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How PLANET EARTH II Goes Bigger (and Smaller) Than Ever Before

How PLANET EARTH II Goes Bigger (and Smaller) Than Ever Before

Hans Zimmer, the composer behind The Dark Knight trilogy, The Lion King, and Inception, says his work for Planet Earth II is the most important work he’s ever done. He’s right.

As the second installment of BBC’s most iconic and beloved nature docu-series premieres stateside in a huge simulcast across BBC America, Sundance, and AMC on Saturday, February 18 at 9pm, the series takes a different approach than its initial run of episodes. Producers were able to, once again, change how we look at and understand our natural world. But how?


The idea of being in the middle of a swarm of a billion flying locusts might bring most people out in a cold sweat, but not cameraman Rob Drewett. He and the team were able to put themselves in the flight path of this super-swarm in south west Madagascar. Rob was then able to use the latest in hand-held, gyro-stabilised camera technology to get shots that flew alongside the locusts, as if part of the swarm.

For executive producer Elizabeth White, “[the] number one rule is be on the animal’s eye level. If you want to be in their world, you have to be down on their level,” she explained during a discussion with her fellow executive producer, Mike Gunton. “In some places, like [when we shot] the Christmas Island crabs, that involved digging up bits of trench and putting the camera right down, so you can be right down on their eye level. Because the moment you’re off their eye level, you’re not in their world.”

The difference, Gunton explained during the 2017 Television Critics Association Winter Press tour, “is the technology. The first one had almost a god-like perspective, using giant, stabilized camera mounts. What we did was take that technology and miniaturize it, so they could experience it” as the animals do. “It’s only possible through this micro technology,” he added.

“The moment you’re off their eye level,
you’re not in their world.” – Elizabeth White, Executive Producer

And the tech is impressive: several types of cameras and camera tricks varied the perspective. Even drones were used for traditional middle-ground work so that “you can get that sense of what it means to be [a monkey],” Gunton said.

Don’t think that means anything about the shoots are easy, though.
Piloting a large, remotely operated drone through the narrow walls of this slot canyon in Utah in the USA is not for the faint of hearted, but Planet Earth drone operator Nick Wolcott was up for to the task. IH succeeded in getting images of these incredible structures in a way that's never been seen before.

“These things are obviously heavy on resources,” explained narrator and naturalist David Attenborough. Some trips take years to plan—hence the extended wait between series–but in the end, is what separates the series from the myriad nature documentaries out there. “The point for us is, the easy stuff’s all been done, it’s only the hard stuff that’s left to do,” stated Attenborough. “Going for the extreme stories is what drives us.”

This was especially true for the series’ most ambitious shoot involving penguins on the hyper-remote, unpopulated (by humans, at least) Zavodovski Island.

It was White’s shoot, taking her farther than any shoot had ever taken a crew in Planet Earth history. To get to the island—located near the Falkland Islands—”you sail through the roughest waters on Earth for 7 or 8 days to get there.”

Once there, White and crew endured brutal weather conditions over five days, using smaller camera tech to bring the perspective to a more personal level. But viewers will also notice the spectacle of Planet Earth is not lost in this iteration, and used to quite affecting effect in regards to the penguins and their harrowing, daily battle to feed.

“The easy stuff’s all been done. Going for the extreme stories is what drives us.”  – Sir David Attenborough

The penguin colony on Zavodovski Island seems strangely peaceful compared with the rough coastline that surrounds the island.

“That sequence would not be the sequence it was without those shots where you look down on those gazillion penguins,” Gunton explained.

He continued, adding that “spectacle also is a big, very powerful emotion in people. And I suppose Planet Earth one was almost all about spectacle—[it’s] one of the things we were very keen to make sure we didn’t forget. I’ve always come from a very, ‘it’s all about drama it’s all about surprise,’ but working on this I felt I was the one saying, ‘Don’t forget the spectacle guys,’ because that’s what you need to contextualize it, both visually but also sometimes narratively.”

Penguins courting at sunset, Zavodovksi island, South Sandwich islands, Antarctica. Zavodovski hosts the world's biggest penguin colony - more than 1.5 million breeding adults.

And the resulting set of episodes evoke exactly that. As an audience member, you are more invested and more engaged with the complementary perspective that the smaller focal points add to Planet Earth II‘s enormity. Without it, Planet Earth would feel preachy rather than a significant time capsule, a love letter to the natural world around us that we so desperately need to contextualize our place in the world.

The episode dubbed “Cities” most explicitly deals with our relationship to the rest of the natural world. This is the only time in the series’ history that it investigates the human landscape’s relationship with animals.

Macaques living in Jaipur will take any food or drink they can get their hands on!

But the series is not all new. Thankfully, the show revisits animals like David Attenborough’s personal favorites, the Birds of Paradise. For their second installment with the fancy and finicky birds, White knew it was vital to make sure that, “the bird’s perspective was on display,” adding that you “achieve a new level of understanding when the perspective is changed.” And seeing what the female bird sees—no spoilers!—is certainly a hugely advantageous perspective to see in regards to their beautiful and quirky mating rituals.

“If you live in a world without
these creatures you’re screwed.”  
– White

“It’s mind blowing,” White added. “I think it’s very infectious; I think people just feel massively inspired and excited by the natural world.” To be sure, this interconnected method of storytelling is infectious and affecting.

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 cityís inhabitants.

“When David makes that comment about, ‘We have to make a choice about what kind of planet we want to live in, do we want to live in a planet we share with other animals,’ there’s a nest of ideas there,” explained White. “It’s not just about ‘Do you want to live in a world where these creatures don’t exist?’ because you know they’re cute, and they’re lovely. But it’s also  saying, ‘if you live in a world without these creatures you’re screwed.'”

The symbioses of our planet are not just  novelties, they are its lifeblood—something made precisely clear in this iteration over the last. “Without those creatures, the planet will not be a living, breathing… It will not be able to support us. We will turn it into a sterile planet. We have no idea what that will mean, what impact that will have on us,” White explained. “We can’t build a greenhouse around everybody on the planet.”

Considering the urgency of the subject matter, I wonder if they ever feel like they wade into preachy territory. Not really, Gunton explained, but the topic hasn’t evaded the creative team. “We have just recently had some quite heavy arguments with some of our colleagues actually about the role of these kind of shows and whether they should address more about the fact that most of the animals in the series are endangered and most of the environments are under pressure … But I think it’s a weak argument because this series is not about the state of Planet Earth, it’s about Planet Earth. It’s about how animals cope with the natural challenges that environments throw at them. It’s not a series about how animals cope with the challenges that humans or human activity throws at them. That’s a perfectly good series to be made like that but this is not it.”

“We can’t build a greenhouse around everybody on the planet.” – White

Removing the human element for the vast majority of the series, in many ways, fuels a more empowering message rather than one of guilt and hopelessness. “It’s saying it’s our choice. Do we want to live in a planet that’s just about us or a planet that’s fit for all life on Earth?” White asks. “And if that is what people walk away with—the take home message of, ‘Wow I watched this, it’s been wonderful; I’ve been inspired by a sloth, and I’ve been amazed by a lion,’—that’s great, but at the end of it it’s like, ‘Wow this is fragile and we need to be mindful of that.'”

Planet Earth II premieres Saturday, February 18 at 9PM on BBC America. Are you tuning in? Let us know in the comments below!

Images: BBC America

Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor of Nerdist, creator and co-host of Fangirling, and the office’s resident animal obsessionist. Find her on Twitter!

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