“How do they film that?” I always ask. “How do they coordinate? What are they not showing me?”
That is how I watch natural history documentaries in between the “ah! That’s so cool!” and “hmm, interesting. I should look that up.” Then one day on Netflix I saw BBC Earth’s 2009 Life: On Location, where the field production team that made the popular Life series had filmed each other for behind-the-scenes reels.
Ten episodes in a gentle concentration of ten minutes ache encompass filming in chancy positions, limited time frames, and elaborate rigging systems to capture chiefly animals but sometimes plants and fungi. The parts that amaze me in most episodes are how long it takes to get a basic sequence like waiting weeks for a nesting behavior, and how wrong I was to speculate that fancy cameras have fancy zoom when in fact crews have to get extremely close to their subjects. Here are some brief tidbits from each episode:
- Filming whales in the Antarctic required militant cooperation, harnessing researchers, the British navy, skippers, and cameramen on boats and in the air over the course of two months.
- Komodo dragons kill by ambushing and the cameramen were within perhaps three meters of the subjects, and even one of the cameramen said and illustrating by pointing, “See, what we need is for him [another cameraman] to film him [dragon] attacking him [buffalo]… But it looks like he [dragon] attacks to attack him [another cameraman].” Another cameraman said at another point when close to a dragon, “I’m about five to ten percent confident I’m safe here.”
- It took 18 days to find and film a group of male humpback whales “running” as a display for females. The people struggled to track them because they have a few seconds to catch something blowing air on the horizon and waiting 30 minutes to find the next spout.
- Sailfish aren’t picky about what they lay their eggs on. Palm front, cameraman, or boat, in a few minutes the webbing that holds the eggs together can be heavy enough to be a danger.
- Barrie Britton, an expert in bird photography, has the grand adventure of sitting ten or more hours in a hide for three weeks waiting for a bowerbird mating. I can feel the back pain now.
- Monarchs in their winter refuge in Mexico can “explode” from one tree from minor disturbance and one can’t predict when or where they’ll settle next. Tree climbers and cameraman spent long days rigging wires for the camera to glide on while 50 meters up and not disturbing the butterflies. It’s so tedious and frustrating for them that it was hard to watch for me.
- The honor of the natural history cameraman: spend almost two weeks “bonding” with curious seal pups while waiting for the orcas to show up and take one.
- Four weeks in a hut over a hole drilled through eight feet of ice with 100 dives lasting up to one hour. Respect.
- The most tedious of all: spending two years recreating a rock outcrop in a studio so they can map one year’s worth of plant life cycles in a one-minute time-lapse. The studio version with the plants had to map EXACTLY with all the nooks and curves of the actual outcrop.
- Justine Evans was the only camerawoman in these ten episodes. Some team members are women, but they were producers.
Ten minutes in this series packs a lot of appreciation and facts on how natural history film comes together, and the trivia I’ve shared doesn’t compare to how much you can gain from watching the show yourself.