Broadcasting paragon Sir David Attenborough was in town recently for the world premiere of the sequel to Planet Earth. He talked to Amanda Nicholls about its long-awaited snow leopard sequence, why Bristol is such a beacon for wildlife filmmakers, and why he won’t stop yet…
Wildlife documentaries are more akin to works of art these days – cinematic creations with breathtaking visual sequences, stirring scores by leading Hollywood composers such as Hans Zimmer and, in the case of the BBC’s current Planet Earth sequel, the inherently trustworthy, ever-authoritative voice of a globally treasured broadcaster who has witnessed the entire evolution of the genre.
For as steadily as Sir David Attenborough’s career has bloomed and developed over the years, so, synchronously, have the possibilities on film. “In the Fifties, natural history programmes on television were a laugh – unintentionally,” he recalls, beer in hand, before the group of enrapt young journalists gathered round him for what feels more like a bedtime story than a pre-premiere interview.
“They were pathetic really, if you look at them now. Over the last few decades, every two or three years – and every time we’ve done a big new series – there’s been something major that we didn’t have before. Of course, the first big new thing was colour. Another hugely important thing was the use of electronic cameras instead of film cameras. And now there’s almost nothing we can’t do.”
Quite – we can’t imagine what might be possible if Planet Earth III ever came into being, and neither, it seems, can Sir David. “If you asked me what we could do in five years’ time that we can’t do now, I would have to work very hard to think of something,” he confesses. “You can film at the bottom of the sea, at the top of the mountains, you can speed things up and slow them down, film microscopic things, gigantic things. Our latest set of tricks uses drones, tiny cameras that you can guide electronically by radio control, that take you up 50 feet in the air, and the lenses are such that you can see everything – it’s just amazing.
“And now the pictures are more detailed than the human eye can see. So why bother, you may ask – but actually if the quality of the film, and the resolution of the picture, is such that you can take a little bit and blow it up to occupy the full screen without it looking blurry, you’ve suddenly got a completely new, extraordinary way of editing films. You won’t see it but you will be aware of it – how did they get that close-up? How did they manage to put that sequence together? It’s a thrill.”
“We don’t make documentaries quite as we did even 20 years ago, they’re much richer in the tapestry…”
As anyone who’s been keeping up with the series will have seen, the use of such equipment – initially adapted from the military – allows for some incredibly immersive sequences. We’re bouncing through the trees alongside a lemur one moment, or sloping beside a sloth as he seeks out his missus while following her mating call, and the next, feasting our eyes on a fly dragging at a drop of drool on a komodo dragon, marching with 50 million migrating red crabs across Christmas Island, or watching a knot of racer snakes playing a grim game of Grandmother’s Footsteps with a baby iguana, and hoping against hope for its escape from a rapidly tightening ball of slithering bodies – the latter such unique, unseen footage that it went viral online. And all in the most high-def detail you can possibly imagine.
“That’s one of the important differences between the original Planet Earth and this one,” says executive producer Mike Gunton. “The first was more observational – looking at it all from upon high – whereas we’ve tried to take the cameras and put them in the animals’ world a bit more. These programmes now find themselves competing with super high-end drama in the same sorts of slots, so they have to have some of those sensibilities about them. We don’t make documentaries quite as we did even 20 years ago, they’re much richer in the tapestry.”
“I thought I knew about the Galápagos. I had never seen that stuff with the racer snakes,” David chimes in. “And the Zavodovski sequence is just absolutely extraordinary.” He’s talking, of course, about the scene in the first episode where producer Elizabeth White and her team brave tough island conditions to film a chinstrap penguin colony.
“The first time I ever really saw a wildlife spectacle was when I was about six in 1932 – a Yorkshireman called Cherry Kearton, who was a world pioneer, had gone off to a penguin island off South Africa in his pith helmet and riding breeches. He, or his producer, thought the only way to make penguins interesting was to pretend they were little people in dinner jackets and so he made them sort of funny – the fact that they are far more interesting than they are funny escaped him! Elizabeth, of course, has shown what they’re really like.”
It seems there’s one stand-out segment in particular that both David and Mike can hardly wait to talk about – that of the snow leopard – which was finally made possible thanks to the new tech. “They’re so remote, that the logical effort it would take to put a camera team in the field for the time needed to get the shots is almost impossible,” explains Mike. “But remote cameras don’t complain, they don’t need feeding, they don’t need paying – they just sit there shooting, shooting, shooting! They give you the kind of insight into those animals which would have been undreamable.”
“They would leave scent marks on the rocks,” adds cameraman Max Hug Williams. “They almost use them as we might use Facebook, essentially updating their status by peeing on the rocks, then the other leopards come past each week and and check who’s fertile, who’s been in the area. They were literally brushing past the cameras, so camera traps and stabilised camera gimbals were really key to the look of Planet Earth II.”
“There’s no doubt as to what the greatest world-class spectacle in the UK is, and that’s the thousand-foot high sea cliffs of northern Scotland…”
“30 years ago, I sat down and wrote a 13-part series – Life on Earth – and wrote all the things I would ever wish to see,” David remembers. “I wrote a sequence with a snow leopard, and people said; ‘What are you talking about? Nobody’s ever photographed a wild snow leopard, they’ve never been seen!’ And eventually I crossed it out. I tried again before Life of Mammals, and then, 10 years ago, they put legendary cameraman Doug Allan in the Himalayas. It took three trips and 18 weeks in a little tent.
“Can you imagine? Sat in a thing the size of a lavatory; just waiting for something to happen. All for three shots. It drove him nuts. Now, the snow leopard sequence in this series…” he tails off – words unnecessary to describe the scene, or perhaps simply unavailable. “And it’s all because of camera traps, motivated by the actions of the animals themselves, and placed where we knew they would turn up, having done so much research.”
So David’s work is done, then? There’s really nothing left to do? “Well we’re now saying; we’ll do it better!” he enthuses. “I make natural history programmes because that’s what I want to see when I sit down at home – it’s great stuff to watch – as well as the fact they’re crucially important for keeping people in touch with the natural world. It’s true, it’s beautiful, it’s not trying to sell you anything, it’s not trying to get your vote, it’s always exciting.
“I can’t think of many animals we haven’t filmed but I think there are some things they do that we haven’t filmed yet,” suggests Mike. “Funnily enough, people don’t want to just see new creatures, they want to see them doing new things. The only other place where there are still lots of interesting stories for us, I think, is the ocean.”
“Oh, the Japanese beat us to that,” says David. “The great thing I wanted to film in the deep ocean was the giant squid. Fantastic animal, 100 feet long. Like hell we tried, but the NHK naturalist unit – the director of whom, happily, is a great friend of ours, got a very clever sequence – God knows what it cost. But I take my hat off to them.”
“Because humans are so wasteful, if you can manage to live alongside them, you’re in clover…”
There’s also a focus on the urbanised habitat this series, in the final episode, aired on 11 December – and it’s an area of equal fascination. “Undoubtedly it’s the rat that’s best adapted to the city environment,” says Mike. “But the creatures we have featured are the most successful examples of their type – for example, the highest density of leopards is in an urban environment in Mumbai, the highest density of peregrine falcons is in New York City. The animals that can adapt, adapt wonderfully and are super successful.”
“Because humans are so wasteful, if you can manage to live alongside them, you’re in clover,” explains David. “But there’s no question that humans are also the biggest threat to our planet. Since the natural history unit was founded in Bristol, there are three times as many human beings on the Earth. They all need feeding, they all need space, and most of that comes from the natural world. We have to be more sensible about the way we use the planet’s resources. Human beings have got to live within their means much more.
“We make films about wonderful animals, and we go where they are, not where they were yesterday, so I get a rather rosier idea of what the wild world is like – but a couple of years ago, the BBC sent me out to go and see what the state of the planet was. I went to places in Borneo that I knew 30 years ago, where there’s nothing but oil palms. How terrible are the Bornean people, you say, but the reason they do it is because humanity needs feeding, and it needs money.”
Bristol: A Beacon
Whether it’s the documentation of the beauty and wonder of the natural world or the perils it faces, we’re proud to live in a city that has been so instrumental to wildlife storytelling, and is now regarded as a beacon of the genre – known by those in the biz as ‘Green Hollywood’. “It’s because the BBC has standards,” David reasons. “The BBC natural history unit was the first in the world, and it has led the world. They treated the subject seriously and realised a branch of expertise and skill was necessary to produce the right results. In the early days, each region was encouraged to adopt a specialism and it so happened there was a radio producer called Desmond Hawkins who was devoted to birds and natural history, and when TV came, he fought hard to make sure Bristol was the head of natural history.
“Now this city is the capital of wildlife filmmaking. The foremost and the first international festival of wildlife films was founded here – if you talk to wildlife cameramen anywhere in the world; they’ll always say ‘See you at Wildscreen! There’s a great sort of freemasonry of craftsmen who come here to see their mates and of course try and sell programmes as well as seeing what all the others are doing!”
“Yes, there’s something about the centre of gravity Bristol has created, drawing people to it,” agrees Mike. “There’s a wonderful collegiate sense too; there’s a number of independent programme makers here, and support industries – the editing, the sound, there’s some very high quality craft around Bristol. There’s also this bond about the environment and the message that we can get out there. I joined the unit in 1987 to work with David on Trials of Life – I thought it would be fun to do natural history for three years. 26 years later, I’m still here because once you’ve done it, you don’t want to do anything else; and this is the best place to do it.”
“As long as I can walk about, it would seem to me grossly wasteful and ungrateful not to take advantage of it…”
So, West is best, as we know, but where’s next – and is there yet more on the agenda? “I’m making a film about a fossil, going to Australia and America – you know, various things,” announces David, matter of factly. “I’d like to go to the middle of the Gobi desert but the BBC will never send me there because there aren’t any animals. But there are some very nice fossils…
“I know I’m extremely lucky – it’s no secret I’m 90 and I know an awful lot of dear friends and relatives my age who can’t remember anything or get about. It’s not their fault, and it’s not down to any virtue of mine. But as long as I can walk about, it would seem to me grossly wasteful and ungrateful not to take advantage of it.”
And boy, are we glad he does. But how about a nice, relaxing holiday in a favourite British spot, first? “I’d go to the Hebrides,” he says. “There’s no doubt as to what the greatest world-class spectacle in the UK is, and that’s the thousand-foot high sea cliffs of northern Scotland. You can talk about wildebeest and the like, but that’s amazing.” “And they have the white-tailed sea eagle which is one of the coolest birds of prey on the planet,” grins Mike.
It’s no great surprise, then, that if Sir David could take one gift from the animal world – perhaps as a thankyou for all he’s done for it – it would be flight. Bat or bird, though, asks Mike – that’s the big question. “Oh bird, of course,” Sir Dave immediately replies. “I don’t want to spend all my time in the dark – not amongst all that poo…”