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Violent natural phenomena from the comfort of your living room

When Discovery recommissioned the 11-year-old program Raging Planet, realscreen asked the program's producer, UK-based Pioneer Productions, to explain why now is a good time to bring back their series. Here Alice Harper, series producer for Pioneer, explains.
August 13, 2009

When Discovery recommissioned the 11-year-old program Raging Planet, realscreen asked the program’s producer, UK-based Pioneer Productions, to explain why now is a good time to bring back their series. Here Alice Harper, series producer for Pioneer, explains.

During the filming of Raging Planet this summer, my production team was traversing a glacier in Patagonia when the soundman tripped. There was a yell, and they turned just in time to see him disappear down a crevasse. He was extraordinarily lucky – he fell only 10 feet before becoming lodged in the narrowest part of the scarily wide crack by his sound kit.

The natural world can be a very dangerous place – but that’s an enormous part of its appeal to an audience who can sit back and watch programs about some of the most violent phenomena on earth, from the comfort of their living rooms. In 1998, Pioneer Productions made the first series of Raging Planet for Discovery Channel: a 10-parter about extreme weather around the globe. Since then, these shows – which looked at phenomena such as hurricanes, lightning and avalanches – have proved an enduring success.

Over the ensuing 11 years, natural history programming has diversified into broadly two types: actuality filming with the likes of Bill Oddie pontificating over mating bugs, or vets chasing after lions; and the very sumptuous coffee table book shows like the BBC’s Planet Earth and Yellowstone. As television screens got bigger and picture quality improved, it seems audiences have an increased appetite for the latter; the more cinematic end of the spectrum. When Discovery president, John Ford, re-commissioned a second series of Raging Planet, his instructions were to produce programs with similar content but this time they were to be filmed in glorious HD.

It was a joy to be given free rein by Discovery to produce programs that celebrate the spectacle of natural wonders and to be allowed, if there’s something stunning happening in the shot, to let the pictures breathe. We’ve never been pressurised by the channel to cut away simply to ‘keep up the pace.’ When we filmed the episode on lightning we were the first ever to capture Venezuela’s unique Catatumbo lightning storms in HD. We’ve been able to celebrate this moment by letting the shots run in real time and the pictures tell their own dramatic story.

Another major development over the last 11 years that has upped the ante in natural history programming is the advance in aerial photography. The new helicopter-mounted cameras that use missile guidance technology to keep the camera rock steady have set a new standard for aerial filming, and were first showcased in Planet Earth. We have embraced this new technology across our series. When we documented the devastation of Hurricane Ike from the air, the stabilized camera was able to zoom right into the shocking detail of destroyed homes and ruined lives. For the volcano show, we were able to film breathtaking shots of fountains of lava that would have been impossible to film from the ground.

So what does the future hold for natural history programming? The latest wow-factor is stereoscopic 3D – the perfect medium for bringing natural wonders directly into the home. But perhaps, for some, this might just be a bit too close for comfort.

The second series of Raging Planet airs in August on Discovery Channel in the U.S.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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