. The Nelvana cartoon is on Prime Video, and the Animal Planet edit is on YouTube. Videos discussing the series have been put on YouTube, including those by Curious Archive and Billiam.

I swear I’ll get back to paleontological topics soon. Stay tuned!

References

Adams, J.; Alexander, R.M.; Dixon, D.; P. Reddish (2000). “ZDF Press Conference”. The Future is Wild DVD.
Coules, V. (2015). “The Future is Wild”. TetZooCon 2015, London.
Dixon, D.; Adams, J. (2003). The Future is Wild. Firefly Press.
Dixon, D.; Adams, J. (2014). The Future is Wild: The Living Book. The Future is Wild Australia.
Ganopolski, A.; Winkelmann, R.; Schellnhuber, H.J. (2016). “Critical insolation-CO2 relation for diagnosing past and future glacial inception“. Nature 529: 200-3.
Haines, T. (2002). “Tim Haines Production Interview”. Walking with Beasts DVD.
Hillmann, C. (2017). “The Future is Wild – Modeling & VR production“. AsiaVR Tech Talks, Singapore.
Hillmann, C. (2019). “The Future is Wild VR: Update“. Studio CGArtist.
King, S. (2003). “A Wild and Woolly Look Into the Future“. Los Angeles Times.
Naish, D. (2014). “Of After Man, The New Dinosaurs and Greenworld: an interview with Dougal Dixon“. Tetrapod Zoology.
Ogawa, T. (2006). Future is Wild Comic Version: World Life After 200 Million Years of Amazing Evolution. Diamond, Inc.
Radford, T. (2003). “It is AD 200 million – and the megasquid rules“. The Guardian.
The Future is Wild Ltd. (2002). “ZDF Making Of”. The Future is Wild DVD.
Whittock, J. (2016). “Shrek producer to reboot evolution show“. Television Business International.
Witton, M.P.; Naish, D. (2008). “A Reappraisal of Azhdarchid Pterosaur Functional Morphology and Paleoecology“. PLoS One 3(5): e2271.

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