Mike Gunton is not the household name David Attenborough is, but if there’s to be a third go-round of Planet Earth, Gunton is likely the person who will sign off on it.
Planet Earth II dawns this weekend Feb. 18 at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America, having made a successful orbit of the UK last December.
Gunton, the co-producer of Planet Earth and a senior executive with the BBC’s vaunted Natural History Unit, has said they would be “crazy” to rule out a third series. The decision is not as easy, though, as greenlighting a new sitcom or shoot-‘em-up cop show.
Planet Earth II was timed to coincide with the original Planet Earth’s 10th anniversary, but as Gunton conceded, it didn’t come together overnight. Planet Earth II was six years in the making; the original was on the drawing board for five years before it saw the light of day.
If Planet Earth III happens, it can’t be seen to be just another other tooth-’n’-claw wildlife special. Even with new camera technology that was inconceivable in 2006, let alone 2016, filming wild animals in their natural habitat takes time, especially with the exacting standards demanded of BBC’s Natural History Unit. The whole point of Planet Earth as a franchise is to be unique, special — something never seen before.
Few wildlife programs come under such scrutiny, from casual viewers asking themselves, ‘How did they do that?’ to dyed-in-the-wool animal-rights campaigners eager to spot any potential abuses, let alone subtle — or not-so-subtle — manipulation of the audience.
Making Planet Earth II wasn’t a walk in the park, no matter how spiffy the new camera technology makes it look.
As American audiences prepare to see what all the fuss is about, here are ten gee-whiz facts-’n’-figures about the making of a documentary series many critics are calling the finest of its kind ever made.
1. Attenborough doesn’t venture to far-flung locations that much anymore — he’s 90, after all — but he’s not just a mouthpiece. He cold-called field producers throughout filming and insisted they make sure his narration be accurate while telling a good story.
2. Planet Earth II is the first series BBC produced in ultra high-definition 4K. The production employed 40-plus camera operators. Crews had to lug 30 to 40 cases of equipment halfway around the world — but were allowed just one personal bag each.
3. During the filming of the episode “Islands,” one crewmember was stung by a stingray while at sea, some two hours from the mainland. On-site medics did what they could while getting the crewmember to safety. (He survived.)
On the episode “Mountains,” another crewmember narrowly avoided falling into a rock crevasse while filming in the upper Himalayas.
4. Misadventure dogged the “Islands” team from the outset: Returning to camp after one shoot, the crew found a boa constrictor feasting on their precious — and limited — supply of eggs for cooking.
5. The “Islands” episode alone took three-and-a-half years to film. Production required 12 separate location shoots, which ranged from two to six weeks. Planning and preparation had taken a full year before a single camera was switched on.
6. Tropical location crews were bitten by mosquitoes by day and centipedes by night but were barred from using insect repellent in case the animals they wanted to film might smell the insecticide and stay away from the cameras. One of the “Islands” on-site producers wore the same clothes for two weeks, despite being pooped on by one penguin and vomited on by another.
7. Well-known fact: The new series’ signature theme was composed by the noted film composer Hans Zimmer, composer of Gladiator and The Bible, among other scores. Less well known is that the Icelandic alt-rock band Sigur Rós recorded a new version of their hit 2005 single Hoppipolla, first used in the original Planet Earth. It took some doing, but after rummaging through their old recordings, Sigur Rós found the original track stems and used them to craft a new version for Planet Earth II.
8. Planet Earth II took some six years to film overall. Trap cameras used to film rare footage of wild snow leopards were placed near mountain passes for a full year before they achieved the desired results. The lions-vs.-buffalo sequence in the episode “Grasslands” took three months to film. Attaining a legal permit for the peregrine falcon sequence in New York City, in the final episode “Cities,” took nine months.
9. The widely seen iguana-vs.-racing-snakes sequence took two weeks of sunrise-to-sunset monitoring of a tropical beach and has clocked more than seven million views on YouTube.
10. Planet Earth II filmed in 40 countries and required 117 separate filming expeditions. In all, the production recorded 400 terabytes of material, enough to fill 82,000 DVDs.
Now you know.