#msf16 BBC Natural History: Behind the scenes

I recently had the pleasure of attending a Manchester Science Festival event entitled BBC Natural History: Behind the scenes. The event description had a tantalising promise of exclusive Planet Earth 2 clips, along with stories and technical information from two award-winning BBC filmmakers. And it delivered, in spades.

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The first speaker was a charismatic Aussie named Chadden Hunter (@ChaddenH), who described his journey from wildlife biology into filmmaking. As a PhD student, he realised he’d made more of an impact on his study species in a 30 minute interview on local TV, than in all his previous years of research. So at 24, and with no previous experience, he made his first moves into the world of natural history filmmaking.

Chadden described the reality of filming in Antarctica, where 24 hour daylight meant the deafening noise and pungent smell of the penguins never stopped. With no land based predators, penguins are very bold and curious on land. They plodded around the crew during the unloading and setting up of equipment, and took a particular interest in any containers vaguely penguin height.

At the other end of the habitat scale, while filming in tropical wetlands, Chadden and his guide ran into some difficulties. The water level was much lower than expected at that time of year, so even their flat-bottomed boat couldn’t pass over all the vegetation and dead wood normally hidden deep below. After a few hours of struggling, there was nothing for it but to get in the water and push. At points, both men were armpit deep in sludgy crocodile infested water, pushing the boat over vegetation rafts at almost head height. The guides unassailable logic in this situation was to suggest they both took their shoes off, because with shoes on you couldn’t tell if you were standing on a log, some vegetation, or a crocodile. With your feet, he said, at least you could recognise the distinctive texture of a crocodiles back.

Next up Emma Brennan (@BrennandEmma), who began her career in science writing before gradually migrating to writing resources for teachers, then researching for Autumnwatch. Her job now for BBC starts with researching species and stories to pitch, through to directing filming and initial editing. She touched on some very interesting details I’d never thought about before, like how primates and some of the other intelligent mammals will pay attention to the noise and motion of a drone, ruining shots where the aim is so often to show their natural behaviour.

Emma picked up a long wooden stick with a small fork from the edge of the stage and walked back to the mic. Turns out that stick had been all that stood between her and the drool covered teeth of a komodo dragon on a recent shoot. Well, almost all, there were also two rangers and a terrified cameraman. The crew’s accommodation while filming on Komodo Island was a boat, for health and safety reasons. As the shortest person, Emma had to sleep in a cabin nicknamed ‘the coffin’, which made hours of reviewing rushes each night an uncomfortable task!

One morning on the boat, Emma awoke to a loud knocking noise. Thinking it was some loose rigging, she got up to look for the crew. What she found, however, was the crew still sleeping soundly and their boat knocking up against a cliff, having pulled up its anchor and drifted through a busy shipping lane.

The talk included an unseen trailer, two short finished clips, and some making of footage, which was all (predictably) fantastic, but the standout thing for me was the soundtrack. The score for Planet Earth 2 was composed by Hans Zimmer, renowned Hollywood composer and producer – and it shows. I decided there and then that I’d be watching this series on the big TV with full surround sound, housemates be damned!

When asked about the relevance of programs like Planet Earth to conservation:

Chadden said the general public come to natural history for escapism, not for politics or conservation agendas, so they have to tread a very fine line. Most people working in natural history filmmaking do have a passion for conservation, but have to consider what the audience want in a show. Millions more people see Planet Earth than would ever watch a conservation film. In Frozen Planet and Africa, they didn’t mention conservation at all in the majority of episodes, sucking people in. Then in the last episode or two, they hit the conservation angle hard to leave people with that message. The affect of these mainstream natural history programs on conservation is hard to quantify, and they do receive criticism from many for not including a stronger conservation message. However, getting so many people excited about natural history and particular species can only be a good thing.

Emma added that they are able to explore conservation more through the ‘making of’ segment and in the extra online content.

They also touched upon the use of specialists, scientists and rangers. So hopefully the exposure and fees will have helped in some small way.

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