Get­ting up close to na­ture in ‘Planet Earth II’

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - FIT FRIDAY - By Rob Low­man South­ern Cal­i­for­nia News Group

As famed nat­u­ral­ist Sir David At­ten­bor­ough ex­plains, “The great thing about this is that you use a min­i­mum of words. You don’t want to cover it all with words.” In­deed not. Time af­ter time dur­ing the new six-part na­ture doc­u­men­tary “Planet Earth II,” the pic­ture tells the story, some­times with in­de­scrib­able beauty, some­times with com­edy and some­times with a life or death crunch.

The se­ries, which makes its Amer­i­can de­but Satur­day on BBC Amer­ica, comes a decade af­ter the first se­ries and ben­e­fits from in­cred­i­ble ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy since. Shot en­tirely in 4K, the pro­duc­tion team used mo­bile Movi cam­eras, low-light and move­ment-ac­ti­vated cam­eras, and drones with cam­eras able to zip around ar­eas where hu­mans can’t eas­ily move about.

It took some 2,089 days of shoot­ing (nearly six years) in 40 coun­tries, so you can see why it took a decade for a se­quel. At­ten­bor­ough, 90, again does the nar­ra­tion as he did in the first in Bri­tain. (If you saw the U.S. ver­sion, Sigour­ney Weaver’s nar­ra­tion was used in­stead.)

“Planet Earth II” al­ready aired in Bri­tain and was seen by some 30 mil­lion peo­ple (about half the coun­try), mak­ing it an enor­mous hit for a na­ture doc­u­men­tary. Pro­ducer Mike Gun­ton notes that drones and new tech­nol­ogy is one im­por­tant dif­fer­ence in the two se­ries.

“The first se­ries had that sense of al­most a god­like per­spec­tive in ob­serv­ing, look­ing down upon the planet from a he­li­copter per­spec­tive us­ing gyro- sta­bi­lized cam­era mounts,” he says. “With this se­ries, we took that tech­nol­ogy and minia­tur­ized it and ef­fec­tively put it in the hands of the cam­era­men so they could take the cam­era off the tri­pod.”

Of course, as in many na­ture doc­u­men­taries, strug­gles and sur­vival tech­niques are sta­ples. In the first episode called “Is­lands,” there is a breath­tak­ing scene in­volv­ing sea igua­nas on a re­mote Gala­pa­gos is­land. The rep­tiles leave their eggs buried in a flat area near the rocky shore where they make their home. When the ba­bies hatch, the first thing they have to do is make a mad dash to the shore to join their par­ents.

The rea­son: racer snakes wait­ing for a meal. Once the ba­bies come out of their shells, it’s all in­stinct and luck. All make no mis­take — this is na­ture — but in the se­quence one of them makes an in­cred­i­ble es­cape im­pos­si­ble to de­scribe and do it jus­tice.

The scene is cut as dra­mat­i­cally as any ac­tion se­quence you’ll see in the movies. The score for “Planet Earth II” is even by Hol­ly­wood great Hans Zim­mer, whose cred­its in­clude “Pi­rates of the Caribbean,” “Gla­di­a­tor,” The Last Samu­rai, “The Dark Knight” and “In­ter­stel­lar” (and who will be play­ing the Coachella mu­sic fes­ti­val).

The scene be­came an in­ter­net sen­sa­tion, with fans cre­at­ing par­ody ver­sions, and many oth­ers were Tweet­ing how they iden­ti­fied with the an­i­mals and their strug­gles.

“I think those things are just won­der­ful,” says El­iz­a­beth White, who di­rected the first episode. “When you see peo­ple re­lat­ing to an­i­mal sto­ries, then you kind of feel as if you’ve re­ally got into their minds, and you’ve sort of touched their lives.”

There have been some com­plaints that the se­ries ap­pears too op­ti­mistic about the sur­vival of many species as global warm­ing is tak­ing a toll. That seems un­fair. While it doesn’t make de­fin­i­tive state­ments, there is a cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of show­ing so many an­i­mals deal­ing with cli­mate change and en­croach­ing ur­ban sprawls.

In the fourth episode called “Deserts,” At­ten­bor­ough dis­cusses how re­mark­able it is that such a “di­ver­sity of life” can thrive in the world al­most de­void of wa­ter but omi­nously points out that “the world’s deserts are grow­ing big­ger, hot­ter and drier, and they are do­ing so faster than ever be­fore. How life will cope here in the fu­ture re­mains to be seen,” he says.

Some of what the se­ries does is of­fer up­dates on crea­tures that view­ers of na­ture doc­u­men­taries have seen be­fore, like snow leop­ards.

“We spend about six months at the be­gin­ning of the process just speak­ing to sci­en­tists, look­ing for things that are new,” White says. “Then we also re­visit sto­ries that have been told al­ready but look for new an­gles. That’s the bal­ance.”

The last episode, “Cities,” is about how wildlife has moved into ur­ban ar­eas, and it’s filled with the un­ex­pected sights. For ex­am­ple, the great­est con­cen­tra­tion of wild leop­ards is not in some re­mote jun­gle but in Mum­bai, In­dia, and we see one of the big cats prowl­ing the city in search of prey. In Jodh­pur, In­dia, there are hordes of lan­gur mon­keys who live up on rooftops and swing on tele­phone lines to get from place to place, liv­ing some­thing of a par­al­lel world to the hu­man be­low.

Mean­while, the thing that might sur­prise most peo­ple, says At­ten­bor­ough, is that New York City has the high­est den­sity of breed­ing pere­grine fal­cons — the world’s fastest bird at over 240 mph — of any place in the world.

“The rea­son is that those huge cliffs, those canyons, those won­der­ful sky­scrapers repli­cate the con­di­tions un­der which the pere­grine fal­cons evolve,” says At­ten­bor­ough, “places where they can ex­ploit the up­draft of the air and where they can find good prey, which are pigeons.”

Gun­ton says it is won­der­ful that At­ten­bor­ough will be nar­rat­ing the Amer­i­can ver­sion this time.

“The en­thu­si­asm, the pas­sion, the in­ter­est, the dy­namic sto­ry­telling can­not be repli­cated,” he says about the nat­u­ral­ist. “An ac­tor can never do it. So it’s hav­ing that author­ity and that gen­uine knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence and a unique gift of sto­ry­telling that is un­par­al­leled.”

COUR­TESY PHOTO

There are may be as few as 3,500 snow leop­ards left in the wild. They are fa­mously il­lu­sive and dif­fi­cult to film and have be­come in­creas­ingly threat­ened by cli­mate change and hu­man dis­tur­bance.

COUR­TESY PHOTO

Hatch­ling marine igua­nas — just a few min­utes old — hud­dle to­gether on a rock near the sea shore where they will spend their lives. Their early mo­ments are per­ilous as they avoid preda­tors like Gala­pa­gos Racer snakes, that are ea­ger for a meal.

COUR­TESY PHOTO

These Hanu­man lan­gurs have free roam in the blue city of Jodh­pur, In­dia. It is their home and their play­ground. Treated as re­li­gious deities they are fed and well looked af­ter by the city’s in­hab­i­tants.

COUR­TESY PHOTO

A hatch­ling marine iguana sits on the head of an adult at Cape Dou­glas, on the is­land of Fer­nan­d­ina. Marine igua­nas are unique to the is­lands of the Gala­pa­gos.

AP FILE PHOTO — KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH

In this May 17, 2012 file photo, Bri­tish tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity Sir David At­ten­bor­ough stands with a flo­ral sculp­ture of him­self at Kew Gar­dens in Lon­don.

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