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Why Planet Earth II couldn’t avoid stories about humans' devastating impact on the animal kingdom

“If you’re trying to tell a complete story ... there was an issue that we were going to have to bring up.”

Madagascar’s indri lemur population has been threatened by rapid deforestation.
BBC America

Anyone who’s ever found themselves captivated by a scene from Planet Earth — the BBC’s landmark 11-part documentary that awed viewers with its stunning presentation of animal life all over the globe — should be looking forward to Planet Earth II. A decade after the original 2006 series wowed audiences with its artfully filmed, high-definition footage of elusive snow leopards and hyrdoplaning dolphins and adorable polar bear cubs, the highly anticipated six-part follow-up promises an even more stunning adventure, albeit one that comes with a grave warning.

The spirit of the series remains the same: Planet Earth II travels from deserts to swamplands to even the nooks and crannies of towering skyscrapers to showcase the wonders of the animal kingdom as few people have ever seen them. And thanks to the technology advancements of the past 10 years, the picture definition is higher than ever. But so are the stakes of the stories.

In this sequel, David Attenborough’s iconic narration often takes a melancholy turn as he explains why an island’s crab population is deteriorating, or why a family of lanky lemurs has lost much of its habitat. It’s only been a decade since Planet Earth debuted, but in that time period, the impact of humans on the animals and landscapes Planet Earth II covers is so significant that the series is forced to acknowledge it over and over again. And in its final episode, it takes on “Cities,” making humans’ role in climate change abundantly clear, and often heartbreaking to watch.

To gain some insight into how the creators of Planet Earth II decided to broach the topic, I spoke with executive producer Mike Gunton and director Elizabeth White about the storytelling challenges they faced and the inevitability of integrating climate change into the series’ latest iteration. Here’s what they had to say.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Framke

Before you started shooting Planet Earth II, had you already planned to be more explicit about the impact of climate change on animals and their habitats? Or was there a point during filming when it became clear that you didn’t have a choice?

Elizabeth White

In each of the different habitats, we do address an issue. “Cities” is very obvious, the pros and cons of cities with lights and all that kind of stuff. But with all these shows, it felt as if, if you’re trying to tell a complete story — or as much as you can with 10 or 12 stories in a 47-minute film — all of us producers felt that there was an issue that we were going to have to bring up.

For “Islands,” I felt that invasive species and extinction on islands was a big one. Because when we were trying to find stories, it was like, “Oh, god, just imagine if you could do the elephant bird in Madagascar,” or, “Why are there no big mammals?” And a lot of it is because extinctions that have happened. So it felt like you couldn’t tell a story about islands without mentioning something of rats, cats, and in this case, we went for the story of the yellow crazy ant, because that’s actually massively destructive all across Indonesia and Malaysia, but [the story of how it’s devastated the native crab communities] hasn’t been told.

Mike Gunton

It’s also quite a surprise that an ant can do that. So again, we’re picking a story that tells quite an intense and thought-provoking environmental story, yet it’s still a fascinating biologically natural history piece that’s visually fascinating as well. It’s even a little bit gruesome. Whereas a rat just eating an egg...

Elizabeth White

It wouldn’t captivate people. If people turn it off, you’re not going to get the rest of your film’s message through.

I think it just felt at some point that [for example] you couldn’t make a jungle film without talking about deforestation. Those stories sort of naturally felt like part of the piece.

Mike Gunton

[Also] putting them into context rather than just sort of doing a handbrake turn ... the crabs had a story, and then the twist was, “Actually, they’re now suffering from the perils of invasive species.” We’re doing a story about the indri [lemurs], and then we do a little twist and say, “Of course, in the 10 years since this indri was born, the amount of forest it has to live in has [dramatically] reduced.”

We were quite pleased with being able to evoke some sense of the fragility of the planet whilst not breaking the structure and the grammar of the series.

Elizabeth White

Yeah. It’s not a doom-and-gloom show, but it’s a thought-provoking show. It’s like, “These places are special, look how wonderful this is — but this is fragile. Think about these things.”

The final piece at the end of the series, “Cities,” very much says that we need to create a planet not just for us but all life on Earth. It’s about sowing those seeds that’ll make people walk away mulling it over. We have no control over what they choose to do, but you want to sow a seed that makes people feel connected, and empowered to do something.

Planet Earth II premieres Saturday, February 18, at 9 pm EST on BBC America.