Getting up close to nature in ‘Planet Earth II’
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.