The Planet Earth series has been a massive hit for the BBC for over a decade. The production costs are huge, and each season takes years to put together. We know that some photographers go to great lengths to capture animal subjects, while others take shortcuts to fake the footage they need. So how is Planet Earth really made?
With the recent release of a documentary that explores the making of Planet Earth, the BBC is giving viewers an inside look at the series' production methods. The documentary depicts long weeks spent on location, dangerous animal encounters, and even geopolitical incidents. The making of Planet Earth is a labor of love for everyone involved in the project. Various production teams have risked their lives and committed countless hours to capturing the magic of the natural world.
One of the more terrifying parts of being on a nature documentary film crew is getting up close and personal with very large and dangerous animals, which is exactly what Planet Earth crews had to do almost every day. The ocean team encountered massive sharks, while the grasslands team faced powerful wild cats in the African Savanna.
The grasslands team had it pretty rough — they had to wade through a shoulder-high swamp with bare feet to make sure that if they stepped on a crocodile, they would immediately feel its scaly skin and quickly move out of the way.
A team in the Arctic came under siege by a polar bear while they were cooking dinner in their cabin. One crew member found a gun with blanks and flares to scare it away and another was ready with a frying pan in case the bear attempted to come through the window.
The crew had to deal with more than just dangerous animals while on location. For instance, the team for the episode "Deserts" was followed by armed bandits while filming a scene that features one billion locusts.
During the filming of the first Planet Earth series, the hunt was still on for Osama bin Laden. The crew was headed to the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan to film snow leopards, where bin Laden was thought to be hiding out in mountain caves.
There was a delay in production due to the political crisis, but the team forged ahead. They waited a year to venture into the mountains in search of elusive leopards native to the region. They dressed as locals to more easily blend into their surroundings. Production assistant Chadden Hunter describes their predicament with a touch of humor:
"We're sleeping in caves up in the mountains... Then you start looking at yourself in the mirror and see your beard growing and think, 'Uhh, maybe this is not really the best look to have as the world is looking for bin Laden.'" But the team stuck it out, and they were rewarded with a stunning shot of a snow leopard hunting a goat.
Unsurprisingly, patience is key when it comes to getting amazing shots of different animal behaviors. According to crew members, any substantial scene where an animal performs a specific behavior probably took between three and four weeks to capture.
The Planet Earth II episode "Mountains," however, took much longer than usual. The snow leopard scenes alone required an entire three years to complete. The crew visited the site multiple times to set camera traps for a total of about one year, but the final shots they filmed were so worth it.
It isn't just animals that require patience. Permits for filming can also be a hassle. The crew for the "Cities" episode had to wait 9 months for permission to film peregrine falcons in New York City.
There have been a number of technological improvements between the making of Planet Earth in 2006 and Planet Earth II in 2016. The team uses the most high tech equipment possible, capturing shots that make the viewer forget they're in their living room and not on the plains of Africa.
Low light cameras have come a long way, allowing the crew of Planet Earth II to film scenes by the light of the moon. They also have camera traps that they leave in the animals' environments for extended periods of time, which allows the creatures to become so familiar with the gear that they begin to ignore it entirely.
One of the biggest advances in technology has been in stabilizing equipment; producer Fredi Duvas claims that by showing fewer shaky images that move with the animals, they create a more intimate view of the creatures they film.