In its 50-plus years of existence the BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU) has given monkeys, wildcats, wolves, bears, even insects and rodents their moment in the spotlight. When it comes to the NHU’s output, the one animal that has had the least screen time is the human.
‘It’s one of those subjects that’s been waiting to be made [into something],’ says Dale Templar, producer and director for the BBC who has been working with the NHU, off and on, for 10 years. She is also currently the series producer on the NHU’s take on the human species, Human Planet.
The upcoming landmark BBC series, coproduced with Discovery Channel International (DCI) and BBC Worldwide (BBCWW), takes a look at human behavior in relation to the environments we live in. ‘When I first got onto the series that was the big challenge; how do we narrow it down?’ recalls Templar. ‘There are so many different aspects of human behavior so where do we start, because we’ve only got an eight-part series.’
Since the series is being produced by the NHU, the mandate of looking at humanity through the prism of the natural environment helped narrow down the focus considerably. Thus, though Templar says there will be more Human Planet projects in the future, for this first series the team decided to focus on the relationship between humans and nature. Each 50-minute episode looks at a different environment (jungles, oceans, deserts, grasslands, arctic, mountains, rivers and urban) and the humans who live in the midst of these locales. Given that the series is taking a close look at people who rely less on technology and have a closer relationship with nature, how exactly does the urban episode fit in?
‘We felt we couldn’t do Human Planet without looking at the environment we’ve created for ourselves because that’s what makes us quite extraordinary,’ says Templar. The urban episode shows that even though city dwellers might not feel as connected to nature as someone who lives in the Ecuadorian rainforest, we can’t escape the natural world. ‘Humans and animals will be forever inextricably linked because, even in a place where we don’t think we need them, we really do.’
The core team working on this massive project – which started production in late 2007 and is due to air on BBC1 in October 2010 – only adds up to 20, but there are many extensions that boost that number from time to time throughout production. By the end of the project, crews will have hit over 70 of the most remote areas in the world, and that’s part of what makes this such a huge (and expensive) undertaking. It’s also what puts the pressure on.
‘Producing a super landmark series is like being expected to be the Steven Spielberg of documentary,’ says Templar. ‘You have a budget most factual program makers only ever dream of. The expectation is enormous to produce an experience that is visually groundbreaking, and tell strong stories with great characters.’
While the BBC won’t discuss the exact size of the budget, advance word on the project has billed it as one of the most, if not the most, ambitious productions from the Beeb. As a result of this knowledge, this is the most high-pressure project Templar has ever worked on in 20 years at the public broadcaster. Since they are filming in some of the most far-flung quarters of the world, Templar says a big chunk of the expense is going to travel, getting the crew to places only reachable by foot. And, of course, another big expense is technology.
As the series will inevitably be compared to Planet Earth, Human Planet must set itself apart from its predecessor because times, and technology, have changed. ‘Human Planet will have a different feel [from Planet Earth],’ says Templar. ‘Our cameras will get into the heart of the action, we will play with edit pacing more than our older sister, the music score is orchestral but will not be classical and the drama comes from real human characters.’
Another reality of working on a project of this size is that it’s really not just a television series that’s being made, it’s a brand. Moving further into the multi-platform world, Human Planet already has a website where viewers can follow the crew and photographer Timothy Allen as they post images and blog about their journeys working on the series. In addition, content from Human Planet will be used by BBC Learning to aid school teachers. Templar says that, while the BBC is a public service organization, the team also has to wear its commercial hats because it is coproducing with DCI and BBCWW. ‘The potential is vast, from mobile phone downloads to T-shirts to feature length re-cuts,’ she says.
But before that potential is met, there’s another challenge to get past: finding stories. The goal for the Human Planet team is to find stories that are not only fresh and unique, but to find new ways to capture them. ‘By putting the landmark cinematic seal onto those stories you just see them in a way that feels extraordinary and revealing and blows you away,’ enthuses Templar. One example is a story found by the ‘mountains team’ filming in the Simien Highlands in Ethiopia. The local people in this region grow wheat and barley on steep slopes that get as high as the Alps in certain spots. These harvest-reliant people also depend on their children to protect their crops from an endangered (and therefore protected) species, the Gelada baboon. The children must ward off the aggressive creatures with stones to protect their crops and their livelihood.
Templar also mentions another sequence filmed by the ‘grasslands team’ in Southern Ethiopia. Producer/director Tuppence Stone wanted to use a high-speed HD camera to film super slow-motion footage of Suri stick fighting, but she had the challenge of trying to get inside the action with the camera while also protecting the cameraman from flying sticks. In the end she got two local people to keep constant vigil over the cameraman while he abandoned the tripod and carried the camera on his shoulder, giving him more flexibility to get out of the way if anything came flying at him, while also allowing him to capture every bit of sweat and every brutal hit from a dangerously close vantage point.
While the series examines the human relationship with nature, Templar says one route they will not be taking is to point out our faults or to blame us for the ills of the planet. Rather, Human Planet is a celebration. ‘This series is actually about looking at us as a species, but we’re not saying, ‘Oh, and here’s a strange human,” she says, affecting the voice-of-God natural history narrator voice. Rather than looking at humans as exotic curiosities, as natural history docs often approach animals, Templar says the series will posit something more positive about humanity: ‘Aren’t we just incredible?’
‘Here we are, one species and we have managed to adapt to every environment on God’s planet,’ she marvels. ‘That’s what makes humans so different. Even though we’ve been around for quite a long time now, this one species stays the same wherever we are on the globe.’