The Planet Earth series has been a massive hit for the BBC for over a decade. The production costs are huge, and each season takes years to put together. We know that some photographers go to great lengths to capture animal subjects, while others take shortcuts to fake the footage they need. So how is Planet Earth really made?
With the recent release of a documentary that explores the making of Planet Earth, the BBC is giving viewers an inside look at the series’ production methods. The documentary depicts long weeks spent on location, dangerous animal encounters, and even geopolitical incidents. The making of Planet Earth is a labor of love for everyone involved in the project. Various production teams have risked their lives and committed countless hours to capturing the magic of the natural world.
One of the more terrifying parts of being on a nature documentary film crew is getting up close and personal with very large and dangerous animals, which is exactly what Planet Earth crews had to do almost every day. The ocean team encountered massive sharks, while the grasslands team faced powerful wild cats in the African Savanna.
The grasslands team had it pretty rough — they had to wade through a shoulder-high swamp with bare feet to make sure that if they stepped on a crocodile, they would immediately feel its scaly skin and quickly move out of the way.
A team in the Arctic came under siege by a polar bear while they were cooking dinner in their cabin. One crew member found a gun with blanks and flares to scare it away and another was ready with a frying pan in case the bear attempted to come through the window.
The crew had to deal with more than just dangerous animals while on location. For instance, the team for the episode “Deserts” was followed by armed bandits while filming a scene that features one billion locusts.
During the filming of the first Planet Earth series, the hunt was still on for Osama bin Laden. The crew was headed to the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan to film snow leopards, where bin Laden was thought to be hiding out in mountain caves.
There was a delay in production due to the political crisis, but the team forged ahead. They waited a year to venture into the mountains in search of elusive leopards native to the region. They dressed as locals to more easily blend into their surroundings. Production assistant Chadden Hunterdescribes their predicament with a touch of humor:
“We’re sleeping in caves up in the mountains… Then you start looking at yourself in the mirror and see your beard growing and think, ‘Uhh, maybe this is not really the best look to have as the world is looking for bin Laden.’” But the team stuck it out, and they were rewarded with a stunning shot of a snow leopard hunting a goat.
Unsurprisingly, patience is key when it comes to getting amazing shots of different animal behaviors. According to crew members, any substantial scene where an animal performs a specific behavior probably took between three and four weeks to capture.
The Planet Earth II episode “Mountains,” however, took much longer than usual. The snow leopard scenes alone required an entire three years to complete. The crew visited the site multiple times to set camera traps for a total of about one year, but the final shots they filmed were so worth it.
It isn’t just animals that require patience. Permits for filming can also be a hassle. The crew for the “Cities” episode had to wait 9 months for permission to film peregrine falcons in New York City.
There have been a number of technological improvements between the making of Planet Earth in 2006 and Planet Earth II in 2016. The team uses the most high tech equipment possible, capturing shots that make the viewer forget they’re in their living room and not on the plains of Africa.
Low light cameras have come a long way, allowing the crew of Planet Earth II to film scenes by the light of the moon. They also have camera traps that they leave in the animals’ environments for extended periods of time, which allows the creatures to become so familiar with the gear that they begin to ignore it entirely.
One of the biggest advances in technology has been in stabilizing equipment; producer Fredi Duvasclaims that by showing fewer shaky images that move with the animals, they create a more intimate view of the creatures they film.
For the Planet Earth crew, the golden rule is to not disturb the animals. They want the most natural shots possible to capture how animals actually behave rather than how they behave when interacting with humans.
While filming Gelada baboons in Ethiopia, however, the crew says they were drawn into some family drama. The young baboons attempted to play with the crew and took a particular interest in their shoelaces. Additionally, fights occasionally broke out between the male baboons, and “sometimes one would come sit next to the filmmakers and stare back at his opponent,” entangling the documentarians in the fight as the baboon’s allies.
Warm jungles, the frozen arctic, and bug-infested caves are just a few of the rugged locations where the filming teams for Planet Earth lived. Production assistant Chadden Hunter described a cave where the crew resided for a month as being filled with bat guano, as well as “millions of cockroaches and venomous centipedes that moved like lightning.” If that wasn’t bad enough, Hunter also said that blue snakes would fall from the ceiling at random, comparing their sudden drops to something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Filming the “Islands” episode was a truly epic undertaking. It took over three years to finish, including one year of planning before they even began filming. There were plenty of struggles and bumps in the road along the way: one of the crew members was stung by a stingray, and they had to have their gear and clothing sprayed and frozen in quarantine before setting foot onto the Galapagos Islands.
The film crews encountered lots of bugs and insects while filming Planet Earth including mosquitos, cockroaches, even poisonous centipedes able to bite through clothing. One unfortunate team was bitten between 50 and 100 times per day by leeches while tracking gibbons in the jungle.
No matter what types of bugs they encountered, the team members were not allowed to use insect repellant. The scent of bug spray would alert animals to their presence and potentially scare them away.
Besides having to live in less-than-ideal locations for weeks or months at a time, the Planet Earth crew had to deal with occasional unwanted guests. Some of them just stopped in for a snack, like the boa constrictor in Panama that ate the crew’s supply of eggs, but others left a lasting mark.
While filming penguins, one crew member’s tent was regularly used as a penguin toilet. Even nastier, the crew filming in caves on the island of Borneo didn’t realize until about three weeks in that what they thought were water droplets falling onto their lunch was actually bat urine.
It’s impressive to hear how many hours, weeks, and years went into creating the Planet Earth series. But what many people don’t think about is just how much raw footage that generates. The filming of Planet Earth II required 42 camera operators, who spent a collective 2,089 days in the field on 117 different expeditions. All together, they shot 400 terabytes of footage, which is about 82,000 DVDs.
Sir David Attenborough is now 91 years old. The legendary Brit has been working for the BBC since the network’s first years on television and is an iconic figure to many people around the globe. His soothing voice has narrated countless nature documentaries, bringing the wonders of the world into people’s homes. And he hasn’t slowed down with age; he’s no longer required to be on location, but he’s still heavily involved with scripts for the series.
The BBC has poured a lot of time into its Planet Earth projects, but they’ve invested a lot of money as well — $25 million, to be exact. It’s the most expensive project that the network has ever taken on.
But it’s all worth it — an impressive 12.3 million people tuned in to watch the first episode of Planet Earth II, “Islands,” when it premiered, making it “the best performing first episode of a natural history program in 15 years.”
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