Words Julian Mitchell Pictures BBC Natural History
Planet Earth II, this time it’s personal. Or this time it’s not so much about the grandeur from above but about the experience on the ground
Ten years ago, the original Planet Earth was all about megafauna. It was really about the planet
as god sees it. Producer Chadden Hunter sees Planet Earth II as a much more immersive experience, however: “The proximity of the camera to the animals is a huge difference, the tag line for the original Planet Earth was ‘Planet Earth as you’ve never seen it before’. I like to think for Planet Earth II the tag line would be ‘Planet Earth as you’ve never experienced it before’.”
As far as personnel and consequently shooting schedules were concerned this time they also planned in a different way. Normally a producer might make two programmes in the series and they would have an assistant producer on each programme and probably a researcher on each programme. So there might be enough people to run multiple trips in parallel. For Planet Earth II they decided to have smaller teams but they’d give one programme each to the producers with a really long time to do it. It’s meant that the producers have gone on location for a given programme more often than they would have done in the past. But the shoots had to be one after another rather than in parallel. The shoots became so technically sophisticated that the decision was made for a team to concentrate on one film only.
Chadden, producer of the Grasslands programme, while feeling the public warmth of the series reception puts some of it down to BBC scheduling. “The title and the brand are obviously a massive factor, that and the Attenborough publicity machine. I think another key difference was that we moved the slot from 9pm to 8pm. Often these Attenborough Christmas series like The Hunt, Life Stories and Africa have been pushed into that 9pm slot and it just makes such a difference with families able to watch it together. I think people really are buying into the new look and appreciating it.
“Planet Earth was of course the first-ever HD wildlife series, it was the first time that anyone had ever seen the results of the Cineflex gimbal and the first time that we’d shown those habitats from the air. Back then we did it in a very stately way, just sit back and enjoy those long shots. You were then awestruck about how the Earth looks from this godly distance.”
“The catchphrase of the day is being ‘immersive’. With the world of VR and 360 coming along we wanted to make these habitats much more visceral. Ten years on from Planet Earth we had these Ronins and MōVI type gimbals in our hands and not just on the helicopters. Also we had much smaller cameras and reliable drones. After years of thinking drones would come to our rescue, we’re now finally getting good results out of them. So we realised that we had a range of new tools to revisit the big habitat stories again, but this time to make it a different experience for the viewer.
“It’s only once in a generation that a single piece of kit comes along and revolutionises the medium so greatly. The Cineflex did that for Planet Earth but this time I don’t think it’s one single thing. The drone has certainly helped us reimagine the habitats. In the Jungles episode we can move the camera under the trees and through the canopy. In the Deserts episode we can take the camera up really tight slot canyons with a drone. These incredible intimate drone aerials – that the helicopter could never reach – have allowed us to make the habitat feel more visceral and experiental.
“I use drones in Africa a fair bit and some of the animals don’t mind, the lions’ reaction is funny; being cats who are curious they just look up and stare at the drone. You’ll be trying to do the slow arc shot around the lions and their faces just follow the drone the whole way like a domestic cat watching a rolling ball.
“In fact the drones often sit in the box for a lot of the shoots. Generally, they’re not really the best tool to achieve the behaviour shots. Drones have proven a real struggle with most animals. It’s something about the frequency of the noise that most animals don’t like.
“At the end of the day jaw-dropping animal behaviour is still our main currency. We have to keep focusing on the long lens aspect for that. We often had a separate team for the drone shots and you’ll find in the series that the drone shots are seldom connected to a behavioural sequence. For instance, we shot a lovely atmospheric piece on mysterious termite mounds in Australia, a landscape covered in thousands of clay towers that looked like the surface of another planet. That was a place we could really bring to life with drones and MōVIs. There’s not an animal in sight but it feels magical to explore that landscape in another way.
“Drones are very limited for moving shots that need fine control. If you’re used to doing Cineflex shots in a helicopter like I am you’ll be pulling your hair out when trying to replicate it with a drone. Overall, I think it’s been more of a spread of different bits of grip and things that have added to the style.”
Love your Habitat
Although for Planet Earth II there are only six programmes in the series, the ‘one producer, one film’ plan was a huge advantage to Chadden. “To produce and direct only one programme in the series was an absolute joy. Each producer became an auteur of their one habitat and you had a director’s vision of how you were going to bring this one habitat to life. You were able to live and breathe just one habitat without having to think about getting into the mindset of using low-light cameras in the jungle one day, then having to worry about your cameras melting in the desert for your other film. The six producers really embraced that and I think you get a more stylised and slicker end product because of the one producer, one film approach.
“We were trying to think about how we could take the viewer on a journey so they could experience the habitat like the creatures there do. So I was always looking for stories where the creature didn’t just exist in that place but there was something about the habitat that it was experiencing. I could have just done a cheetah hunting story and it would have been spectacular – they’re always good value – but for me it didn’t tell me something more about living in grasslands. So I took on some quite challenging stories and wanted to give the viewer a much deeper experience of grasslands that they never knew. For instance, the harvest mouse, here is an incredible creature that lives in the grass canopy like a little Ewok, making little tree houses and never going to ground. It weighs less than a 2p piece, so it literally lives like a monkey in this canopy of grass two feet off the ground. It’s magical little stories like that help people imagine grasslands as more than just this flat stage where big animals roam.
“Jonathan Jones shot the harvest mouse sequence. He’s a master of constructed shots and storyboards, perfecting the shot down to a cinematic or commercial level. But I often wanted to ‘dirty’ up the image a bit with more grass blades in the foreground, that kind of thing. It’s a really interesting relationship between director and camera operator. He’s looking for perfection and I was looking to rough it up a little bit.
“A lot of stories we chose were animals we could get up close to like a serval cat being habituated back to the wild, so we could walk with it with a full Steadicam. Not just the Ronins and MōVIs but a full harnessed Steadicam like you see on the side of the rugby pitch. The cameraman, Mateo Willis, is a professional Steadicam operator – there aren’t that many full body Steadicam operatives in the natural history world – so he was able to follow this cat through this long grass hunting, which was just amazing, and he could get some really fluid moves around it and with it that you wouldn’t be able to get with just the handheld stabilising rigs. They take out a bit of movement but they don’t take out the up and down of the footsteps. He had prime lenses on which again adds to this beautiful crisp, shallow depth-of-field with just the cat’s eyeballs in focus and the rest of the fur soft, but he literally had the lens on its shoulder.
“The idea of the sequence was to make it feel like you are following an assassin on their mission so you’re right on that shoulder or ear as it hunts through the grass. With the Steadicam and prime lenses you are really able to deliver that feel.
“To get the narratives, we do months and months of canvassing and talking to research stations, national parks and rangers, also going on recces. The serval cat tells a wonderful grassland story as it has the longest legs of any cat in the world proportionate to its body, because it’s so grass specialised and is expert at leaping high in the air and then nosediving onto rodents. Its whole anatomy and look is what living in that grass world has done to it.
“They said that they were going to release the cat but didn’t know what would happen and for a few days it let us walk with it. After about six days we started losing it. The story really reinforced our remit to get close to the animals. I went really heavy on the sound design just to immerse the viewer in the hunt.”
Narrative stories also come to you. Chadden’s team were looking to film carmine bee-eater birds. They found that if they drove their jeep slowly it would kick up insects which attracted the birds to them. “We had a cameraman on the side of the jeep with an easy rig holding a Ronin with the EPIC DRAGON shooting these carmine bee-eaters who were eating the insects. Because it was such a controlled situation I said put the prime lenses on. The cameraman could look at his focal distance on his lap before we started driving and knew it had to hit at the exact two-foot mark. The crispness of those images really stands out. The lightweight Zeiss primes are lovely.”
New / old shots and cameras
The one thing that keeps natural history producers up at night is finding new shots to show behaviours. It hasn’t yet come to total reinvention but there are ‘new’ new shots and there are ‘old’ new shots. “What you’re finding now is that every blue-chip series has at least one macro sequence per episode and that would never have happened before; there were no macro shots in Planet Earth, the original series. The remit back then was that it had to be big, charismatic, megafauna. Macro is where the vast amount of new behaviour can be found with smaller creatures.
“I’ve got the challenge now that I have to find the glass that covers the bigger sensors and that’s been a nightmare as our old long lenses don’t cover the new sensor sizes. The Canon 50-1000mm came along halfway through the shooting and that was a godsend for our long lens guys. That lens sorts the amateurs from the professionals, it’s so unforgiving, its critical focus is an order of magnitude to what it was ten years ago.
“For Planet Earth II the RED cameras were our workhorse, but we used the ARRI AMIRA quite a bit too. With both cameras the ease of changing frame rates was an advantage. RED’s menus are sometimes hard to deal with in say a -40˚C environment, sometimes you just want a dial to clunk home. But maybe more of interest were the smaller cameras. Some of the more exciting things that came along halfway through shooting were the smaller cameras like the Panasonic GH4 and the Sony A7S. The nice thing about those two manufacturers was they went down different avenues with their cameras.
“With the GH4 we had the first reliable 4K internally recorded camera without using any outboard decks. That was really nice as I could put that GH4 on a crane and swing it out over some wonderful grassland even when the main cameraman wasn’t there. It was so intuitive and easy to use that even myself as the director could get some nice 4K with say a Kessler slider or Ronin gimbal. I could walk through habitats and just get some B roll.
“The Sony A7S became the low-light specialist and that camera could get you out of jail for different situations and actually became the main camera for some of our shoots. There are some amazing shots in the rainforest of these glowing bugs and fungus where you can see all the detail on the leaves; it’s not a glowing blob like it used to be.
“Those two cameras, for their form factor, were possibly one of the more exciting developments. You can put them both on really small handheld gimbals and walk through a forest or a desert canyon and a researcher or a producer can pick up those shots, they perhaps won’t be as good as when your main camera person does it, but it opens up a world of multi-formats on each shoot.
“The difference now is that these cameras cut in to the main footage so much better than before. This is the first big series that the smaller consumer cameras are gathering B roll that intercuts really nicely with some of the large-sensor cameras. Getting one of these cameras on a drone is easier than a RED; you’re talking about a very different technical challenge. As soon as you want a RED and a big cine lens, the insurance issues are much greater, the training issues, the piloting experience, that kind of thing.
“We did stress-test the smaller camera’s footage through a test grade. They de-noise them a bit, but they really come up clean. My programme was the first to finish filming. I wish I’d known how good the A7S was in low light as I would have tried a few more scenes with it.”
Even the GoPro is still being used. In the Islands programme, especially the penguins on the island of Zavodovski, every single drone shot in the making of and in the main penguin sequence was the GoPro HERO 3 camera on an old DJI Phantom drone. “We were really anxious about those shots and how they would hold up. After some wonderful post-production processes the footage looked fine. They massage these shots and get every little molecule of information out of them; it is a miracle what they can rescue these days. In a 4K delivery we have a percentage allowance for non-4K material; back on Planet Earth it was an HD delivery but we had a certain percentage of SD material. Now it’s around 20% non-4K footage. But by the time it has all gone through that post-process it looks polished. We are very lucky as we have time to get it right. We will do five days of just colour correction for one programme and then a five-day online where you will apply noise reduction and things like that.”
Data Dark Ages
We saw in our last issue how the culture of the DIT had caught up with high-end television, unfortunately Planet Earth II is still lagging behind with its data management. Chadden relates his experience.
“We had a lot of late nights leaving it downloading with Shotput Pro software and hoping for the best. We were fairly old school; you could call us Luddite in the way we handled the data. Basically we did everything on little orange ruggedised 2TB Lacie drives. With RED Raw files, they are so huge you have to get used to a kind of crippled review system in the field when you want to check for critical focus, you have to find a resolution that will play on your laptop. Remember the shooting ratios that we experience now are about 400:1. At the end of the day those shots have to be visually perfect, I look back at some old footage, even Planet Earth, and see a crane shot that drifts across the scene and ends with a little bump. Animals could go out of focus a little bit, but it didn’t really matter, whereas these days that cinematic quality that we’re trying to compete with – like Game of Thrones – well, the visual and optical quality has to be so good. If I have a cameraman who is trying to follow a lion through the grass towards him and he’s got around a 1cm depth-of-field and he’s trying to rack focus, it’s worth the pain of me sifting through the footage later for those few seconds where he nails the lion’s eyes. That’s the kind of image that we want to spoil our viewers with these days.”
CITIES – JOHN AITCHISON
“I filmed the peregrines for the Cities programme in New York. The birds have made that switch to the urban world, although, of course, they are still in wild places. They have adapted their behaviour and responses to humans so they’re quite comfortable in the city. In fact there’s more nesting density in New York than outside the city. They’re nesting in buildings; normally they will nest on cliffs away from any predators. They’ve got an aerial lifestyle where they hunt from height and dive down on other birds, which is really great for us as we can start up high. We shot from adjacent buildings.
“In the city the pigeons, which are pretty clever, dive down and get so close to the road, cars and railings that the peregrines lose their advantage of speed so if they can push the pigeons out over the water the pigeons have nowhere to go.
“I’ve specialised quite a lot; wildlife filming is quite specialised already, but actually it’s quite subdivided. I do long lens and that kind of shooting is more than just filming things a long way away. It’s about following smoothly and keeping things in focus. It’s the hand-to-eye
co-ordination learned over many years that helps. Then a new lens comes out and the gearing’s different and you have, to some extent, to start again. Also now we’ve gone to bigger sensors, the depth-of-field is halved. This can be a nightmare for us as it’s already quite difficult.
“One of the biggest problems actually, which is just starting to break through in the last year or two but has been nightmare until just recently, is that our viewfinders are by far inferior to what people are watching the programmes on, especially with 4K. It’s really obvious that the pictures are out of focus to the viewer a long time before it’s obvious in the viewfinder for most cameras and that’s completely the wrong way around. I think the manufacturers have not wanted to spend the money on the viewfinders really. The notable exception is the ARRI AMIRA, which has a fantastic viewfinder, the new OLED from RED is also very good indeed.”
“A big chunk of the hyena sequence in Cities was shot on a Sony A7S, at around ISO 32,000, with either very sparse street lights or a couple of LED panel lights. We also had a street light of our own that could be battery powered for an hour or so if the hyenas were in an especially dark corner. The results were amazing. We recorded the camera’s output on a separate recorder.
“The other cameraman Louis Labrom rigged a cable dolly in the main location we used for filming and also carried the camera on a Ronin and Easyrig to get the questing hyenas’ POVs. The hyenas came into the square to eat bones left out for them by the butchers. Unfortunately, while we were filming, the town authorities decided the square looked a bit scruffy so they had it repainted. Every night some aspect of it would be a different colour. It was a nightmare for continuity!
“Hyenas have a spirit life, according to the beliefs of many of the people in Harar, as they can see evil djinn (genies) and even eat them. To introduce the hyenas in a dramatic way, coming out of the darkness, as if hunting for djinn, I strapped a bright LED torch to the lens barrel, so its light would be reflected by the tapetum at the back of the hyenas' eyes, giving them an unearthly eye-shine.”
ISLANDS – JONATHAN JONES
“I did all the Seychelles stuff from the Islands programme,” says Jonathan Jones. “So all the fairy terns and lizards eating their eggs and crab stuff. It was nice to be part of it. I worked on all of them except for the Jungles episode; they give you projects that they think will suit your different skill sets. For the Islands they needed somebody who could fly a drone and there was a load of macro stuff. You end up squeezing about a month’s worth of stuff into about four or five minutes so I never know exactly what’s going to be included.
“We talk about what we want to achieve with the producers and it’s our job to try and build the visual style and make it work. You work hand in hand with the producers and how that episode sits with the other programmes. It’s not great to do one sequence that is really out there and then there are no other sequences like it. You want it to feel like the same DOP has filmed the whole show even though the show has been put together over three and a half years.
“A sequence that I filmed for Islands, we managed to shoot a bird cracking into an egg and stealing some of the egg and then the bird that I was filming flew back and didn’t acknowledge the broken egg and carried on sitting on it. If we had written that then we would have spent months trying to find it. The fact is it unfolded in front of us and we were in the right place at the right time.
“With the natural world if you blinker your view and say you’re only filming this, you may miss something really amazing. It’s having that ability to quickly turn and change the story. It’s good research, experience and a certain amount of intuition so you can
“We used our Inspire 1 drone for the god shots and the quality is good. For us it was the first Inspire drone so I spent a lot of time in the settings getting it to look as good as possible. There’s one shot of one of the islands when you see it from afar where the drone was so far away from the island. At one point the temperature gauge went on the iPad so the screen just went black with a little thermometer graphic. The drone was about a kilometre out to sea so you have to remember your last bearing and just push the rudder forward and just hope you’re still on the right path. Then you hear this little hairdryer sound and you know it’s coming.
“For macros I’ve got custom lenses that I’ve made. I’m also a big fan of some of the straight Canon macro lenses as they’re so sharp and good for light as well. I got these custom lenses that give us some crazy field of views. We use lots of straight scopes and borescopes to give us perspectives of the world. I’ve also got some bellows lenses that I use.”