“Planet Earth” filmmakers impress again with Discovery Channel’s “Frozen Planet”

A pod of orcas "spyhopping" to look for new fishing grounds among their icy surroundings, as seen in "Frozen Planet"

As I post this article from my office in Wisconsin, it’s a cloudy, late February day, with temperatures in the low 30s and a chance for a cold rain later today. Certainly not the most pleasant of conditions, but also hardly worth complaining about after seeing what the Arctic and Antarctic creatures chronicled in Discovery Channel’s new series Frozen Planet endure on a daily basis.

The seven-part Frozen Planet, premiering March 18 and narrated by Alec Baldwin, is another coproduction with the BBC, from the same filmmakers who brought us the astounding Planet Earth a few years back. This time, they focus their expert lenses on Earth’s polar regions, perhaps the most extreme environments in the world. And again, those lenses have been incredibly, almost inhumanly, patient — producers and filmmakers spent 2,356 days in the field, one and a half years at sea, more than six months on the sea ice and 134 hours beneath that ice during the four years it took to put this project together. Working at both poles, they experienced winds up to 148 miles per hour, and over 400 days of temperatures below zero, with the lowest day that they recorded being minus 58 degrees. That’s a lot of exposure for even the hardiest and most experienced nature photographer.

“I’m an Australian,” joked Frozen Planet director and cinematographer Chadden Hunter at a recent press conference on the series, “so the personal challenge of going to film and living these conditions is really extreme. I mean … there’s a bit of adrenaline there. It is the best job in the world, making something like [this]. But, you know, I tell you what — to come back and get a decent cappuccino and a hot shower is something that never loses its attraction.”

“But after a few weeks,” added series producer Vanessa Berlowitz, “you do start finding yourself thinking, ‘I want to get back and see these incredible wildernesses.’ And we’re very, very lucky, because we get to go to places that most people can only dream of.”

Many of the places and events Hunter, Berlowitz and their team have captured on film do indeed seem like something out of a dream. Massive icebergs larger than the island of Manhattan. Hauntingly colorful sunsets and auroras sweeping over frozen desert landscapes. Terrain filled with beautiful ice formations sculpted by brutal winds. Unique undersea worlds beneath the Antarctic ice — the last place you might expect anything to live, but where fragile-looking creatures thrive.

That is perhaps the most incredible part of the series — learning just how adaptable life is, and how animals can exist even in these inhospitable realms. This includes humans  — the “Life in the Freezer” episode looks at how native peoples and visiting scientists survive in these extreme climes.

“Getting the Footage of Those Stories Is the Real Challenge”

Obviously, food is at a high premium at the poles, and many of the vignettes captured in the series deal with creatures ever on the hunt for their next meal to ensure their survival. Included among these (in the premiere episode, “The Ends of the Earth”) is never-before-filmed, incredible footage of orcas (killer whales) in Antarctica working as a pack to create giant waves that sweep seals off ice floes into their waiting jaws.

“I think one of the joyous things for us in filming this is that you do go out into the field and come across stories which not only have you not gone out planning to film, but you never even heard of,” said Hunter. “And so a few of the real special stories for us, like the orcas wave-washing the seals off, was something that scientists had talked about, but often you’re going on scientist anecdotes. And, you know, actually getting the footage of those stories is the real challenge.”

Also incredible, seen in the “Spring” episode, is footage of the woolly bear caterpillar — which spends 14 winters of its life being frozen solid, then thawing out each spring, before finally, one magical year, maturing, and only getting a few days to find a mate in order to survive. In the same “Spring” episode, we also get a bit of humor as we see how certain behavior transcends species, as a lazy (but cunning) Adelie penguin steals the rocks that an oblivious neighboring penguin is using to build its own nest (see video below).

The “Icy Finger of Death”

Berlowitz also pointed out unique footage they captured (seen in the “Winter” episode) of something called a brinicle — which they refer to as “the icy finger of death” (see video below).

“It’s an ice stalactite that grows down from the room of sea ice down to the seabed and kills everything in its path,” she explained. “And the scientists that were working in American Antarctica had never really sort of seen how this formed, and so we were able to bring back these shots that we just obtained from under the ice and show it to these scientists who had been working there for 20, 30 years, some of them, and they were absolutely blown away. And for us, that’s really exciting to be able to give back to the scientists that we so rely on to get these amazing sequences.”

Touching back on the dreamlike nature of some of these scenarios, Berlowitz recalled first seeing the footage of the brinicle, and not even believing it herself.

“The cameraman came and showed this to me, and I said, ‘This is a joke. Come on, guys.’ It’s like something from Narnia or Harry Potter. And I said, ‘You fiddled with this. Someone’s done this in Photoshop. I don’t believe it’s real.’ And we just stood there in absolute awe. … We’re constantly amazed at the material that the natural world gives to us.”

And I remain amazed at how these filmmakers continue to present those images back to us, as viewers. They succeed again remarkably with Frozen Planet.

Discovery Channel’s “Frozen Planet” Episode Schedule — Episodes Air Sundays at 8pm ET/PT (Unless Otherwise Noted) Beginning March 18

March 18: The Ends of the Earth (8pm); Spring (9pm)
March 25: Summer
April 1: Winter
April 8: The Making of “Frozen Planet”
April 15: On Thin Ice (7pm); Life in the Freezer (8pm)


Orcas photo credit: Discovery Channel/BBC/Chadden Hunter