A world of wonder:
Sir David Attenborough returns with Planet Earth II.
He has made wildlife shows all over the globe and featuring some of the world’s deadliest creatures. But it’s not the animals that Mike Gunton fears – it’s the people.
“Men with guns. Drug-crazed people with machine guns. Seventeen-year-old boys with machine guns in Africa. Yeah, that’s quite scary,” says the creative director of the BBC’s Natural History Unit of some his more frightening encounters.
Not that he had to contend with anything like that during his latest project – the Sir David Attenborough-narrated Planet Earth II.
The series, a sequel to 2006’s ground-breaking Plant Earth, aims to get even closer to the animals than the original. While that was shot mainly from helicopters – almost, says Gunton, God’s perspective of the natural world – the follow-up is man’s view.
“The underlying concept is the same in that it’s how animals cope with the challenges the different environments throw up,” he says. “The difference is that in Planet Earth one, how you reveal the landscapes and the challenges animals faced, and how they
overcame them, was very observed. The great signature of that series was to shoot using a helicopter – an observed perspective and quite a distant perspective.”
Fast forward 10 years and improved technology allows film makers to come down to earth and get up close and personal with animals ranging from snow leopards and sloths to glass frogs and iguanas.
“So rather than observing from on high you are now seeing the challenges in the landscape through the animals’ eyes because you are with them,” says Gunton.
But just how close is too close? Filming a lion hunt is, after all, a lot different from capturing fungus growing on a tree.
“If you are putting a cameraman into danger you have already screwed the sequence,” says Gunton.
“Because if the cameraman is in danger, he is too close. That means the animals won’t behave in a natural way. If they are distracted enough to feel threatened they will attack you. Then the whole thing has fallen apart.”
Shot over three years using ultra-high definition (4K), Planet Earth II
takes in more than 40 countries and attracted more than 12 million viewers when it screened in the UK.
Such audiences make Planet Earth III a foregone conclusion.
But if it is another 10 years between sequels, programme makers have to face the possibility that Sir David Attenborough, who turned 90 last year, could well be missing from the mix. So how do you replace one of the most famous faces and voices in broadcasting? It’s a question that has occupied the BBC for 30 years. “What is probably illuminating is when I joined the natural history unit in 1987,” recalls Gunton, “the first unit meeting I went to ... the head of department said, ‘We need to talk about replacing David. Who’s going to replace David Attenborough?’. “This conversation comes up every few years and the answer is you can’t replace him. He is irreplaceable in the normal sense of the word. “So the only way to do it is you have to rethink how you make these types of shows. You can’t make an Attenborough show without Attenborough, obviously.
“And I think that he would agree that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may well be time shortly to think of a different way of doing these projects.”
In the meantime, though, getting Attenborough to sign on to a production is no easy task.
“You always have to pass the test,” says Gunton. “Whether he thinks it’s good, whether it’s going to be worthwhile doing. His time is precious. He likes to do good things. He likes to be associated with things he thinks are going to be interesting and successful in terms of what the audience will enjoy. “I had to go and talk to him about
(Planet Earth), what the project was. Explain to him the structure and the approach. It’s a huge relief when he says it’s a good idea.
“I don’t know what I would have said if he said, ‘I think it’s a terrible idea’.”
But even if you pass the ‘test’, there are still obstacles to overcome.
“When you start to film stuff you show him footage and he says, ‘Yes, that’s amazing. I haven’t seen that before. You’re getting some good stuff’ – which makes you feel good. You’re kind of a bit like seeking approval.”
Like showing your work to the headmaster? “Or dad or something,” concedes Gunton.
“He’s very encouraging but also very demanding in a good way. His standards are very high which means your standards are very high. He’s a kind of guardian I suppose. Guardian of quality.”
Sir David Attenborough
Planet Earth II – Prime Sunday