Silverback, Amblin Television and Industrial Light and Magic teamed up to tackle possibly the most ambitious subject there is – the history of life on earth. Jon Creamer reports
As briefs go, it’s a big one – to tell the story of life’s four billion-year history on Earth, and the cataclysmic events that shaped it – in one series.
To achieve that, the upcoming Netflix show, Life on Our Planet, would need to marry CG recreations of long extinct species with contemporary natural history filmmaking – unknown ground for natural history specialist Silverback who conceived the show.
To help them, the team tied with Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin Television and VFX house Industrial Light and Magic on a series that required 65 vfx creatures, 1781 days in the field and a team of 440 across the series.
The idea for the show first came about as Silverback finished its Our Planet series for Netflix. Producer Keith Scholey, says the desire was for “a true landmark series that would also make people sit up and take notice.” And what could be better than “the biggest story of all — the story of life.”
Of course, this immense subject had been tackled before with David Attenborough’s Life on Earth series back in 1979. A true landmark before the CGI era that told “a totally gripping story,” says fellow exec Alastair Fothergill. “We wanted to take that and elevate it to a new level” And bring with it the cinematography, CGI and storytelling now expected by streamer audiences “That level of serialisation is really hard to deliver in natural history programming. But because the story of Life on Our Planet is so gripping, we felt we could deliver a serialised dramatic natural history story like never before.”
KNOWLEDGE GAP CLOSES
But it’s not just filmmaking that has moved on since Attenborough’s 1979 landmark, scientific knowledge has too. As producer Dan Tapster says: “We are living in a golden age of palaeontology right now. We know more about the ancient world than ever before, and this has allowed us to tell the story seamlessly. No longer are there gaps in the science. No longer does the story require “educated guesses” — it’s all there, just waiting to be told!” That leap in knowledge particularly concerns the five mass extinction events in life’s history. “These were so poorly understood in the 1970s that they barely featured in that series. But now, the amount of detail palaeontologists have about these events — the temperature, the atmospheric conditions, the ocean’s pH — it’s astounding. This has allowed us to make mass extinction events a key part of Life on Our Planet.”
But Silverback’s expertise is in shooting the natural world, not recreating cataclysmic events and creatures from the distant past. Although they knew vfx had reached a point where that recreation was certainly possible. “I remember saying to Alastair, “Okay but the trouble is we don’t know anything about CGI,” says Scholey. “He said, ‘Well, we can always learn.’”
Life on Our Planet also presents CGI animals alongside real-world wildlife cinematography, a difficult combination. “One of the particular challenges we had with this series was that much of our story is actually told through modern-day animals,” says Fothergill. Each episode contains around 30-40% CGI, and the rest is classic, blue chip nature cinematography. “We wanted the joins between the two to be seamless,” he says. “To have the audience not notice a difference between real and CG.”
THE RIGHT BALANCE
For Scholey, “it’s the combination that really makes it a standout series. We went into the series knowing that if you have too much CGI, the audience can sometimes begin to drift off into feeling it’s not real, it’s fiction rather than fact. We deliberately chose to integrate natural history and CG to give the series veracity. When you’re brought back into reality with an up-to-date scene of a real-life animal, it absolutely helps the overall narrative.”
And it’s narrative that also plays a big part in the story, and the reason for a partnership on the series with Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin Television. Scholey says the partnership “has made a big influence on the series overall. When we first met, we came from the point of view that we understood natural history filmmaking, and Darryl [Frank] and Justin [Falvey, at Amblin] were very clear that they didn’t want to get involved with that! Instead, their focus was on the CG process and the storytelling. They obviously do a lot of drama, and we always wanted the series to be dramatic in the true theatrical sense of the word. Their guidance and ideas absolutely helped shape the series.”
The other key partnership was with Industrial Light and Magic. Says Tapster: “When we first went to see Industrial Light and Magic in 2018, we met up with Jonathan Privett and Louise Hussey and it was amazing. It was like meeting long-lost friends with a kind of instant chemistry.” Useful for a four-year project. “Silverback and ILM worked hand in hand on a daily basis to work out how we could make every asset look as realistic as possible, and how we could make every single frame of every single shot as perfect as it could be.”
For the design of the creatures, the goal was simple, says Tapster: “To make the most accurate vfx creatures there’s ever been,” There are around 65 vfx creatures in the show, and each “had to be thoroughly researched so that we could provide ILM with every possible detail,” says Tapster. “On the inside that meant an accurate skeleton, musculature, ligaments, tongue, teeth and mouth as a whole. On the outside it was skin, fur, feathers, hair, texture, body-mass, eyes, feet, toenails — the list goes on!”
Each asset had a “fact file” running to around 60 pages. “The final touch was the colour where again we went off fossil evidence if available and if not, we used our knowledge of modern-day animals to make them “sit” in the environment we had filmed them in.”
These creatures had to exist in a real-world environment and finding those locations was a challenge in itself, says Tapster, “because we needed places that felt primeval and prehistoric — places that accurately represented what the ancient world was like. But we also wanted to find places that were accurate from a botanical point of view.”
And that’s tough as grass is everywhere now, “but it only really spread around the world about 25 million years ago.” So, locations needed to both represent the correct prehistoric environment but that were also grass free. “Grass became the bane of our lives. There’s a moment in Chapter 3 where a fish crawls out onto dry land and begins to breathe — a real game-changer moment for the story of life. But before we shot that, crew members were literally on their hands and knees plucking bits of grass out of that beach with tweezers. Needless to say, when we finished filming, we then replanted them!”
Another solution was to build locations digitally rather than use real plates, but, says Tapster, “every single vfx scene bar one uses real life plates shot in real locations.” Important, because basing the scene in the real world “would make the sequences feel more genuine and let the audience really immerse themselves into them.”
Another challenge was to make the vfx creatures and the modern animals shot in a traditional way blend together seamlessly. Says Scholey: “We wanted every animation scene not to be like a scene from Hollywood, but like a scene we would’ve shot in a wildlife series.” A key to that was wildlife cinematographer Jamie McPherson. Mcpherson came on board to help the team design the animated shots, both in terms of drama but also camera work — what lens, what camera move, what frame rate, what depth of field. “It’s down to him that the series has a sense of style and that the vfx photographic grammar was the same as a wildlife show,” says Scholey.
“Natural history has a visual grammar, so we needed to impose that on our vfx,” says Tapster. “So, we embraced an idea called ‘Time-Travel Cinematography’ when it came to planning the camera work. For instance, you wouldn’t shoot a T-Rex on a Steadicam from three metres away because you’d get eaten. Using this concept is partly what helped give the vfx a sense of realism, while also giving the whole series a distinct look.”
But the show will hopefully exist beyond an entertaining TV series. “We knew that we wanted to challenge the audience at the end of the final chapter,” says Tapster. “Having shown throughout the series the devastation of mass extinction events, we want the audience to realise that the same is happening right now and we are on course for the sixth. By understanding this, we hope the audience will be motivated to help undo the damage we’ve done. After all, it’s our intelligence that got us this far, so let’s use it to save our world and our future.”
Production co: Silverback Films Production in Association with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television Visual Effects and Animation
Industrial Light & Magic
Producer (Executive Producer): Alastair Fothergill
Producer (Executive Producer): Keith Scholey
Producer (Executive Producer): Steven Spielberg
Producer (Executive Producer): Darryl Frank
Producer (Executive Producer): Justin Falvey
Series Producer: Dan Tapster,
Narrator: Morgan Freeman
Composer: Lorne Balfe
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