It’s been a decade since the release of Planet Earth, the seminal nature documentary that is very fun to watch while high. Now BBC America has returned with Planet Earth II, which is, so far, every bit as wild as the original.
The show’s fifth episode, “Grasslands,” was filmed on 12 different locations all over the world. One sequence, a pride of lions hunting Cape buffalo through flooded Botswana grasslands, took five months to shoot, spread over the course of two years.
Inverse spoke with Chadden Hunter, director of the “Grasslands” episode and one of the few filmmakers with the distinction of working on both Planet Earth and Planet Earth II, to talk about the challenges of filming such high-stakes sequences. Plus, we got our hands on some behind-the-scenes footage.
“Grasslands” premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. CST on BBC America.
The buffalo-hunting lions in the flooded grasslands of Botswana’s Okavango Delta blew me away. Shooting that sequence must have been insane. How did you get everything set up the way you did?
It was one of the most difficult sequences — the lions in the Okavango swamp. Just old-school, on-foot slogging into the bush. It was me and the local cameraman in a tiny, little boat. There were angry hippos in front of us and angry hippos behind us, and the guy said, you know, “Watch out — they snapped my last boat in half.”
But then at one point he said we needed to jump out and push. He told me, “Take your shoes off.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said that with your shoes on, if you stepped on a croc, you wouldn’t know it was a croc, so you’d put your weight on it, and he’ll spin around and take your leg off. Without shoes, you can feel its skin and that you’re not stepping on [a log or something], and you’ll be able to stop yourself from putting weight on it. That whole thing probably aged me 10 years — “Is that a croc? Is that a croc?”
But filming in that area hasn’t really been done because people can’t get to it, so [we got to show the lions] hunting in water. And we just camped outside under the stars there. It was a very basic setup.
Writer’s note: If you only ever see them in zoos, it’s easy to think of hippos as sort of endearingly torpid children’s-book animals. Hippos are in fact responsible for more human casualties than any other land mammal in Africa, are widely considered more dangerous than crocs or lions, and are absolutely 100-percent not to be fucked with in any way.
It’s been 10 years since the first Planet Earth. What feels like the biggest innovation in the filming technology since the last time you did this?
Other sequences had much more bells and whistles and new gadgets and toys. Planet Earth II was made with a lot of tech advances — stabilized camera rigs, drones, remote cameras. You’ll see us going into dense grasslands in India trying to put in remote cameras, which talk to each other using wifi, and they have infrared beams across pathways through grass that are invisible. But when the animals trigger them, they send wifi signals to the camera further up the park, and it starts recording. So we thought the only way to get intimate shots of the animals that hide in the grasslands was to use remote cameras. Except we didn’t expect the animals to be dismantling them at nighttime, one by one. It was a bit of a whodunnit mystery, in the morning finding wrecked cameras, but the damage was slightly different each time. Sometimes they’d literally be taking screws out, undoing cables.
The biggest difference really is that we’re trying keep the camera moving now. We have gyrostabilized technologies. We have them in the helicopter and can take stable aerial, rock-steady shots. But what we haven’t been able to do until Planet Earth II is take that technology and make it smaller, hand-held, super-steady cameras. It frees the camera from the tripod. There are few shots that actually used a tripod. We’re trying to give people that experience of what it’ll feel like to be in that habitat, like the animal would actually experience it. So much of the innovation is just keeping the camera moving, keeping it feeling 3D.
Conservation and climate change was so central to the mission of Planet Earth I. Did you feel it affecting any of the dozen locations you filmed for “Grasslands?”
We’re always looking for opportunities to mention conservation and climate change when it’s relevant. It wasn’t particularly with the topics for this episode, but so many parts of the world have far less predictable weather these days. We were in the East African savanna to catch the heart of the wet season where there were supposed to be torrential rains in March, April, for the last hundred years, yet we went there with our camera all ready to capture the rains, and not a single drop fell. Most of the locals were scratching their heads.
We do so much research about the best times to go get these stories — the right time to film these behaviors, migrations, storms. For a wildlife filmmaker, it’s about meticulous planning and research, and you turn up thinking the weather and animals you need will be there, but so much more of the natural world is in flux now. It’s just far less predictable. Male Jackson’s widowbirds compete over mates in the long grass in Kenya, and it requires heavy rain and really healthy grass … so now the timing is much harder to pin down.
As a storyteller, you must be having to adjust more. But how many of these shots could you script ahead of time anyway?
This isn’t talked about as much because people love the sexy tech stuff, but it’s the storytelling that’s the other big innovation. This is huge. You’ve seen this genre of wildlife filmmaking kind of head out of a documentary news niche and enter an arena where it’s competing with mainstream entertainment. So we up the screenwriting; we up the drama. As a director, when you’re shaping stories, we’re really trying to hook you in emotionally, make you feel like you’re there, make you feel for that character, yell at the television.
One lovely story that came about was these carmine bee-eater birds that follow the elephants through the long grass. We knew if we could find a bull elephant to follow through the grass, there was a good chance they’d be there, buzzing and weaving around his legs, snapping up insects. That’s the story we were going for. When we got there, we realized that they were quite cunning and had actually worked out that most any large animal would stir up insects. So they started following the jeeps. They were riding on the backs of ostriches. They were on the kori bustards [Africa’s largest flying bird]. That’s the gold dust that as a filmmaker, you can’t predict; you can’t script.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.