This month, BBC and the Discovery Channel will unveil Life, a stunning documentary series thats more than four years in the making.
THREE CHEETAHS slink stealthily across the African savanna as they stalk an unsuspecting ostrich, an animal twice their weight. Then, with absolute precision and breathtaking teamwork, they fell the bird, effecting a perfect kill. Life, as it turns out, is no Disney flick.
Indeed, Life is the epic follow-up to 2007s Discovery Channel/BBC critical and commercial smash collaboration, Planet Earth. Filmed over 3,000 days in 50 countries on seven continents, Life is the holy grail of nature filmmaking a high-definition fantasia of the exotic, the absurd, and the sublime. Narrated by Oprah Winfrey, the 11-hour series which features episodes devoted to birds, sea creatures, insects, mammals, primates, reptiles, and more premieres on the Discovery Channel later this month.
In Planet Earth, the habitats took center stage, says Susan Winslow, executive producer for the Discovery Channel and of Life. In Life, the animals and, in one episode, plants are the stars.
By design, most viewers will be unfamiliar with a good many of the series stars, such as the South American pebble toad, the Hawaiian goby fish, and the Vogelkop bowerbird. Marquee players such as dolphins, tarantulas, and humpback whales get their share of screen time too. The goal, regardless of the animals notoriety, was to capture them in ways never before seen.
All the easy stuff has already been filmed; we wanted the rush of getting stuff no ones shot before, says Mike Gunton, creative director of the BBCs Natural History Unit and executive producer of Life. I wanted to set the bar very high to bring new stories, new animals, and new ways of filming to every sequence.
Technology provided the key to fulfilling Guntons ambitions. An international crew of 30 production personnel, 70 cinematographers, and 100 field assistants (including guides and scientific consultants), all armed with state-of-the-art equipment, was unleashed on an unsuspecting animal populace to create some of the most stunning nature photography of all time.
The technology brings not only new, beautiful, and spectacular images but also new insight into life itself, showing you things you otherwise couldnt see, Gunton says. By witnessing these things, you understand something new about the world and how it works.
Before a single frame was shot, Gunton spent months dreaming up each episodes dramatic arc, working diligently to ensure that each installment contained extreme entertainment value, a compelling story, and an illuminating conclusion. We wanted people to leave each episode and the series smiling and thinking about the world in a different way, Winslow says. Fact is far better than fiction. Thats what Life demonstrates over and over again.
The crew traveled tens of thousands of miles, gently embedding themselves in the natural environments of some of the worlds most unusual creatures. Often, the filmmakers shadowed their subjects as intently as a predatory animal would its prey. Such was the case, for instance, for the crew tracking a Komodo dragon that stalked its water buffalo prey for three arduous days.
We have lots of rules about how we engage with the animals and the environment, Gunton says. We try to make the minimum impact on the location we visit and on the animals themselves not only because thats whats best for them, but because disturbed animals dont behave naturally.
Gunton hopes that the similarities between humans and the animals spotlighted, whom he calls clever, cunning, Machiavellian, and even heroic, comes through in the finished product. And while audiences will undoubtedly be astounded by this visual masterpiece, Gunton knows that his experience making it was a singular one.
We lived and breathed this series for four years, he says. It really changes your life, the intense feeling of privilege of seeing the wonders of the world and what the animals are doing. Its sometimes almost unbelievable.