Into the Wild

INTO THE WILD. ”In terms of the number of days, remoteness, and physical challenges, this was the most demanding show we’d ever worked on,“ says executive producer Alastair Fothergill, who came up with the idea for the program with series producer Vanessa Berlowitz.

Beneath the Ice

BENEATH THE ICE. Filming in below-freezing water--like this shot taken in the Arctic’s White Sea off the northwest coast of Russia--was a race against time before hypothermia set in. Even wearing dry-suits over heated vests, the crew couldn’t stay in for longer than an hour before they began to lose sensation. “The most challenging kind of diving you can do is under ice,“ says Berlowitz. “First the crew have to make a hole in the ice before they can dive. They also can’t use guide ropes, because they might get into the shot. So, in addition to worrying about the filming, they had to be really aware of tides and currents, so as not to get swept a long way from the exit hole.”

On the Prowl

ON THE PROWL. "Spy-hopping" orcas in Antarctica use ice leads (cracks in the ice) to come up for air and have a look around. Director Chadden Hunter and his camera lens were treated to a pungent spraying of the whales’ oily fish breach while filming this group, looking for a route through the ice toward better fishing near the coastline. In the sky, Berlowitz directed aerial shots while keeping an eye on the fracturing ice. Fothergill explains, “Ice floes are dangerous places to work, because they can easily float away, and the crews can be blown out to sea.”

The Seal Hunters

THE SEAL HUNTERS. One orca species hunts Weddell seals in teams that create giant waves to wash them off ice floes, as in this photo. The filmmakers captured this amazing, rarely seen behavior by rigging their aerial Cineflex camera to their boat and a zodiac to get into the heart of the action, using a pole-mounted camera for underwater shots. The crew even managed astonishing footage of a humpback whale rescuing a seal by carrying it on its chest. “My scientist friends believe this may be the most amazing example of intelligent coordinated pack hunting ever documented in the animal world,“ says Berlowitz.

Ready for Its Close-Up

READY FOR ITS CLOSE-UP. Unpredictable weather and a dearth of available helicopters have long made aerial polar footage near impossible. For these shots, the team rigged the gyro-stabilized Cineflex aerial cameras, pioneered on Planet Earth, with internally heated casing to withstand -40º F temperatures. The result was 360-degree vibration-free shots of expansive vistas and the ability to film animals without disturbing them. The feat proved extremely treacherous. High winds and toxic volcanic smoke demanded 15 attempts for a close-up of the lava lake in the crater of Mt. Erebus, Antarctica’s only constantly active volcano. The air was so thin that the pilot carried an oxygen supply and the helicopter had trouble hovering--a sudden change in weather forced the pilot to drop 6500 feet in 25 seconds. “It felt like my eardrums were about to burst,” says Berlowitz. “The weather closed in and the volcanic plumes were coming too close to our engine. It was certainly a hairy moment.”

The Crystal Cathedral

THE CRYSTAL CATHEDRAL. Beneath Mt. Erebus lies a labyrinth of previously unexplored ice crystal caves. To shoot that sequence, director Chadden Hunter and cameraman Gavin Thurston (shown here) used straight scope macro lens cameras for extremely close-up shots of the crystals. They also used special LED lights, which do not give puff heat, and mounted cameras on tracks so they could move around the crystals for a 3D effect. Spending 14-hour days filming, the crew suffered severe headaches from high levels of volcanic gases in the caves.

Speeding Up Time

SPEEDING UP TIME. Time-lapse photography--continuous shooting with pauses between each frame--captured phenomena too slow for the human eye: how the woolly bear caterpillar freezes solid each winter and then thaws back to life in the spring; the first HD footage of the formation of a snowflake (which involved filming through an electron microscope); and the growth of anchor ice (above) as it forms on shallower reefs every spring. One arresting scene shows the formation and destruction wrought by the icy descent and crawl of a brinicle--an icicle of subfreezing salt water that kills anything in its path, and the subject of a teaser video that went viral last fall. “It’s my favorite moment in the series,” says Berlowitz. “I was there when the divers brought the footage back from under the ice. I thought they were playing a trick on me--it looked like something from Harry Potter rather than real life!”

Dancing with Penguins

DANCING WITH PENGUINS. Cameraman Mark Smith (shown here) and director Jeff Wilson spent four months in Cape Crozier by the Ross Sea. They braved impending isolation madness, winds up to 150 mph, temperatures as low as -13º F, sleep deprivation from working through the 24-hour daylight, and attacks by skuas. All this to film a colony of very noisy, smelly Adélie penguins struggling to raise their chicks during the brief Antarctic summer. For the film crew, it meant daily three-mile round trips lugging heavy camera gear between their camp and the colony. “At one point, we airlifted the guys and brought them back to McMurdo base for a farewell party,” says Berlowitz. “They were barely able to speak to humans. They just stood there drinking beer. And then we returned them to finishing filming.”

The Rocketeers

THE ROCKETEERS. In another part of the Ross Sea area, it took 10 days for director Chadden Hunter and cameramen John Aitchison and Didier Noiret to navigate through the jumbled sea ice to find open water where they could film slow-motion sequences of Emperor penguins emerging onto the ice edge. They’d often have to wait for hours, finger poised over the record button, waiting for a penguin to launch from the water at 250 mph. Their cameras rolled at 1000 frames-per-second, slowing down the action by 40 times the actual speed.

Preparing to Launch

PREPARING TO LAUNCH. In preparing to dive, penguins get their heart rates up to 200 beats per minute to absorb as much oxygen as possible. Jumping from the water, they leave a trail of bubbles as trapped air is forced out of their feathers. Underwater, the transfixed cameramen would occasionally forget to check their depth gauges until they realized they were rapidly descending. Cameraman Didier Noiret--who worked closely with Jacques Cousteau for many years – ranks diving with the emperor penguins as among the most amazing experiences in his life.

Who's for Dinner?

WHO’S FOR DINNER? Unpredictable animals were another major threat to the crew. While filming polar bears in the Svalbard Islands, between Norway and the North Pole, the crew had to be on constant alert for curious and hungry bears trying to climb aboard the boat and poke their heads into kitchen portholes. Cameraman John Aitchison had the good fortune to be away from his hide (protective camouflage covering) when a bear squashed it. Director Jeff Wilson and field assistant Lisa Strom had the scare of their lives when a bear invaded their hut one night, and they had to chase it away with flares. Polar bears are the only predator that will actively hunt humans.

Flight of the Owl

FLIGHT OF THE OWL. The Great Grey Owl is one of the largest owls in the world. Cameraman Barrie Britton used a super hi-speed Phantom camera to capture a slowed down image of the owl in flight. Britton was there to film Black Grouse lekking (courting), but instead came across this stunning wild owl. He worked out its daily flight path in its search for prey - its hearing can detect voles (meadow mice) moving under even three feet of snow. The result was this amazing head-on shot.

The Wolf Hunt...

THE WOLF HUNT… While filming wolf hunts in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, temperatures plummeted to –42º F, freezing eyes and nostrils shut, and seriously risking frostbite. Every morning, director Chadden Hunter and cameraman/wolf expert Jeff Turner--guided by a Cree hunter--scoured the park by air looking for wolves, then returned via snowmobile (sometimes a two-hour journey) to within a half-mile of their pack. They then hiked the remainder on snowshoes, staying downwind all the time. The team warmed their cameras with a blanket and homemade charcoal stick heaters, hid behind scrub, and communicated by sign language so as not to spook the pack.

...and the Hunted

…AND THE HUNTED. Frozen Planet captured the first detailed wolf hunt of musk oxen, which live in the tundra and protect their offspring from their predators by circling them, with their horns pointing outwards. Wolves have the best chance of taking down a bison in winter, when their energy levels are lowest. One-on-one, bison can overpower a wolf, so the wolves try to induce a stampede and attack the herd from the rear--a strategy that might take days to effect.

Santa Had the Right Idea

SANTA STYLE. Such an inhospitable place for humans is nonetheless home to some. The nomadic Dolgan people of northern Siberia, where temperatures drop to a bone-chilling –76º F, depend on reindeer for survival – as food, clothing, hut liners, and transport. Every week, they move to find new pastures for their animals, taking their homes with them.

The Signs of Global Warming

SIGNS OF GLOBAL WARMING. Another series mandate was to show proof of global warming--and how the rapidly melting glaciers are disrupting ecosystems. Camerawoman Justine Evans descends into a creaking ice shaft to film the waterfall caused by a melting glacier. The deafening sounds from the ice and waterfall required communication by sign language.

The Scientific Connection

THE SCIENTIFIC CONNECTION. British Antarctic Survey scientist Andy Smith measures soundwaves returning from dynamite blasts to measure the thickness of the ice and gauge how the thickness is waning over time. Scientific research is a major part of modern polar life, and the series would not have been possible with out the cooperation, equipment and assistance from research scientists and the bases out of which they operate.

Taking Viewers Beyond Imagination

BEYOND IMAGINATION. Antarctica’s clear air makes the continent the perfect laboratory for studying space and understanding more of our universe. The Milky Way is clearly visible in this long-exposure time-lapse of the sky above the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Research Station, near the Weddell Sea. “The extraordinary thing about the polar regions is the sheer power of nature--the elements, wind, cold, force of the ocean leaves you feeling small,” says Fothergill. “We live in a smaller, crowded world that seems to shrink the size of the planet. We wanted to take people to this place, that most will never visit, and, for most, is beyond imagination.”

Co.Create

"Frozen Planet": How They Got Those Jaw-Dropping Shots

Four years in the making, the Discovery Channel/BBC co-production Frozen Planet ranks among the channels’ most ambitious undertakings. Here, producers walk us through the making of the series and how they captured those unbelievable scenes.

The folks who brought you Planet Earth return March 18 with the Discovery Channel/BBC co-production Frozen Planet, a seven-episode series (and book) on the world’s polar regions, narrated by Alec Baldwin and Sir David Attenborough.

Some 50 crews spent four years, from 2008-2011, in brutal, sometimes life-threatening conditions to gather never-before-seen footage of wildlife and ecosystems in the Arctic and Antarctic—from the birth of an iceberg bigger than the world’s largest building to a caterpillar with antifreeze in its veins.

In the above slides, executive producer Alastair Fothergill and series producer Vanessa Berlowitz take us on a visual tour of some of the series’ mind-blowing shots.

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2 Comments

  • Martin

    Frozen Planet aired in the UK at the start of the year.  Even if you're not interested in nature, the quality of the camerawork is unique, and it is simply the best use for an HD television you'll ever find.  I regret that the US producers will implant Alec Baldwin in place of some of Sir David's best lines, and you will it seems be denied the final episode of the series, which reminds us that not only is the footage unique, but due to global warming, much of it will never be seen again...