An interview with Alastair Fothergill, producer of Our Planet
Interview Words : Tom Hawker | 30 March 2019

Alastair Fothergill: "Our Planet is stronger than any series I’ve done before"

All eight episodes of Netflix’s Our Planet – narrated by David Attenborough – will be released on 5 April. We catch up with producer Alastair as his five-year mission becomes TV reality...

Spectacular footage of epic landscapes. Pulse-pounding moments of never-seen-before wildlife behaviour. The warm, authoritative narration of Sir David Attenborough. The landmark natural history show of the year is about to land…

…but it’s not on the BBC. No, instead the clever folks at Netflix have tapped the cream of the Beeb’s talent to make Our Planet, which is released in full on 5 April, ready to be binged all in one go. This eight-part series combines the expected mind-blowing cinematography and heart-stopping narrative with a carefully balanced conservation message, backed up by a wealth of online information ( the 'Halo’) for those keen to discover more.

One of Our Planet’s key players is producer Alastair Fothergill, who’s spent the last five years coordinating production crews across the planet – from Peru to the Great Barrier Reef via the great plains, deserts, forests and jungles in between – as well as visiting a few locations of his own. Having produced Planet Earth, Blue Planet and Frozen Planet, as well as a writing/directing a series of movies for Disney (African Cats, Chimpanzee and Bears), Fothergill was the perfect person to construct this monumental piece of imagination-firing television.

We caught up with Alastair as his five-year mission was about to become television reality…

The show’s been five years in the making, and now it’s finally coming out. Are you nervous?

One of the many colonies of Guanay cormorants supported by the Peruvian Anchovies. Punta San Juan, Peru (Santiago Cabral/Silverback/Netflix)

One of the many colonies of Guanay cormorants supported by the Peruvian Anchovies. Punta San Juan, Peru (Santiago Cabral/Silverback/Netflix)

No, I’m extraordinarily excited about it, actually. I’ve been there before in the sense that I’ve done Blue Planet and Planet Earth, so I’m used to these long periods of production and then it all coming out.

I genuinely think this series is stronger than anything I’ve done before. I think it’s got a very fresh message and I’m very excited for it to be on Netflix because I think for this particular project it provides an extraordinary platform. The fact that you know on the 5 April, all eight episodes will be available in 190 countries to over 167 million subscribers is a totally unique experience.

That wasn’t possible with the BBC because the BBC does co-production deals all the way around the world, but the countries all put it out at different times. The joy of Netflix is it will all be there at the same time. And very importantly, it will be there for years. Things disappear off iPlayer pretty quickly.

As it's immediately available, are you worried that you won’t get that collective ‘Monday morning water-cooler’ moment, like the snakes vs iguana footage?

You’re right but you’re thinking very much from a British perspective. The water cooler moment that natural history still gets in the UK is likely to be less immediate on Netflix. But I’m much more interested in a long burn.

When I go to America, everybody has seen the original Planet Earth and I say to them, ‘Did you watch it on the Discovery Channel?’, which is where it originally broadcast, and most people saw the DVD. The DVD of Planet Earth is one of the best-selling non-fiction DVDs ever.

Now, the new DVD is downloads. Blue Planet II did massive figures but it was on iPlayer for a month and it disappeared. I made a series for the BBC called The Hunt and the only place you can now watch that is on Netflix. So for landmark natural history, I think Netflix is a wonderful platform.

The only TV you’ll ever watch twice is natural history. I find that people will watch a landmark natural history series many times or show it to their kids. You make the best drama ever, you’ll only ever watch it once. I can’t think of any TV that benefits more from the ability to be screened 24/7 for a very long period.

You’ve made a lot of landmark television. How do you keep the production process fresh?

Camera operator Mateo Willis captures the stunning dawn light along the Jebel Samhan, home to some of the world's last Arabian Leopards

Camera operator Mateo Willis captures the stunning dawn light along the Jebel Samhan, home to some of the world's last Arabian Leopards

Well, Blue Planet was about the oceans, Planet Earth was about the planet, Frozen Planet was about the frozen parts of the world. What’s new about this series and why we call it Our Planet is because the very word ‘our’ reflects a responsibility and ownership.

This is the first landmark natural history show ever made in the world (that I know of) that combines celebrating blue-chip natural history – really entertaining TV – with a proper conservation message. We’re not wagging fingers, it’s not political. It still celebrates the remaining landscapes, but we’re explaining the value of the habitat.

We’ve never ever done this narrative before, and I think it is the narrative of today. Even four years ago when we started on this journey, I don’t think we would have predicted the interest - particularly in the younger generation - in the state of the planet and the health of the planet.

I think our series cannot be better timed and alongside the series we’ve got this extraordinary online activity that we’re doing with World Wildlife Fund (WWF). We call it the 'Halo'. This will give so much more extra content to back up the narrative. In a 50-minute, prime-time, mass audience show there’s only so much information you can carry in the narration.

How much of the narrative is put together afterwards, depending on what footage you have?

Aerial cameraman Blair Monk with the cineflex, which is mounted to the front of the helicopter (Jo Harvey/Silverback/Netflix)

Aerial cameraman Blair Monk with the cineflex, which is mounted to the front of the helicopter (Jo Harvey/Silverback/Netflix)

We develop very detailed narratives, very detailed scripts. Obviously, the animals don’t read the scripts and throughout the process we are adjusting to things. But we never leave the country without a very, very clear idea of what we want to film.

More than that, people expect such a high quality of storytelling. I also made movies for Disney and one of the things we’ve tried to do with our TV is to make it cinematic, not just photographically, but also emotionally.

We go out on a shoot with a storyboard like you would have for an advert, an actual drawn storyboard with a very clear understanding of what we want to tell. That narrative may change and be rewritten almost on a daily basis in the field. But you come back to the cutting room with a very clear narrative, so that every single sequence engages the audience with the challenges that the animals face.

So how and when did you need that skill for Our Planet? What were the big challenges this time around?

Polar bear searching the ice-edge for food, Admiralty Inlet, Canada (David Reid/Silverback/Netflix)

Polar bear searching the ice-edge for food, Admiralty Inlet, Canada (David Reid/Silverback/Netflix)

The audience is very, very sophisticated, particularly in the UK. They’ve seen a lot of natural history. A very important part of any landmark natural history series is to show people completely new things and to really stretch the boundaries. And Our Planet is full of those things.

I would say every episode has 10 to 11, maybe 12 sequences, in a 50-minute show. And I would say a minimum of five or six of those are completely new. And you go out, knowing the biology, hoping to film, and it doesn’t always happen.

To give you one example: on a shoot I went on, we were very determined to really raise the bar with filming polar bears. I’d filmed polar bears a lot in the past… the Inuit name for a polar bear is ‘the wanderer’. They are always on the move.

To film polar bears in Svalbard the crew lived onboard an ice-breaker parked in the ice and used a Polaris vehicle to attach a camera to and venture out to find the bears. Jamie McPherson built the rig, which enabled him to track alongside polar bears, whilst not disturbing them or the seals they were hunting (Sophie Lanfear/Silverback/Netflix)

To film polar bears in Svalbard the crew lived onboard an ice-breaker parked in the ice and used a Polaris vehicle to attach a camera to and venture out to find the bears. Jamie McPherson built the rig, which enabled him to track alongside polar bears, whilst not disturbing them or the seals they were hunting (Sophie Lanfear/Silverback/Netflix)

We were always photographing them from a tripod, a fixed position. And for Planet Earth and then for The Hunt, we developed the technique of taking the Cineflex, which is this system that stabilises the camera, initially on a helicopter. We then moved it on to a snow vehicle, and that allowed us to track with the polar bear. It gave a quality of image that is just totally fresh. It really captures the mood of the animal.

Also, because you’re enclosed in a little buggy, it allows you to film in all sorts of weather. That was fine, except we were driving along in the buggy and testing the depths of the ice all the time, drilling into the ice. I was there, the cameraman was there, and we went through the ice. And we’d just got out of the vehicle before it went down. And that was bloody frightening. It’s the most frightening experience I’ve ever had filming in 25 to 30 years of doing it.

We then went back the following year and had another go with the same system. It’s those sort of things that you can’t predict where you’re trying to push the boundaries.

There are behavioural things that happen, too, which just blow you away. The zebra and giraffe episodes have some amazing sequences of five male cheetahs hunting together. I mean, cheetahs are solitary predators. Sometimes the males will co-operate. I’ve never seen five cheetahs hunting together. That is epic. We have extraordinary sequences in the freshwater, of jaguars hunting caiman, all shot with a stabilised camera on a boat.

 

Cormorants and Boobies plunge diving shoals of anchovies, Punta San Juan, Peru (Gavin Thurston/Silverback/Netflix)

Cormorants and Boobies plunge diving shoals of anchovies, Punta San Juan, Peru (Gavin Thurston/Silverback/Netflix)

There’s an extraordinary sequence in our jungle film of a bird of paradise called the western parotia, that has the most complex dance of any bird. I mean, it has an 18-step dance. Everybody who has filmed birds of paradise did it from ground level, looking at them straight. None of the people could ever quite work out why this bird was dancing like this.

And then we thought, 'hang on, where is the female?' And she’s always in the branch up above the male doing the dance. And of course, we then put a camera hanging above her to get her point of view and suddenly, you understood his whole dance is designed to be looked at from above.

I could go on and on and on. There are just so many fresh and exciting sequences in this series. I genuinely think it’s going to blow people away. I also think there’s going to be real power in the narrative.

We do it in a very selective way because we really want to make this series a very entertaining show. People come home from work, relax at the weekend with a gin and tonic. They don’t want to have a finger wagged at them.

Virgin rainforest alongside freshly cleared land. The newly deforested area has already been prepared for palm oil trees New Britain Island, Papua New Guinea

Virgin rainforest alongside freshly cleared land. The newly deforested area has already been prepared for palm oil trees New Britain Island, Papua New Guinea

There are so many unbelievably powerful images. To give you an example, the rainforest, jungle film ends with a beautiful sequence of orangutans of Sumatra which centres around a female orangutan who has learnt to use tools. She’s unique - she’s the only orangutan in the world that can use these tools.

The male that features in this is 40 years old. When he was a baby, the rainforest just went to the horizon, for miles and miles and miles.

And now, literally, on the edge of where they live, there’s oil palm. And so our last shot in the sequence is a drone shot where you just go out from the rainforest and you just see the oil palm and it’s just really powerful.

Sea nettles/compass jellyfish can form great dense swarms. Monterey Bay, California, USA (Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix)

Sea nettles/compass jellyfish can form great dense swarms. Monterey Bay, California, USA (Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix)

We filmed extraordinary images in the shallow seas of oceans completely taken over by jellyfish and they are there because they are replacing fish. Our oceans are being taken over by jellyfish, and that’s a very powerful image. We filmed for the very first time in time lapse actual coral bleaching. You actually see the process of the coral bleaching and it’s extremely powerful.

Those are the selected images that will make people think about what we’re losing. But it’s very important that we give positive messages. We really want to empower the audience.

"Unfortunately, few reefs are as pristine as this - worldwide, half of all shallow coral reefs have already died. The rest could be gone over the next few decades.” Raja Ampat, Indonesia (Oliver Scholey/Silverback/Netflix)

"Unfortunately, few reefs are as pristine as this - worldwide, half of all shallow coral reefs have already died. The rest could be gone over the next few decades.” Raja Ampat, Indonesia (Oliver Scholey/Silverback/Netflix)

The last sequence of the shallow seas episode is filmed at a place in Indonesia called The Zoo, which 10 years ago was trashed – all the sharks had been taken. 10 years ago, they made it a nature reserve. And we filmed it. It looks like an Eden. It’s so recovered in 10 years and it’s a lovely sequence to end the show.

Because we need to say to people, 'it’s dire, but there’s still time to do what we need to do'. We open the opening episode saying what we do in the next 20 years is totally vital. That is what is going to make the difference.

People do seem to be receptive to a strong conservation message. The reaction to the plastics in Blue Planet II was astonishing. Are you surprised that wildlife television has the power to create such change?

"Pacific Herring move into shallow waters in spring to spawn. Many of the world’s fish stocks are now in serious decline and a third of them have collapsed altogether." Sitka, Alaska USA (Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix)

"Pacific Herring move into shallow waters in spring to spawn. Many of the world’s fish stocks are now in serious decline and a third of them have collapsed altogether." Sitka, Alaska USA (Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix)

We were very pleased with the reaction to Blue Planet II. Obviously we care about the environment, but also because it showed that the audience is absolutely ready for the message that Our Planet has covered.

I was delighted about the plastic story but actually the biggest story in the oceans is not plastic, the biggest story in the ocean is overfishing and the acidification of the ocean. If you would explain the difference of Blue Planet II and Our Planet [to other series], it is rather than having a bad news message in the last five minutes of the show, we’re trying to take that narrative in-depth so that people have a greater understanding – and also to give them solutions.

I mean if you say, 'Why was the plastics almost the only environmental message that was remembered after Blue Planet II?’ I think it was because people felt they could do something about it.

One of the important things about Our Planet and particularly the 'Halo' and the online activity is that it’s about telling people what they can do because there are solutions. It’s not too late. But people need to understand it. And that’s what we are trying to tell them.

Obviously, you can’t be on all the location shoots. How does the production process work?

Alastair Fothergill on location (Silverback / Netflix)

Alastair Fothergill on location (Silverback / Netflix)

Keith Scholey and I – the joint series producers - have a meeting with the individual producers almost every month, certainly every six weeks. Those producers worked on two shows each. We were constantly looking at where we’re spending the money and how things are going.

We have a script at the very beginning. Something might not go well. Something might go better. And we’re constantly working out running times of the sequences. There are three absolute ‘knowns’: it’s got to be finished by a certain date, this is how much money we’ve got to spend and it’s got to run 50 minutes. Well with Netflix, it doesn’t have to run exactly 50 minutes. It can run a little bit more or a little bit less, which is one of the joys of working with Netflix.

But those are the knowns, and literally every six weeks, over the three-four years of filming, we constantly review that. We also hear stuff from the field via satellites – though we never used to. We used to send the crews off for six weeks and never hear a word! It’s constant monitoring and making sure that the money is being well spent, the money is on the screen. That’s how we do it.

I would have loved to go on more shoots. At any one time in the filming period, we probably had seven or eight shoots out all round the world. But I did go and film quite a few myself. It’s too much fun not to!

Cameraman Barrie Briton films white water falls in Nahuel Huapi National Park in the Argentinian Andes (Mandi Stark/Silverback/Netflix)

Cameraman Barrie Briton films white water falls in Nahuel Huapi National Park in the Argentinian Andes (Mandi Stark/Silverback/Netflix)

In past meetings, someone would say, ‘You wouldn’t believe what we’ve caught on film...' 

Now, all the footage now is electronic. There’s no film or tape anymore, it’s all on hard drives. As soon as those hard drives come in, they all get ingested into a system. All of the computers in our offices here are linked up to that system.

Typically, the producers will do a selection of the key shots and Keith and I see it. They’re so excited to share their successes that we’re constantly seeing what they’re doing, but more importantly, we’re constantly questioning the narrative.

One of the things that I think has been lost in some landmark natural history series recently is a convincing narrative. People will say, ‘This is a great sequence…’ but actually the 50-minute watch isn’t a narrative. And that's one of the things we’ve been really hot on.

One of the things I was surprised about when reading the reactions to the trailer was how excited people outside the UK were about not just the show, but especially David Attenborough. How did you get him to narrate the show?

Well... I asked him. David is his own master. I’ve been privileged to work with David for many, many years, as has Keith. He’s narrated all my series. I told him about the project and he was immediately excited. He was excited, I think, about the story we were trying to tell.

David is 92 now. I think he’s seen change in the natural world better than anybody. He said he would love to be involved. We’re absolutely delighted because his authority and his skill as a narrator is just extraordinary, and he’s done a beautiful job on this series.

 

David Attenborough

David Attenborough

Did David get to go on any of the shoots?

No he didn’t, and because he doesn’t appear in vision in the series, we didn’t want him to go on location.

However, we are doing a theatrical-release film with him which he has gone on location for, which is an authored piece to accompany the series and will be released on Netflix a year later. So, the conversation will continue...

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