The Making of ‘Planet Earth II’, the Most Epic Nature Documentary of All-Time

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David Willis

Anyone who’s ever tried filming his dog catching a Frisbee knows how tricky it can be to get decent animal footage. But few know this better than Justin Anderson, one of the segment producers of Planet Earth II, the highly anticipated sequel to the BBC’s blockbuster series of nature docs.

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Anderson, a part-time mountaineer, had been one of the crew who, 10 years ago in the mountains of  Pakistan, captured on video a snow leopard hunting — the first ever footage of its kind — for the first Planet Earth. For the sequel, he was expected to pull it off again, this time tracking down those rarest of central Asian predators in the mountains of Ladakh in India. “It was such a big character [in the first Planet Earth], and we knew we’d have to do something different.” So early each morning, Anderson and his crew would sit, shivering, at a base camp 13,300 feet up, awaiting word from local spotters who had ventured into the mountains in search of a sign that the animal was near. If and when the spotter made a discovery, the film crew would rush up a slope with the hope of a quick glimpse, a process that resulted in cases of bad altitude sickness that sent Anderson down and off the mountain at least once. “It wasn’t life-threatening,” he says, “but it took me out of the field for a while. It was frustrating.” It would require several visits to the remote Ladakh mountains — one monthlong trip each year for three years — to nab the footage they needed.

In this case, the footage was unprecedented images of a mother snow leopard offering herself up sexually to two intruding males so that her young cub could escape unharmed. (Male snow leopards kill cubs who aren’t their own.) Hysterical articles in the U.K. (where the first episode drew 12.3 million viewers, more than the first series) referred to it as the “rape” scene, which left some, like Anderson, scratching their heads. “Saying it was rape, in some of those clickbait headlines, was a little difficult,” he says. “They’re no more capable of that than a bobcat is capable of murder. I’m well versed in the natural world, but I guess some people are surprised by what they see.”

First broadcast in 2006, the original Planet Earth, narrated by David Attenborough in the U.K. and Sigourney Weaver in the States, upped the cinematic ante on nature photography, adding to the genre dramatic story lines (animals as characters) — whether a fight between a polar bear and a walrus colony, or grizzly bear cubs emerging from their den for the first time. Broadcast in hundreds of countries since, the series naturally called for a sequel, and hence Planet Earth II (the show premieres in February 18th on BBC America, AMC and Sundance TV). Featuring about 60 animal species, from pygmy sloths to spider monkeys, the show became an unearthly undertaking: Sixty cameramen shot in 40 countries for a total of 2,089 days, making for 400 terabytes of footage. As with the original, the sequel devotes episodes to specific topics: deserts, mountains, islands, grasslands, jungles, and cities. But rather than repeat the approach of much of the original, which focused on panoramic, big-picture nature footage, the producers of the new series decided to dive deeper into the lives of creatures tucked away in various corners of the planet. “We wanted to tell this from the animals’ perspective,” says executive producer Mike Gunton. “Here are the animals and the landscapes, and how do they deal with those habitats?”

This animal’s-eye view of the world was possible in part to updated technology: camera-adorned drones; night-vision cameras, for moles and leopards that come out only after dark; and cameras that were smaller, more portable, and had much sharper resolution than the more cumbersome tripods of a decade ago. To capture what could be the largest locust swarm on film, cameramen in Madagascar placed themselves inside the swarm, ending up with footage that makes viewers feel as though they’re flying alongside the bugs after they lift off. “The cameraman was able to run like a lunatic across the land with the locusts, so you feel like you’re in the heart of this plague of locusts,” recalls Gunton. “It’s like a Peter Jackson production.” For additional footage of a golden eagle in the Alps, an animal that can swoop at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, a world-champion paraglider was hired to film from behind; during one attempt, he crash-landed in snow (without injury, thankfully).

Among their achievements is rare footage from Kazakhstan of the saiga antelope, a species that has the snout of an alien and dates back millions of years but is now largely extinct. Recruiting a retired boatman, another crew ventured to the remote island of Zavodovski, near Antarctica, to shoot the world’s largest penguin colony. “There’s nowhere to land for a helicopter, and you’re on the island with no support, an active volcano, and a million penguins,” says Gunton. “It was one of the toughest trips.” A crew in West African grasslands wound up pushing their boats barefoot through weed-infested waters in an attempt to film lions searching for food. They were initially reluctant to take off their shoes, until they were told why. “You need to be able to feel the crocodiles before they feel you and take a chunk out of you,” says Gunton.

Changes in technology notwithstanding, the makers of Planet Earth II adhered to the same approach as the first series: not to interfere with animals’ often nasty and shocking life-and-death struggles. With one exception — rescuing a sea turtle that had flipped onto its back on the beach, thereby saving it from a slow, painful demise — the crews had to sit back and watch as hawks (their claws looking Godzilla-like in close-ups) swooped in on adorable ground squirrels, or snakes swarmed around a panicked iguana. “We don’t shy away from the realities of nature,” Gunton says. “They’re on their own, and this is the life they lead. It can be shockingly brutal at times.”

Gunton believes Planet Earth II has returned at the right time, with climate change even more prevalent and disturbing. “Not unlike in the first program, the wheel of the zeitgeist has turned, and it feels like there is again a sense of the fragility of the planet,” he says. “People want a sense to look out again and understand our place.”

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