Posted on Jan 24, 2020 by Alex Fice
Singing rhinos, skydiving walruses and jowl-thwacking seals. Producers Fredi Devas and Emma Napper reveal how they filmed the weird and wonderful for Seven Worlds, One Planet.
Words Chelsea Fearnley / Pictures BBC
Before Blue Planet II, BBC nature programmes had been criticised for treading too lightly around humanity’s damage to the planet. But the 2017 docuseries heralded a new urgency to the trendy blockbusters, helping transform popular attitudes towards waste and pollution with distressing images of plastic enveloping a turtle, and albatrosses inadvertently feeding plastic to their chicks.
I wanted to talk about the environmental issues that are threatening the natural world
Likewise, Seven Worlds, One Planet, which is the BBC’s latest nature series, does not eschew these environmental messages. The first story about the impact of climate change comes just 16 minutes into the opening episode, which concerns our most hostile continent, Antarctica. Throughout, there are sequences that highlight the human actions – pollution, habitat destruction and poaching – causing the Earth’s sixth mass extinction.
This shift in the BBC’s nature programming is a response by filmmakers to accusations that they have pulled punches in the past. The Antarctica episode producer, Fredi Devas, says: “I wanted, within that programme about Antarctic wildlife, to talk about the environmental issues that are threatening the natural world – and not just the natural world that we know about because we see it, but the natural world that is very far away, and yet is being impacted by climate change.”
Interestingly, when asked how technology helps convey this message to audiences, his response was: “Although technology is important, there is something more important when shooting in the Antarctic – and that’s field craft; working with teams that understand the environment, understand animals and are observant of animal behaviour and how best to capture it in the right conditions.”
The importance of field craft is especially observed in Antarctica’s final sequence, which depicts life under the sea ice, where starfish, sea spiders and three million predatory worms carpet the ocean floor and sea anemones feast on jellyfish. Devas says: “This truly was the riskiest thing to shoot and required huge amounts of courage from the camera operators.”
First, scientists drilled nine feet deep, then the team got into heated dry suits, dropped down and swam off to their filming location, which could be a 20-minute journey. According to Devas: “The water hole appeared black from the surface, but was crystal clear once inside it – and this caused one of our camera operators, Espen Rekdal, to experience feelings of vertigo.”
Above A time-lapse reveals rich life under the Antarctic sea ice from colourful starfish to spindly sea spiders
Despite the protective gear, the team’s faces were still exposed to the freezing water. They also had no assured way of navigating back to the hole, since GPS doesn’t work under tonnes of ice. Devas explains: “Decades ago, camera operators would dive with ropes tied around their ankles, but there were problems with entanglement, so that doesn’t happen anymore. Now they just use memories. We had this plan, whereby if someone wasn’t back in time, another person on the ice above would scrape out arrows with their boot, in the hope that the divers would look up and see them. It’s really low-tech.”
He adds: “The sea ice is constantly moving with the tides and, if they didn’t time their return right, the sea ice could drop on to the seabed and block their access.”
His camera system had specialised components to stop it from freezing
The skill of field craft and hole carving was similarly crucial for the story regarding Weddell seals at the start of the episode. In the autumn, openings in the ice start to freeze over, so the seals create breathing holes, which they keep open by grinding their teeth against the new layers of ice. Devas says: “We couldn’t use existing holes to film the Weddell seals underwater, because they were using them, so we carved our own holes next to theirs.”
In particular, the story follows a mother who had just given birth to her pup in a snowstorm. It can’t swim for the first ten days of its life and is completely dependent on its mother for warmth. “We wanted to see if she would leave her pup on the ice to retreat to the shelter of the water,” Devas explains. Thankfully, she didn’t, and the pup joined its mother in the water when it was able.
He continues: “Those shots of the mother and her pup in the water are depicting the first time that the pup has felt water. For the mother to be comfortable enough to let her pup go into the water for the first time with a camera crew there shows they had an extraordinary amount of field craft. And that’s all about being careful of blowing bubbles – because male Weddell seals blow bubbles in aggressive encounters – and being patient about getting shots, which in the cold water is a challenging thing to do.”
It was not only the seal pup that had to endure the cold conditions without the accessible shelter of water – or, in camera operator John Brown’s case, a nice warm bed. “John had to withstand some incredibly cold conditions,” Devas explains. “It was -20°C and there was wind chill.
His camera system had specialised components to combat this: the viewfinder was heated to stop it from freezing and, before the shoot, we sent to have the tripod head changed to have a fluid that wouldn’t freeze in those very cold temperatures. This is an exceedingly expensive process, because you wouldn’t use this type of tripod head on any other shoot, so it has to be changed back again.”
Above The art of field craft is invaluable when filming wildlife such as this seal pup
Seals of different sorts are captured throughout the episode. Leopard seals hunt Gentoo penguins and, with glaciers crumbling more quickly due to climate change, appear to have the advantage. In this sequence, there is a fantastic split shot depicting the seal’s body as it writhes through the water. Above, its head bobs at the surface and colonies of Gentoo penguins wait nervously on the rocks behind. A Megadome was used in Blue Planet II to capture a shot of a walrus, but this was done using something smaller.
“It’s still a big dome, it’s ten inches. But it’s no Megadome. It’s much less wieldy; the Megadome requires two people or more just to get it into the water and when you’re getting into the water with leopard seals, you need something that’s going to be reactive. You can’t be spending hours getting the camera operator into the water, because the kit is so huge. You need to be able to get in quickly to get those shots and also be able to get out quickly.”
Leopard seals have been known to kill humans. It’s rare, but something Devas had to take seriously. Despite all the preventive measures that might be whirling through your mind, cages, chain mail etc, the filmmaker’s protection was guaranteed by the peculiar fact that seals have a preoccupation with their looks.
He explains: “We went with an experienced camera operator, Hugh Miller, who’s filmed leopard seals before. He knows that leopard seals are unpredictable; some will approach the camera, some won’t. When they do approach the camera, what they’re most interested in is their own reflection on the dome. So, if you film with a buddy in the water, they’re more at risk. And sometimes, the seals will go up to the buddy and try to play with them.”
Miller decided that the safest course of action would be a shallow dive alone. That way, there was no chance of a buddy being nibbled and he would still be able to communicate with the team on the yacht above. “And, if a leopard seal did come up to Hugh, he had the dome for the seal to look at its own reflection,” says Devas.
On St Andrews Bay, an island on the fringes of the continent, free from ice, but far more hospitable and crowded than the mainland, huge colonies of king penguins cover the land and elephant seals fight for territories.
Our priority is that our drones have a successful flight and don’t interfere with animal behaviour
As Devas points out: “The best way to show the scope of this overcrowding was from the air. To fly a helicopter would require a boat that is big enough to fit a helicopter on to it and we weren’t going to do that, because we were on a yacht.
“This is where drone technology really comes into its own. You can pack a drone into your rucksack and fly it whenever you need it. And what I find absolutely amazing about South Georgia is that when you land on the beach, you can look through a colony of 500,000 king penguins, up to mountains the size of the Alps, and the drone really is the best kit you can have to give you that kind of view, which takes you from the sea and then rises up over the hundreds of thousands of animals to reveal the mountains behind.”
Drone technology has advanced enormously since Blue Planet II. They’re quieter, more portable and have longer battery lives. There’s also been research into the potential effects they have on animal behaviour. Devas explains: “Scientists have flown drones above animals and observed the height at which they become disruptive to their behaviour – this is a fantastic piece of information for on location, because we can be confident the shots we’re getting are a true representation of life in the wild.”
André Becker, DJI head of European product management, says: “Our priority is that our drones have a successful flight and don’t interfere with animal behaviour or bring them any harm. When it comes to wildlife documentaries, drones are indispensable. Not only can they capture nice-looking images, but also deliver crucial elements of a story that wouldn’t otherwise be possible with helicopters. Animals are frightened by the sound of helicopters and the frequency of their propellers can be felt from relatively far away.”
He adds: “Elephants are very sensitive to helicopters. Even if the helicopter is at a large distance, elephants will run away. The propellers replicate the sound that bees make, and elephants are afraid of bees.”
New DJI drones, which introduce low-noise propellers and special ESCs that promise to reduce the sound of the propellers by 60%, were used to augment the scale and powerful impact conveyed by the rest of the footage the teams obtained.
Above Producer Fredi Devas gives a smile while standing among 500,000 penguins
In particular, the Inspire 2, which has a rumoured flight time of up to 33 minutes and integrates a heating system that allows it to fly in -20°C, was used in Antarctica. This drone, alongside the Mavic Pro 2, was able to capture the holy grail of wildlife filmography: an aggregation of great whales. Over 150 humpback whales feasted on krill off the coast of Elephant Island in one of the biggest feeding frenzies ever caught on camera. The footage, which shows the whales blowing bubbles that rise up in a spiral to trap their prey, is now being used to inform a scientific study.
Helicopter propellers replicate the sound that bees make, and elephants are afraid of bees
Advances in drone technology also mean that drone image quality now matches that of other high-end production cameras. The Inspire 2 uses the DJI Zenmuse X7 Super 35 6K camera, which has a colour profile that is especially close to Arri Alexa LUTs. Becker explains: “We didn’t want to create our own camera with our own look, we wanted to have a camera that complements other footage.”
The Arri Alexa was one of the show’s workhorses, alongside the Red Helium and, in low-light situations, the Sony AS7 Mark II.
Above Using drones meant aerial footage of elephants could be captured as they are usually afraid of the noise from helicopters
Drones weren’t the only new technology to dazzle the wonders on Earth’s seven extraordinary continents. The Laowa 24mm Macro Probe lenses, which may just be one of the strangest looking lenses on the market, enabled cameraman John Aitchison to create perspectives that would not have been possible with mainstream lenses. For example, when an albatross chick is rejected and ignored by its father after falling from its nest.
Cold on the ground, its only chance of survival is if it can get back on the nest. But, as Attenborough narrates: “Albatross do not recognise their chicks by sight, sound or smell. They identify them by finding them on the nest. These violent storms have created a problem that these albatrosses are not equipped to solve. If it is to survive, the chick will have to get on to the nest itself.”
Aitchison used the Laowa lens to give the appearance this was all happening from the chick’s perspective – a harrowing watch – but Devas reveals that actually getting to this point of capture took a lot of patience from the skilled cameraman. “John arrived on Bird Island and walked around the colony to see which birds were tolerant of him. So, if any birds looked anxious or wanted to move away, then he would need to get out of sight immediately. When he found some that didn’t mind him being there, he started filming from a few metres away. Then, slowly, over a matter of weeks, John would inch closer to the birds to get those probing shots.”
He enthuses: “John is an exceptional cameraman, because he could just sit still in the cold for two hours without looking at or filming the birds. Only when he felt that they were comfortable would he do this.”
Curious camera angles can also be observed in Asia, which is the second episode in Seven Worlds, One Planet, produced by Emma Napper. This episode includes Sumatran rhinos, of which there are fewer than 70 left. In ten years, they may no longer exist, so they’re kept in a secret location behind fences within the Way Kambas National Park.
Napper reveals: “We wanted to tell the story of her [the rhino] singing and then reveal that she’s in captivity. The Asian jungles are so dense that if these rhinos want to find a mate, they have to sing. It’s like a song of a whale, an amazing, haunting sound. There had been just one recording made of them singing before. But when we got there and got out of the car, it was the first thing we heard – and it was loud.”
We built a camera system that was a bit like the spider cams they use for football matches
Filming this confined animal wasn’t as easy as you’d expect. She’s heavily protected, so the crew weren’t just able to wander into the fenced area with her. Napper says: “We could film her from outside the fence, if she decided to come close, but we wanted to get lots of different shots of her walking through the forest to create the image that she was searching for a mate. To do that, we built a camera system that was a bit like the spider cams they use for broadcasting football matches. It was a cable dolly that could fly through the forest, but also go up and down. Most cable dollies are rigged quite high and that wouldn’t have worked, because she’s an exceedingly tiny animal.” She jokes: “I’m 5ft 2in and she’s shorter and a bit hairier than me, so a big cable dolly would have looked ridiculous.”
If you surprise cassowaries, they could kick you to death with that claw
Napper also worked on the Australia episode, which captured the continent’s most elusive and much-persecuted wild dog, the dingo. A mother dingo is seen hunting kangaroo on the wide-open grasslands to provide food for her pups. But Napper reveals that these chases can cover many miles and are often unsuccessful.
“It’s really hard to film dingoes and filming them hunting has hardly ever been done before, because they’re such skittish animals. They’re so afraid of humans. It took us 18 months to just find somewhere where we might have been able to capture dingoes hunting. And then weeks and weeks and weeks in the field of trying to get these dingoes to accept us, to be near enough to film them, and it all came down to this one animal – which I always find quite strange, to be so reliant on one animal, because obviously that animal doesn’t care about our pursuit of success. Anyway, she chose to accept us close enough for us to film her and I almost feel grateful for that.”
Above Producer Emma Napper on location in Asia
She continues: “For the hunting, in order to keep up with that and be able to get any shots, we had to get a helicopter crew in. Dingoes are far too fast, and they move far too far for our team to be able to keep up with the hunts from the ground. But that was nice, because the scale of that landscape is a part of the dingo story – they have to be so fast and so strong to be able to cover that distance. Showing her, from the air, with all those wide shots, is what her life is all about. Somewhere, in all of that area, she’s got to catch up with kangaroos that can see her for miles and are faster than her.”
Another sequence showing an animal looking after its young is the story of the cassowary. This bird lives in the deep jungle in the north of Australia, which is the oldest jungle on Earth. It was once walked by dinosaurs and, when they became extinct, cassowaries took their place. The females stand 6ft tall, the males 5ft, but they rear up above head height and have claws on their feet longer than a velociraptor’s. Napper says: “If they could see you, they might not be a problem. But if you surprise them, they could kick you to death with that claw.”
They’re also quite shy, which is why – alongside the knowledge that they could kill – Napper decided to lay camera traps to see which trees they liked to go to before sending in a film crew. “The camera traps came back with the information that there was a male cassowary who had two tiny chicks. It also revealed which trees he was likely to go to, so we set up hides around the jungle at those points. It was a bit of a stake-out to get that sequence actually.”
Above Camera hides were used to get close to cassowaries, the world’s most dangerous bird
A Message to Viewers
We couldn’t finish this feature without including the most distressing moment of the series, where walruses are seen unwittingly throwing themselves off large cliffs and are met with a gruesome end.
On the coast of northern Russia, in the Arctic, is one of the biggest concentrations of animals on the continent. Almost the entire population of Pacific walrus – over 100,000 of them, are crammed on to a beach no more than a few hundred metres long. These large congregations are becoming more frequent as climate change causes sea ice – where they would normally spend time – to retreat.
The location is so remote that it took the crew over a week to get there. It had also never been filmed before, so there was very little that Napper could do to plan. “Before we left, the extent of what we knew was that, in order to show both the scale and the behaviour of these walruses, we would need two camera systems: the drone was needed to show the scale and the ground system was needed for close-ups, to capture moments of behaviour.”
Polar bears also occupy the beach, as they find their sea ice resting spots start to disappear as well. They’re no match for an adult walrus and rarely succeed in killing them, but there is another opportunity for the polar bears to enjoy a blubbery meal. The beach is backed by cliffs and some of the walruses climb up high to escape the crowds below.
Drone shots were able to capture the polar bears approaching these precariously placed walruses and reveal for the first time the strange behaviour that followed. Spooked by the polar bears’ presence, the walruses throw themselves off the cliffs to the expectant safety of water, but are instead met by the rock’s sharp edges. The polar bears were then able to feed on the carcasses of the walruses that had died.
Napper concludes: “I wanted to open the episode with this story, because it shows somewhere that I think is unexpected for Asia. When I think of Asia, I automatically think of south-east Asia and certainly don’t think about it having walruses. So, I think that was quite surprising for viewers and hopefully quite the spectacle, too.”
A spectacle it was. Let’s just hope this new profound method of storytelling resonates with the public. We live on the same planet as the animals and, like these animals, are not immune to the ever-more-apparent effects of climate change.
More than a post from Films at 59
Films at 59 provided camera kit and advised location teams, particularly for specialist requirements. It rigged the GSS systems, which were commended by producer Fredi Devas, because they enabled his team to capture albatrosses flying above waves as they were sailing the Drake Passage. “It’s the roughest sea in the world. We had water spraying over the sides of our yacht, which was buffeted about, but our camera operator was still able to get stabilised shots with the GSS.”
For the post, Films at 59 provided Avid cutting rooms, Baselight grade and Flame finishing, which included noise reduction and picture enhancements. It also created and QC’d all of the 100+ masters in both HDR and SDR for UK TX and BBC studios distribution.
George Panayiotou, business development manager, says: “With 170 shoots over three years, it was a challenging yet rewarding production to be involved with.”