The ominous slithering of a snake over the pebbles on a beach as a baby iguana’s feet fly on the rocks are the first sounds to set spines tingling. Then, a drum beats — once — building to a heart-pulsating frenzy as multiple snakes join in on the hunt for the iguana as it runs for its life (literally) across the screen.
This is perhaps the most memorable scene among a banquet of visual treats offered by the BBC’s 2016 natural history blockbuster Planet Earth II. The acclaimed six-part series takes audiences into some of the most remote places in the world, unveiling landscapes from the highest mountain peaks to arid and harsh deserts — and the fascinating, and sometimes deadly, creatures that live within them.
Legendary composer Hans Zimmer, whose Oscar-winning musical talents are featured in dozens of films and series, including Netflix’s The Crown and National Geographic’s Genius, is the creative force behind Planet Earth II‘s sweeping theme. The broader task of connecting the series through sound fell to Jasha Klebe and Jacob Shea of the music production company Bleeding Fingers Music, a creative partnership between Extreme Music and Zimmer’s RCI Global based in Santa Monica. In an interview with realscreen, Klebe and Shea share how they sought to bring cohesion to the series via an intimate score that took seven months to produce, including four days in London with a 50-piece orchestra.
“Living up to the challenge of the success of the last Planet Earth (which aired in 2006, and scored by George Fenton), and the extraordinary music that was done for that, we wanted to get it right,” says Klebe of the magnitude of the project.
This time around, the strategy was to bring audiences even closer to the natural world using crystal-clear sound effects captured by the camera crew in the field, such as the rustling of the grass and rocks crackling under the snakes’ bellies. Those sounds were then woven into the score.
“We tried to use whatever made the scene feel most immediate — whether electronics or orchestra, anything from the musical world that we could bring to heighten the experience, we brought,” says Shea.
Producers on the series, many of them scientists and biologists, worked closely alongside the animals and were able to explain to the composers what type of sensation or emotional response they were hoping to elicit in each episode. In the episode on deserts, for example, director Ed Charles was looking to express a landscape reminiscent of an alien planet. To that end, Shea says the musicians were captivated by a swarm of locusts that made an “eerie, terrible” sound that they were able to filter and manipulate to match the artistic vision.
“So we would feed that sound of locusts in at different times to keep the audience on their toes.”
The pair say they were always mindful to ensure each element in the score was good enough to measure up to the same production quality as all the other elements, from visuals to editing.
“We musically felt the pressure,” says Shea.
Working with Zimmer, a first for the composers, only made the experience more powerful. They describe Zimmer as a “masterful storyteller” who knows how to get to the heart of a scene.
“He was supportive of us trying things out and letting us have our vision play out,” says Shea.
Often, music production in documentaries dictates that the score maintain a sense of impartiality so the viewers aren’t being told how to feel. Planet Earth II is an outlier as it openly celebrates the natural world in all its vibrancy, says Shea. As such, the series provides an opportunity to go beyond the constraints of impartiality.
“It’s about getting us excited about our planet and in that way, musically, the sky’s the limit.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of realscreen