You would think that, as an executive producer with the BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU), Mike Gunton has seen it all when it comes to fascinating animal behavior. Still, he recalls being amazed by the action unfolding in the raw footage from his latest project, the epic 11-part series Life, coproduced by the BBC and Discovery Channel.
‘I’ve done this for 20 years now but when we would get the stuff back, I’d just think, ‘I don’t believe that,” he says with a laugh. ‘When we saw the flying fish leap out of the water the first time, one of the youngsters here said, ‘That’s insane!”
Fish that fly, birds that elaborately decorate their nests as dens of seduction, lizards that literally run on the water – all of these behaviors and many, many more are among the stories brought to life in Life. Premiering in March in the U.S. with its first episode simulcast across seven Discovery Communications channels, the series has already racked up considerable acclaim (and audiences) in the UK. Filmed over the span of four years, Life is the result of 3,000 days spent filming on location in every continent and habitat. As coproduction partners on 2001′s acclaimed Blue Planet and 2006′s remarkable Planet Earth, it’s fair to say that the BBC and Discovery have set the bar incredibly high for natural history event television. In fact, those earlier series were so impeccably crafted that even Life‘s producers were wondering if they could meet their standards.
‘When we started this there was a lot of trepidation,’ admits Gunton. ‘A lot of people thought the bar had already been set pretty high [by Planet Earth] and also, this series was all about behavior, which is notoriously the hardest thing to do.’
‘If you go back several years prior to Planet Earth and look at Blue Planet, you see that they all come from an editorial and creative ambition that is somewhat audacious,’ says Clark Bunting, president and general manager of Discovery Channel and president of Science Channel. And while Bunting maintains that ‘it’s the most ambitious natural history film that we’ve been involved with,’ whether the cost of that ambition rivals the over $25 million spent on Planet Earth remains untold, for now.
Beyond budgets, there will doubtlessly be other comparisons made between Life and its massively popular predecessors. While no one on the network side refers to the new series as a sequel to Planet Earth, there is acknowledgment that the two series are cut from the same cinematic storytelling cloth. Still, Gunton says it’s the approach to the subject matter that acts as the primary distinction.
‘The difference is that Planet Earth is very much about the planet, the landscape and the animals within it, and this is much more about the lives of the animals and the challenges they face,’ he says. ‘So it’s slightly less epic and slightly more dramatic.’
‘When I heard Mike say this, it made sense: Planet Earth is the stage, and Life is the actors,’ offers Susan Winslow, executive producer of Life for Discovery Channel. ‘I think that’s the best way to sum it up. We’re drilling down in this series and getting into individual stories.’
That drilling down and dedication to telling varied tales of survival and adaptation within the wild kingdom required a mix of ingenuity, audacity, determination and patience, according to Bunting and Gunton. ‘When you think about the cost of putting that many people in the field for that period of time to get the kinds of behavior [seen in Life]… knowing what those camera people do out there, it’s amazing,’ enthuses Bunting. ‘They just have a sixth sense. They’ll grab the camera, get a behavior and at the blink of an eye it’s over. You ask, ‘How did you know that was about to happen?”
The series runs the gamut from reptiles to mammals, from insects to plants, in order to provide as complete a picture as possible of life as we know it. ‘Animals don’t read call sheets so you’re always at the mercy of what they will and won’t do, especially in a series like this where you’re trying to get unusual behavior,’ explains Gunton. ‘You’re trying to get them in the most intense days of their lives, parachuting in on them during very important events.’
CAPTURING THE ACTION
To meet those requirements, crew sizes ranged from solo camera operators in situations when ‘stake outs’ had to be conducted without disturbing animals in the field, to multi-camera crews commissioned to capture some of the more grandiose, and difficult to capture behaviors, such as the male humpback whale mating battle filmed for the first time for the series.
‘You’d have a camera crew in a helicopter, a camera crew on the boat and a dive camera crew,’ says Gunton. ‘And each of those people would need people with them, so you’d be talking about a dozen people.’
Just as Planet Earth did, Life boasts a number of firsts in terms of never-before-seen behaviors being captured on film. And while those firsts required skilled crews to get the shots, in many cases they also required technical innovations developed specifically for the series. Some of these innovations were made necessary by the limitations or challenges imposed by the habitats in which filming took place.
To capture creatures on the sea bed in Antarctica, Gunton and crew set up camp on the ice, pitching a tent over a hole that they’d drilled which would be their access to the mysterious and forbiddingly cold depths.
‘We put a special time lapse rig down there with a camera on a motorized rail so that it could track along and zoom and pan,’ recalls Gunton. ‘That was all controlled by computer, which also had to go underwater. And that also controlled the stroboscopic flashlights which also had to be waterproof. So all this stuff had to work underwater, and work at just above freezing point for about a month without going wrong.’ Thankfully, the gear held up its end of the bargain, and the end result was spectacular footage shot over the course of a month and, through time lapse, condensed into four minutes to provide a glimpse of life under ice. ‘It’s like something out of Alice in Wonderland,’ he marvels.
Another first being touted by the team behind Life is the development of the ‘Yogi Cam,’ a camera tracking system that allowed for smooth tracking of migrating reindeer and elephants. The thought was to try to develop a tracking system like the Cineflex heligimbal helicopter mount used in Planet Earth, which provides both stability for shooting while airborne as well as the ability to zoom in and lock on subjects below. ‘The Cineflex is very good with small vibrations and weaving,’ says Gunton. Big bumps pose challenges, however. ‘We had to create another kind of arm as a damping system. The combined efforts of the two arms created a smooth floating effect, hence the name.’
In addition to the Yogi Cam work and ample use of ultra high-speed cams such as the Phantom and the Photron SA-2, Gunton says he’s also quite proud of how the series has ‘taken macro photography to a new level’ in its depictions of lizards, frogs, reptiles and insects. ‘Usually what happens when you try to film small things is your depth of field disappears and you get a very claustrophobic sense,’ says Gunton. ‘We’ve been able to get a great sense of the animals being in the habitat. You’ll see two beetles fighting over a female and it seems like you’re in that world – you could be watching two T. rexes fighting.’
MORE FACTS OF LIFE
Indeed, in Life, it’s the pictures that tell the stories – with help from a couple of friends. Sir David Attenborough returned to narrate the version aired on BBC. For the American version airing on Discovery, just as Sigourney Weaver was enlisted to narrate the American Planet Earth, Oprah Winfrey was called to do the honors this time around. While the decision to bring Oprah on board was made prior to Bunting’s appointment as Discovery Channel president and GM, he says she was a ‘great choice.’
‘What Oprah brings to this is that amazing ability to pull you into a film that’s epic in scope but intimate in its portrayal of the animals and their behaviors,’ says Bunting. ‘She really loved Planet Earth, and she brings an element of warmth to natural history that’s rarely seen.’ And hopefully, says Discovery’s Winslow, she’ll bring some of her core audience along for the experience as well.
‘She was very eager to be involved, and we were eager to have her,’ she says. ‘We thought she’d make natural history accessible to our viewers. She could bring in some of her audience, more family viewers, while also satisfying our core audience.’
As for other differences between the American and UK versions, both Winslow and Gunton say there are slight changes in pacing and length due to the different commercial considerations required for the U.S. Also, both say that while they shared similar objectives for the series, the American version may have a little more factual information imparted than the British one. ‘The British audience may be more interested in what’s going to happen in the story,’ says Gunton, while Winslow offers this explanation: ‘The UK audience is so immersed, from the cradle to the grave, in natural history programming that we wanted to give our audience a little extra help with some things that may not be that familiar to them.’
The facts of Life, as it were, will also be made available via the series’ online home at discovery.com/life. Webisodes, a multiplayer strategy game, a global map of endangered species and an interactive ‘gene machine’ are all part of the online offerings. The program will also be made available to students in select U.S. schools via Discovery Education.
All of these elements – the incredibly ambitious TV series, the online component, the outreach – are meant to drive home a simple truth to viewers, according to Discovery’s Bunting and Winslow. And while the message isn’t necessarily overt, it’s unavoidable.
‘If you’ve come to love these animals then you’re going to care about preserving them,’ says Winslow, while Bunting adds: ‘We can’t tell anyone what to think but on a good night we can say, ‘Here are some important things to think about.’ And that’s what Life does brilliantly.’