Sengi vs Elephant (BBC)
Interview Words : Thomas Rees | 14 January

Hidden Kingdoms: BBC's most controversial wildlife programme ever

BBC Wildlife producers defend the techniques they used to create this year's most anticipated – and heavily criticised – 'natural world' documentary

Hidden Kingdoms is an upcoming three-part series that explores the action-packed lives of the planet’s smaller animals, from Canadian chipmunks and desert dwelling 'scorpion mice' to dung-beetles and sengi (east African elephant shrews).

Over two years in the making, the series has already generated vast controversy.

Though based entirely on real behaviour, Hidden Kingdoms employs constructed storytelling, along with blue screen technology and special effects, in its portrayal of these animals and their remarkable exploits. Many of the most dramatic scenes were created by filming separate pieces of footage and merging them together and it is these scenes that have sparked the greatest debate.

Wanderlust’s Thomas Rees was in attendance at the show’s premier, where the commissioning editor and producers discussed how it was made and defended their controversial techniques.

What was the idea behind making Hidden Kingdoms?

Kim Shillinglaw, BBC Commissioning Editor for Science and Natural History: A lot of our shows focus on the big and the planetary. We wanted to try to bring to life some of the more unusual aspects of the natural world, some of the more unusual characters in the natural world.

How did you go about uncovering this new realm for us?

Mike Gunton, Executive Producer:  People have never really tried to film in this realm because it's so hard. If they do it tends to be in quite an observational way where everything looks little and buggy. We thought why not look at this world as if we were filming a big animal and film in the way that we'd film a lion or film an elephant?

Once you get into that mindset you realise that these animals are actually more exciting, more intriguing and more dramatic than the big animals. Look what happens to a sengi in a day. It would take a lion a year to have as many adventures. This is a world we don't normally look at that's full of drama and wonder.

What was the biggest technical challenge?

Mark Brownlow, Series Producer: To project the audience into another world where everything looked enormous and was seen from a different perspective. I suppose, like the film A Bug's Life, we wanted to give the sense that a blade of grass could look like a tree, a cactus would look like a skyscraper. We had to build special lenses, including an 18-inch-long probe lens called a 'straight scope', that enables you to shoot tiny subjects and with infinite depth of field so we could see from their perspective.

You get so consumed and sucked in to the little world that you're trying to film. I know many times our camera operators had their heads down filming, for instance, the dung beetles, and they'd look up and find themselves face to face with a cheetah. It’s easy to be seduced by these little guys and their worlds.

Unlike most wildlife footage, you've used blue screening, you've got a narrative, you've got a script that you've written and stages. It's almost like a wildlife soap opera.

Mike Gunton: We feel it is a kind of dramatised natural history, but I think that's quite a small 'd'. Everything you see is absolutely biologically accurate. We tried to effectively distil all the things that happen in their amazing lives into one programme to give you a sense of their struggle. There's something intrinsically dramatic about what they do and it seemed to call out for this type of approach.

If you could follow them, like you could in an observational documentary, you would be seeing this sort of amazing stuff because all their lives the dials are up on 11. Every minute of the day they're hunting and every minute of the day they are being hunted. That doesn't happen to a lion, it doesn't happen to anything else. It's very unusual and I think we need to find some way of reflecting that in the story telling. It’s been a journey to discover how to make it this way. The last programme I did was Africa. This is not Africa. It's a very different type of show.

There's an extraordinary sequence where a rattlesnake tries to eat a scorpion mouse. It seems to be shot from several different angles. How long were you waiting for that moment?

Mark Brownlow: We worked very closely with the Department of Game Fishery in Arizona, using rattlesnakes that are retrieved from gardens. We got to ‘borrow’ them for a day before they were released back in the wild. We had to abide by very strict ethical codes of conduct, of course. We couldn’t annoy the snake. We had wait for it to make feeding strikes. The mouse and the snake never met each other. That's an important point to make. For those particularly dramatic scenes, we used a combination of images joined together to create this impossible viewpoint.

Mike Gunton: There are a number of reasons for doing that – both ethically and editorially. We're trying to show that the way these animals see the world is very different to ours, the physics of the world when you're very small are different.

They appear to see time in a slightly different way to us. Their neural pathways are so short that time effectively slows down. We wanted to give a visual representation of that. Regarding the mouse and that snake, the two images are shot at different frame-rates. The snake is at a much slower frame-rate so you get the mouse's perspective of what's happening to the snake.

Kim Shillinglaw: Time is one of the most interesting things that comes up over and over again. In the second episode, there's a sequence featuring a chipmunk fight. It’s over so quickly you almost can't see it with your own eyes. But, slowed down, you suddenly see there's actually an intricate ballet full of all sorts of tactics, moves, fancy footwork, all of that revealed by unpacking time as the animal does.

Mike Gunton: It is like a Matrix shot. They leap off the ground and they are able to spin themselves in some Zen way.

You put hours of work into these amazing films and into pushing the boundaries. Is it frustrating, with something like The Great Bear Stakeout, when you're castigated for breaching guidelines?

Kim Shilliglaw: The Natural History Unit produces hundreds of hours of natural history footage in a year. Whether we'll ever get to a situation where every little bit of human error can be eliminated, I don't know. What I can say is that, in the case of The Great Bear Stakeout, and everything that the NHU produces, the standards are extremely high.

Mike Gunton: Audiences do understand that these are films – that you don't turn up and press a button for 50 minutes and then turn the button off. They understand that editing happens and there is compression of time.

On this series, we've been keen to be as overt as possible about the whole range of techniques we used. In the 'Making Ofs' you'll see the range of the approaches we take. Those include purely observed footage in all locations. Sometimes we used controlled situations and sometimes we have brought animals in captivity into studios to get really detailed close up shots – maybe a claw or a hand, something that you can't do in the wild. Sometimes we used special effects and superimposed images. You see the reflection in the sengi's eye and sometimes, for the drama, you add a little bit more reflection of the fire. But we're absolutely being honest about doing that. This particular style of filming is an interpretation of this world these animals live in.  

Without sounding too sentimental, do you think there's something that we could learn from the little animals?

Mark Brownlow: Our hope is that people are going to get a new found respect for these little creatures. Ecologically, they are critical for our survival. As is said in the commentary, without dung beetles the savannah would be covered in dung. We'd be drowning in the stuff. They are the unsung heroes of the natural world.

Mike Gunton: They have got extraordinary character and you didn't even have to draw that character out. They were stars, they shone with character when we filmed them. They're full of pluck and perseverance.

Kim Shillinglaw: There's also so much that we still don't know. A lot of very laborious scientific research underpins the series. There are layers of insight that we're still gaining into the way the smaller animals, some of the most important creatures in the natural world, work, live and survive.

Mike Gunton: There's someone about to publish on the relative speeds of sengi. We claim on the basis of the latest research that if you scaled [a sengi] up, it would be twice the speed of a cheetah. Almost certainly that is completely underestimating it. It's probably going to be something like 50 times the speed. There's somebody working on the physiology of scorpion mice. They're interested in how they can block pain and also how they create anti-venom. It's amazing research and that's what we draw on to get this stuff.

Are you ever worried that we’ll run out of stories? Or will the natural world just keep on generating them?

Kim Shillinglaw: I think riches are still out there. This series indicates that you sometimes have to look in the unexpected places. What riches are offered by the unfamiliar animals? Can we look at the familiar through unfamiliar perspectives? That is the route to continuing to offer the audience something new.

'Under Open Skies', the first episode of Hidden Kingdoms will be shown on BBC One 8pm Thursday 16 January.