How the BBC makes Planet Earth look like a Hollywood movie

How the BBC makes Planet Earth look like a Hollywood movie


These images of a swarm of locusts are from the
BBC’s groundbreaking Planet Earth series in 2006. And this footage comes from the brand new
sequel to that program — this is Planet Earth 2. You might notice the improvement in resolution
from HD to Ultra-HD. But another big change is that in Planet Earth
2, it’s not just the grasshoppers that are moving. The cameras are moving too. These dynamic tracking shots are part of the
reason why Planet Earth 2 is the BBC’s most cinematic wildlife film yet. GUNTON: We know when we go to the cinema now
the camera’s never static. It’s always on the move, it’s always on a steadicam, it’s
always on tracks, it’s always flying. And I think we wanted to reflect that in our
approach. Not just because we wanted to do homage to cinema but because the reason
why cinema does that is because as soon as you have that sense of moving camera it feels
more immersive, it feels more connected. Watching Planet Earth 2 feels a bit like watching
a hollywood blockbuster. You almost forget that these actors are hiding
in remote corners of the globe and they do not follow scripts. The BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol
has been producing wildlife films for 60 years. Their frequent presenter, sir David Attenborough,
is most recognizable voice of the genre. “This extraordinary creature is half blind,
half deaf, and this is just about as fast as it can move”
And through the decades, they’ve continually raised the bar for the look and feel of nature
films, too. That evolution, as we’ll explore in this
3-part series, is in large part a story of technology. The first big breakthrough was lightweight,
16mm film cameras. NIGHTINGALE: If you remember, television began
as a studio operation. It just had ginormous video cameras that were
larger than a person. Then in the film industry, of course, that
was all movies, and again, they were very, very cumbersome. There simply weren’t cameras that you could
take into the jungles and deserts and so on. 16mm cameras were portable, but they were
controversial inside the BBC, seen as amateur cameras, since 35mm film was the broadcast
standard at the time. But Attenborough insisted on the smaller cameras
for his first trips overseas. And sure enough, he came back with footage
of animals that had never before been filmed, like these Indri lemurs in Madagascar. Fifty-six years later, filming the Indri means
moving the camera around them and traveling with them through the trees, but the technology
they used to do this has only come around in the past few years. The issue is stabilization. You can see the shaking in these rare handheld
shots from the BBC’s 1990 series The Trials of Life. Aerial shots had the same problem. And if they tried to zoom in, those bumps
just got magnified. Producers could achieve cinematic motion with
cranes, dollies, and sliders where it was practical to do so. But for decades almost all the shots that
weren’t underwater involved a camera on a tripod — panning, tilting and zooming
to follow the action. There’s definitely no shortage of incredible
animal behavior to film that way. But it all changed around 2002. That’s when BBC switched from film to digital HD cameras for the Planet Earth series. That switch gave them access to a tool called
the Cineflex heligimbal, a stabilization system for a helicopter-mounted camera. The heligimbal delivered the smooth sweeping
scenic shots that defined the epic look of that series. But it also let them film individual animals
from a kilometer up in the sky, and zoom way in to follow them without the noise of the
chopper scaring them off. And that changed the way they could capture
behaviors like hunting. GUNTON: If you look at how people shot and
edited hunting sequences, because of the nature of where you had to put the camera, you could
never get long continuous shots because you would you get a shot on a tripod, the wolf
would run off, you had to jump up and get in the land rover, run across, put the tripod
down and get another shot. So it always had to be quite edited and quite
constructed. Compare that to the wolf hunt in Planet Earth. GUNTON: Once that wolf started hunting you
could just fly along, keep your distance and in one shot, you just see how that drama played
out. And you just do not know what’s gonna happen:
is it gonna stumble, is gonna catch it, is the little caribou gonna run away, is it gonna
stumble? It was so gripping because it was unmediated. The Cineflex system required digital cameras
because it separates the lens from the camera’s data storage, which at the time was digital
video cassette tape. You just can’t do that with film. The 400mm zoom lens is mounted inside a series
of rings called a gimbal, that isolate it from the movement of the helicopter, with
the help of small sensors called gyroscopes. Those sensors detect changes in orientation
so that motors can correct for those movements almost immediately. So the camera operator can control the
lens with a joystick inside the helicopter and zoom in without losing any stability. Ten years later, that stabilization technology
comes in smaller, much more affordable forms. It’s embedded in drones, and built into
rigs that you can hold in your hands. And that technological change aligned perfectly
with what the BBC wanted to do with Planet Earth 2. GUNTON: We wanted to push the proximity, getting close to the animals because we wanted to see the world’s landscapes, our planet, through the animals’ eyes. Gyro-stabilized drones provided more intimate
aerials, and handheld shots showed what it feels like
to really move through these habitats. WHITE: I think we’ve gone for a much more
emotional narrative in these. It’s much more trying to put you in their
world and what would that animal be feeling. Trying not to be anthropomorphic about it,
but just sort of taking the viewer on a journey where they can start to relate to how that
animal might work in that world. It’s a slightly warmer, closer take on Planet
Earth. Hollywood filmmakers have been able to get
stabilized walking shots for decades using a Steadicam. That’s a bigger, more complicated rig that
stabilizes the camera with balanced weights and a spring-loaded arm attached to a vest
that the operator wears. Those long walk-and-talk shots that ER and
The West Wing made famous, those are all Steadicam shots. The producers of Planet Earth 2 used Steadicams
for a few sequences, like this footage of a serval cat hunting in South Africa. But it most cases Steadicams have been too
cumbersome, expensive, or inflexible for shooting in the wild. Instead, the Planet Earth 2 team relied heavily
on smaller handheld stabilizers. Like the heligimbal, these rigs have gyroscopes
that measure orientation along 3 axes and motors that counteract those movements. These rigs are so small and versatile they
can often replace several other tools like sliders and cranes. WHITE: On some of the trips, like the trip
to film the penguins, we took a crane with us, we talked about taking sliders. The reality is it didn’t come out of the box. Everything was done with a cameraman holding
a camera on a gimbal. In an environment like that, just to be able
to move around quite freely, have a camera that you can put down at penguin level but
be able to pick up and get above the penguins was just so useful. Handheld stabilizers are most effective when
you can get close to the animal, and a lot of animals don’t like that, so they’ll
never replace tripods. Rather they add to the rapidly growing arsenal
of tools becoming available not just to pros, but to everyone, to be able to get shots that
look like hollywood blockbusters. But ultimately, what makes a movie great isn’t
just the pictures, it’s the story. The Natural History Unit’s style has shifted
over time from more educational to more cinematic, but they haven’t forgotten that. GUNTON: The imagery of course is that first
thing that catches the eye, catches the attention but without the revelations the storytelling
brings, in the end, it palls quite quickly. So no technology will ever replace the ability
to be able to tell a story that grips and fascinates and emotionally connects with an
audience. Thank you for watching! You can find Planet Earth 2 on BBC America. It will be airing Saturdays through March
25th. You can also find tons of clips from their
archive on BBC Earth’s mobile app. It’s called Story of Life and it’s actually
where I found a lot of the clips that I used in this video. And it’s free! So check it out.

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