'Life': Inside Discovery's new nature series
The producers of the awe-inspiring <i>Planet Earth</i> return with the dazzling next chapter.
Fri, Mar 19, 2010 at 01:15 PM
ON LOCATION: Michael Gunton films a mass hibernation of monarch butterflies in Mexico. (Photo: Discovery Networks)
Related on MNN: View breathtaking photos from the series
Three years ago, the Emmy-winning series Planet Earth mesmerized viewers with its breathtaking vistas and fascinatingly intimate focus on the world’s flora and fauna. In the new 10-part series Life, premiering on Discovery March 21 and narrated by Oprah Winfrey, the BBC’s filmmakers narrowed in on the behavior of species and the ways animals and plants have evolved to survive.
“We wanted to produce something of the same scale, ambition and impact as Planet Earth, but give a new perspective, a new insight, and show people things they wouldn’t normally be able to see,” says executive producer Mike Gunton. “We drop in on moments in an animal’s life, film them while they’re going through an extraordinary test, and see how they overcome.”
About 500 people including producers, scientists, field crews and 70 cinematographers spent four years on the project, shooting over 2,000 hours of footage over 30 months in more than 40 countries, “and not places we could just drop into,” notes Gunton. Nearly every filmed sequence was an exercise in logistics management, requiring extensive research, patience, and a bit of luck.
For example, as depicted in the second hour on reptiles and amphibians, it took a scientist scout two weeks to find a tiny rare toad, and then the crew, flown in by helicopter, built a mountain base camp, and spent another three weeks shooting there. Assistant producer Stephen Lyle, in charge of plant and bird episodes, captured one of the series’ most fascinating sequences, the courtship ritual of the Vogelkop bowerbird.
The male “builds a seduction parlor, a hut made from orchid stems and sticks, with a lawn placed to the front, on which he places piles of brightly colored treasures he has found in the forest,” outlines Lyle. “The female visited very rarely so it was of great concern to us that we didn’t scare her off. We put a blind quite a distance away, covered it in foliage and had an incredibly long lens.” But after three weeks in a remote location reached with the help of 40 porters, they still hadn’t gotten the mating shot. “We extended two days, and in those last two days we got it.”
Patience was also necessary for time-lapse sequences depicting a Venus flytrap snaring its prey and vines like cat’s claw and Boston ivy crawling up trees ”like the plant equivalent of Spider-Man,” compares Lyle, whose team used high-speed cameras capable of shooting thousands of frames per second. “When plants are shown at a pace that people can relate to, you get people very interested in what they’re doing.”
A major issue for the production was weather, particularly in filming a sequence about the migration of red knot birds, which stop in Delaware en route from South America to the Arctic to feed on spawning horseshoe crabs. Both birds and film crew arrived, but a severe storm that lowered the water temperature delayed the spawning, and threatened the birds with starvation. “That’s where the patience comes in,” says Lyle. “Luckily, the weather improved.”
Patience and weather played a part in capturing the mating run of humpback whales on film for the very first time. A team including underwater cinematographer Roger Munns spent three weeks searching the South Pacific near Tonga for the female and pursuing male cetaceans, scanning the sea for blowhole sprays and fluke slaps. “After three days of bad weather, we got the heat run on the 17th day of 21,” says Munns, who had to free-dive because oxygen tank bubbles annoy the whales. “We had a helicopter covering it from the air, a cameraman on the boat and me underwater.”
Accompanied by a safety diver for backup in case he was bumped and knocked out by a whale, Munns used a wide lens to film “10 testosterone-filled, male humpback whales the size of trucks as they chased tail, literally.” He had one close call, when he was 25 feet down with only 15 seconds of breath left to hold and a humpback swam overhead, blocking his ascent. “That was an intense moment,” recalls the partner in Borneo-based underwater photographer company Scuba Zoo, who hopes to continue filming whales for the series Ocean Giants.
Mike Gunton, who’s in the research phase of a BBC-Discovery series about the wildlife of Africa targeted for 2013, is gratified to have “accomplished more than we hoped” with Life, although he “didn’t set out to establish any explicit environmental message” with it. “Our approach was, ‘Watch this, be amazed by what animals can do, they are individuals that you can relate to, and if you love them you’ll have respect for them,’” he says.
In Life, all species are created equal; the production didn’t single out any endangered species. “We don’t want people to turn off. We’re not waving our finger. We’re just saying how beautiful this is,” Stephen Lyle explains. “It’s more about showing people the beauty of wildlife so they can care about it. I hope people will love what they see, and maybe care a little bit more about the beauty and the riches that we have on this planet.”
The series premiere of ‘Life’ begins at 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 21.