The new 11-part series Life is the most ambitious natural history coproduction that partners Discovery Channel and the BBC have embarked upon since Planet Earth. The series, which scored big numbers on the BBC last year and is premiering across seven Discovery Communications channels in simulcast this Sunday (Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Investigation Discovery, Science Channel, Planet Green and Discovery Health Channel) is the culmination of over four years of shooting across all seven continents. And while it is part of the epic storytelling tradition that informed series such as Planet Earth and 2001′s Blue Planet, those behind the series say its focus – the lives and behaviors of the world’s living things – sets it apart from its predecessors.
‘The difference is that Planet Earth is very much about the planet, the land and the landscape and the animals within it, and this is much more about the lives of the animals and the challenges they face,’ says Mike Gunton, executive producer for the BBC’s Natural History Unit. ‘So it’s slightly less epic and slightly more dramatic.’
‘If you go back to three or four 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.
‘When I heard Mike say this, it made sense: Planet Earth is the stage, and Life is [about] 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.’
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.
One such 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 the movement of migrating reindeer and elephants. 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. ‘We’ve been able to get a great sense of the animals being in the habitat,’ says Gunton. ‘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.’
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.’
‘She really loved Planet Earth, and she brings an element of warmth to natural history that’s rarely seen,’ says Bunting. And hopefully, says Discovery’s Winslow, she’ll bring some of her core audience along for the experience as well.
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 offering. 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 sums it up like so: ‘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.’