Inside Discovery Channel's 'Frozen Planet'
A conversation with filmmakers Vanessa Berlowitz and Chadden Hunter.
Fri, Mar 16, 2012 at 04:56 PM
Photo: Discovery Channel/BBC
Six years since it aired the groundbreaking, Emmy-winning nature documentary series "Planet Earth," Discovery Channel debuts a new seven-part BBC series that focuses on the North and South Poles. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, "Frozen Planet" reflects the polar extremes — literally — that filmmakers Vanessa Berlowitz, who produced the series and directed the first hour, and director/cinematographer Chadden Hunter and their crew went to in order to capture the spectacular images seen in the series, which debuts March 18 with two episodes ("The Ends of the Earth" and "Spring") and ends April 15 with the final two ("On Thin ice" and "Life in the Freezer").
Berlowitz, who holds a Masters degree in human sciences from Oxford, and Hunter, who has a PhD in wildlife biology from Liverpool, endured winds of up to 146 miles an hour and temperatures that reached minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit, but found the frigid, often dangerous experience worth it. "In a lifetime you'll never have the kind of experiences we had making this," says Berlowitz. "We're constantly amazed at the material the natural world gives us." The two sat down with Mother Nature Network to discuss their epic accomplishment.
What was your approach to making "Frozen Planet?"
Hunter: We really wanted to portray the ultimate portrait of the Polar regions. One of the joyous things for us in filming this is that you do go out into the field and come across stories which not only have you not gone out planning to film, but you never even heard of, like the orcas wave‑washing the seals off the ice, something we'd heard of but had never seen. We were able to get footage of completely new behaviors that had never been seen by scientists let alone on television.
Berlowitz: The big story of the Polar regions is seasonality. They go from complete, 24-hour darkness to 24-hour sunlight in the peak of summer. We wanted to show this dramatic seasonal change. Three of the programs take you through the seasons and you'll see how these amazing swings affect the animals that live there and the challenges that they have to meet. No other animals have to deal with such extremes. Our opening program is an introduction that takes you on an amazing journey from the North to the South Pole. Another is about how humans have met the challenges that the animals have met. One program is behind the scenes, how we all met these challenges while there, and there is an environmental program. We got unprecedented access, because of "Planet Earth." This is probably the last time they'll let crews into some of these places.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
Berlowitz: The biggest challenge for all of us was the cold. It was four years in the making and we spent two of them out in the field, many months on the ice.
Hunter: I'm an Australian, and I'm just not a cold‑weather person at all, so the personal challenge of going to film and living these conditions is really extreme. It is the best job in the world making something like "Frozen Planet." But to come back and get a decent cappuccino and a hot shower is something that never loses its attraction.
Filming "Frozen Planet' really took our equipment and people to extremes that we never experienced while filming "Planet Earth." Cold would freeze plastic. Batteries wouldn't work. We had to heat cameras with bits of coal that we lit and wrapped in blankets, real turn‑of‑the‑century technology. High-definition cameras are very sensitive, and conventional means of protection don't work. You have to come up with new solutions.
Berlowitz: We borrowed a lot of techniques from Hollywood. We had a motion‑controlled, winterized camera system that allowed us to do incredible stuff where we could show an entire season change in one shot. You could start with a frozen mountain, pan across, and everything melts completely. Then we end on a shot of a bird on its nest. We had so much more equipment to take with us, a challenge in itself.
Vanessa, you were pregnant for part of it. Did that add another layer of difficulty?
Berlowitz: Yes, it was actually quite difficult being pregnant, partly because I could barely fit into any Ski‑Doo suit. And I hadn't told anyone on the team that I was actually pregnant. They were looking at me, going, "That fit you last time you were here." I obviously had to be quite careful with moving heavy gear around. Flying long hours in a helicopter when your back's aching and you're feeling a bit groggy was quite challenging. Watching this mother polar bear and her cubs for three days, I realized, "I'm going to be a new mom like this." My son is three now and he watched the programs and really enjoyed them. He said he wants to come next time to film the polar bears. But he's the perfect size and shape for a polar bear snack so I don't know about that.
What were the scariest moments? Any close calls?
Berlowitz: I had a pretty hairy moment. At the poles you get the fastest, most dangerous winds on our planet. We were flying in a helicopter, trying to capture an image of these amazing winds ripping down the ice sheet and we were thrown around like we were inside a washing machine. The camera stabilization was so good that the shot is incredible. We had a forced landing. It was pretty scary. In the Poles, man does not conquer Mother Nature.
Hunter: At the same time she was on that flight I was filming inside a live volcano, Mt. Erebus in Antarctica. We were near the summit at about 13,000 feet, going inside these ice caves that are melted out by volcanic gases, and we were suffering excruciating headaches from the volcanic gases. We were down there filming for about 14 hours and a blizzard blew over the top of the ice caves. We tried to find our way back out to what we thought was the hole but it was just a ceiling of ice. To be buried inside a cave was not what we were expecting.
You must have had massive amounts of footage to go through.
Hunter: Yes. The technology we're taking into the field has gone up exponentially. I might have five different camera formats for a single shoot now. Stabilized cameras and extra zooms make it look more incredible because we get new insight into the behaviors. Changing from film to digital has meant we are generating more footage than ever before and sifting through it all is a massive job. The volume of media that we're generating is terabytes, and it all goes on hard drives these days. But what it means is we have the deepest and broadest documentation of the Polar regions in history, an incredible record.
Berlowitz: BBC and Discovery will be able to use it for years.
What evidence of climate change did you witness and portray in the series?
Berlowitz: I did the "Ice Worlds" episode of "Planet Earth" ten years ago and returning for this, there is absolute dramatic change. It became very clear that the Polar regions are changing faster than anywhere else on our planet. The ice is melting, quite simply. So we felt that it was very important that we document this change. We feel that this series may be a last chance to see these incredible last great wildernesses on our planet before they change forever, and I hope that's going to be the legacy of the series.
Hunter: It was very important for us to document this change and highlight for people the fact that it's changing so rapidly. There is a sense that these are very special habitats that most of the world won't get to visit and that they won't be seen by our grandchildren like they are today. The debate about human influences on climate change and the speed of it is not part of "Frozen Planet." What we're doing is documenting what we're seeing, but we felt right from the start that we couldn't cover the Polar regions without fostering that debate and conversation. As filmmakers and documentarians the best thing we can do is create something beautiful, moving, captivating. And if that stirs up a much wider public debate, that's a great thing.
Berlowitz: The best service we can do is inspire and engage the audience. We can also present factual information about the actual change that's happening. Then you decide if you care or don't care and look to websites like yours for ideas on how to change your behavior or vote differently in elections. It's amazing that we can use this platform to raise awareness.
What's next for you?
Berlowitz: I'm doing a two-parter with Discovery in Alaska. We'll show you grizzly bears like you've never seen them before. We're doing multiple stakeout camera scenarios. It will air next year.
Hunter: I'm working on a series called "Wild Arabia," for Animal Planet, a BBC/Animal Planet co-production. It's about the Saudi Arabian desert. After four years of being frozen our team has the Arabian Desert as an antidote. We're slowly thawing out; I'm picking up a camera in shorts and sandals.
Discovery Channel's "Frozen Planet" website is offering exclusive video, interactive content, photo slideshows, and a live Penguin Cam, and the channel has partnered with three environmental organizations: The National Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy and Sierra Club for a "Frozen Planet" initiative involving cross-promotions, PSAs and online chats. Discovery has also joined forces with GetGlue.com for a premiere night promotion in which it will donate $1 for every unlocked online sticker to the non-profit partners.
Discovery Channel/BBC/Chadden Hunter
Discovery Channel/BBC/Jason Roberts
Discovery Channel/BBC/Jeff Wilson
Discovery Channel/BBC/Jason Roberts
Discovery Channel/BBC/Jeff Wilson