Planet Earth: “Every Shot Had To Be A Rembrandt”

That was BBC producer Alastair Fothergill’s edict to his crew of established wildlife filmmakers during their five-year work on filming Planet Earth, a terrific, 11-part series premiering on Discovery Channel and Discovery HD Theater March 25, and airing Sundays. And they more than made good on that.

Every scene does, indeed, captivate the eye and the imagination as it reintroduces audiences to the wonders of a planet we have increasingly taken for granted. New animal behavior and new locations never before captured on film are simply amazing as the series visits the Arctic, Antarctic and everyplace in between.

The filmmakers were aided by incredible new technologies — such as the heligimbal, allowing for smooth aerial shots. But the long time allowed in the shooting schedule also gave filmmakers a chance to return to the roots of natural history filmmaking, such as patiently waiting in the brush for animals to do their things.

It also allowed time for some interesting stories to develop. In preparation of this awe-inspiring series, I talked with four of the filmmakers on the series — Mark Brownlow, Huw Cordey, Doug Allan and Sue Flood — who regaled me with some of their whirlwind adventures filming this epic series.

Mark Brownlow

Brownlow produced the “Fresh Water” and “Shallow Seas” episodes of “Planet Earth.” In pointing out how the series captures the biggest, mightiest, most unprecedented locations and behaviors, Brownlow jokes: “We challenge all your viewers to have a tequila shot every time they hear a superlative [in the narration]!”

“Fresh Water” is a journey from mountain streams downward, where we feature the world’s mightiest rivers and lakes. We go everywhere from mountain peaks of Venezuela, where we fall over the world’s highest waterfalls, Angel Falls, to digging under the ice in Siberia. It’s new wildlife, new behavior, new locations. Within that there’s some great dramas. Whether it be mass packs of giant others fighting with mugger crocodiles to quirky, bizarre creatures like the giant salamander, which hasn’t really been seen outside of Japan before.

“Shallow Seas” is a journey from the tropics to the temperate [oceans]. We use humpback whales as our protagonists to take us on this journey from the sterile tropics … to the temperate seas, which are the great feeding grounds of the world’s oceans.

We went to newly discovered [coral reefs in Indonesia]. There’s more species of fish and corals on one reef than the whole of the Caribbean. And it’s there that we found these unique, bizarre worlds within worlds of pygmy seahorses — smaller than your thumbnail — head butting each other; bizarre, flashing clams which look electric; [and] one scene I’m most proud of, which is never-before-seen gangs of sea snakes, 30 plus, on the raid. They actually team up and cooperate with bigger fish to get at tiny reef fish that hide in the coral heads.

Every film had its own unique set of challenges, whether it be difficult wildlife, or people. Filming otters in southern India, the first trip we did the crew were chased out by the local bandit king. We got whiff that two of his gang were caught by the police and were due to be executed, so he was looking for leverage. He got whiff there was a BBC film crew out there. The crew got out just in time. Three days later they attacked the camp. He was shot by the police subsequently, which enabled us to go back.

Huw Cordey

Producer of the “Caves,” “Deserts” and “Jungles” episodes, Cordey told me that, “I think that all of us producers on the series would treat every shot like a baby — take it out and carefully stroke it, and then put it back in. If it didn’t come up to scratch … we either tried to fix it, or we dropped it.

“One of the aims of the production teams was to reignite people’s interest in the natural world. I think by pushing the boundaries as far as we have, it’s going to stimulate excitement in the planet again.”

Getting closes to the Bactrian camels [in the “Deserts” episode] was very challenging. We invested a huge amount of time and energy. Just to get to the Gobi Desert to the camels took three to four days of driving. And we were using GPS to find our way across the center of Mongolia. There’s only 700 kilometers of road in the entire country. We went on 400 of them, and mostly we had to drive off the roads because the quality of the asphalt was so poor. And then it was literally driving along tracks using GPS. There were no signposts, few people around to ask. You would have thought a place the size of Belgium wouldn’t be difficult to find, but it was. [Then] actually finding the animals themselves was even more of a challenge. This is an animal that can spot you from about 4 kilometers, can run in the opposite direction for about 70. They’ve got excellent sense of smell, excellent sight, excellent hearing. So we probably had six decent filmmaking opportunities within two months. But that’s what the aim of Planet Earth was – to take viewers to places they hadn’t been to before.

Another [experience] perhaps stands out, with the birds of paradise in “Jungles.” The cameraman spent 600 hours in hides to get those shots. We probably had less than 50 minutes of behavior, and it happened over two months. So a single person spending 600 hours in a small, one meter-by-one meter bush hide, between seven and 10 hours a day, waiting for an animal to do something. We filmed one bird of paradise for the first time ever, displaying [its mating dance].

[Once, it was] in the middle of the night, filming a very unusual animal called a colugo, sort of a flying lemur. It launches off of trees and can glide up to 100 meters. In the process of filming it, one of our researchers was bitten by a pit viper. Which could have killed him; he was very lucky in that the snake didn’t actually envenomate him properly. He was fine; in fact, he was back filming the following day.

We filmed in “Jungles” this really weird, kind of science fiction sequence of a parasitic fungus, which infects invertebrates. We filmed it in the Amazon. Never been filmed before, the whole process of this invertebrate being infected by this spore, than having the fungus burst out of the body of the insect. It’s an astonishing shot where the fungus grows out of the head of an ant. A scientist got wind of it and emailed me and said, “Could I possibly have a copy of the tape?” Within three days of transmission he was in touch, and he wanted to show the sequence at a conference he was going to in Thailand. Subsequently, it was picked up, and now it’s on You Tube!

“Caves” was the same. We spent time filming things that probably few people would want to spend a minute in. For example, spending a week on a 100-meter mound of bat guano, which was covered with hundreds of thousands of cockroaches. It took about five days to get a tracking shot up this mound. The first time we tried to do it, a piece of this tracking dolly dropped in the guano, and we couldn’t find it. [Then] there’s an amazing cave in New Mexico that’s closed to the public. It took two years for us to negotiate permission with the National Park authorities to go into the cave. We spent 10 days living underground in this cave to get the shots. We had to do that because it took eight hours from the surface to our base camp [in the cave]. But it was probably one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve ever had. You wouldn’t have thought spending 10 days deep in the earth away from sunlight would be a pleasurable experience, but it was absolutely amazing to be in this pristine, otherworldly environment, and to film it, possibly for the last time. We were able to do that because we had such a long period of filming.

[Then] there were opportunities where you went to all that effort, but you came back with nothing. Fortunately, it didn’t happen very often. [In one case,] I organized two 2-month shoots to this very remote river system in Guiana, which took 10 days to get to from the nearest town. It was one of the most incredible places I’d every heard of in terms of a rainforest location. Having spent a lot of time in the Amazon, I was incredibly excited about the potential. But we virtually got nothing in two 2-month shoots because of weather. The first year, Guiana had their worst flood in 90 years, and the second year, they had their worst dry season for 30 years.

Doug Allan

Veteran cameraman Allan filmed amazing shots of a mother polar bear and her cubs, the rare snow leopard, eider ducks feeding below ice and humpback whales and their calves. He recounted his experiences with the polar bears in his charming Scottish accent.

The program got unique access to Kong Karls Land, this particular denning area for polar bears, in the Norwegian arctic. This was the first time any film crew had ever been allowed there; it’s a protected area. The BBC had been trying to get there for at least 20 years. In order to minimize the disturbance, we had to do everything on foot. We were helicoptered in with all that we needed for five weeks, then we walked around several valleys waiting for the bears to show themselves. It was just over three weeks before the first bear showed itself. Very luckily it was just in a perfect position. It took a couple of days for her cubs to appear. Then we had 12 days. That was one of the best experiences. This was wildlife filmmaking as simple as you possibly could have it — two guys filming these animals. We watched the cubs getting more confident over the slopes.

It was windier, colder and more icy than we expected. It was so windy and so cold that the snow was completely frozen to ice. On the slopes that the bears were on, we could barely stand on them, and it was no wonder that the wee bears were slipping all the time. To see those cubs from the first time they stuck their heads out to them being taken out on the sea ice was a privilege. Oddly enough, what started off as a pain in the backside — i.e., no snow machines — by the end I came to realize that this was another added factor. When you’re walking everywhere it’s like you really enter the bear’s world. You became aware of different textures of snow underneath your feet and you would automatically keep to the hard bits so you weren’t breaking through up to your knees. You could tell stepping out of the hut if it was a few degrees colder than the day before. It became a case of thinking like a bear.

Sue Flood

Freelance filmmaker Flood worked on the “Frozen Worlds” and “Shallow Seas” episodes, and is married to Allan, whom she joined to film the humpback whales around Tonga in the South Pacific.

The shoot for me that was really one of the best experiences of my life was filming humpback whales. We just had some incredible luck with the whales. It was a really special place. When I was trying to get shots and trying to film Doug with the whale, this particular calf swam over toward me. All of a sudden the calf’s coming closer, and it just turned and kind of gave me a flip with its tail. It was just like someone picking up a plank and hitting you on the ankle. Unfortunately I ended up in the hospital, thinking I’d broken my leg, but luckily I hadn’t. I dropped my camera, so as the whale hit me I screamed and let go of the camera. The camera was going down, so Doug, basically given the choice between rescuing his screaming wife and the camera, made the decision that of course every cameraman would make — and, of course, went after the camera!

— Jeff Pfeiffer

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