There have been many documentaries that depict the wonders of wildlife, but the incredibly ambitious "Life Story" aims to show animals in a way they've not been seen before. Three and a half years in the making and shot in 29 countries, producing over 1,800 hours of footage, the six-part series narrated by Sir David Attenborough premieres June 6 with an episode focusing on newborns and the perils they face.
Starting with barnacle geese chicks taking their first flight from a terrifyingly lofty cliff, it follows a humpback whale protecting her calf from aggressive males and hungry sharks and seal pups learning to swim in a protected inland pool, away from predators. Creatures familiar (lions, meerkats) and less so (jerboas) begin a journey of learning and survival in an intimate look at animals' behavior in their native habitats.
Series producer Rupert Barrington explains how it all came together.
MNN: What was your mission going into the project?
Rupert Barrington: The central idea of the series was to give the viewer a sense of what it must be like to be an animal facing critical challenges or choices at any stage on the journey through its life. Life for most animals is difficult for much of the time, and we chose species and behaviors that we hoped would reflect just how hard it is for any animal to succeed in life's only mission: to leave offspring. We thought that if we could give the viewer a sense of this difficulty, then they may also get a sense of the enormous triumph that every victory represents on an animal's life journey.
What sets it apart from other nature documentaries?
Many nature documentaries are quite objective. They view nature from afar, both in terms of the camera position and also emotionally. But if you have the chance, as our crews do, to witness animals facing great danger or difficulty, you cannot help but put yourself, mentally, in their position. You find yourself reacting emotionally to what they are going through. That is a very real experience of observing nature, and we wanted to bring that experience to the viewer…feeling what it must be like to be an animal facing peril or critical choices. That is achieved by choosing stories that a viewer can relate to, and by telling those stories in a way that really helps the viewer to understand an animal's situation, its choices and the consequences of victory or failure.
A baby elephant and an adult elephant walk through on an African plain.
What does each hour cover?
The first covers the very early part of an animal's life when, for many mammals and birds, they are looked after and protected by their parents. This stage ends when an animal must leave that protection and step into the adult world on its own. But some animals, like insects, receive no parental help at all, and must face the perils of nature the moment they hatch or are born. The second is about growing — an animal making its own way, and finding its own place, in the adult world. It will have learned some skills from its parents, if it was lucky enough to be looked after by them. But it will also have to learn many things, very quickly if it is to survive without help.
In [the episode] "Home," we see how animals try to win and keep a home. For some animals home may be a range of 100 square miles. For others it may be a small burrow. A home is a safe base from which an animal can launch its bid for success in life's great mission. "Power" is about gaining a social position over others [which means] access to the best food and the best mates. But gaining a position of power means conflict with others. It's a dangerous game to play. "Courtship" — finding a mate — can be one of the most difficult and dangerous things an animal will ever have to do. The competition is intense and an animal may have to commit a huge amount of time and energy to attracting a mate, which is time it cannot spend looking for food or defending itself. In "Parenthood," the circle closes. We see the parent/baby relationship, where we began, from the parent's point of view. An animal that produces offspring is very nearly a winner in life. But for the first time an animal must put the safety of another (its offspring) before its own safety.
What were the challenges you faced making 'Life Story?'
There are always many challenges to making a wildlife documentary. Simply finding the animals we wish to film may be extremely difficult. One crew spent seven weeks in the dense Congo forests to get a few short glimpses of our closest relative, the bonobo chimpanzee. One of our team, Sophie Lanfear, made three separate trips to the Arctic to try to film young Arctic foxes snow-diving, leaping and then plunging nose first into the snow to capture lemmings. On the first occasion a huge storm blew in, ruining their filming chances. On the second shoot they did not see a single Arctic fox, at a place where they had been seen every year for 30 years. Only on the final shoot were they able to capture the footage they were after.
The weather habitually plays havoc with our filming plans. A shoot to New Zealand to film spinner dolphins "talking" to each other using a body language of aerial leaps and spins encountered unseasonably bad weather and despite huge effort the team were not able to gather enough footage to tell the story. Some shoots were logistically very difficult. Finding new, charismatic animals to film gets ever harder. We decided to film the long-eared jerboa for episode one because it has never been filmed before. But it lives in a remote corner of the Gobi desert. To get there required encouraging the only scientist who has ever studied them to come out of retirement to join the team, and to team up with a group of Russian scientists mounting an expedition to the region. Organizing an expedition, and finding or building equipment in the remote Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator took many days, followed by a four-day drive to the heart of the Gobi desert.
What are some of the most surprising things you discovered and captured on film?
Our crews were able to witness and film a male humpback whale blowing a wall of bubbles to shield an injured youngster from tiger sharks. The experts had never seen whales doing this before. Another recent discovery: a male jumping spider who, during courtship, raises his body vertically and unfurls two "side panels" to create a circular, brilliantly colored structure. He uses this as part of an elaborate dance to attract a female, who would rather kill and eat him.
Barnacle goose goslings look out from a ledge before making a death-defying leap.
What are some other highlights?
The shots of the barnacle goose goslings making this death-defying leap from a nest 400 feet above the ground are truly astounding. When our team first saw the rushes, after the team brought them back from the field, every one of us had our hands over our faces, unable to believe that such a tiny animal would do such a thing. Not all goslings make it down alive — ledges and crevices take their toll. But enough do survive to make this a successful survival strategy. There is probably no other animal that must go through such an extreme ordeal at the beginning of its life. The Japanese puffer fish, which builds a stunning circular sculpture in the sand to attract a female, is a very recent discovery and one of the most extraordinary courtship displays ever seen. One of our team found a photo on the Internet that we all thought was fake, since the most complex structure any fish is known to create is a small lump or hole in the sand. However after much research and many phone calls we tracked down the person who took the photograph, and it turned out to be real. Over a period of several days a male puffer fish excavates this astonishingly beautiful structure to attract the attention of a female. It is a unique, and scarcely believable behavior. David Attenborough described it as "Perhaps the most remarkable thing I have ever seen."
A whale calf a parent swim in the ocean.
What do you hope audiences take away?
We hope that if the viewer can get a true sense of how difficult life is in nature for many animals, then they will understand that when animals come under even more pressure due to human-caused habitat degradation or reduction in their numbers then their already difficult lives will become even more challenging. We hope that the audience will gain a real sense of the almost heroic levels of effort and hardship animals will go through in order to create the next generation. We hope also that they will see that this mission of animals to continue their bloodlines is responsible for quite extraordinary beauty, complexity and spectacle. Finally, we hope that the audience will recognize that many of the challenges we face in our own, human, lives are reflected in nature — they are universal challenges for all of life. Perhaps this recognition can help emphasize our kinship with nature.
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