Sir David Attenborough shows 1Bn viewers: There’s No 2nd Chance for Our Planet…
As specialists in communicating on the subject of environmental sustainability, the Curious PR team was thrilled to receive an invitation to the press preview of the latest BBC blockbuster, Planet Earth II, and even more excited to get to meet none other than its world-famous presenter, Sir David Attenborough. Having raced across town by tube to The Soho Hotel, and signed the required secrecy forms, we were ushered into a well set-up press room where I found Sir David, at the impressive age of 91, to be no less engaging and interesting than the man I was lucky enough to meet as a child at Christmas parties. (In those days, I admit I was just as excited about beating the other children to the mountain of tangerines which stood unguarded by distracted adults.)
Reaching such an impressive age, it’s not surprising that Sir David didn’t venture into the field to film the series’ often perilous locations; the uninhabited, rocky island of Zavodovski, near Antartica, for instance, that is home to around 2M penguins (and not much else). Yet it was a fitting and symbolic gesture to have him present the introduction from the basket of a hot air balloon as it floated silently above snow covered mountains; here was a man with an unrivalled view of the only life-yielding planet in our solar system. It’s a planet that’s moving through a period of flux whereby extinctions happen at a rate of around 150-200 per day (a thousand times the ‘background’ level according to the UN). Such changes are largely thanks to an exponentially growing human population, not to mention human-influenced climate change. By contrast, this serene scene reflected Attenborough’s all-encompassing knowledge about our blue and green planet, setting the tone for what could be his last major series.
The Power of Wildlife Series: To deliver ‘A universal truth’– Hans Zimmer
Sitting with pens poised in the darkened cinema, we were treated to excerpts from the series’ Islands episode, (islands being notable for their unique and fragile ecosystems). After which, a panel made up of key people behind the series, answered questions, amongst them, the man behind its powerful music score, film composer, Hans Zimmer of Gladiator, Pirates Of The Caribbean, and Rain Man fame.
For Zimmer, Planet Earth II was a first foray into wildlife documentaries – a distinct departure from the ZAP! POW! special effect movies for which he is latterly known. It turns out he was genuinely awe-inspired by the drama captured in the series’ life-or-death scenes so beautifully, yet, so starkly. A striking example which could easily have been inspired by Hollywood proved that Love – or procreation, perhaps – conquers all. Enter a male sloth, who, upon hearing the call of a female in season, is transformed from the equivalent of the soporific, sofa-bound slob portrayed by Brad Pitt’s character in Thelma & Louise, into an animal resembling George, the love-struck, love-sick, telescope-toting Dudley Moore character who becomes obsessed after just one sighting of Bo Derek’s Jenny on the beach, in the 1979 romcom, 10. So, from Sunday driver to Ferrari fiend, our wide-eyed, curly-clawed Romeo swims perilously yet undeterred from one side of a turbulent river to the other, in search of his Juliet. Her occasional calls are simply irresistible.
Indeed, Zimmer remarked that he approached the series just as if it was drama: “Superheroes are outside human experience; so is this…. Superheroes are big, but David’s work has more relevance than ever before. All fiction pales in comparison to nature! We should feel humble. It was extraordinary to work on ‘fact’ rather than fiction because it delivers a universal truth.’”
From Email to ‘PeeMail’
But metaphors aside, in terms of the science, when asked what the real coups had been, Tom Hugh-Jones, series producer, pointed to the three years’ work that went into filming the notoriously elusive snow leopard. This particular project involved bringing on board from all over the globe experts on the mating communications of this highly threatened species. Thanks to undercover cameras staged strategically around their habitat, we learn that ‘peemail’ is this cat’s equivalent to a ‘check-in’ on social media; the cats use urine patches to mark out their territory and intentions. The value of such a long term project was made evident when Tom spelled out that most of these scientists had never actually seen the subjects of their intricate studies before. For them, watching the rushes must have been the equivalent of the paparazzi getting the close-up, unguarded shots of the shielded celebrity they’d always hoped to capture on film. From an education point of view, the peemail analogy works perfectly to explain this finely balanced species’ psycho-social world, and provide helpful, context to a species that remains under existential threat.
Do Such Series Matter? Insights and Education Count
But less of the shoulder rubbing, more of the rub: What exactly do these expensive wildlife documentaries have to offer in 2016? Haven’t we seen enough of them, and what’s new? True, they come and go with ever more breath-taking photography made possible by lightening-speed evolution in filming technology. Drones, hidden cameras and mini stabilised cameras have entered the kit bags of today’s documentary film-makers, taking the meaning of undercover filming into new territory. The answer, according to Mike Gunton, Creative Director at the BBC’s Natural History Unit, is that what pushes his team forwards is the ability to gain new insights. He pointed to the fact that authors of scientific journals are now relying on this type of filmed content for evidence; a case of audiovisual eclipsing the written word – as is happening in so many fields.
Drones aside, though, are wildlife documentaries heading to the twilight zone? Where will the next innovations come from? This was a question posed by Gunton in a modest fashion that is arguably typical of we Brits. The technology wish list below indicates there’s still room for innovation. But in our humble opinion, we are far from reaching the twilight. The role of television as a learning tool remains unshaken, and we’d argue now is the time is to push even harder to bring nature at its most vibrant – even shocking – sense into the living rooms of men, women and children all around our planet. Particularly given the shift of our species from rural dweller to city dweller.
Could Sir David have predicted this gargantuan shift when he started filming wildlife 50 years ago, we wondered. As he noted, “Over half the human population lives in cities, and are out of touch with nature, yet we depend on the natural world.” I’m often surprised that many children of the most affluent I see in London have very limited exposure to rural nature. Their world is not so much ‘concrete jungle’ as gold-tipped railings and paved-over garden. These children may have every gadget in town, but they are ‘nature poor’. Yet, as Sir David noted, “We must hang onto our connection with animals, and TV is the best way of linking the two.”
Should we be Wary of a ‘Hidden Agenda’?
Any series such as this, which highlights the rapidity with which species are having to adapt to urbanisation and other human-influenced change, must, by nature, be political with a small ‘p’. Tom Hugh-Jones explained, “Sometimes we wanted to acknowledge ‘campaigns’ – as with the many animals that are having to adapt to cities. We show that whilst some can adapt, most can’t adapt that fast.” Mike Gunton noted, “It was about [capturing] the ecology of the city, not a portrait. The highest concentration of leopards live in Dubai, and prey on domestic animals. Our thermal cameras picked them out like criminals. And in New York, our team followed peregrines, which love to chase pigeons, because skyscrapers mirror cliff tops. That was like filming a Spiderman scene! It’s about drama, but we’ve ben keen not to show the hand of the cinematographer. It should appear to be a ‘live feed.’
Sir David did acknowledge that the BBC is deeply supportive of the producers’ cause: “There is no other broadcast organisation prepared to keep us going for three years. This is surprising, and the BBC did it first, for some reason. It’s very important that TV, which seems so transient, can take an in-depth look at our earth, which is in peril, and which we have to know. It takes devotion and money.”
They say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and things look incredibly good for the series’ in terms of audience reach. We were astounded to hear from the press officer that, based on viewing figures for the first Planet Earth series, a billion people on the planet are expected to view some or all of the series at some point. It’s easy to forget living here in Blighty that the BBC has such penetration, globally. Such numbers reflect the scale of Planet Earth II’s influence upon hearts and minds – many of them young minds. As Sir David noted, “The letters I get from kids are totally understanding of the dangers facing us. Sixty years ago, nobody thought extinctions were possible, let alone accelerating.”
How to Future-proof our Planet: Collaboration is All
A final question put to Sir David was, how would he assess the health of the planet versus 10 years ago? In his words, “Never in history has humanity agreed to do something together – except about the ozone layer hole. Twenty years ago, we realised humanity would fry; we took action and the hole is healing. We have wider problems now, and the population growth is bigger. I believe we are on the verge of getting together now. We do have ways of solving [issues]. We just need to collaborate. And we are inching forward, despite people saying it’s all just talk.” Planet Earth 2 proves we can capture the best and worst of what is facing nature on this planet. Our next gargantuan challenge is how to capture the CO2 that’s contributing to climate change.
Technology Wish List of Film-Makers
- Noise-cancelling technology to avoid the perils of ‘noises off’, above all aircraft
- Being able to film the deep ocean
- The ability to film at night
Further Viewing from The Appable Man
The Attenborough App “I’ve been at this game 60 years, filmed by hundreds of cameramen. The app is visitable free ,and can be searched by subject and species. There are thousands to choose from.”