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How the BBC made Planet Earth II

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2017

In the first of a three-part video series, Vox’s Joss Fong looks at how the technology used to film nature documentaries has changed over the past 50 years and how the producers of Planet Earth II used contemporary image stabilization techniques to make the series with a more cinematic style.

In the 1970s and ’80s, it was enough for the NHU to show people a creature they’d never seen before and provide the details in the narration. The films were illustrated zoology lectures. Since then, the producers have become sticklers for capturing specific behaviors, and in Planet Earth II, they showcase the drama of those behaviors. Each scene sets up the characters to perform something - something brave, something brutal, something bizarre. They’ve made room for our emotions; that’s what cinematic storytelling means.

And visually, the cinematic approach means the camera is often moving.

Hollywood filmmakers have kept the camera in motion for decades, but for obvious reasons, it’s much more difficult when your subject is wildlife. As we explain in the video at the top of this post, NHU producers used new stabilization tools throughout the production of Planet Earth II to move the camera alongside the animals.

The program doesn’t make you wait long to showcase this new approach. The tracking shot of a lemur jumping from tree to tree is one of the first things you see in the first episode and it put my jaw right on the floor. It’s so close and fluid, how did they do that? Going into the series, I thought it was going to be more of the same — Planet Earth but with new stories, different animals, etc. — but this is really some next-level shit. The kids were more excited after watching it than any movie they’ve seen in the past 6 months (aside from possibly Rogue One). The Blu-ray will be out at the end of March1 but there’s also a 4K “ultra HD” version that had me researching new ultra HD TVs I don’t really need.

Oh, and remember that thrilling sequence of the snakes chasing the newly hatched iguanas? Here’s a short clip on how they filmed it.

Update: The second video in the series is an ode to the BBC’s pioneering use of slow motion and time lapse photography in their nature programs.

Fong also explains one of my favorite things to come out of the first Planet Earth show, the slow motion buffer capture system used by the crew to catch great white sharks leaping out of the water.

But also, digital high-speed cameras came with a continuous recording feature. Instead of pressing a button to start recording and then pressing it again to stop, they could press the button as soon as they saw some action, and the camera would save the seconds that happened before the button was pressed. That’s how the cameraman captured this great white shark coming out of the water, not just in the air, for this sequence in the 2006 Planet Earth series.

I hope the third program is on sound, which has been bugging me while watching Planet Earth II. I could be wrong, but they seem to be using extensive foley effects for the sounds the animals make — not their cries necessarily, but the sounds they make as they move. Once you notice, it feels deceptive.

Update: The concluding video in the series shows how the filmmakers use thermal and infrared cameras to capture scenes at night.

The bit at the end about the Sony a7S is interesting — as cameras go, this one is much cheaper than the professional high-def cameras used for most of the scenes but is way better in low light.

  1. I still have a Blu-ray player than I barely use and only buy 1-2 BR discs a year, but Planet Earth II is one of those increasingly rare programs you want to see in full HD without compression or streaming artifacts.