Netflix launched Our Planet today–a gorgeous look at the creatures of Earth that is utterly spellbinding, with a deep message of preservation that goes further than I’ve seen in any series before.
From the creator of the Planet Earth series, Our Planet is narrated by the great Sir David Attenborough and took four years to make. Filming spanned 50 countries with a crew of over 600 people, and the series was done in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund.
Series producer Keith Scholey and director and producer Adam Chapman were in Toronto recently to talk about Our Planet, and I had the chance to sit down with them. Read on to find out some of the challenges of making the series, their thoughts on making it, and the underlying story it tells.
Andrew Powell: Your experience coming into Our Planet is amazing. How did you get started?
Keith Scholey: Well, way back in the mists of antiquity [laughs]. I mean, I’ll kick off because actually, our stories are quite linked in a funny kind of way.
I grew up in Africa as a kid. I fell in love with wildlife. I had a zoology degree and did a PhD in research, and then I just happened to fortunately bump into a producer from the BBC Natural History Unit, and they were just starting one on the early Attenborough series, The Living Planet, when they needed sort of a consultant-type person, and I never looked back.
Adam Chapman: My start came through Keith. I was working in Kenya. Keith came up with a team filming… and I met Keith there. So what they were doing, thought that was absolutely something I would be very interested in being involved with, and that’s really how I got my start in it.
Powell: Well, the technology has come so far. Would you say that’s the biggest thing that’s changed now when you’re doing any of these productions?
Scholey: I think three things have changed fundamentally. One change is a bad change, in that the natural world has shrunk, and we notice that, but at the same time, this is a good thing. The amount of understanding and knowledge on certain rare animals, that we can go and find with scientists, has grown enormously. And then, of course, the technology.
When I started, we couldn’t film half the things because it was too dark, and now you can film virtually in rain forests and everything there, and let alone all the techniques you can have to move cameras and so on and so forth.
Powell: Adam, would you say the same, or what’s your perspective?
Chapman: I think, for me, the ability now, within the field, to make the audience feel like they’re in the action–that they’re traveling with the animals–is a huge plus point. It makes the sequences feel far more cinematic, far more engaging, but without losing that sense of a privileged observing position, of watching these things play out in front of you in a natural way, as they’re meant to be. And it’s enormously rewarding to be able to capture these incredibly wonderful behaviors and be able to tell those stories in such a cinematic form.
Powell: Hearing how you did the wolf scene in the first episode, and the fact that you had the vehicle actually attached to the helicopter. How did that work?
Chapman: So basically, we had a two-seater vehicle on snow tracks, which could obviously drive around on the lakes and in the forest. If we needed to move it though, we would clip it to a sling on the helicopter, and the helicopter could then lift it and move it.
Powell: It’s amazing.
Chapman: So it was … logistically, that was incredibly difficult because the vehicle was heavy enough that the helicopter couldn’t be full of fuel. You consider, we’re operating in incredibly remote areas. The pilots were having to constantly do very careful calculations to make sure that they could pick the vehicle up, move it, come back, get us, take us to the vehicle, and then be certain of getting back to base.
So it was, logistically, it was probably the most complex thing I’ve ever done, but the results were astonishing, so it was worth it.
Powell: That’s amazing. I mean, that comes back to technology too. What else changed? And how does the partnership with WWF impact the project?
Scholey: It was a fundamental aspect because when we set out to do this show, we absolutely wanted obviously, to do what we do best and wow people with the natural world, but we wanted to make it a story of our time and tell about the changes that are happening, and to do that at this level, we had to be incredibly sure that what were saying is correct, and so what WWF gave us, they produced the Living Planet Report every two years, which is the definitive state of where the planet is, and they have a whole team of scientists who are connected into the scientific world. So we needed them to make sure that this series has backbone because we’re saying some quite, what some people will say, are very controversial things, and someone’s going to say, “Where do you get all that from? How do you believe that?”
And we can say with certainly, “Well, because of X, Y, and Z,” and so that’s where WWF came into it.
Powell: And was there something to do with access to locations as well in that partnership?
Scholey: They sort of helped in certain kinds of places, but I think it’s fair to say that access around the world, by and large, is probably controlled by governments of those countries, and also, there are lots of other private lands that that were beholden to a lot of other conservation organizations around the world who helped us in all sorts of different, different places.
So it was either national parks or private. I mean, it was a whole matrix of different, different things, depending on where we were, but really, the fundamental thing from WWF was scientific credibility. We also have this great website called ourplanet.com and WWF are very important in supporting that and keeping it going and also making sure that it’s correct.
Powell: The other thing I’m curious about is how do you choose the stories you’re trying to tell when you’ve got obviously so many options?
Scholey: So, on the big picture, we wanted to tell a global story, and really, we boiled down to the fact that we needed to divide it up into looking at the different habitats, the biomes, as a way because actually, each sort of habitat has a central issue to how it functions, and what we want to do is concentrate on that central issue and ignore all the rest of the clutter. And then if you understand that issue, you can understand what might be going wrong with the place but also how to fix it.
So that was the big thing, and then when we got to each individual show…
Chapman: The selection of the sequences, they’ve got to tick a number of boxes: they’ve gotta be dramatic, they’ve got to be spectacular, they’ve got to be the very best representation of that behavior. But I think what makes this series, in a way, unique was that each sequence also had to go through the filter of, “What does that tell you about a much bigger picture?”
So, fine, you can go and film wildebeests being hunted by hunting dogs. It’s a great behavior. It’s astonishing and beautiful, but actually, what that sequence had to deliver for us was the idea that, the enormous space that this system requires, and that is what we mustn’t interfere with if we’re going to continue to have something as spectacular as the wildebeest migration.
So, very much, every sequence had to earn its place, far more than, I think, in any other series I’ve ever done because we had to make sure that we were telling a bigger story than just animal behavior.
Powell: So, what do you end up doing with all the thousands of hours, I assume, of footage that you can’t use in the show then?
Scholey: Do you know, what often happens that when you go, each time we go on location, we’ve got a real fixed view of, “This is what we’re gonna get,” and usually what happens is the key moments, you get one, maybe two of those.
They go in the show, so actually selecting from everything that you shot, it’s blindingly obvious what the best stuff is. There’s no doubt that the archive we’ve created is incredibly valuable, and hopefully, we’ll be able to use that for all sorts of different purposes going forward.
A lot of that, it’s gone into the website too. And we want to make the most of it, but the actual selection process. I mean, often, you spend a lot of time with, “What’s the best shot, the cutaway of this and that?” But the actual nub of it is pretty obvious.
Powell: Were there many sequences that didn’t work out? I know some might take you days to shoot, but were there some that just never worked out?
Scholey: Well, we had a whole trip, which was in Canada. I’m not gonna blame you guys, but it was to the Arctic. There was this wonderful story where polar bears fish like grizzly bears, and there was only one problem.
To actually get to that location, you have to go in on a float plane, and it rained, and it rained, and then it wasn’t raining. But finally, the weather clears, and we go there, and there’d been so much rain, the rivers had flooded, and the fish had just gone straight out to breed, and so there was nothing. There was just a bunch of sleeping polar bears, thinking, “Hey, guys, what happened there?”
And that was the end of it, and actually, we did a little film about it, just because we thought it was actually quite good to show that, in our business, sometimes things do go horribly wrong, and that’s just nature for you.
Powell: Is there ever any hope or plan or whatever to do a behind the scenes on making these episodes because, I imagine that’s huge?
Scholey: Well, each episode has a behind the scenes film with it.
How Adam filmed the glacier scene… so each episode does have a behind the scenes, and I think Netflix are putting it out in two ways. You’ll either be able to choose to go and see it behind the scenes, or we’ve also done one on episode nine, which is actually a 60-minute show, of what went on.
We picked stories which are… it’s all the kind of spectrum of challenges, but also kind of some of the shoots were very emotionally challenging for the crew with what they saw and witnessed, so we hope we got the whole spectrum of stuff.
Andrew Powell: Adam, for you, what’s the most emotional part of this first season? Is there one that stands out for you?
Chapman: They’re all, yeah, they’re all your babies. I love every single sequence we’ve done. I find them all fascinating.
Some are more challenging than others, and perhaps, the glacier calving was the most challenging, both the effort of getting there, the waiting for the event to happen, the fact the event actually happened in the last possible moment, and then the drama of being in the helicopter filming the calving event, the difficulties of that, the drama of that.
It was very, very exciting, very dramatic, but actually, that filming event for me was perhaps the most emotional because the end of the event, there was huge elation because we’d achieved what we’d set out to go for, and then we walked down to the shoreline, and you just saw this, the entire bay full of massive blocks of ice, absolutely jammed solid, and the realization of what this actually meant in a planetary sense, which is what we try to make that sequence do within the episode itself.
It’s, for us, the whole team was… a moment of great emotion and realization about just how things are changing.
Powell: And, as I understand it, the fact that it was so much earlier than originally expected.
Chapman: It’s more the rate of change. That’s what is so frightening, and every bit of research we receive about the changes going on in the Arctic and the Antarctic, every time, it seems to be getting faster, and that is what is really scary, and that’s just Greenland and Iceland.
Now when you get into the changes to the sea ice and the multiyear ice, the idea that in the summer, there may not be sea ice coverage at all in however many years is absolutely terrifying, especially when you realize all life now relies on that sea ice.
Scholey: And it also then drives the ocean systems like the Gulf Stream and so on, so forth, so we’re playing with fire with this one. We really are.
Powell: And all these people who don’t believe it. Like the idea, people cannot believe it.
Scholey: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. I don’t know actually how many that actually is now. I think the debate in the scientific community and largely in the political community is over because I think the evidence is overwhelming, and in some quarters politically, they want to try to hold back the flood, a little bit like smoking and cancer.
It’s the same old story. Everyone knew in the ’60s that there was a link, but it took us 30 years to get to the point where there was legislation passed to do something about it, and you always have to go through that, I guess that kind of process, but we’ve kind of run out of time now in my view.
Powell: The last thing I’d like to know is something along the lines of, I guess this comes back to just technology again, but does something like a drone now help you? Is it enough compared to what you would’ve filmed with before?
Scholey: I think each new tool that comes along, you find it’s probably got a special niche use for us, and drones, filming behavior like Adam did of wolves hunting caribou, you still need to be in a helicopter.
There’s a wonderful sequence we filmed of a mother blue whale and a calf, and that’s quite a long way out at sea. Finding them takes a long time on the boat, and then they surface, and it happens quickly, and a drone is fantastic because you’d be in a boat and spot the whale, get the drone up and go over it, and the whale’s not bothered by the drone at all, and so you can get a very intimate feel for that scene, which we couldn’t have done any other way, and so it’s, drones for us out at see have been fantastic.
Powell: The right tool for the right place.
Scholey: Yeah! And what’s fantastic is there are all these different things coming though like cameras, drones, stabilized cameras and that, and that’s exciting, and of course, every year, the tech boys come up with another little thing.
Powell: Is 8K the next thing you have to think about?
Scholey: Well, we’re actually doing a BBC series, which we are co-producing with NHK, and we’re delivering for them in 8K.
Powell: That’s amazing. What are you filming that with?
Scholey: The RED does the business, but the problem is all these other little gizmos and gadgets, whether a drone or what have you, you have to sort of compromise, but the basic workhorse cameras, we often like to use lots of other little cameras. Probably in four years’ time, everything will be in 8K.
What we’re really excited about technologically though for Our Planet is it’s going to be shown in HDR.
Powell: It makes such a big difference.
Scholey: Oh, my God, you know? And that’s great ’cause actually, pixels are one thing, but color and dynamic range is everything, and for us, that’s really, really exciting.
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