Planet Earth 2 is More Real Than You Realise: We Speak to Producers to Find Out how It's Made

By Abigail Chandler on at

Back in 2011, BBC's Frozen Planet documentary attracted controversy after using 'fake' shots of a polar bear and its cubs that were actually filmed in a zoo. The BBC explained how they got the footage in a behind the scenes video on the Frozen Planet website and denied misleading the audience.

Since then, viewers have taken what they see in nature documentaries with a pinch of salt, and viewers of BBC's Planet Earth 2 have found themselves shaking their heads at the amazing shots on screen. 'That can't be real, that must be filmed in a zoo,' we say, sceptical and cynical viewers that we are. 'That must be augmented with CGI'.

But we're being too sceptical for our own good. The X Factor might be fake, and those 2011 polar bears might have been in a zoo, but Planet Earth 2 is all real. The Executive Producer of the series, Michael Gunton, and the Producer of episode three ('Jungles') Emma Napper jointly explained to us that Planet Earth is, in many ways, "a victim of its own success" - it looks so incredible on screen that we're convinced fakery must be involved. But, believe it or not, everything you see on screen was filmed on location. No zoos were visited in the filming of this documentary.

But of course, not everything can be captured on location. The visuals might all be 'real', but the sound is often added or edited later. You can film a jaguar taking down a cayman with a long-range camera lens, but you wouldn't want to get close enough to record the sound of it, and long-range microphones just aren't possible (thanks, physics). The BBC explains here that sound is often captured separately. Sometimes they are able to set up microphones on location beforehand and retreat to a safe distance, but often the sounds have to be recorded separately, either in a studio or in captivity, to isolate a particular bird's cry, for example. Sometimes archive recordings are used, where they exist, and foley artists are employed to create sounds like animal footsteps crunching over leaves in a studio, which is synched perfectly with the location footage.

The funny, tense and moving stories that Planet Earth II tells also don't arrive fully formed - the producers happily admit that editing is required to tell them. "Once we are back from a shoot, we know how the story developed on location, and we then edit the shots together to present that story to our audience. Editing is used primarily to compress time and allow different perspectives to be seen throughout the sequence," producers Michael Gunton and Emily Napper explain. "For example with the Bird of Paradise in the recent ‘Jungles’ episode, the master story is captured of a main character dancing trying to get a mate - however we also want to show the story from the female’s perspective and from that of his rivals. The male might dance off and on for thirty minutes at a time, so that is shortened by editing to allow us to highlight the most significant moments. (While the dance is certainly a beautiful thing to watch we can’t show the whole thing from start to finish otherwise that would be half the programme!) We also shoot the female's and rivals' reactions and point of view shots. Then in the final sequence we select the highlights and use close ups and shots of the other animals looking on to tell the complete story."

So, yes, editing is required. But wild animals aren't actors that you can direct - it's the producer and the editor's jobs to create stories that thrill. Can you imagine if the racer snakes vs baby iguana sequence was just one long shot? Instead, the editing made it look like some sort of mental, animal-based scene from Mad Max, and the editing team behind it deserves to win every award going for about the next five years.

But the reason the editors have all the footage they need to cut together a sequence like that - complete with close-ups, tracking shots and long shots - is down to the amazing on-location camera crew. "The skill of our camera operators and the quality of our equipment means we can get the powerful close-ups we need on location," Michael and Emma explain. "The new 50-1000mm lens means we can shoot big wide angle landscapes and super detailed close-ups without having to change lenses. Close-ups are what give our programmes much of their impact so we make sure we shoot plenty of them when we're on location."

The 15-minute Planet Earth Diaries segments at the end of each episode pay tribute to the teams who capture the footage in often incredible situations. But Emma and Michael are just as keen to acknowledge what the equipment brings to the table. "Our cameras record four times more detail than the HD images seen on our previous programmes and that makes some of the images seem almost unbelievable. A few viewers think such detail must be computer generated but the reality is that Mother Nature is much better at making animals than any CGI artist - we just haven't had the ability to show this level of detail until now. It could be argued that it’s crucial in the sense that we want to show audiences the beauty of the natural world, and involve them in the drama of animals’ lives that we witness when we are out filming - if we can show that in ever greater detail then we are taking them close to the true wonder of nature."

via GIPHY

So, whatever you might assume, Planet Earth isn't faked - the truth is even more incredible and unlikely than that. It's not just the animals on screen that are amazing - the ingenuity of the humans who capture and put together the footage is pretty astonishing too.