Two years ago, a two-minute clip of a baby iguana being chased by racer snakes went viral across the Internet. Millions watched with bated breath as it miraculously escaped their clutches. It even won an award — the BAFTA for Must-See Moment — the following year. Jonathan Keeling, who served as an executive producer on Planet Earth II, was there. He spent about three weeks on the second tour, filming that sequence with a crew on the Galápagos Islands, which are essentially in the middle of nowhere.
“It's a really incredible location. It's completely uninhabited, and there's a big population of lizards living there,” Keeling told Gadgets 360. “Fortunately, we had a boat that was supporting us. All of us lived on the boat [as] it's a very precious island, so we can't leave any sign of ourselves. We would turn up with our cameras and wait at the beach and film.”
One of the reasons the iguana-snake clip became so famous was that there was a narrative to it, from the two parties sizing each other up, the baby lizard trying to take advantage of the racer snakes' poor sight, a will-they-or-won't-they moment as the snakes wrap around an iguana, and the iguana somehow wrestling itself free just in time. The BBC crew filmed it using two cameras to present both perspectives, which is part of their changing approach to wildlife documentaries.
“Nature does often give you a story, which is great,” said Keeling. “But before going on location, we are looking for a story that has multiple dramatic beats to it. You don't want a simple story that's just, ‘This is an animal, and it eats another animal.' That's not going to last that long. But if you've got, ‘Here's an animal, and it needs to do this before it can find an animal to then try and eat it, [which] has a defence against it', suddenly you've got some emotional complexity. And it's like a drama you might watch, with a hero, and a villain, and a challenge, and a twist, and a turn.”
They also try to find animals or animal behaviour that audiences can look at and relate to, even if it's a fish. “If it looks like a Pixar fish or if it's a fish that is [exhibiting] interesting behaviour, and can make you feel ‘Oh, that's exactly like us humans. We would look after our young like that,' it sort of helps. All of that adds to the emotional engagement.” Keeling noted that they didn't do this two decades ago: “It was quite informational, now it's a lot more emotional.”
Keeling and his team at BBC's Natural History Unit are now hard at work on their next flagship series, Seven Worlds. It will look at all seven continents in as many episodes, showcasing how their various characteristics have shaped the wildlife found there. They have already finished filming three — Asia is among them, with the Himalayas in China being one of the locations — which are now on the editing table, while the other four will be completed by summer 2019.
By then, Seven Worlds would have been four years in the making, just as with some of its biggest series in the likes of Planet Earth and Blue Planet II. Filming takes up most of that time, Keeling said, at about two and a half years, though it does overlap with research and post-production. The current plan is to release Seven Worlds sometime in the 2019 autumn in the UK, with the rest of the world soon after. You will get to see it in India on Sony BBC Earth on TV.
“In Seven Worlds, we have found so many new stories that I think people will see animals they've never seen before, places they've never seen, [and] technology they will be surprised by,” Keeling added. “They will also see animals they are familiar with, that are iconic of a landscape or of a continent, but they will see them doing things they have never seen them do before. I have worked with wildlife for 30 years and I have a PhD in it, and I'm seeing things that I have never seen before or dreamt of in my entire life.”
Keeling is unwilling to get into specifics because he believes surprise is important. He assures us that it's ground-breaking and cutting-edge though, with scientists they are working with planning to publish a paper based on what they have seen during filming, and a heavy use of aerial photography. “We've used a lot of drones,” he said. “I think people will be surprised about some of the things we've filmed, and how we've done it, and where we've filmed.”
Though the benefits are obvious, working with advanced technology does have some unanticipated challenges. Keeling recalled how hard-drives they record on sometimes display no data when plugged in, requiring recovery. Or the cameras crash in the middle of a shot, due to trying conditions. And they tend to overshoot with digital cameras, which isn't fun in the edit room. They recently had 60 hours of footage for a 5-minute sequence, for instance.
"That's not a great ratio for the editor, and it's a massive challenge. It's good [to have more], I'm not complaining but that's one of the challenges of having modern technology,” Keeling said.
All that is on top of the challenges presented by the environment. “In places like Ladakh, how do you get your generator working when it does not want to work at 5,000 metres? How do you get your lungs and heart working at that rate, when you're trying to carry gear?” Keeling asked rhetorically.
"If you're in Antarctica, the challenge isn't getting close to a penguin because they are not afraid of you. The challenge is the logistics of taking down the food, the equipment, and the people necessary. And how do you live and sustain yourself? How do you cross the roughest ocean on Earth? Every shoot has a different challenge, which is what I love about it.”
At the same time, the high-profile nature of their work means there's an added responsibility to portray things in the right light. BBC was criticised by some corners for downplaying the effects of climate change with Planet Earth II in 2016, and Keeling feels they did a better job with its 2017 successor Blue Planet II. The series drew record numbers in the UK at 17 million, becoming the most-watched programme that year on the island.
“It wasn't a drama, it wasn't a sports event, and it wasn't an entertainment show or a reality show,” Keeling noted. “It was Blue Planet II. You've a massive audience, you've got them completely engaged and in love with the animals, and then you give them that story [of plastics and coral bleaching]. That, to me, is the best way to try and do it.”
That ushered in what the government and media termed the ‘Blue Planet effect', with the plastics issue being pushed up the agenda among various circles. As more and more people talked about it, the UK government promised funding to fight ocean plastic, businesses including the BBC pledged an end to single-use plastics, and more British students signed up for marine biology courses.
“All that is not entirely from that show but that highlighted it,” Keeling remarked. He thinks that it's important to balance animal stories and talking about conservation, as making it all about the latter would likely push viewers away. But it's something that's very much a focus for them, more so going forward.
The upcoming BBC wildlife series, Dynasties, will showcase mankind's effects on the populations of chimpanzees in the Sahara Desert in Senegal and lions in Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve. And Keeling promises a “very loud note about conservation” in next year's Seven Worlds, where they won't shy away from pointing out the “really imminent” threats to each and every continent.
“Should we have done more on Planet Earth II?” he said to himself, exhaled and then added: “In hindsight, it's easy to say that.”
Planet Earth, Planet Earth II, and Blue Planet II are available for free on SonyLIV. Both Dynasties and Seven Worlds will premiere on Sony BBC Earth.