Alastair Fothergill: life on the Frozen Planet

Executive producer of upcoming wildlife documentary Frozen Planet chats to Wanderlust about why you simply cannot miss the show

7 mins

I bet you can't wait for the series to be broadcast?

I'm very excited. My series take a very, very long time to make and it's been a long wait. We finished Planet Earth in 2006 and we started slow preparations for Frozen Planet in 2007, so it’s been four years in the making and I’m very, very pleased with it.

The programme is an investment and it’s a timely 100th anniversary of Scott and Amundsen reaching the South Pole and I’m really pleased to have made it now. When we started there were lots of reports about how the Polar regions were changing and we saw that. There is no doubt that, I’m not saying this is the last chance to see them, but I don’t think anyone will raise the funds that we have raised to work in the Polar regions at this high quality again for a very, very long time. And when they do, the Arctic in particular, will have changed.

Why does it take so long for a series like this to come together?

It takes about a year of really good research, which involves talking to every scientist on the planet, trying to find really new stories. In the polar regions, where the scenery is amazing and the animal spectacles extraordinary, the variety of species in the polar regions is effectively limited, so when we say 'let’s find new behaviour, let’s show people new things,' you really are pushing the boundaries further than people have ever done before and you really do a lot of work just to be sure about that.

Also, we work on lots of technical developments. To give you an example, when we made Planet Earth, we developed a special camera that could shoot film from a helicopter and still stabilise a very powerful lens. This was significant because it allowed us, for the very first time, to film complete behavioural experiences from the air.

Previously, you couldn’t do that – to fly low enough to get a close up you’d frighten the animals.

One of the big technological breakthroughs with Frozen Planet was to take this idea and mount it onto a boat. This was relevant because we knew that a lot of the seas in the southern oceans and in the Arctic are very rough and to film some of the behaviour and use a long lens we had to find a way to stabilise that lens on a ship rather than on a helicopter. So a good year of preparation is needed.

Another thing is, I always go for an absolute minimum of two years (and ideally three years), of filming. That’s because you need to experience each season twice – two Arctic summers, two Antarctic summers. Often we’ll try a sequence and we’ll get half of it and then we’ll go back. The reason for that is we want to get every angle – to get the whole story.

It very quickly ends up as being five years in total.

How does it feel to work on a project for such a long time? Especially as it is only shown on the TV for such a short amount of time?

It’s funny – it is a very long time when you come to the end and you think, “Oh my God. When I started this I was quite a bit younger than I am now.” But when you’re working on it, it seems like such a desperate rush. You’re hitting deadline after deadline after deadline – the polar bear cubs only emerge at the beginning of April so you have to be ready for that time. It always feels very busy as we go along.

What is nice about being fortunate enough to make these big landmark series like Blue Planet and Planet Earth is that, yes they are only broadcast once, but actually what is really pleasurable is the DVD.

Planet Earth has sold over 5 million DVDs in the US, and over 2 million in the UK. If I had £1 for everytime some mum has come up to me and said, “If my son doesn’t stop watching that bloody DVD...” And that’s what’s lovely about working on these programmes.

I think people will watch top quality natural history time and time and time and time again. When I talk to the public, every time I go to a school, every time I'm anywhere, people are always saying these shows really make a lot of difference in their lives. In a time where a lot of media is throw-away and disposable, I feel very fortunate that the stuff that I am lucky enough to work on with my team has a bit more longevity. People are still watching Blue Planet on DVD and that’s ten years old.

What, do you think, makes your programmes so successful?

Planet Earth has been remarkably successful around the world and to be honest, I was amazed.

We asked ourselves the question: why was it so popular? I think it was a number of things: it felt epic. It felt as though you were sitting and being taken on a journey that you could never pay for in your life.

The programme showed you the best and most spectacular places on the planet that you wouldn't necessarily see on your own and we’ve definitely done this again in Frozen Planet. To be honest, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to make Frozen Planet – most people will never go to the Polar regions. Of course, there is tourism to the Polar regions now but it’s still a very, very small percentage of the public and these programmes will show them things they wouldn't have seen otherwise.

A common thing people say is that it’s just ice and polar bears and penguins – but there’s a wonderful range and if you see the series, there’s a lot more – that’s a really exciting thing. The second thing that worked for Planet Earth was the cinematic  storytelling; using music, using storyboards. We had numerous stories where people got very emotionally engaged in the character. A classic example of this in Planet Earth was the story of the baby elephant who got lost in a sand storm in the desert.

In Frozen Planet there is another extraordinary sequence where killer whales cooperate to wash seals off an ice flow. That was an eight-week shoot, with two cameramen working around the clock, they actually filmed 27 encounters and it was edited down to just that one encounter. If you were to storyboard it like a director every single shot and angle you’ve got would be there.

"Cinematic, but intimate storytelling"

The other thing was just not compromising. Remaining intelligent – having a really good story and not being frightened to tell hard stories. And cutting shots slowly – if you took the average 50 minute wildlife film now there would probably be over 500 cuts, maybe as many as 800 cuts. Planet Earth only had 300-350 – Frozen Planet is similar. We're saying that if the images are really beautiful have the confidence to run them long. Now, so much television is bam, bam, bam; we’re just saying no: this is really beautiful so just look at it and enjoy it. I think that we stand out as a different cinematic experience and I think people are desperate for different experiences.

What effect are you trying to have on the viewer with Frozen Planet?

We want to transport them. We increasingly live in a very urban world, and like I said before 90% of viewers will never go to the Polar regions, so more than anything else I want them to realise there is this extraordinary, wonderful wilderness out there. And let’s face it, this will be broadcast in prime time BBC1 competing against I’m A Celebrity and all the other stuff and it’s entertainment – a different type of entertainment. That’s what it is. I hope it is very enjoyable for viewers and I hope they learn a lot.

If you go into the street and say, “Where will you find polar bears?” Or, “Is the Arctic a frozen ocean or a frozen continent?” It’s amazing how little people know and how confused they get about this part of the world.

And then, of course, there's global warming, which is having a greater effect in the Polar regions than anywhere else on our planet and it’s not just significant to those regions but it's actually very significant globally.

How did you find making the series in comparison to other series you’ve produced?

Personally, as a series producer, I did relatively few trips to the filming locations. Talking in general terms about the team I think we would all say, and this includes many people who worked on Planet Earth – where we filmed in every habitat on Earth, I don’t think that there’s any doubt in my mind that the Polar regions are the most challenging places on the planet to work.

Now everyone says, “That’s obvious because it’s so cold.”

The cold is a real problem and the weather is another problem, but you can dress for that and you can prepare for that, you can handle that. I think the less obvious things people tend to forget about is that, for one, everything is such a long way away – it can take weeks to sail from the Falklands to the Antarctic.

Our normal way to make wildlife films is to send a cameraman and a director to one location for a number of weeks. With Frozen Planet we had to do what we call ‘mega shoots’. Where, for instance, in the Antarctic summer of 2009/2010 we were based for six months in American Antarctica, and we had six crews there – one of which was there for four months unbroken – these trips were very demanding both logistically and  physically. The other problem that you have in the Polar regions is that nearly all the animals get their food from the ocean, so we were having to work on the ice ledge.  Moving ice is a very dangerous and unpredictable place to be – it’s a very hard place to handle. Working in this world was very challenging.

We just felt small in a very, very big place. The weather in Antarctica can be fantastic and then it changes and can be nightmarish. And interestingly, another challenge we faced was that you can never, ever film on a grey day. In a rainforest when it’s grey it doesn’t really matter too much, but if it’s a grey day in the Poles it just looks horrible on film. So it either has to be lovely light or it has to be appalling bad weather.

One of the hardest things to convey in the Polar regions is the cold. It can be -35° and a beautiful sunny day but bloody cold – so cold that your bare skin would freeze – but on film it looks balmy and lovely. One of the real challenges during the winter episodes was to show cold and give people a sense of what it can be like in this world.

To put it simply it’s just a really bloody hard place to work. In Frozen Planet there are not only animal stories, but also human stories.

Did you include these because of the success of documentaries like Human Planet?

Our sixth episode looks at people in the Polar regions and the reason we wanted to make that show is because these people have fantastic stories to tell.

The traditional people – the Inuits and the Dolgans – are great and I think we’ve got some wonderful, new stories in that area. Equally fascinating for me, are the stories of the scientists that are working in the Polar regions. It’s derring-do, it’s epic stuff, it’s frontier science and obviously as well, it’s the 100th anniversary of Scott and Amundsen reaching the South Pole.

Episode seven (authored by Sir David Attenborough) looks at people as well, but it looks at the work these scientists are doing and there are some amazing scientists. We wanted these episodes, like the others, to have that classic, epic, landmark Planet Earth feel, so we’re trying to shoot people sequences with the appropriate cameras to really make it look amazing.

Sir David Attenborough features as the series' narrator. What's it like to work with him?

I’ve worked with David for a long time; I worked with him on The Trials of Life, Blue Planet, Planet Earth and more. Working with David is inspirational on so many levels. I always like to talk to him early on about the structures and ideas of a series – because he has got fantastic insights and knowledge.

I’m very pleased that he agreed to author our seventh episode On Thin Ice. It’s very hard to get environmental stories on prime time BBC1 and I felt morally obliged in making this series to talk to people about the changes that are happening and they are experiencing in these regions. Not in a heavy or depressing way, but it’s extraordinary what’s happening down there. I think this episode was altered by David’s involvement.

In the field – he is unbelievable – we took an 84-year-old man to the North Pole. We got out of the helicopter – it was -35° – we had a very limited window of time, it was bloody hard working conditions and he just did it. He does it perfectly, every time. And then we come back to the UK and write our narrations and David doesn’t just read the narrations – I send him the script and he spends two days working on them. There is no better commentary writer than David Attenborough. I’m amazed by him – he is an extraordinary, inspiring influence on all of us.

There are rumours circulating that this may be the last programme Sir David Attenborough commentaries. Is there any truth in this?

I think David will die in his safari shorts. He loves working and he likes being busy. Yes, he has bad knees now, but if I am half as fit as he is at the age of 84 I will be a very happy man. I’m actually working on a series with David now for next year. It’s a three part series planned for BBC2 looking at the fact that he’ll have been living and working in television for 50 years. What’s interesting is looking back at the changes he has seen since he started film making – in terms of styles of film making and also in our understanding of natural history.

His life has been  amazingly timed – he started travelling in the 50s and David has seen these changes. When he was at University, Jane Goodall was in gym knickers, we hadn’t discovered DNA and we didn’t know about plate tectonics and he has a very unique perspective of all that has happened.

What made you so interested in natural history?

I was one of those little boys who hid snakes under his bed. My mother would go crazy with the amount of animals that were in my bedroom. I had an unbelievably inspirational biology teacher at school. I grew up on the north Norfolk coast, which is a wonderful place for wildlife, and I read zoology at University because I wanted to work with animals.

While I was at University the BBC ran a competition to make an amateur film. I made a very bad film in the Okavango – it was great as it was a calling card. My first job was for the BBC Wildlife Magazine and then I started working on The Really Wild Show.

I spent four or five years working in children’s TV and... And I’m still at it.

What has been the favourite part of your career?

It’s impossible to say. I’m one of those very lucky people that on Sunday evening I really look forward to work on Monday. I’ve worked on such an enormous range of shows it’s hard to say what's been the 'best'. But to be honest, Frozen Planet has been very, very special. I’ve worked with a lot of big teams – all my series have involved big teams – and keeping those people together and keeping them motivated for four or five years is probably my main job.

With Planet Earth there were specific teams for certain habitats and those teams couldn’t mix – so the jungle team couldn’t help out the desert team. But every time we went to Antarctica we had to think about the whole series and we had to work on these mega shoots and everyone worked for everyone else. It was a very satisfying series to work on.

What are the budgets like... They must be phenomenal?!

Well, I’m not allowed to talk about specific budgets. They are big budgets and I can get big budgets as, like Planet Earth, the series will make the BBC money and they make significant profits.

It’s about being above the parapet and making a programme that is better than everything else out there. And you need a big budget for that. The more money you have as a production team – the more money you have to take risks with; risks and experiments are what we have worked with in these series.

What’s next – where else do you want to go and film?

People often say to me, “Surely, you must have filmed everything?” And it amazes me how many things that are out there that haven’t been properly filmed. I have a personal passion for the deep ocean – there is so much left to be done in the ocean. I still don’t think anyone has done real justice to South America. Also, to be honest you can come back to things. I’m not worried about missing things and to be honest there are tonnes of places I still want to go to.

However, there’s no doubt the rate of destruction in the rain forests and in the coral reefs goes on unabated. Yes, when one’s gloomy about it, I am generally worried about the world my children’s children will live in.

I feel my role, if I have one, is to inspire people. Until Planet Earth, no one had filmed a snow leopard in the wild. How can you care about a snow leopard if you’ve never seen it? How can you care about great sheets of Polar ice melting unless you’ve seen it? How can people care about things they’ve never seen?

That’s my role.

In one sentence, can you sum up why people should watch Frozen Planet?

Because it really is a world beyond imagination. I genuinely believe that – there are images in this series that feel like Narnia. In a world where so much cinema is about magical places – it’s amazing that on our planet, in reality there are spectacles that match anything some crazy Hollywood guy can dream up.

Frozen Planet starts on Wednesday 26 October, BBC1 at 9pm. The Frozen Planet book by Alastair Fothergill and Vanessa Berlowitz, published by BBC books, can be ordered now on Amazon.

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