Different Habitats, One Planet
Netflix’s Our Planet shows the wonders of the Earth, and the dangers facing them.
The beauty and wonder of our world and its environment remains a favorite subject for documentarians.
For documentary filmmakers Keith Scholey and Adam Chapman, the challenge is in presenting nature and the cost in preserving it. The pair have worked on such breakthrough documentary series and features such as Nova, African Cats, Life, and Big Cat Diary.
Scholey and Chapman have teamed with Netflix to produce the eight part series Our Planet. Each episode focuses on a specific environment with the intention to further the conversation about preservation.
What initially attracted you to this kind of documentary filmmaking?
KS: I grew up as a kid in Africa and had great experiences when I was very young with wildlife. I was always going to be a biologist of some form, so I studied that at university. I met someone on a film who worked for the BBC and the rest is history.
AC: It's probably a strange answer. It was watching Keith have a very nice time filming whilst I was working. We first met about 30 years ago, I was working on a safari camp in Kenya and Keith was filming for a BBC series. I saw all these guys working [on the series] and they seemed to be having a much better time than I was, and I thought that was probably a good thing to get into.
Seven of the eight episodes of the series focus on a specific environment. What was your process to determine what to cover?
KS: We wanted to do a series that covered the whole globe. You can either really break things down into geographical area or into specific habitats. Habitats worked best for the story we wanted to tell. Then, we needed one show at the start of the series that actually showed how all these different biomes or habitats join together, how they interact each other.
How long was the overall shoot?
KS: The whole period for making the series was four years. We spent about a year researching, making sure we had the best stories, and working out all the logistics on how we were going to do it. Then, two years of intensive filming and then a year of post-production.
What are the risks in shooting a documentary heavily featuring wildlife? Were there any close calls?
KS: Generally, the biggest risk is actually the shoot goes badly wrong because the animal doesn't show up or you turned up at the wrong time and you're in the wrong place. Nature's unpredictable. The bits we worry most about are things not panning out.
But as far as the risks of locations and the wildlife, we go through a huge amount of preparation to make sure that we minimize that.
In one sequence, we went diving with hundreds and hundreds of sharks feeding at night. That might sound like a crazy thing to do. But, if you protect yourself in the right way, you have a good understanding of what those animals are doing. It looks crazy but it's actually pretty safe.
How do you fight an urge to assist a more vulnerable animal?
KS: When you film wildlife you see lots of bad things. There's no doubt about it, but you have to tell yourself constantly, "I am here as an observer." Once you start getting involved or changing things, you never know what the consequences of that action are going to be. Our rule is that we're there to observe, and come what may, that's what we do. But it is hard [not to get involved]. There's no doubt about that.
How does one go about directing a series that spans the globe?
AC: The way the team works is we have a producer, an assistant producer, and a researcher. One of those three people will generally be on a shoot and they will have the narrative in mind. They will understand where the sequence sits in the overall program and they will be guiding the camera man as much as they can.
Admittedly, you can't direct wildlife, but we will all work together in a very close-knit team. The camera man, if a vehicle is involved, the driver of the vehicle, the producer, the researcher, and the assistant producer all work together in order to achieve the goal of the sequence. And if things aren't going quite as expected, working out ways to get the very best out of the situation.
Did you make any production breakthroughs or discoveries during filming?
KS: We developed on the things we've been working at before with stabilized cameras. I think we use those on more kinds of vehicles than we've ever done before. They're designed to be put on a helicopter, but we put it on cars, tracks, snowmobiles, all sorts of things, to get that move and feel.
What you can do with drones is absolutely wonderful. Low-light cameras are now so good, you can film in conditions like dark jungles that previously would have been impossible. [We used] remote cameras that you can just leave in the field for months on end on their own and are of really, really high quality.
I think it's the accumulation of wonderful technological development that really helped us.
One of the series' chief concerns is the environment. How do filmmakers who are documenting the impact we have on the environment handle any impact or carbon footprint made during filming?
KS: Certainly, when we're in the field, we try not to interfere with any wildlife because if we do, we're not seeing natural behavior. Yes, there is a cost if you're going to fly to the other side of the world to film some piece of behavior. We build that sort of cost into what we're doing.
Our target was always to try and reach a billion people. If we can reach those people with this story and bring about change, we think it's worth the carbon cost or whatever its cost to make that series.
Is there discussion for a follow-up to the Our Planet?
KS: We're going to actually see how the audience reacts. Because it's series that stands on Netflix, it's there all of the time. Netflix is very good at monitoring how people take the series. It also has a very comprehensive website, so there'll be a conversation between the audience and the series. I think the plan is to see how well that conversation develops.
I think if there is need to follow up on that conversation, and I'm sure we are, Netflix will actually do that.
Do you have a favorite segment or episode?
KS: Do you know the, the thing I'm most proud of about the series is that each episode has a character of its own. It takes you into that world and that world is very different in each case. The frozen world's episode is distinctly different from the jungle episode.
I think the real strength in the series is in that variety, and I hope each time the audience comes to a new episode they'll think, "Wow, this isn't anything like the last one and I'm really excited to be in this place." I think that's what we're so pleased about. Each show has got something really new in it with something we've always wanted to film for many, many years
AC: I produced and directed two episodes, "One Planet" and "Deserts to Grasslands," so, those two. There are sequences in within both of those episodes which I'm enormously proud of, and I've seen them hundreds of times through filming them and editing them, but they still give me great pleasure.
I'd say choosing particular sequences is a bit tricky. It's a bit like choosing a favorite child.
There was one I was delighted by in "Deserts to Grasslands," five male cheetahs, which has almost never been recorded. A coalition of that many male cheetahs working together to retain a territory, watching them hunt together, was one of the most rewarding and exciting things I've seen in my career. I have a major soft spot for cheetahs, so I was very, very proud of that sequence really quickly.
What are you hoping viewers will come away with this from the series?
KS: I hope that they will see that the natural world we have still has great wonders, but that wonders are vanishing fast and that time is not on our side. If we actually want to keep these wonders, we need to do something about it.
We boil down what the key problems are for each habitat and say, "Don't worry. Because we know what the problems are, we know what the solutions are." The series is also linked to a really comprehensive website, ourplanet.com, that can give everyone a lot more detail about what those solutions are and how we can fix things.
AC: I think there are two things. First are the small changes that we can all make in our lives by thinking a little more carefully about what are increasingly limited resources and thinking about the impact our own actions have, and just making the small changes, which will make a big difference if everyone does it.
I suppose the other thing is for us as members of the public to make it obvious to our politicians what we expect of them in terms of looking after the planet and starting the ball rolling on changes which will have a far greater effect. It's really giving the politicians permission to do that on our behalf. And let's make it clear we expect them to do it.
And for those changes to be made and trust to be happy for there to be a slight cost to us, but that it's done with all the right intentions.
How do you keep the environment in the conversation with politicians without turning the discussion into a political one?
AC: I think the answer is by presenting the world as it is - not necessarily with any blame or judgment attached - but making it clear that things are changing in our world, changing very quickly, and not for the better.
We represent the natural world. We present it to the audience in, I hope, a clear and truthful way without overtones of politics and necessarily pushing our own agenda, but by making the facts clear.
I think the opportunity to take a snapshot of the world and the state it's in and present that to the audience in a way which is both dramatic and exciting but also has a very strong message behind it was it was a great opportunity and I hope the audience feel that we have fulfilled our aim of doing that.
Our Planet premieres in April on Netflix.