'Our Planet' Nature Documentary Addresses The 800-Pound Gorilla — Human Impact | KERA News

'Our Planet' Nature Documentary Addresses The 800-Pound Gorilla — Human Impact

Apr 15, 2019
Originally published on April 15, 2019 8:28 pm

Our Planet is the kind of nature show where every image could be a screen saver: sweeping, dramatic landscapes are full of colorful animals.

But among the high-definition scenes of lions on the hunt, there are some images you don't often see in these kinds of shows. Tropical reefs bleach into white bone-scapes; glaciers crumble into Arctic seas. In one particularly noteworthy sequence, confused walruses plummet off a cliff to their deaths — a phenomenon that the show links to climate change and the decline of the walrus' preferred habitat of sea ice.

Series producer Alastair Fothergill was responsible for some of the most high-profile nature documentaries of the last decade: Planet Earth, Blue Planet, Frozen Planet. In an interview, he says that it has previously been difficult to include environmental messaging in prime-time, mass-audience programming — and even so, that Our Planet is careful to show where earth is still very healthy, or has bounced back.

But while other nature programs might make passing reference to the impact of humans, that narrative is at the center of Our Planet.

"We decided way back, actually in 2012, that the time had come to try and do a series which would be as entertaining and as accessible as series like Planet Earth — but for the first time deal in depth with the challenges that our planet faces," Fothergill says. "There's no doubt that it is seriously under threat. And we felt that it was a story that urgently needed telling now."

The eight-part series, narrated by David Attenborough, is now streaming on Netflix.


Interview Highlights

On planning a project of this scale and rarity

Alastair Fothergill is the producer of Our Planet.
Silverback/Netflix

We spent a whole year planning: talking to scientists, talking to conservationists, deciding on our stories. And then we filmed over three years, and we spend a record 3,500 days in the field. To give you an idea, that means every final minute of the show you watch, we spent 10 days in the field. ...

But we were very specific. Although the animals don't read the script, we have a very, very organized and planned script and we knew exactly the narrative that we wanted to tell. ... What is very important to us is that each individual episode tell a bigger story about each individual habitat. Because what's very interesting is the challenges to the habitats, the threats to the habitats and the solutions to those habitats differ, depending on whether it's the open ocean, the tropical forest or the coniferous forest.

On capturing the Siberian tiger in the wild

I think the Siberian tiger is a wonderful achievement. It's the first intimate images of these amazing cats in the wild. And to give you a sense of how difficult it was, over two winters, three cameramen were literally locked away inside wooden hides. They didn't come out for six weeks. Everything you need to do to survive, they did inside the small box. And they worked for two winters. They got one single shot of a wild Siberian tiger. At the same time, we had in about 40 motion-control cameras — remote cameras that are set off by the moving animal. And again, the first winter we got nothing really. We got lynx going past, other animals of the forest. But over that period we began to see the movements of the tigers, how they were moving in that area. And the second season we got 36 precious, precious images. For me, it's a wonderfully emblematic sequence of a wonderfully rare, wild, iconic species of the boreal forest.

A Siberian tiger is caught on camera in the boreal forests of Russia's Pacific Coast.
Kieran O'Donovan / Netflix

On the images the show missed

You know, failure is my job, and we failed a lot. Often to get the sequence, we'd go one season — as I described the Siberian tiger — back and back and back. And yes, there are things that we still have to do and still have to film — which is great, because I've still got the life in me.

On the forest sequence in Madagascar

The patch of forest where we were filming was destroyed by the end of our filming period, yes. It was desperately, desperately sad. I mean, you know, Madagascar is a poor country. There's a lot of pressure; people need land. But the traditional forest — there's only 3 percent left. It's got so many precious, precious animals there. We really need to help those people to preserve the lemurs and all the wonderful forests that they live in.

On the forest sequence in Chernobyl

Thirty-three years ago, of course, famously the [nuclear] reactor at Chernobyl exploded. It was probably the greatest environmental disaster in living memory. And 30 years later, we ... go back and amazingly, the forest, the resilient forest, has overtaken Chernobyl. It's a green oasis now. And because people can't go there for very long because of the radiation — it's dangerous for us to stay there for a long period — it's been left alone.

And we found that an enormous variety of animals had returned, including the wolf. The wolf is an apex predator. The wolves are only there if beneath it, there's a very, very healthy community. And we now know that there are seven times more wolves in the Chernobyl exclusion zone than anywhere else in Eastern Europe. And the key point — and it's very important in our series to remind people — [is] that nature is resilient. And if we give it space, if we work together to preserve it, it can bounce back. And Chernobyl is a wonderful example of that.

Gustavo Contreras and Dave Blanchard produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon edited it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
At a fairground within Ukraine's Chernobyl exclusion zone, a birch forest has emerged decades after a nuclear reactor accident forced the abandonment of the area.
Jeff Wilson / Silverback/Netflix

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

"Our Planet" is the kind of nature show that's full of shots of sweeping, dramatic landscapes peppered with colorful animals.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

But among the high-definition scenes of tropical reefs and lions on the hunt, there are some images you don't often see in these kinds of shows - those tropical reefs bleached into white bonescapes. Glaciers crumble into arctic seas.

CORNISH: While other nature programs might make passing reference to the impact of humans, that message is at the center of "Our Planet." Here's how the narrator, David Attenborough, puts it in the opening sequence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OUR PLANET")

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: This series will celebrate the natural wonders that remain and reveal what we must preserve to ensure people and nature thrive.

CHANG: Our co-host Ari Shapiro spoke with the series producer of "Our Planet," Alastair Fothergill.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You've been responsible for some of the most high-profile nature documentaries of the last decade - "Planet Earth," "Blue Planet," "Frozen Planet." Tell us what made the mission of this one different.

ALASTAIR FOTHERGILL: We decided way back, actually, in 2012 the time had come to try and do a series which would be as entertaining and as accessible as series like "Planet Earth" but for the first time deal in-depth with the challenges that our planet faces. There's no doubt that, you know, it is seriously under threat. And we felt that it was a story that urgently needed telling now.

SHAPIRO: I imagine those threats are inescapable when you're filming any kind of nature documentary. Had you tried to include that narrative in some of the other shows you'd produced and been unable to?

FOTHERGILL: To be honest, yes, it was difficult in the past to get broadcasters to include environmental messaging. And even with "Our Planet," we've been very careful not just to film destruction. We've filmed the beauties, the amazing stuff that's still there because, you know, the planet is still, in many places, very healthy. And the important thing is that nature has an amazing ability to bounce back.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example of a time that you thought, oh, maybe that goes a little too far; we need to pull it back a little bit and not make people feel quite so bleak, necessarily?

FOTHERGILL: Well, there is an absolutely extraordinary sequence of walrus in the Arctic Ocean.

SHAPIRO: I was going to ask about the walruses, yeah.

FOTHERGILL: We went to film what's called a haul-out, where these animals - walrus - prefer to live out on the sea ice. They don't like coming to land. But in recent years, as the sea ice in the summer has declined, they've been hauling-out. And we saw a haul-out of over 110,000 walrus.

And so desperate were they for space that some of them climbed up cliffs 100 meters up. These animals have very bad eyesight. And once they got to the top, they could hear their compatriots at sea, going back to sea. And in desperation, they leap off the cliff to their death.

SHAPIRO: It's an incredibly disturbing sequence in the second episode. I mean, to be frank, I know more than one person who watched that sequence and said, I can't continue to watch the program. Were you afraid it would have that impact?

FOTHERGILL: Of course we were. In editing it, we were very, very careful. There was a lot more of walrus falling off those cliffs than we showed, and we tried to balance it.

But, you know, climate change is happening. And there are people that deny it. And I think it's very, very important that you really make people realize that it's not something that's going to happen in 10 and 20 years. It's happening now in the natural world.

SHAPIRO: Many of the events you capture in this program occur once a year, maybe once a decade. What was it like to calendar this out as you started to make plans for what you wanted to include?

FOTHERGILL: We spent a whole year planning, talking to scientists, talking to conservationists, deciding on our stories. And then we filmed over three years. And we spend a record 3,500 days in the field. To give you an idea, that means for every final minute of the show you watch, we spent 10 days in the field.

SHAPIRO: It makes me feel bad for the moments that I reached for popcorn, given all the work that went into it.

(LAUGHTER)

FOTHERGILL: You know, but we were very specific. You know, although the animals don't read the script, we have a very, very organized and planned script. And we knew exactly the narrative that we wanted to tell.

SHAPIRO: Wait; so you're saying that when you decide you're going to profile this particular animal, you know you want a hunt scene, but for that animal, you want a procreation scene?

FOTHERGILL: Yes. What is very important to us is that each individual episode tell a bigger story about each individual habitat because what's very interesting is the challenges to their habitats, the threats to the habitats. And the solutions to those habitats differ depending on whether it's the open ocean, the tropical forest or the coniferous forest.

SHAPIRO: There's a lot of footage that's never been seen before in this program, from a sequence with a Siberian tiger to an Australian lake that only fills up once a decade. Is there one scene in particular that you are really proud of having captured?

FOTHERGILL: I think the Siberian tiger is a wonderful achievement. It's the first intimate images of these amazing cats in the wild. And to give you a sense of how difficult it was, over two winters, three cameramen were literally locked away inside wooden hides. They didn't come out for six weeks. Everything you need to do to survive they did inside this small box.

SHAPIRO: Really?

FOTHERGILL: And they worked for two winters. They got one, single shot of a wild Siberian tiger. At the same time, we had about 40 motion control cameras - remote cameras that are set off by the moving animal. And again, the first winter, we got nothing, really. We got lynx going past, other animals of the forest. But over that period, we began to see the movements of the tigers - how they were moving in that area.

And the second season, we got 36 precious, precious images. For me, it's a wonderfully emblematic sequence of a wonderfully rare, wild, iconic species of the boreal forest.

SHAPIRO: Because you have described the excruciating lengths that you went to to get some of these images, I have to ask whether there were certain images or behaviors that you really wanted to get and just weren't able to.

FOTHERGILL: You know, failure is my job. And we failed a lot. Often, to get the sequence, we'd go one season, as I described with the Siberian tiger, back and back and back. And, yes, there are things that we still have to do and still have to film, which is great because I've still got a little life in me.

SHAPIRO: On to the next one.

FOTHERGILL: On to the next project, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: The final episode of the series has, probably, the most disheartening sequence, and also the most hopeful. This is the episode about forests. The sequence in Madagascar shows these incredible animals in a forest that we learn at the end of the sequence has since been destroyed.

FOTHERGILL: The patch of forest where we were filming was destroyed by the end of our filming period, yes. It was desperately, desperately sad. I mean, you know, Madagascar is a poor country. There's a lot of pressure. People need land. But the traditional forest - there's only 3 percent left. It's got so many precious, precious animals there. We really need to help those people to preserve the lemurs and all the wonderful forest that they live in.

SHAPIRO: And then we go to Chernobyl at the end of this episode about forests. And this is a story of hope.

FOTHERGILL: It is. Thirty-three years ago, of course, famously, the reactor at Chernobyl exploded. It was probably the greatest environmental disaster in living memory. And 30 years later, we will go back. And amazingly, the forest - the resilient forest - has overtaken Chernobyl. It's a green oasis now. And because people can't go there for very long because of the radiation - it's dangerous for us to stay there for a long period - it's been left alone.

And we found that an enormous variety of animals had returned, including the wolf. The wolf is an apex predator. The wolves are only there if beneath it, there's a very, very healthy community. And we now know that there are seven times more wolves in the Chernobyl exclusion zone than anywhere else in Eastern Europe.

And the key point - and it's very important in our series to remind people that nature is resilient. And if we give it space, if we work together to preserve it, it can bounce back. And Chernobyl is a wonderful example of that.

SHAPIRO: Alastair Fothergill is series producer of the eight-part nature documentary "Our Planet," now on Netflix. Thanks so much for joining us.

FOTHERGILL: Very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRKMND'S "BIRD CALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.