There's no better excuse to 'Netflix and chill' this weekend than bingeing the new, awe-inspiring documentary series 'Our Planet.' Produced by the same team that developed the critically-acclaimed documentary series 'Planet Earth' in 2006, 'Our Planet' takes viewers deep into seldom seen corners of the planet. Sir David Attenborough once again acts as our guide as camera crews take us to some of the darkest depths, highest summits and coldest spots that have ever been filmed.
'Our Planet' is probably the best way to catch a glimpse of remote areas and reclusive animals without having to go into the wild yourself, which is not for the faint of heart, according to the film crew. We recently sat down with two of the seasoned wildlife filmmakers who worked on 'Our Planet' - Sophie Lanfear and Jamie McPherson.
Sophie is a director and producer who developed a passion for capturing the polar regions on film while growing up in the Norwegian Arctic. Jamie is a BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning cameraman who has spent 20 years working as a wildlife cinematographer.
During our chat, they shared the highest highs and lowest lows of the rigorous production while also divulging how they killed time on location, what life on a remote shoot is like and which comfort foods they take along to cope with the tough times - especially when they find themselves crawling on their bellies through seal excrement. Sophie and Jamie also discussed the most dangerous, most disgusting, most heartbreaking and most inspiring moments they experienced while shooting episodes of 'Our Planet.'
What's the best part of working on this kind of documentary?
Sophie: For me, it's getting to work with experts in the field and people that are so passionate about the natural world. When you go to their field of expertise — whether it's wild dogs or polar bears — and you get to spend time with them and the animals, you get a much greater understanding of the challenges that animals face and the beauty and the hardship that they go through. It's a really rewarding process, being put into that world and just totally absorbed in it. I love that part.
Jamie: For me, its just probably the adventure and the time you spend with the small crews in these amazing places and getting to witness these amazing scenes, and then bring home the footage, and show the world what we saw.
That sounds thrilling, but every job has its grind as well. What would you say is the worst part of this job?
Jamie: The hut that we stayed in in Russia. If it was on Airbnb, it would not even be a one-bed hut, and there were seven of us sleeping in it. And you're surrounded by walrus, so you have to get to the toilet in a bucket. It's not exactly glamorous.
How many hours would you say go into every minute of footage that actually gets used in the documentary?
Sophie: I would say shooting ratio is probably 20 to 1. Probably higher.
Jamie: There will be hundreds of hours of footage but it's because you're trying find all of those tiny moments where it all comes together.
Sophie: We have a couple of sequences in the series - the Siberian tigers is one of them - where the poor cameraman in the hide didn't get a single shot of the tiger. The tigers came at nighttime, so he didn't see a single one. Luckily we had camera traps with sensors that triggered the camera to start recording. I think they got eight shots in two years.
What's life like in one of those huts?
Sophie: It's literally this box that the cameraman's been put in. He has to go to the loo in it and everything. He's not allowed to leave the box. And he didn't get a single shot.
Being cooped up in those huts must cause a lot of aches and pains after a while.
Sophie: And smells.
Are we talking body odor and the toilet bucket, or something specific to the location?
Jamie: Everything you can imagine from the people and then, well, there are 100,000 walrus outside. It's a pretty impressive smell from those guys because, you see, they're all going to the toilet on the beach as well.
Sophie: We're also crawling on our bellies to get close to the walrus. You've got to be really careful, so we're kind of on the ground, edging closer towards them. You're in areas where they've gone to the toilet, so you come back really stinky. And there's no shower. So you literally don't wash for three weeks and that accumulates. I mean, it was pretty bad already when we turned up, to be honest, but it got worse.
Jamie: It got pretty bad. We went through elephant seal poo on the beach, and I had to clean it off the tires of our buggy with my bare hands. I've changed a lot of nappies in my time, but that was the most disgusting thing I've ever done.
Sophie: Elephant seal poo is bright orange. Scientists have tried to analyze what's in it, so they've taken samples. They feed at depths of thousands of meters down in the water, and the scientists can't even tell. What's in their poo is unobservable.
So you're crawling around in orange poo and even scientists can't tell you what's in it?
That's some extraordinary job commitment. What helps you get through those moments? Do you pack any comfort foods to help you cope after crawling through orange poo?
Jamie: PG Tips teabags.
Sophie: Marmite and chocolate. English chocolate's the best.
Jamie: I'm pretty sure scientists don't know what's in Marmite either. It's probably pretty similar [to elephant seal poo].
How do you kill time when you're waiting to do a shoot in those remote locations?
Jamie: It depends what you gotta do. If you're waiting for something to happen visually, then listening to podcasts is pretty good. If not, then reading books and watching stuff. Now that we can download stuff, we watch a lot of stuff on Netflix. We also play a lot of games. Fruit Ninja's good. We played a lot of Fruit Ninja.
What would you say was the most grueling experience you had during the shoots for 'Our Planet'?
Sophie: I would say that wild dog shoot that we did for the opening episode. You have to get to their den before the dogs leave it in the morning right after sunrise. It was a three-hour drive from where the camp was, and we weren't allowed to move the camp. We had to drive on really rocky roads for three hours, pre-sunrise, to get there, then sit in a boiling hot car for twelve hours, then drive home at the end of that - in the dark - for another three hours to get home around midnight to get four hours of sleep and do it all again.
That was really grueling. Luckily, that shoot was only about ten days long, but we were getting only four hours of sleep.
What did you find the most grueling, Jamie?
Jamie: Physically, I think the walrus shoot was probably the hardest thing I've done. Being on that beach with those walrus was really, really tough.
Sophie: We were there for three weeks in that hut. The walrus sort of come and go.
Jamie: Yeah, we woke up in the middle of the night once and heard the walrus outside the hut. They were back for two or three days, then they disappeared again. You wait for a week and then they all come - or only half come back.
Sophie: You're never quite sure when they're gonna be there and when they're gonna be gone 'cause they come and go really quickly.
It almost sounds like a psychological endurance contest: you're in a claustrophobic space. The living conditions are very unpleasant, and you're sleep-deprived from the noisy neighbors outside the hut.
Jamie: Yeah, it's like extreme reality TV.
Sophie: In the hut, the amount of living space we had was probably about two meters squared. Everyone was sat in the hut for long hours because it got dark quite early—at about three o'clock, so you can't go outside. We all got our own little personal space, which was about twenty centimeters by twenty centimeters.
Jamie: It was like we been stacked in shelves in that one. If you're a producer for a reality TV show, pick up a wildlife crew: You'll never break 'em.
Was there ever a moment during an 'Our Planet' shoot that made you think, "I might not make it through this alive"?
Jamie: Yeah, pretty often.
Sophie: That is true.
Jamie: In hindsight, you look back and you think, 'Yeah, okay, that was quite close.' I mean, we were filming the glacier calving [the collapsing of a glacier] from a helicopter. You need to get the shots and you're very close to this wall of ice, and Sophie was watching from the hillside up at it. So, to her, it looked like we were about to get crushed by the falling ice any second. But we had an amazing pilot keeping us safe.
Sophie: You've got truck-sized pieces of ice flinging up into the air. And if one of those goes into the blade of the helicopter, then that's it. There's no one coming to rescue you in the locations we're working in.
Jamie: You can't call anybody, you're several hours from someone rescuing you—or days. In some places, a week before someone can come to help you. So, you have to be very careful. Even small things can become very dangerous.
Sophie: And the other really dangerous situation was the sea ice. To capture the narwhal footage underwater, we had to camp on the sea ice at a time of year when the sea ice is breaking up and floating out to sea. Your camp is on this surface of sea ice that gets all these cracks and one day the guides suddenly said to us, "We gotta go! This is breaking up, let's go!"
Jamie: You wake up and there's a massive crack between the tents. That's quite exciting.
Sophie: It did break away, but thankfully we were on the right side of the crack when it broke off.
How do you cope after those stressful situations?
Jamie: You form great bonds with the people you're on location with, so you've got a small team of people you share it with. And now that it's out on Netflix, we can talk about all these things with everyone else 'cause you can't really talk about these things before it goes out. So it's nice to be able to share the stories, and share the footage that we got.
What's one location that you never want to revisit? Is it the walrus shoot?
Jamie: Walrus, yeah.
Sophie: I mean, the walrus is something you never want to have to film in your life ever anyway.
Jamie: I filmed the wild dogs hunting and the cheetahs hunting—I've done a lot of those sorts of shoots. You're seeing things that end in the predator catching the prey. It's not a very nice thing to watch but, there's a good reason for it and it's an understandable thing. Whereas the walrus [falling to their death while trying to climb down a steep cliff], there's no reason for it. It just seemed so pointless. That's what made it so heartbreaking, horrendous. 'Cause it was so innocently falling off.
Do you often feel that sort of emotional connection with the animals? Like when you filmed the baby seal that was caught by a polar bear. Did you find yourselves rooting for the seal?
Jamie: Oh totally.
Sophie: Heartbreaking, yeah.
Jamie: I filmed a lot of the big animals—the big exciting things chasing after each other. When you go, you got to try and capture something chasing something and catching it and you want it to stop the chase. But as soon as the chase stops, you pretty much always want the thing to get away. You want the wildebeest calf to get away. And it did. That was one of the coolest moments I've seen was the wildebeest mum saving the calf from the wild dog pack while we were filming it. The calf got away, but it was heartbreaking to see a baby seal. The mum can't defend the seal against the polar bear, we can't do anything against the polar bear. You just can't.
Sophie: Situations like that—especially with those seal pups 'cause they're only a week old—it really is a horrible, harrowing thing to watch. But then you kind of sit there and think, "Okay, the bears have got to eat something, so that's kind of fair." But then you look even further back and become quite self-reflective and you think, "well, the reason that these pups are being born on the ice like that is because it has changed." It's no longer broken up ice where they can dig into snow ridges and give birth in these dens. And that's because the sea ice forms much later each year and breaks up much later each year. The ice conditions have changed and we are responsible.
So showing that in the documentary, for me, puts all that emotion in context. It's great to get it out there so it's not all in vain for those animals. And you kind of go through it with them. Hopefully showing it to wider audiences is a good thing.
Every episode of 'Our Planet' begins and ends with a message stressing the dangers of climate change. What evidence of climate change did you see during shoots?
Jamie: Oh, gosh, it's everywhere. It used to be that you'd go to a place like Maasai Mara [National Reserve in Kenya], they knew when it was going to rain, they knew when it would stop raining. Now it's all shifting. The ice I've worked in several times is now thinner and less predictable. There's less snow. Everywhere seems to be changing.
Sophie: The rains are becoming much more unpredictable in Africa. Communities of local hunters and Inuit people that have lived up in the Arctic their entire lives are getting flooded now as sea levels are rising. There's no ice, so the storms are driving water into their homes, basically. We were out filming in Resolute in the Canadian Arctic, and they had a thunderstorm. And they were like "we've never had one of these before." You never used to get thunderstorms in the Arctic, you never used to get rain.
Jamie: Everywhere is just getting stormier and more turbulent. You work with people who have been going to this place for twenty or thirty years, so they've seen it and they know that it didn't used to be stormy, it used to be calm. The ice used to be flat and you could walk on it. And now the ice is all broken apart by storms that never came through twenty years ago. It's pretty heartbreaking. People say climate change isn't real, but we know it is. We see it everywhere we go. Everything is changing, even if it's just slightly or subtly. It's not necessarily hotter, it could be colder, it could be windier or more rainy or unpredictable. But it is all being influenced by us.
On the flip side, did you see anything that made you feel hopeful or a sign that the environment might be recovering in some areas?
Sophie: In 'Our Planet,' there are some really positive stories where humans have made a difference. Things like the global ban on commercial whaling in the seventies. Humpback whales, for example, are making a recovery. You're seeing them down in southern oceans, around Antarctica, around Cape Town. There are images in the series of these mass feeding aggregations that haven't been seen for fifty, sixty years. Another sequence in the series shows the sad things that happened at Chernobyl, but because people were driven out, wildlife has moved back in and it has taken over the city, and it's thriving.
Jamie: Yeah, it's quite the balanced ecosystem now.
Sophie: If you let it alone and you give it the space it will come back.
Jamie: And there are so many people doing amazing things. Look at the guys reintroducing wild dogs to the Serengeti. People are dedicating their lives to try and solve these problems. That's what's most heartwarming and most positive about it.
You two have been doing this for quite some time, does nature ever lose its wonder?
Sophie: It never does.
Jamie: No, it never ever does really.
You never get bored of revisiting the jungle and seeing a tiger for the hundredth time?
Jamie: They're massive and orange—there's not a lot to not love about a tiger. They're amazing! When you're there are you see these things, they are genuinely astounding.
Sophie: We come back from every trip, and someone's like, "that was my favorite animal!' And we're like, "you say that every time!"
Jamie: They are all pretty amazing.
Given how strenuous these shoots are, do you ever return thinking, 'This is the last time I'll ever do that'?
Jamie: No, you forget about the [toilet] bucket, you forget about the smells, you forget about the sleep deprivation pretty quickly. And you've got the footage to show for it, and you remember all of the amazing things that you've seen.
Last question: What message do you want viewers to take from the 'Our Planet' series?
Sophie: I hope that people will be inspired by what they've seen. That they connect on an emotional level with the animals and read more about the problems facing the environment that the animal lives in and what they can do to help change that. The ourplanet.com website is a brilliant resource in that respect because it goes into a lot more detail about the human side—what we can do, and how we can invest in renewable energies and support governments to make the right decisions for a more sustainable future. This global conversation can really make a difference if we are all aware of it and want to make change.
Jamie: The world is an amazing place, it really is, and we're all in it together. It's not too late. Hopefully people will be excited and engaged with them and realize that there are things that we can do. We can all do something, even if it's a small thing. We can all get together and we can make a change.