Meet the Wildly Talented Producer Behind Planet Earth II

Boss biologist-slash-producer Dr. Elizabeth White gives us a behind-the-scenes look at BBC Earth's totally epic sequel, Planet Earth II

(Courtesy of Blue Ant Media), Planet Earth 2 Producer Q&A

(Courtesy of Blue Ant Media)

Iguanas, and snakes, and penguins, oh my! The sweet, sweet sounds of Sir David Attenborough are back, as the dulcet-toned narrator returns to gently guide us through nature’s wonders in the second instalment of the BBC’s groundbreaking Planet Earth series.

The series first debuted more than a decade ago and completely changed how we look at the world. Gone were the boring documentaries shown in biology class, replaced instead with dramatic footage of all sorts of creatures—big, small, familiar, and totally weird—living their best lives.

Planet Earth II is split up into seven episodes, filmed over three years in 40 different countries, and the result is predictably breathtaking. Audiences got a sneak peak of what the Planet Earth teams are capable of when BBC Earth released a scene from the “Islands” episode showcasing what happens when a baby marine iguana must literally outrun a tangled nightmare of snakes in order to get to safety in the Galapagos Islands. Set that to music by Hans Zimmer with narration by Attenborough and you’ve got M. Night Shyamalan-level thrills.

Boss biologist Dr. Elizabeth White produced the “Islands” episode and gave us a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to camp out with penguins on an uninhabited island, battle the elements to get that perfect shot and search the world for the best scoops of the animal kingdom.

The original Planet Earth premiered more than 10 years ago. What did your team do to stay true to the original but also create something new and relevant for where we are now?
The premise behind it is still the same: looking at the different habitats on earth and how they drive and challenge the animals that live there. But this time, we wanted to go for a much more intimate look. The first series was all about awe and wonder, sometimes shooting from up in the air and giving a step-back look at the planet. We wanted to go for something that was a bit more experiential, being right there in the animal’s world.

How have the advances in technology changed what was possible for this series?
Cameras have come a long way, they’ve become much smaller and that means you can use them on things like drones and handheld gimbal devices that allow us to walk alongside animals [like fighting Komodo dragons] or take the camera up into the trees and get nice, steady shots—all of that is possible now. We could get in amongst the animals, move with the them, and see the world from an animal’s eye line.

Pygmy three-toed sloth filmed in Isla Escudo de Veraguas, Panama (Courtesy BBC Worldwide), Planet Earth 2 Producer Q&A

Pygmy three-toed sloth filmed in Isla Escudo de Veraguas, Panama (Photo: BBC Worldwide)

With this new tech, were you able to cover certain species that have been traditionally to challenging to film?
Being able to stake out the paths of the snow leopards was new and only possible because of remote camera technology. We could never do that with a cameraman. Even though remote cameras have been around for a while, they weren’t good enough quality. So to be able to put in several cameras to cover one sniffing spot for snow leopards allowed us to paint the portrait of their lives. Same with the bears in Alberta, where we were able to put cameras up in trees and film them during their scratching times in spring. Those stories were only possible because of the remotes.

As a producer for Planet Earth, what did your job entail?
Sometimes, one producer will oversee several shows, but the way this series worked was that each producer had just one film so that we would literally put our hearts and souls into it. My role was effectively to be a project manager. I knew that I was going to make “Islands” and that I had x amount of money to do it, but everything that went into telling those stories right through to the final delivery is the responsibility of the producer. You’re always working within a team, but it’s your responsibility to get those stories in place, plan everything out, and oversee it. I was in the field for about two-thirds of the filming trip. When I was out there, my job was to communicate to the cameraman the story that we were trying to tell and the look we wanted. Once the filming is done, I put your producer hat back on and go into the edits to put the film together, working with Hans Zimmer on the music and David Attenborough on the script. As the producer, I watch the last draft before it goes off to be broadcast.

When you’re thinking about segments within your episode, how do you decide what places you want to feature and what animals you are going to focus on?
That’s one of the hardest bits. You start off with a blank slate. Luckily I’ve worked on some islands before, but I went back to textbooks and reminded myself of some of the biology and the key stories on islands. A researcher and I spent about six months going to conferences, looking at previous films about islands and make a big spreadsheet of all the options. Some things stood out early on, like the penguins, and then we also had a bunch of boxes we wanted to tick, like having a good bird story, a mammal story. We basically put these on sticky notes on a wall and eventually, certain ones anchored in. During the filming process, some stories do really well and others don’t do as well. As you start to get the footage in, you get a feel for whether you need something dramatic or a bit more gentle. That’s why at one point we planned on doing a giant tortoise story and it turned into Komodo dragon story.

When we watch Planet Earth, we only see what the camera shows us. What is happening behind the scenes?
On location, you’re always working in teams. It could be as small as the cameraman, the director and a scientist. The bigger teams can be nine or 10 people. A lot of the island shoots involved traveling by boat so you’d have an entire yacht crew. On Zavodovski Island, the penguin island in the South Atlantic, we had a team on the island of five of us: a long-lens expert, moving camera expert, a field expert, myself and a qualified nurse plus the boat crew.

Are there a lot of women in this field or is it male-dominated?
Quite often I can be the only woman, but it partly depends on where we’re filming and the culture there. For instance, in Ecuador, it’s a male-driven culture so I was the only woman there, but then on other shoots, there were multiple women on our team. There’s very few female camerawomen, but the ones that are making it are really good. It takes a few years to become experienced, so I think in a few years’ time we’ll start to see more women coming through.

Sleeping tent for the crew on Zavodovski island (Courtesy BBC Worldwide)

Sleeping tent for the crew on Zavodovski Island (Courtesy BBC Worldwide)

With the penguins on Zavodovski Island, the segment mentions that people don’t really go there. When you are shooting, how do you make sure that you don’t disturb those ecosystems?
That was a lot of the planning and the prep. We’re all biologists by background and we all understand how fragile and important these environments are so nobody went in there wanting to cause any kind of disturbance. Also if you want to film wild behaviour, then you have to make sure that the animals are relaxed and doing their natural thing.

In each segment, we’re taken to multiple different locations all over the world. For you, what was the most challenging to shoot?
One of the most difficult ones was when we were shooting in the Seychelles and it was so mosquito-infested because of the heavy rains they had with El Niño that year. We were there shooting sea birds and we expected to see loads of them but there were just a handful of birds, and all the footage we ended up getting was from one individual bird. That story could’ve completely failed for us if we hadn’t managed to get that footage.

With each segment, you create a sort of humanized story. For instance, with the Southern Buller’s albatross, you create a sort of love story of a male waiting for his female mate to return. When you’re in those environments, how do you find that specific animal and story that you end up telling?
That was our choice of storytelling, to focus on individual stories instead of a dry look at what albatrosses do. With that story, we had a scientist there who studied them and he knew that there were a number of nests and that the males always come back first and wait for their mates. He knew the males that were most likely to wait for their females to return while we were there so the team was targeting three different males, filming them and basically trying to monitor all three. Near the end of that shoot, I was at home in the U.K. and getting all these panicked phone calls because they only had a few more days and the female birds hadn’t turned up yet. It was literally the day before they packed up that one of the females came back and they were able to film the courtship.

Chinstrap penguin chicks on Zavodovski island (Courtesy of BBC Worldwide), Planet Earth 2 Producer Q&A

Chinstrap penguin chicks on Zavodovski Island (Courtesy of BBC Worldwide)

In the “Islands” episode, we see animals succeed but also, at times, in pain. Did you find it tough to watch from the sidelines and not step in?
Every single day on Zavodovski Island, we were seeing chicks die and it was a toughie. If you could, you’d go collect them all up and take them into the tent and keep them warm and safe. The reality is that you can’t do that because it’s not allowed, but also you’re not able to take them out of their natural habitat. But it’s funny how some animals will really tug on your heart—and for me, that was the dying penguin chicks.

Were there things that went wrong?
You always have to ad-lib a bit. I’ve had to send people back because they’re out somewhere wild and they got an infection on a shoot. There’s also sometimes issues getting the footage. With the Christmas Island crabs, we had three attempts at that story and we wanted this apocalypse of the crazy ants attacking the crab, and we never quite got that, but the thing is to get the story point. As along as you get enough to tell that story, then you have that narrative.

Overall, looking back, what was your most memorable moment from putting together this episode?
When we were filming the penguins there was one night where I got up and it was really, really noisy. I had spoken to a volcanologist, because the island is an active volcano, and I asked him how risky it was to be on the island. He said that it should be fine but if it went off, it would be explosive. So when we heard all this racket outside of our tent, I thought, “Uh-oh, what’s going on?” I went outside and saw that the sky was absolutely clear. The sky was more full of stars than I’ve ever seen anywhere and the penguins were having a penguin party, shouting at each other and running around because it was all light.

Chinstrap penguin on Zavodovski island (Courtesy of BBC Worldwide), Planet Earth 2 Producer Q&A

Chinstrap penguin on Zavodovski Island (Courtesy of BBC Worldwide)

Did the concerns around climate change play a role in what stories you chose to tell and how you shaped the narrative?
A series like this is about inspiring people to connect to the natural world. But, we all felt that you can’t do that without making reference to the fact that these places are fragile and they are threatened in different ways. Pretty much all of the shows have a story in them that highlight how the habitat is changing, so with “Islands,” it’s invasive species and with “Jungles” it’s deforestation. The last film is “Cities,” which raises the question: how can we make sure the planet is good not just for us, but for all wildlife on earth?

BBC Earth is running a free, nationwide three-month preview in Canada and will premiere Planet Earth II on Saturday, February 18, 2017 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. 

What It’s Really Like To Be A Reality TV Producer
What It’s Really Like To Be An Aquarium Biologist
What It’s Really Like To Be A Documentary Filmmaker