The Tech Behind Our Planet, David Attenborough's First Netflix Show
It’s no exaggeration to state that much of the history of film’s technological development has been driven by attempts to capture the habits of animals. The photographer Eadweard Muybridge laid the foundations of modern cinema in 1873, when he created a method of sequential photography to discover whether the four legs of a galloping horse ever become airborne (supposedly to settle a bet; all previous artistic depictions had shown a horse with at least one foot on the ground).
Modern nature documentaries drive, and are driven by, the same spirit of technological innovation. Netflix’s Our Planet, narrated by David Attenborough and produced by the same team behind Planet Earth, is no different, and shares the same central conceit of its predecessors: that revealing more of the natural world’s beauty will compel viewers to care more about this beauty’s disappearance.
“Every year there are new technologies that comes along; in this series there are three,” says producer Alastair Fothergill. He then proceeds to describe at least five. In Planet Earth, he says, the team achieved visual breakthroughs by attaching a specially-developed gyro-stabilized camera with an extremely powerful zoom lens to a helicopter. This let them film animals from the sky, without disturbance and without camera shake. In Our Planet, the team has mounted these same cameras on new vehicles: in one sequence, the camera slides smoothly alongside a pack of running prairie dogs. This sequence was filmed not from a helicopter but from a jeep, as it raced over land filled with potholes and anthills. “You seem to be running with the dogs,” says Fothergill. “You could never film that with a traditional tripod: every shot is moving, because all of it is shot with a very powerful lens from quite a long way away, about 100 metres from the action.”
These same cameras were mounted to snow vehicles, a solution to the riddle of tracking polar bears when one male roams over 50,000 square miles (130,000 square kilometres). An Inuit name for the polar bear translates to something like “the wanderer”, says Fothergill. “With a traditional camera on a tripod you could never get that incredible sense of territory.” No one, he says, has ever filmed a full polar bear hunt. This remains a goal for future programmes.
Another key innovation has been the use of motion-detecting cameras. These have a long history: around the turn of the 20th century, the wildlife photographer George Shiras came up with the idea of attaching trip wires to automatic camera shutters and flashbulbs. His photos of lynx, deer and porcupines were some of the earliest taken of animals at night.
Credit: Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix
Now, camera operators use infrared beams to detect motion and capture shots of the rarest animals, such as Arabian leopards from Oman or colourless tigers in Eastern Russia. For the latter, says Fothergill, the team laid out 40 such cameras. They saw no tigers for an entire year. “It was only the second year that we started seeing their footprints in the snow and, using remote-controlled cameras, we managed to capture an entire sequence. It looks as if it’s been shot by a cameraman, but it was the cameras.” The cameras were luckier than the camera operators, who lived in custom-built hives for two winters – “pooed, ate, everything in these hives,” Fothergill says – and managed to film nothing.
The technology that now helps track animals often begins its life tracking humans. The Our Planet team took Rebreathers – diving apparatus that absorbs the carbon dioxide of a user's breath – directly from the British Army. “[The Army] wanted to spend lots of time underwater undetected, but they’re also great if you want to look at sealife,” says Keith Scholey, another producer on the series. Before, scuba tanks were the only option. But they last only an hour underwater, and, most critically, they blow bubbles. Rebreathers are bubble-free. “God knows what we were saying to whales,” says Scholey. “Now we can spend four, five, six hours underwater without disturbing the animals. The change has been fundamental; underwater filming has become almost as easy as filming on land.”
Filming at sea has also been helped by developments in 4k drone technology. “The problem with being out in the ocean is that it’s not like you can go to a waterhole and find the lion, or you go to the tree and there’s a bird; out there, a big event can happen anywhere and it can all be over in 20 minutes,” says Fothergill. “With the drone you can launch the drone in a couple of minutes and you get amazing images, like a sequence of gannets diving off Maracas.”
Some environmentalists, most notably George Monbiot, have criticised Attenborough for what they see as a complacent focus on the sublime pockets of a natural world in ecological crisis. Our Planet certainly looks incredible: seabirds swim through wriggling swarms of krill; ostriches motor across a landscape that looks like the moon; implausibly pink flamingos foot sassily over rainbows reflected in big blue mirrors of water. It’s almost too beautiful to stand.
But the new series, says Fothergill, aims more than any before it to “actively move the dial in conservation”. He thinks that the reach of Netflix will help spread their message. “One of the challenges that other broadcasters have is that, for instance, Blue Planet 2 was very big when it was on, it was on BBC iPlayer for a month and now it's disappeared.” All eight episodes of Our Planet will be released on Netflix on April 5, in 190 countries. The team has also created a website, ourplanet.com, which it intends to update with content right up to Beijing 2020, the next world meeting on biodiversity.
Fothergill is right; this series feels more urgent than any before it. One of the most memorable scenes comes right at the end of the first episode, when, set to calming classical strings, kilometer long icebergs implode off the shores of Greenland. It feels apocalyptic. “What we do in the next 20 years,” says Attenborough, “will determine the future for all life on Earth.”