Once funding for the wildly ambitious and groundbreaking BBC nature documentary Planet Earth—a rich portrait of our vibrant and sometimes strained ecosystem—was set, the makers of the series couldn’t have been more excited.
But first on the agenda for one of the series’ producers, nature documentary veteran Vanessa Berlowitz, was a personal issue: With the whole world up for grabs, who got to go where?
“Obviously, there’s going to be deserts, seas, whatever, so the producer asks `Who wants to make what?’” Berlowitz recalls. “Then everyone scrambles around going `I want this! I want that!’ In reality, our skill sets tended to fall quite naturally into some of the films. My husband, Mark, produced the opening program, and I was really keen to do that. We went home and did a best-of-three coin toss!”
She laughs. “I lost. But as an end result I got to do his second choice, which was `Polar.’”
By Hollywood standards, Planet Earth was made for a pittance, around $40 million. But by documentary standards, that figure is nearly unprecedented, and the producers put it to good use traversing the globe and recording sights and events never before caught on film, let alone in stunning high definition.
“We’re very realistic about how long (these films) take to make,” says Berlowitz of the five-year production. “We’re not going to move with trends, or be pushed and pressured and made to have girls with bikinis. Basically it’s all up front. You say, `We need this much money to make the project, and if we don’t get this much money, we have to change the way we make it.’
It might seem like a lot of money, but for the scope and ambition of what we were attempting, which was a portrait of our planet and what’s worth saving, it was really pretty minimal.”
From the oceans to the deserts to the forests to the mountains, Planet Earth depicts our home like few ever have seen it before. What viewers don’t get to see, however, is all the work that went into getting those spectacular shots, which ranged from practical problem solving to political tightrope walking.
“A lot of the best wildlife in the world is often, ironically, in war zones,” notes Berlowitz. “I don’t know why that is. I looked at my filming list for `Mountains’ and I had Nepal and Pakistan on there. Nepal was in the middle of a Maoist insurgency, and Pakistan, as you know, there are continuing issues there. Because the area of Pakistan is 50 kilometers from the border of Afghanistan, it’s an implicitly unstable area. We had to wait a year, a year of planning and heavy risk assessment with the BBC. Could we justify the risk of sending in a wildlife team? I didn’t want to send in a team and jeopardize their lives, however important it was to film snow leopards.
“When we filmed the Everest aerials,” she continues, “I contacted the Nepalese air force when we realized the only way to up the ante of what had already been filmed of Everest was to get high, summit-level. So we borrowed a plane—a spy plane—from the Nepalese. Literally, the day we arrived, they unloaded the plane of bombs, loaded in our camera gear, flew our shots, then loaded the plane back with soldiers again.
“It was kind of weird to go out filming wildlife and images of the planet, then suddenly find yourself in very unnatural scenarios,” Berlowitz says with a nervous laugh. “You start to wonder, `Why do I have to keep going to these difficult places?’ Sometimes you come back from a day filming where you’ve flown over a glacier, been hit by some of the strongest winds on the planet coming off the ice caps, you’ve been thrown around until you’re practically sick, you’ve had a false landing on an iceberg, saw a leopard seal—one of the most fierce predators of the poles—right in front of you, and then you get back to the ship and have to laugh.”
Just as important was the reality of climate change, which made its presence apparent throughout filming.
“When I was out on the Arctic, looking at the polar bears struggling on the ice, I was hit by this feeling, `Oh my God, am I recording an image that simply the next generation won’t get to see?’ Over five years, we documented climate change, what’s actually happening out there on the real front line of climate change. It was a problem. Migrations weren’t happening at the right time. Weather conditions were unpredictable. Things we were told were guaranteed to happen didn’t.”
“I hope that we haven’t just recorded snapshots of the earth that won’t exist in 50 years’ time,” she said.