The 6-episode documentary BBC series A Perfect Planet focuses on the lives of animals to give us an overview of how 4 essential systems – weather, ocean currents, solar energy and volcanoes – drive, shape and support all life on Earth, all narrated by the beloved Sir David Attenborough. The 5th episode focuses on the human impact on the natural world, and how we can restore its balance. And in the special 6th episode, the producers will take nature lovers behind the scenes to reveal how A Perfect Planet was shot, with special footage of their camera teams in the wild in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth.
“This series is a celebration of the planet. The pandemic has exposed our vulnerability in the last 10 months, but this series is really about how the world works, how perfect it really is,” says series producer Huw Cordey. “I don’t think people had the chance to really appreciate that. And now is as good a time as ever to really look and see how well everything fits together, how beautifully it is all connected. We have to see the planet globally. We can’t see it nation by nation. Until humans came along, especially in the last 100 years, it really has worked extraordinarily well. And it can work again, just like that.”
Sir David adds, “The remarkable thing about it (the pandemic) is that it has suddenly made a lot of us aware of the natural world in a way that we have not been before. In our busy lives we have been muddling around, moving here, there and everywhere, and now we are, many of us, stuck at home. Some of us are lucky enough to have gardens. And birdsong! When this pandemic started last Spring (in the Northern hemisphere, March 2020), I'd never listened to more birdsong in my life. I think that applies to a lot of people. And we've realised our dependency emotionally and intellectually, on the natural world in a way that we've never done before.”
A Perfect Planet leans into that emotional connection we have with nature, as it tells the story of how we’re all tied together. “What this series does is to combine Earth sciences with behaviour. So you can see a much bigger global context, you can see how these forces, which actually support life, how these shape the animals that we've used as examples. It's the intimate animal stories and the big global picture of these forces,” explains Huw.
A Perfect Planet, airs exclusively on DStv Premium on BBC Earth (DStv 184) this February.
A perfect production
A Perfect Planet is one of those series that takes years to make but becomes a life-long treasure for nature lovers.
“I started working on this series in January 2016. And here we are at the end of 2020, so it’s a long time. In terms of the whole process, there were 6 months of pre-production, about 3 years of filming and the rest was post-production,” says Huw, who also headed up the volcanoes episode. With such an intensive shoot, the planning phase was vital to shape the story they’d tell and select the animals and footage they were sending the teams out to film, which needed to be thoroughly researched with the help of scientists in the field.”
“One of the goals for any big ‘blue chip’ series, because the shoots cost so much money, is making sure you don't get to the end where you've just sent all this money on a shoot and a sequence, and you don’t use it. Your aspiration, your aim is to try to avoid that. It was a pretty long brainstorming process,” Huw reveals. “It went on for 6 months with producers Nick (Nick Shoolingin-Jordan, who led the Sun and Humans episode) and Ed (Ed Charles, who led the Weather and Oceans episodes) and the whole editorial team. Series like this really do require ambition. You have to think big. In the research phase there's a lot of ‘seen it, done it, it doesn’t quite fit the narrative, no, that's impossible, that's unrealistic in the time.’ And so, quite frankly, it's amazing we filmed anything at all. But for me, it's more about how we film them. The film must be greater than the sum of its parts.”
Ed adds, “At the pre-production stage, there are a lot of meetings where we talk about style and narrative and what we want the series to look and feel like. Generally, then each producer would go away and research their own stories. But what's lovely is that you then come up with a running order, a working script, and you present it to the team. So everyone gets their say. It's easy to get the blinkers on when you focus on your episode so much and when you get a fresh pair of eyes looking at that script, you can get a fresh perspective. Then once everything was signed off, and you're in that busy filming period, Nick, Huw and myself were like ships that passed in the night.”
Once everyone came back with their final footage in the bag, an intense 60-week process of post-production started to piece together the 3,000 hours of recordings. “During that phase, there's a lot of fact checking, a lot of work trying to make sure that what we want to say is true and David (Attenborough), when he looks at the scripts, will pick up on things. We do look into every line and make sure. Sometimes it's theories, sometimes it's anecdotal. 1 of our camera teams has seen it in the wild. There's nothing written in a scientific paper, but that doesn't make it any less true. We want to make sure that by the time the series goes out, everything in it can be justified,” says Huw.
Luckily, the series was already in post-production when the global pandemic and lockdowns started in 2020, so they had all their film footage already completed.
Well… almost perfect
“I think pretty much everything we filmed went into the series. There was no wastage. But whether we got everything we wanted to? That's a moot point,” Huw admits. Working with forces of nature and filming wildlife, the team needed to be able to adapt and go with the flow. That was especially clear for Huw’s team, working on the Volcanoes episode.
“They are unpredictable, they are dangerous. We were going to film in a lava lake on an island Vanuatu called Ambym, and we had to postpone it 3 times over the course of 2-an-a-half years because the levels of volcanic activity suddenly rose just weeks before our departure. And then just as we'd thought we'd finally got it right, there was a massive earthquake on the island and the lava lake that we hoped to film, which is one of only 7 lava lakes in the world, disappeared completely. It went from being this incredible visual of this powerful, waterfall-like lava lake, to absolutely nothing. So we had to change and go somewhere else,” Huw reveals. “You have to be ready to adapt your script, adapt your plans. That's the skill of a natural history producer, being able to see things as they change and to be able to act accordingly.”
Cinematographer Matt Aeberhard, who worked with Huw on the Volcanoes episode, was originally going to go out to Lake Natron in Tanzania (which lies on a bed of Pleistocene-era lava flow in the volcanically active Rift Valley) to film hatchling flamingos with the lethal build-up of soda crystals around their ankles, but found another story capturing his attention instead as he saw marabou stork snatching up the hatchlings and causing a panic.
“You've got to have a pretty clear idea of what you want to achieve before you set out. But there's always the extraordinary that you don't expect. The real difficulty at Lake Natron is that you never know when the event is going to happen. You have to monitor the lake, in this particular instance over months and years with satellite imagery, to try to figure out when the right time is. When you commit, everything has to be put in place for the event that may or may not happen, and you have to action it pretty quicky.”
“The soda shackles story (with the flamingos) was expected, but I wasn’t expecting the mud sequence that (eventually) filled in for that. The marabous cause such devastation in the colony, lots of chicks get trapped in these muds and that does it for them, which is very sad. But those are the sorts of things that make a sequence come alive. These are sentient creatures and I think the world will be helped if we empathise with our fellow creatures a little bit more than perhaps we do. These sequences help you see the struggles that these creatures go through just to survive.”
Huw adds, “What we're trying to tell is stories that connect with people. An audience needs to be able to identify with an animal, and the best way to do that is to personalise it. You want to be able to tell the story of an individual if it's possible. It's a much more emotive story if you see the trials and tribulations of a particular animal. And then the rest of it happens in the edit. where you craft that story to make it as engaging as possible. That’s in the pace of the cut, it's in the narration, it's in the music. All those things are so vital in that relationship, they all have to come together to be that emotive and engaging sequence that we know our audience really appreciates.”