Life: Get Ready To Be Wowed Again With Another Landmark Discovery Series

From the same BBC and Discovery collaboration that wowed viewers with Blue Planet and Planet Earth comes the new 11-part series, Life. When it begins airing Sundays starting March 21 on Discovery Channel (HD), it will be the culmination of four years of filming, with 150 different expeditions spanning all the continents.

I got a chance to speak with Mike Gunton, the executive producer of the series, who has worked creating wildlife documentaries for 20 years. Afterwards, I talked with Stephen Lyle, who worked on the “Plants” and “Birds” segments and who, as our interview reveals, has an incredible fascination with the artistic bowerbird. Given the photo accompanying this article, it’s no wonder!


With 3,000 days of filming, you must have had so much content. Do you decide ahead of time what to film?

Mike Gunton: Yes, particularly in this kind of series where we are trying to tell these very specific stories. Each story within each film was decided on — sort of scripted out in our heads. And the cameramen would go out with the specific task of catching that particular piece of an animal’s behavior.

How did you find the stories used in this series?

The longer you are in the game of doing this the harder it is to find things that are new because the easy things have all been done. [So] we rely enormously on the scientific and natural history community out there — the people who are out in the field studying the animals and observing them. They pick up these amazing pieces of behavior [and] we have these huge tentacles of contacts whom we phone up and say, “Have you see this? We want to do a story like this?” And it’s amazing what people will say, such as, “Yes I have see these wonderful cheetahs that have just got together, these three brothers that are hunting in a way we have never seen before.” And that’s where we get our leads. It’s like journalism. You have your contacts and contacts meet contacts meet contacts.

Doesn’ there seem to be an almost insatiable hunger for these incredible nature shows?

There’s a fascination seeing animals doing extraordinary things, beyond the range of human experience. At one end, you have circuses. People used to love to see animals doing weird things or freakish things in circuses. But the natural world does still continue to throw up things that your jaw drops at. I thought I knew a lot about that type of animal then someone says, “Aha! We’ve just seen them doing something completely different that nobody’s ever seen before.” I think that fascination we have, the general audience has also. I think they like to stand around in a bar and say, “Did you see that amazing flying fish on telly last night?” I think they like that sharing of the wonders of nature.

So how much of all that filming you did hit the floor and are you ever going to do anything with what’s left?

It’s a good question to ask. There is an enormous amount of sifting of material. Probably for every 200 feet of film we shoot, one got used in this production. Of course a lot of that footage gets stored in our library and can be used for a different story, or it forms the basis of another filming trip. Natural history is quite unusual in this respect, in that the footage has significant long-term value and can be used in a variety of different ways.

Were there any disappointments in this series?

Inevitably, there were. [But] we were lucky. We had a low failure rate. That is largely because you do an enormous amount of sorting the odds before you even gets on a plane. You go at the right time with the right equipment and the right people to help you.

We went on a filming trip to Patagonia and spent five and a half weeks trying to get a story and just had to write it off … that’s compensated when we get so lucky that something we thought we would get in a month took two weeks. Unfortunately, that is rare.

Were you in the field as well?

Yes, that’s one of the privileges of the position. I can say, “I am not going to sit at a desk.” Often as you inch your way up the pole into more responsible positions, you get less and less involved in the actual filming, but I’ve always managed to get myself out. But that was four out of 150 or so.

Which shoots were you on?

Mexico for the migration of the Monarch butterflies, India on how the animals that tigers feed on collaborate on looking out for one another with warning calls. I went with the U.S. Antarctic Program to McMurdow and filmed on the Ross Ice Shelf, filming some time-lapse photography of all the creatures that live under the ice there. The divers had to take all their time-lapse equipment and drop it through a hole in the ice and set it all up and every day they had to go back and tend to it, about 100 dives for that one sequence. It was very cold and quite scary because when you are under the ice you can’t get up to the surface. There is just a small line that comes down the hole to mark the spot with a little flag. But there is amazing visibility so they could see where they were at.

Do you think the public’s hunger for wildlife is because people are becoming so much more aware that all of this can be taken from us?

There is not an explicit message in a series like Life. We are not saying specifically: “Do not cut down the rainforest. Do not hunt and destroy animals.” But we are saying, “Look at the extraordinary diversity of life on the planet. Look at how wonderful these animals lives are, how complicated and finely attuned to nature they are.” And when people see this and love it, they will want to look after it. It’s another approach to reminding people — maybe subliminally — to care about these places and the creatures that live in them.

I went to places early in my career that were wonderful and are now train crashed. But I also went to places then that were in a pretty bad state and are now actually turned round and the animals have come back and are looked after. Unfortunately, the net story is probably a negative one, but it isn’t all bad news. And there are still areas of largely untouched wilderness — and long may it last.

What does it take to be a really good nature cinematographer?

They are a funny breed, no question about it. I started off with a camera myself. As a student I made my own films, but I could never have made it as a wildlife cameraman. It’s a cliche, their patience. But it’s more than patience, it’s focus and absolute obsession on getting what they want. But combined with this amazing in-tune-ness with the natural world. They are so brilliant at knowing what the animal is going to do. They have that wonderful sense, and can predict the behavior. And they have wonderful fieldcraft; they can get close to the animals without disturbing them. Combine this, of course, with great technical skill because they are operating these cameras outside the range they are designed for — in the pouring rain, the freezing cold, the dusty desert. There are probably only 100 or so amazing ones in the world. It is quite an unusual talent.

What is life in the field like, particularly in these remote areas?

It depends a lot on the type of location. If you are filming a marine story, you tend to take a bigger crew because if you are diving you need people to help with the film and the dives themselves. But if you are going to very remote places, you need a bigger crew because you need people to set up a camp and help maintain what you need to live. But sometimes we have a cameraman go off on his own and be completely self-sufficient, but more often it’s two — the cameraman and the director. The biggest crew we had on Life was about 15 people. We were doing multi cameras with a crew in a helicopter, a crew on the boat, a crew in the water and a crew filming the crew.

One of the interesting stories was the one we filmed on the Komodo dragon hunt. The cameraman and director on that found the whole experience pretty extraordinary not just from a natural history perspective but from a personal perspective as well. It’s very powerful, very poignant, that journey they take from Canada. They went from “We’re going to go and make this amazing bit of filming” to “My God! This is like something out of Jurassic Park!” Their emotions are completely in turmoil. [The dragons] were probably the most scary things we filmed. There were other things that were faster or had a nastier bite but there was nothing quite so malevolent.

The Bowerbird — A Cameraman’s Fascination With The Feathered Artist

In West Papua New Guinea, a bird builds elaborate bowers on the forest floor then decorates them with the eye of a great interior designer. It’s all done to convince a lady bowerbird to visit his love nest for a brief tryst. Wildlife photographer Stephen Lyle was clearly smitten himself, as this interview proved. He even took a long recording of the bowerbird’s song and made a radio program about it. After hearing his description, it seems there should also be a CD.

The Bowerbird

I saw the photos of the work this little bird does. Tell me more about them.

Stephen Lyle: Every bower is different. Each individual bird makes its own artistic mark with its bower. It was an incredible piece of behavior and I really looked forward to this shoot. It was a year in the planning, just getting permission to film there. It was a big endeavor because we wanted to go to places far from civilization, because any time these birds get close to civilization, they tend to pick up any sort of human bric-a-brac and decorate their bowers with that. My cameraman plunked himself down in the blind and began to film and the bird sneaked in behind him and stole a Twix wrapper from his lunchbox. The first he knew of this was when it showed up in the bird’s bower.

We were trying to get a successful courtship. The story became a competition between two males, neighbors in fact, who had very different bowers. It became fascinating for us to try to work out which bower was proving more successful with the ladies. That was the key thing for us, really. We also had to make a decision which bower was most likely to succeed, which, in hindsight, was quite incredible. In one, the way the objects were arranged seemed more pleasing, a bit more touch of the artist, if you like. As it turned out, this male was the more successful.

His neighbor did not have a successful courtship. He may still have had a bit to learn. One of the things in his bower was a pile of deer droppings. He was very proud of them but one of the issues for him was that each day a fungus would grow on the pile of droppings. This wasn’t part of his grand artistic scheme so each morning one of his first jobs would be to pluck all of these mushrooms off his pile of dung.

After all this work, to the birds mate for life or is the male just creating a little love nest?

They do not mate for life, and that is one of the reasons the male goes to such extremes to win his right to mate. This is similar to the resplendent feathers of some male birds. The female is getting information about his genes from his bower. … When she comes to have a look, she tends to flit around the bower. She keeps a little bit of distance. And he won’t be there; he mostly tends to hide inside the bower so she can’t even see him. Then he begins a most incredible vocal display. He’s a mimic — the other birds in the forest, mechanical noises like a machete chopping wood. He even picks up the nuance of sound between a distant machete and a nearby machete where you can hear the wood splitting. And he would alter the song and respond to the female’s behavior. As she got nearer he would rev up the energy of his performance. The thinking is that the female is getting a good sense that this bird is an old and experienced male, a survivor. The female is purely interested in getting the best genes. Once they’re mated, she flies off and will build a nest separately.

What’s wonderful is to think that they are making all these aesthetic choices. It was mesmerizing to watch.

What is the biggest problem in filming birds?

Each has its own problems. One I filmed was the Red Knot, and a 9,000-plus migration from the southernmost tip of South America up to the Arctic. To make their incredible journey they get rid of some of their gizzard and part of their stomach and this is applied to their muscle. They arrive at Delaware Bay where the horseshoe crabs are spawning in a very lean state. And the eggs are perfect because they are easy to digest. They have evolved to time this journey with the crabs. They consume as much of the food as they can. They are obsessively eating thousands and thousands of eggs.

For that shoot — and we wanted to cover it in so many ways — we had a high-speed cameraman, a natural history cameraman, an aerial cameraman and a making-of cameraman as well.

Other shoots like the pelicans feeding on the chicks of cormorants, one cameraman went out on his own to film the sequence. They would discuss the shoot each night and he would go out the next day and get more.

Tell me a bit about the “Plant” episode.

Plants are really the one that’s coming at you in the most unexpected way. You say plants to people they think — inanimate, passive, they don’t do anything. But we filmed plants on their own scale. In their own time frame, they come alive and start to move, and they start to move like animals. One of the things that surprised me most was when we filmed the climbing plants … you see it putting the suckers on the tree, almost pulling its tendrils in.