On the 29th March a lucky audience found themselves in conversation with Mike Gunton, the executive producer of Planet Earth II, at The Bramall. Redbrick’s Ellen Daugherty reports on the lecture
Instantly recognisable to any avid natural documentary watcher, Mike Gunton gave an insight into the trails and tribulations of the critically acclaimed BBC documentary, Planet Earth II, on Wednesday evening in the University’s Elgar Concert Hall. Ten years on from the original Planet Earth, this revolutionary series managed to shed new light on the natural world, and Mike let the audience into some of the secrets of making such a successful show.
Mike first got involved with the BBC’s Natural History Unit 30 years ago whilst working on The Trails of Life in 1990 with David Attenborough. This was supposed to be Attenborough’s last ever programme, but 17 series later the pair are still making documentaries that continually break the boundaries of what was previously thought to be possible. With the success of Planet Earth II, and the upcoming Blue Planet II, it seems they aren’t going to be slowing down any time soon.
Planet Earth II took four and a half years to make, across 50 locations, and over 1,000 people are thought to be involved with the making of the show. Its aim was to showcase a new perspective of the natural world, that was constantly showing the audience novel behaviours from some well known, and new, animals. To make this possible, the power of the lens had to be utilised, and therefore innovative use of cameras was at the heart of Planet Earth II’s success.
Drone technology was utilised to portray the environment in new and exciting ways. This was something that was inaccessible to the team whilst filming Planet Earth, and therefore impressive pans that scan across the entire landscape, became a signature look to Planet Earth II. The landscape is key to any natural history documentary, and with the help of drones this was able to be filmed in an original way.
The elusive snow leopard, a flagship species of the series, could only be caught on film by new automated cameras that had been recently developed. This allowed footage to be collected that made up some of the most extensive snow leopard material to ever be recorded. It is encouraging to know, that even in 2016, we are still discovering new ways to unearth the mysteries of the natural world.
During the filming and production of the series, Mike and his team quickly realised that this was a perfect opportunity to really show animals as individuals, each with different personalities. The anthropomorphization of the animals featured in each episode was key to the engagement of the audience, and allowed people of all walks of life to enjoy the natural world in a way they never had before. Showing a mouse, or eagle, to have human thoughts and feelings was vital in captivating viewers.
Crucial to this engagement was getting the cameras physically and emotionally close to the action, and this allowed Planet Earth II to really tell a story of an animals experience. The scene that demonstrates this excellently is the iconic marine iguana story, where a baby iguana faces a terrifying chase from an army of racer snakes. Possibly the most exhilarating scene from any nature documentary ever, this scene instantly went viral, and the viewings are still increasing today. This was a once-in-a-career story for Mike, and the whole team had no idea what was going to unfurl that day on the barren volcanic island. This scene was only made possible by new technology, with miniature, gyroscopic, moving cameras allowing the camera team to successfully catch such a captivating sequence. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this scene, was that Mike and his team were able to get the general public to fully empathise with… a lizard. In a world full of reality TV, celebrity, and social media, it was refreshing to see TV having such an innocent, and positive influence. The iguana vs. snakes scene elegantly encapsulated everything Planet Earth II was aiming to achieve.
The engagement of the public was also demonstrated by the record-breaking viewing numbers. The 16-35 age group viewings rocketed, and increased hugely compared to previous natural documentary series. More people tuned in to watch Planet Earth II than the X-Factor, which shows a very important change in modern popular culture that usually finds itself completely obsessed with monotonous talent shows. It is these figures that can slightly restore your faith in humanity, and proves that with effective TV production, important and valuable information can be conveyed to the masses.
Today, with more and more of the global population living in urban areas, there is likely to be an increasing disconnection to the natural world. Planet Earth II encouraged people to be more aware of the fragility of the environment, with each episode containing at least one story based around the impact of humans on the planet. However, Mike made sure to highlight that conservation was not the primary aim of Planet Earth II, and that engaging the general public with the environment was the higher objective. After all, as the master storyteller once said:
Mike’s lecture profoundly demonstrated the importance of new technologies within nature documentaries, as it allows the audience to feel a connection with the natural world, which in turn means they care more about the state of our global environment. It is through the medium of TV that the BBC indirectly promotes conservation and the desperate need to look after our planet. Creating not only an intellectual, but also an emotional connection to certain landscapes and species, is something that Planet Earth II has done exceeding well.
Mike ended the lecture by stressing that now, more than ever, we need to understand our place in the natural world. He hinted at possibly a whole series based around conservation issues, but gave the impression that it was just an idea in the pipeline.
The lecture was brought to UoB as part of the 2017 Royal Television Society Baird Lectures.