The producers of Blue Planet II tell Tim Dams how tech advances and military planning helped them capture the secrets of the deep
If any show can comfortably be predicted to become a blockbuster factual hit in the UK and around the world, it is Blue Planet II, made by BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit.
The original David Attenborough-narrated series about the world’s oceans aired back in 2001, winning two BAFTAs, two Emmys and nearly 10m viewers in the UK. It also sold to 240 territories around the world.
The NHU argues that there have been so many scientific discoveries in the oceans since then, as well as huge advances in camera and diving technology, that a sequel is justified.
“A generation on from the Blue Planet stories, it is an opportunity to tell a bunch of new stories,” says executive producer James Honeyborne. He won’t reveal the budget for the seven part series, but some of the stats about the making of the show hint at its size. Blue Planet II has been four years in production and involved 125 expeditions to 39 countries.
Initially, Honeyborne worked with series producer Mark Brownlow and a small team of researchers and producers to find the stories and to script Blue Planet II. This was done by plugging into a network of contacts among marine scientists for information about the latest discoveries about the oceans. “The basis of all these big, new stories are the relationships we have with our scientists,” stresses Honeyborne. “For something that ends up as entertainment telly, it does have an absolute scientific core to it.”
Over the course of a year, the team worked up and planned seven specific episodes: a big opening film, One Ocean, to introduce the audience to the central premise of the series, which is, according to Brownlow, that “you’re going to see things you’ve never seen before.” This includes footage of animal behaviour that has never been filmed, such as a fish that leaps out of the water to snatch birds on the wing through to a tuskfish that uses a tool to open clams.
Then come five habitat based programmes, each overseen by a specific producer: The Deep, shot from a manned sub in the hidden depths of the ocean; Coral Reefs, about the home of a quarter of all marine species; Big Blue, about life out in the middle of the vast open ocean; Green Seas, focusing on underwater forests of kelp and seaweed; and Coasts, where two worlds collide. The final episode, Our Blue Planet, has an environmental focus.
As these stories were refined over the course of the first year’s planning, the BBC pitched the project to co-production partners who stumped up a significant part of the budget. The show is co-produced with BBC America, China’s Tencent and CCTV9, France Televisions and Germany’s WDR. “They are part of the journey,” says Honeyborne.
Once the narrative arc of each episode had been planned, production began in earnest. “We had a core team of 25 people when we were really going full throttle with the filming,” reflects Brownlow.
Almost immediately, though, came a stark reality check – and a demonstration that a natural history show can never simply follow a script like a Hollywood shoot, no matter how detailed the planning. The very first shoot ended in “abject failure, scuttled by El Nino”, says Brownlow. “You think OK, there’s a hole in the narrative, we have got less money now, we’re five minutes short, we’ve got to find another story that makes a similar point.”
The logistics of filming were akin to a military operation, with kit and crew being dispatched around the world – from the Antarctic peninsular to the Galapagos Islands and Great Barrier Reef. Each episode comprises 10 or 11 stories of about five minutes length, all shot in a different location. “We spent the best part of three years filming,” says Honeyborne. The final nine months were spent in post production, whittling down a shooting ratio of about 100 minutes of filming to one minute of final film.
As so many of the marine stories took place in specific seasons, the production schedule allowed for crew to return to sites the following year. “You want to give yourself a chance to hit the story twice,” says Brownlow. Occasionally stories were filmed over three years, such as one sequence about orcas and humpback whales feeding on herring off Norway.
Technological advances have contributed hugely to the stories in Blue Planet II. Rebreather diving kits, for example, meant that its underwater teams could dive up to four hours at a time, far longer than traditional scuba dives. Rebreather diving also produces no bubbles – which means fish aren’t scared off. “Rebreather diving gives our teams time to sit silently and watch, with no bubbles or disturbance underwater, and really get to know new creatures and their behaviours,” says Honeyborne.
Meanwhile, in The Deep episode, a crew led by producer Orla Doherty, filmed for over 1000 hours from a high-tech submersible at depths of up to 1km. Carrying UHD and extreme low light cameras, they captured previously unseen events such as hunting packs of Humbolt squid through to bubbling brine lakes at the bottom of the ocean.
The “bread and butter” camera for the series was the Red Epic Dragon, but this was supplemented by over a dozen others. For example, the Sony A7S and Canon ME20 were picked for their low light properties to film Noctiluca ‘sea sparkles’ glowing at night, around the wing beats of shoaling mobula rays, as they gather off the Mexican coast. “Lowlight technology is moving on so fast that we have scenes we have only just filmed because the technology didn’t exist just the year before,” says Brownlow.
The team also built an underwater probe lens that could squeeze through tiny cracks to give a wide angle, immersive view of life right inside coral reef. “We wanted to immerse the audience into the subject, so they could see what it was like to live as a clown-fish,” says Brownlow. “It has never been done before underwater. They are so light hungry. We have used them above water on projects like Hidden Kingdoms. But the camera sensors had never been sensitive enough to work with these light hungry lenses – until now.”
Infrared underwater cameras were also used to film the hunting technique of the bobbit worm. “If we’d shone a white light on this nocturnal ambush predator, it would have just stayed in its hole. But it can’t detect infrared light,” says Brownlow. “Even though we’re filming in complete darkness and can only see what is going on through the viewfinder, we can capture behaviour that’s never been seen before.”
A CATS Cam suction cup camera was also placed on the back of an orca, gripping on to the killer whale so the crew got a ‘fish-eyed’ view during a hunt. Between 12-48 hours later, the camera gently detaches to be picked up at sea later with its footage.
The Blue Planet team also worked with California firm Gates to build a brand new, underwater split screen lens, dubbed the megadome, which allows camera crew to film above and below water at the same time. It lets viewers see, for example, a walrus sitting on an iceberg above water as well as what is going on underneath. “It’s all down to sensor technology,” says Honeyborne. “You can expose above and below the water so everything is in focus. It looks and feels totally fresh.”
Drones also allowed the filmmakers to capture animal behaviour that had never been filmed before, including chains of plankton-feeding manta rays looping round and round to form a cyclone effect.
“The original series would have shot aerials on 16mm film, from helicopters,” says Honeyborne. “Now we have ultra HD drones that can be deployed anywhere they are permitted, and they have revolutionised the way we can immediately witness oceanic events from above.”
All this technology has helped the Blue Planet team get up extremely close to marine life, revealing previously unseen behaviour and allowing the viewer to empathise more easily with the challenges they face. Traditionally, this has been a big problem when filming marine life underwater – all too often things can feel very big and very blue.
“It’s not our job to humanise them, and we are certainly not anthropomorphising them. But what we are showing you is that they have characters,” says Honeyborne.
ANATOMY OF A SCENE
One iconic sequence in Blue Planet II – of a bird-eating fish – neatly sums up how each individual story was put together.
A rumour came to the NHU in Bristol from some South African fishermen that they’d seen Giant Trevally – a big, aggressive fish – jumping out of the water and catching sea-birds in mid-air. But there was no scientific confirmation, or a single picture of this happening. “I was sceptical, to say the least,” says producer Miles Barton. But further research convinced the team it was worth trying to film. So they chartered a plane to an island close to the Seychelles. A team of four was on board, including cameraman Ted Giffords with a Cineflex gyro-stabilised camera and 800kg of equipment.
Barton continues: “We arrived and got very excited because yes, the fish were leaping out of the water and they did seem to be grabbing birds. But it happened very randomly and very fast.” The crew started out using the stabilised camera fixed to a boat, but the attacks happened so quickly and randomly it was difficult for Giffords to frame up on.
After a frustrating week with just a few shots filmed, the boatman suggested going to a remote beach where the Giant Trevallies gathered near the shore. It was a vantage point from which they could see the fish stalking the birds, and even predict the ones most likely to attack. “So we ended up going from a very high tech approach to the simple use of a camera on a tripod with the best local advice.”
The footage was amazing. Exec producer Mark Brownlow picks up the story: “They came back with the rushes, and we thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible’. But we knew it could be even better and said we have to go back and film it with a super high speed [Phantom] camera.” The crew returned a year later (to catch the right season for the action) to shoot the sequence. The results are astounding, and are sure to become iconic images from the series.
Miles Barton, Orla Doherty, Kathryn Jeffs, Will Ridgeon, John Ruthven, Jonathan Smith
Rachel Butler, John Chambers, Sarah Conner
Sophie Morgan, Katrina Steele, Joe Treddenick, Georgina Ward
Jodie Allt, Nicole Kruysse, Sandra Forbes, Jennifer Foulkes, Sylvia Mukasa, Karmen Summers, Joanna Verity
Amirah Daley, Jack Delf, Alexandra Fennell, Joseph Fenton, Jack Johnston, Abbey Kaye, Francesca Maxwell, Chiara Minchin, Mohan Sandhu, Zeenat Shah
Principal camera team
Dan Beecham, Barrie Britton, Rod Clarke, Ted Giffords, Rafa Herrero, Rene Heuzey, Roger Horrocks, Hugh Miller, Roger Munns, Espen Rekdal, Gavin Thurston, Alexander Vail, Richard Wollocombe, David Reichert, Didier Noirot, Rod Clarke