“The Starting Point is Revelation”: ‘Planet Earth II’ Producer Mike Gunton on Turning a Nature Documentary Into a Ratings Hit

"If you’re going to make a real impact, you need to appeal to people who don’t normally watch wildlife films."

Television has changed a lot in the past decade, and so has the planet. So it’s fitting that the BBC decided to revive its wildly popular Planet Earth series from 2006 — and somewhat surprising that Planet Earth II, which premiered in the U.K. in November 2016, earned even higher ratings than the original. At a time when there are more shows than ever to choose from, and fewer people watching at the appointed time, it’s pretty incredible that over half the country’s population tuned in to watch a nature documentary — in fact, the premiere episode was the U.K.’s most-watched nature program in 15 years.

On Saturday, Americans will get their chance to marvel at the wonders of the world when Planet Earth II — narrated by David Attenborough — premieres simultaneously on BBC America, AMC, and SundanceTV, with an episode called “Islands.” “Mountains,” “Jungles,” “Deserts,” and “Grasslands” follow, and the final installment focuses on the fastest-growing habitat on Earth — cities.Three years in the making, the series was filmed across 40 countries. Flavorwire spoke to executive producer Mike Gunton, the creative director of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, about filming on location, storytelling techniques, and the growing fragility of the planet.


Flavorwire: Is there a sense that you have to sort of compete for the audience’s attention with all the other millions of shows out there?

Mike Gunton: My job is to make these things a success in television terms, and that means a lot of people watching. But that’s not the starting point. The starting point is revelation. What can we show the audience that they haven’t seen before, which reveals new wonders about the natural world? If you get that right, then it follows that you get the big audiences and you get the excitement and you get the word of mouth — you get something that stands out in a world of other television.

Were you looking for specific animals or plants that you didn’t find the first time around?

The original Planet Earth, we felt there were some amazingly memorable, iconic sequences in there. Some of them we thought, we won’t go there again, because they are so memorable and so iconic. And others we thought, because they’re so iconic, we should go again and do them better. For example, the snow leopard story that we did in Planet Earth II, we did that partly because snow leopards had been one of the stories [in the original] which had been a real signature on the series. It’s also one of the holy grail creatures which nobody has really been able to film. We thought, right, let’s really go to town this time, and tell a different story.

We do a lot of research about what we’re going to film. Doing “Jungles,” for example, you have to make sure you have a range of jungles, you have to have a variety of types of animals — you need some mammals and some reptiles and maybe birds and amphibians. You also need cute animals and scary animals and weird animals. You want predation and mating and parental care. Tonally, you want scary, thrilling, funny, sad, romantic. There’s sort of this checkerboard of different bits. And, of course, people want to see things they haven’t seen before, so that kind of trumps everything. So you then try to find the best stories that combine as many of those, and are new. You go out on location with that specific story in mind to tell, and that’s how you think about the right technology to take and the right cameraperson, who has the right approach to capture that sort of thing. In the old days, you’d say, right, ok, let’s go off for six months to Africa, pack our bags, see what happens. But that’s not what we do anymore. And that’s why I think you get the intensity – because we’re going for such focused stories, that’s what delivers the intensity of what you’re seeing.

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To take an example, in the “Jungles” episode, there’s a scene where we see a little transparent glass frog — the size of a thumbnail — defend its eggs from attacking wasps. Did you set out to find that frog, or did you just stumble upon it? It’s so tiny!

There’s no hard and fast rulebook. I think that story’s an example of — the producer just loves frogs. Those glass frogs, they served a purpose in that sequence. There are so many creatures in the jungle, all out to eat you, and one of the ways you can deal with that is by camouflage or mimicking. That particular frog was a weird, extreme example of that. But the twist in that story, the development of that story whereby the adult defends the eggs by protecting them but also sacrificing itself by pretending to be eggs — we didn’t know what creatures were going to come and attack it. We knew that they are sometimes attacked by wasps, but we didn’t know that attack would be relentless, and that he’d have to resort to these ever-more-bizarre kung-fu kicks to get rid of these wasps. There’s a natural drama that unfolds, and you never know for sure what’s going to happen. It’s a bit like doing observational documentary, you’ve just got to keep checking — where’s the story here, how do I cover this, what’s going to be the best way of telling this from the right perspective? So you don’t just observe; we’re much more conscious of putting the camera where we can get the most intense experience of what’s going on in the story.

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In the same installment— I really liked the “Jungles” episode — the narrator is describing a family of spider monkeys and how this baby monkey is climbing high up in a tree for the first time on her own. How did you know that was the first time? And where are the cameras positioned to follow her up into the trees?

We work with scientists and field workers all the time. Almost every shoot we go on, we’re in the company of experts who’ve been studying those creatures. When you’re able to tell a backstory — sort of the biography of the animal — it’s almost always because that animal has been and is being studied by scientists.

The scientists know which trees those animals tend to frequent. We often put ropes up into the trees and put a platform up in the tree canopy, at their height, from which we can shoot. We’ve been doing that for a number of years, but the breakthrough on this series was that we were able to put on those platforms remotely controllable cranes, and so effectively we put the camera at the end of a really long arm and swing it in and amongst the treetops. Also, we had drones. The thing about drones is you can only operate them in certain circumstances, because they’re quite noisy. But some of those perspectives — lifting towards the trees at the beginning and away from them at the end — they were done by drones.

Compared to the first Planet Earth, this one feels much closer to the animals and their activities. Is that something that advances in technology enabled you to do?

Yes. There are three reasons, I suppose, why we felt we should and could do Planet Earth II. There was definitely a sense that there were some new stories to tell. The second thing was that there was a burst of new technology, which allowed us to take a different perspective from Planet Earth and get down amongst the animals and immerse the audience in those creatures’ lives. That’s largely down to miniaturization of the cameras, and these gyro-stabilized cameras — so you can take a camera off a tripod and carry it on a rig, and the rig acts like a sort of moving, floating tripod, which keeps the camera steady so you can move it almost everywhere, and quickly.

For example, the iguanas and the snakes — we could never have filmed that or shown that as we did in this series before that rig. That would’ve been impossible five years ago. That sense of being with the animals and moving with them was only possible through that rig. The other reason why we felt that it was timely to do this was that we felt there was a kind of groundswell of people’s awareness and concern about the fragility of the planet.

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Do you and your crew make these episodes with the assumption that most of the people who will watch them are likely disconnected from nature in their own lives for the most part? I always picture people sitting on their couch in the middle of a city watching this.

That’s both a positive and a negative. I think there’s no doubt that huge numbers of people who’ve watched these programs don’t have much opportunity to experience the natural world, other than through the TV screen. So this is their way of getting their nature fix. We felt that it was important to remind people of the wonders of the natural world — that’s largely what this is about — but we also wanted to remind people that there is a fragility about it.

There’s a sort of hardcore, loyal audience who will watch every natural history program that ever is on air. But if you’re going to make a real impact, you need to be able to deliver something that will appeal to people who don’t normally watch wildlife films. I think the combination of the scale and the visual approach, and also the narrative approach, the storytelling approach — we’ve encouraged people to get involved with the stories in a way that perhaps they don’t normally do. That seems to have struck a massive chord with the audience, and it’s influenced their viewing habits. People are sort of fragmented, they watch stuff on their own or on their personal devices, whereas this [was] almost like a sports event [when it aired in the U.K.]. People said, “On Sunday night, I won’t be available between 8 and 9 because I’m watching Planet Earth II.” And not only that, I’m seeing it with my mom or my dad or my local football team, or I’m watching with my mates down the pub. That coming together of people I think is really powerful. The shared enjoyment and the shared impact of it — sometimes I wish we could have tapped into that more.

Well if you think of humans as animals, we need those shared experiences — I think a lot of us are increasingly isolated from each other but we’re social creatures. It’s nice to think of this show bringing people together.

I think it has put the cat amongst the pigeons, if that’s a phrase that works in the U.S. [Ed. note: It does not. Here’s what it means.] TV executives ask me, “So what’s the trick, what’s the answer?” To be honest, if I knew the answer I certainly wouldn’t tell them. It’s a strange alignment of the stars, but I think it’s also time. People have spent a lot of time recently feeling like they’re looking inwards — they’re worried about the world, they’re worried about their lives, their relationships with their environment in the sense of where they live. This is an opportunity to stop, look out, look up — look at the world as a big, extraordinary place. And remind ourselves that we are only one of millions of other species, all of which share the planet, and there are places here where stuff happens that we forget is wonderful and extraordinary and going on without the slightest care or interest in the fact that humans are busy beavering away in their cities.

Busy ruining everything for them, basically.

Well, there is that as well — unspoken.

I said it, not you.

Exactly. You can quote yourself and see me nodding here.

 

Planet Earth II premieres Saturday, February 18 at 9  p.m. on BBC America, AMC, and SundanceTV. (The following five episodes will appear on BBC America only.)