But its high meme factor is only one way the little lizard’s Great Escape exemplifies how things have changed in the decade since the original “Planet Earth.” The clip offers a multidimensional lesson in the tactics — some fascinating, some slightly dodgy — filmmakers use these days to stand out in a genre that, “like all of television, has become much more competitive,” said Tom Hugh-Jones, the series producer, who also worked on the first “Planet Earth.”
“You’re trying to capture new and younger audiences,” he said. “You have to try every trick to hook them in and engage them.”
Waiting for a New Story
The iguana sequence shows an annual ritual on Fernandina, one of the Galápagos Islands. Marine iguanas — named for their defining swimming ability — hatch from buried eggs and must immediately traverse a stretch of beach thick with predators, in this case scores of hungry racer snakes. In this scene, one plucky iguana was set upon by a swarm of snakes, only to miraculously wriggle free and scrabble up the surrounding rocks, serpents nipping fruitlessly at its heels.
The scene was a product of patience and the intense pressure to film “things that have never been seen,” Mr. Widdicombe said.
The challenge was to translate astounding but chaotic behavior into footage that was as spectacular onscreen as it was in person. Then, after many trips over three years — the filmmakers shooting and waiting from dawn to dusk — a lizard evaded certain death.
“People have seen pretty much every corner of the earth covered by natural history series,” Mr. Hugh-Jones said. “So you need to find a new way to tell the story.”
Like its predecessor, “Planet Earth II” was an enormous undertaking, involving some 2,089 shooting days in 40 countries. David Attenborough, 90, returned to narrate. (The American version of “Planet Earth,” shown on Discovery, was narrated by Sigourney Weaver.)
Unlike the original, though, which specialized in awesome spectacle shot at a remove, “Planet Earth II” seeks to close the distance between viewer and animal.
The goal was to pair the spectacle with an intimacy that made the animals characters rather than just subjects for observation. The innovation is partly technological. Nimbler mobile cameras allowed operators to move smoothly through environments, creating a more immersive experience and letting viewers “get down on the animals’ level.” Mr. Hugh-Jones said.
The lizard chase, for example, was captured both by Mr. Widdicombe’s long lens, and a mobile Movi camera used to track the dashing iguanas. Elsewhere, drones whip viewers through jungles and other previously forbidding landscapes. Advances in lowlight filming allowed for night sequences, like the ones showing leopards prowling in Mumbai after dark.
The other key component is stagecraft. The producers used tension-amping slow motion and a pulse-pounding score, and varied the lengths and perspective of shots for maximum suspense. They also varied iguanas.
The sequence is built around a master shot of the star lizard’s escape, but the producers acknowledge that shots of different animals were used to build a composite scene.
Other acceptable but not totally faithfully presented footage involved a camera strapped to a golden eagle that was later revealed to be a trained bird, and other animals, like the lemurs in Madagascar, who were used to humans after being studied by scientists, which allowed for closer filming.
Aside from rules about not mistreating animals or inventing an event, the ethics of how wildlife filmmakers represent what they’re depicting are largely uncodified. (Writers like Chris Palmer, a documentarian and professor, have called for a code of conduct.)
As for “Planet Earth II,” Mr. Hugh-Jones said, “the principle is an accurate portrayal of the wilderness.”
When Tweeters Attack
The eagle-cam revelation sparked a backlash online, one of several incidents that demonstrated how for all the promotional benefits of viral videos, social media is a double-edged sword. Viewers also complained about reused avalanche footage from the original “Planet Earth”; added sound effects; and the brutality depicted in the series, particularly surrounding sexual violence among snow leopards.
More sober criticism came from commentators like Martin Hughes-Games, who chastised the film in The Guardian for promoting an irresponsibly sunny outlook for the world’s declining species.
The filmmakers bristle at such charges. Blockbuster nature series “break through the noise and make a real difference to people’s conscience,” Mr. Widdicombe said.
Ultimately all the chatter was a measure of the impact “Planet Earth II” made in Britain, something the producers hope to replicate here.
“It’s almost as if people can only get that excited about a wildlife film every 10 years or so,” Mr. Hugh-Jones said. “I feel lucky to have that once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
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