Watching baby iguanas run for their lives across a beach looming with deadly snakes ― snakes that would love nothing more than to strangle the tiny hatchling bodies in a wildly violent display of team acrobatics ― is a startling experience.
Fans of nature documentaries like “Planet Earth” are familiar with the near-hopeless trots of sea turtles, who emerge from their eggs seconds before being ambushed by a predatory welcome party. Marine iguanas in the Galapagos, it turns out, face a similar fate. After a victorious battle through an eggshell and a few layers of sand, they are immediately met by a menagerie of natural “bad guys,” a gang of winged and land-dwelling monsters that just want a bite to eat.
Most sinister among them is the hefty population of snakes that moves together like slippery black tumbleweeds to nab a hatchling. “Planet Earth II” producer Liz White says the entangled groups of reptiles look like a “Medusa’s head of snakes,” simultaneously moving toward their desired prey while battling their neighbors in an up-down-and-all-around dance. It’s the sort of David-vs-Goliath scene that seems possible if only for some camera trickery or post-production TLC. Alas, it’s real. And David Attenborough’s team of wily nature filmmakers has documented the whole nightmarish thing.
The baby iguana saga is but one story in one episode of the BBC’s beloved “Planet Earth” follow-up series, “Planet Earth II,” narrated by Attenborough. The string of six episodes opens with “Islands,” directed by White and starring the fortuitous marine iguanas of the Galapagos, setting a high standard for the kind of heart-pumping storytelling and high-definition graphics that set the show apart from the rest.
Ahead of its American premiere on Saturday, The Huffington Post spoke to White about iguanas, anthropomorphized narratives, what’s it like to be a woman in a male-dominated field, and why you should be paying attention to the episode’s albatrosses, too.
So I want to start with that unforgettable iguana scene: How did you set up for a shoot like that?
For that one, I really wanted to do a story about marine iguanas. Well, I wanted to do a story about Galapagos, because you can’t make a show about islands and not mention Galapagos. I personally think marine iguanas are really cool because they look like little Godzillas and they swim and they’re so unique. So the twist for that was coming up with a story that was different, because we couldn’t just do a kind of revelation of, “You’ll never guess what. These marine iguanas can swim!” We wanted to show the iguanas swimming, but then the big thing was: What else can we say about them beyond that?
I was batting around an idea with a cameraman who was going to shoot it. He said, “Well, you know, I filmed the [iguana] hatchlings. Did you know the hatchlings come out of the sand just like turtle hatchlings, because that’s the only place for the mother to lay the eggs?” He said nobody ever tells that story, and actually, [the hatchlings] get preyed upon by hawks and snakes ― all sorts of things come at them. Everyone does turtles, so we should do marine iguanas. And he showed me a clip of a single snake ambushing a marine iguana ― a baby. And I was like, “Oh, that’s cool … kind of grave. We could do something dramatic, high-speed.” That was the plan. And we were going to focus on all the other animals that sort of piggy-back. So the bottom line of that story was really going to be, “Hey, there are marine iguanas in Galapagos. They’re really successful, but these are all the other animals that benefit from them being so successful.”
We had no idea we were going to see that density of snakes we did. We expected to see like, single snakes. When we got there to the peninsula where we filmed it, we went to a number of different beaches. One area [had] such a high wall and almost a bottleneck at the end of the beach. In Galapagos, there are also some regulations. You can’t just run across the beach. You’ve got a park ranger with you. You’re not allowed to get too close to the animals. All this is so protected. We were literally standing at the top of the beach when a little hatchling ran toward the wall and this Medusa’s head of snakes poured out. It was not what we were expecting in terms of ambush, because the snakes were competing with each other so much they were having to pull out of the wall and chase. So that, for me, was like, wow. I’ve never seen snakes hunting fast like that. And I’ve never seen them in that sort of numbers. So then we just completely focused on that one part of the beach.
How long did it take to amass enough footage to cut together a chase sequence like you did?
We were filming it for about two weeks, just focusing on the iguana babies. We had to get the close-ups of the emergences. When you’re in the field, you don’t always know how good you’ve got, in the sense that it’s quite hard to actually see on a small camera monitor whether something is truly in focus. So sometimes, when you see an amazing event, you go, “Wow, that looks amazing.” But it’s only when you go back to the boat that night and look at the footage, that you go, “Do you know what? It’s really out of focus.” Or it just didn’t work or whatever. We think it took us about 12 to 14 days before we thought, “OK, I think we’ve got enough to be able to have an epic story.” If you look at it really closely ― some of that most epic chase is out of focus. But it’s subtle. Most of it is slowed down, because so much of it happens incredibly quickly. It’s a very challenging thing for the cameraman to film.
So, we did about three weeks [in Galapagos in total]. The team would be on the beach looking for baby iguanas, because you don’t know when they’re going to emerge and where from. A lot of time is spent just watching them, with pairs of binoculars, trolling up and down the beach, looking. But one of the cameramen could go off and film other bits. We also had to do all of the underwater [filming], which is itself a big thing. So, it was a solid three-and-a-half weeks to get the bulk of that footage and all the elements of that story.
Does a lot of the storytelling come together in editing? You know, you have this whole chase scene, and it appears like it’s one iguana throughout. Is it one iguana?
Predominantly one. I mean, we sometimes use big close-ups of faces that you can’t necessarily get at the time. You go with one event, but then things like the shots of the snakes crawling out ― some of those are picked off separately, because even with two cameramen you can’t cover [everything]. What was good with this shoot is we did have two cameramen. It’s obviously difficult to cut together action from different events. So you really want to, basically, follow one individual as much as you can. By having a long-lens cameraman who can get close-ups, in combination with a second cameraman who’s on a moving camera, that meant that we were going to be getting two eyes on the action. And then in the edit, you’ve got something to cut between.
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Was the kind of research or storyboarding that went into planning that story similar to the kind of planning that went into other stories in the “Islands” episode?
It’s typical in so much that you go in knowing what a story is going to give you. You go to, say, film albatrosses. And that’s a story all about animals using islands as sanctuary. It was going to be a love story. It was going to be about an albatross waiting for its mate. So you sort of go in knowing what your story blocks are going to be. And roughly how you want to tell the story; the choice of perspective. We wanted the viewer to be in the animal’s world ― you have to be on their eye level. Sometimes we have shots that haven’t got an animal in them, but you feel like you’re the animal moving through that habitat. A lot of [shots] use low-to-the-ground, moving imagery that helps put you into that world. That was very much a stylistic choice for the whole series.
But yeah, you go in with your building blocks. But then when you’re there, you have to slightly work with the individual situations that you get. It’s nature, and it doesn’t always pan out exactly the way you expect it. You can’t storyboard to the very individual shot level. It’s like a unique kind of genre in filmmaking, because you borrow from drama in the way it’s told. But you’re using real observational documentary. My exec always says it’s almost like David Attenborough invented a genre that you really don’t see anywhere else.
One of the interesting things about the “Planet Earth” series is that it’s not just providing viewers with clips of nature in action, it’s providing viewers with these sort of anthropomorphized narratives. For example, we see penguins having families similar to our own, sloths falling in love.
The anthropomorphization is a tricky one. We very much try not to say anything that’s too anthropomorphic. We basically try and show images that people can relate to. Where people will intrinsically go, “Alright, I can imagine being in that situation. I would feel like this.” We’re trying to get people to bond with the animals. We’re trying to get people to empathize and say, “Oh, yeah, I get a better perspective on how that animal lives its life.” And a bit better respect, I guess, in a way.
But you have to very careful with the script, that you don’t say anything too anthropomorphic. For example, I think the most anthropomorphic-edged story in the “Islands” episode is the story of the albatross waiting for its mate. The reality is, we were working with a scientist who knows those birds. If one of those birds doesn’t come back, they won’t mate. They’re so monogamous that they will sit and wait. [The scientist] knows that pair has been together for five years or whatever it is. So we can use a line that says, “There are 3 million birds on the island, but only one matters to him.” Because that’s true. That bird does not care about any other individual on the island apart from his mate.
The storytelling in this series probably is softer, perhaps gentler, than some. The way it is written is probably, in many ways, more anthropomorphic, light touch than we’ve done before. I don’t know how much of that is the fact that there’s been so many women involved in the team ― there’s quite a few girls on the team. I do think it has quite a sensitivity to it.
Also, David [Attenborough] goes through everything. He won’t say anything he thinks is too anthropomorphic. He’ll only say things he thinks are factual. He very much ran with this idea that, we want to be in the animals’ world. We write it in a very gentle way which allows it to sort of be a bit more accessible to people who might not be so into natural history.
At the beginning of the series, David Attenborough mentions that many of the wildernesses celebrated in “Planet Earth II” have never been more fragile or precious than they are today. How do you see a series like “Planet Earth” contributing to contemporary discussions of climate change?
The thing is, the “Planet Earth” brand is all about wonder and revelation. It is not a hard-hitting conservation stance. There are other people doing hard-hitting conservation. The brand “Planet Earth” has always been about making people excited and showing people the wonder of the nature with the view that, if people get inspired by it, they’ll want to protect it. But often the actual fragility method hasn’t been in there at all. No, in this series, almost every single episode has got one story in it that is about why that habitat is fragile. So for “Islands,” it’s the invasive specials. In “Jungles,” we talk about trees getting cut down. Obviously in cities, it’s all about how some animals are thriving in cities, but most can’t. That’s the most thought-provoking in the lot. How can we make it ― not just as a city but as a planet ― more hospitable to life and us.
So it is about the wonder of nature and the celebration of these beautiful wildernesses and the animals who live there. But, with a very … not a somber, but a pragmatic reminder that these wilderness are fragile. And some people would say we didn’t go far enough and we should have made it more conservation-y. Other people, I think, really got the message very strongly. Like, “Oh my gosh, I really think this is the last time I’m ever going to see this unless we do something to protect it.” So it is subtle. And it’s debatable ― all the different ways you can do it. But I think our reasoning on this has always been: Don’t go in there being negative. If you tell people the whole planet is screwed, what hope have they got? If you go in there and say, “Look at these wonderful things we still have. And we can protect them and we must remember these things are fragile,” then it’s a more empowering message.
It’s interesting, because we obviously spend a lot of time out in the field with scientists and almost all of them say, “I am doing this job because I used to watch David Attenborough shows as a kid and I was inspired by nature, and now I’m a conservationist.” So you see it from the other way, that you might not feel like you’re making an immediate difference, but if any of one of the kids go on to become a politician who goes on to make a big difference, we’ve made a difference.
Earlier you mentioned the role of women in the making of “Planet Earth II.” Obviously, the filmmaking industry in general isn’t exactly a bastion of gender parity. Do you feel like there’s a growing presence of women in the realm of nature documentarians?
Yeah, very much. I think women are brilliant storytellers and I think they’ve got a lot of sensitivity. They’re not going to go in there and just want the kind of the brutal fight scenes. They’re going to want to tell some of the more subtle stories. And certainly on this team, there were a huge number of female directors. Women are not breaking into camerawork as quickly as you might want. There are only about three or four women regularly working [behind the camera] in my network. But we did have female camerawomen in this series. There aren’t many to choose from, to be honest.
But what is amazing is the number of female researchers, directors, producers. It is an industry that women can do really well in. Women can be very good biologists, they’re really good in the field, they’re really resilient. The island we filmed the penguin scene ― that was a team of eight, three of whom were women. Me as the director, a very experienced female film assistant who’s done 12 seasons in Antarctica, and one of the skippers handling the boat through the roughest ocean on the planet ― female skipper. So there is quite a good girl presence in the natural history industry. Women are brilliant storytellers, so there’s nothing to stop women from succeeding in that sort of world.
There are certainly some places it would be easier to work than others. I did a shoot on an oil platform a few years ago and that is such a male-dominated environment it was one of the toughest shoots I’ve ever done, because they found it quite difficult to deal with me as a woman. But that is unusual. Most of the time people are really accepting of you. I think men quite like having women in the field. They have a lot of respect, if they see you muck in as a woman and get on with things. Often, you might be the only woman there. But it doesn’t stop you from doing a good job.
What motivated you personally to move from being a research biologist to working in documentary?
I wanted to do something more creative. My background is: I did art and photography things in school. I love storytelling. My parents said, “Get a proper degree.” You know, “Go and do science and get a proper job.” And I was fascinated by biology. I went down the biology route and found myself doing marine stuff, because I really loved that. I always wanted to stay away from doing lab stuff. I wanted to do something a bit more creative ― and communicative. Women are great communicators; women like telling stories. So I started going more into public communication of science rather than writing papers. I just found it more satisfying. You know, I did two school talks yesterday afternoon. After you show them pictures of the nature world ― you show them pictures of penguins and amazing places ― they’ve got eyes like saucers and they ask the most amazing questions. That’s really satisfying.
What has been a high point for you in your career in filmmaking?
Oh, this series was amazing to work on. For some of the trips, going to places where you think, “Gosh, I never imagined I’d get to go there.” And, for me, I love the camaraderie of working in a team, working in a small team where you’re all working for a common goal. But the other series I really loved doing was “Frozen Planet” because I’ve always loved penguins. And again, to be a girl and get to go to those locations ― my mom never got to go to Antarctica, because that was 40 years ago and women never got to go and do those things. And yet, for me, I can go in and film killer whales and penguins and polar bears. Seeing wilderness places, and the reminder that you’ve still got these amazing places that are still out there, it’s beautiful.
Last question: what is the most perilous environment you’ve been in?
For me, probably crossing the Southern Ocean to go and do the penguin filming and go down to the Antarctic peninsula. That’s a rough ocean; anywhere in the Southern Ocean is kind of dangerous in that sense. But you always work with amazing skippers ― you have to work with people you trust.
But I should say that I am massively risk-averse. Like, you would never get me jumping from a plane or bungee jumping. I don’t massively like jungles because I don’t really like snakes and spiders! [Laughs] I would much rather be on a boat in the Southern Ocean that be hanging off a tree in the jungle.
“Planet Earth II” premieres Saturday, Feb. 18, at 9 p.m. ET, simulcasting across BBC America, AMC and SundanceTV. The remaining episodes of the season will air Saturdays at the same time on BBC America.