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How the BBC makes wildlife films that look like Hollywood movies

Planet Earth II is the most cinematic wildlife series yet.

Capturing Planet Earth is a three-part video series from Vox Observatory about the evolution of the BBC’s wildlife films.

When the BBC launched its Natural History Unit in 1957 to produce radio and TV programs about wildlife, its wind-up film cameras could only run for 20 seconds at a time. There was no way to schedule multi-destination airplane trips, and once a crew arrived at their remote location, they couldn’t communicate with Bristol for weeks or review their footage.

Now, as the BBC releases its latest blue-chip series, Planet Earth II, cameras are smaller than ever, they can shoot at higher frame rates in lower light, and data storage is essentially unlimited.

But each time a technological development threatens to make their jobs easier, the NHU becomes more ambitious. It’s not enough to show a barn owl hunting a harvest mouse — now they want it from the mouse’s point of view. It’s not enough to get footage of snow leopards, one of the hardest animals on the planet to track down — now they want to spy on them from a foot’s distance with motion-detecting cameras.

The result is that Planet Earth II is the most cinematic wildlife film yet. We saw a big hint of this when they hired the man who composed the music for The Lion King. If you found yourself shivering during the Planet Earth II trailer, Hans Zimmer is the reason.

But it permeates the entire series. “To make it feel truly cinematic, I think you have to tell the stories from a dramatic perspective, and that means putting yourselves in the eyes, in the mind, in the world of the animals, and seeing what's at stake for them,” said Mike Gunton, the executive producer of Planet Earth II.

In the 1970s and ’80s, it was enough for the NHU to show people a creature they’d never seen before and provide the details in the narration. The films were illustrated zoology lectures. Since then, the producers have become sticklers for capturing specific behaviors, and in Planet Earth II, they showcase the drama of those behaviors. Each scene sets up the characters to perform something — something brave, something brutal, something bizarre. They’ve made room for our emotions; that’s what cinematic storytelling means.

And visually, the cinematic approach means the camera is often moving:

Technology that was developed in just the past few years enabled BBC to liberate its cameras from the tripod for Planet Earth II.

Hollywood filmmakers have kept the camera in motion for decades, but for obvious reasons, it’s much more difficult when your subject is wildlife. As we explain in the video at the top of this post, NHU producers used new stabilization tools throughout the production of Planet Earth II to move the camera alongside the animals.

Those tracking shots, combined with the dramatic editing and the music, produce something that no longer resembles documentary. Chadden Hunter, producer of the “Grasslands” episode of Planet Earth II, put it well when he told us, “We’re really taking wildlife almost into another genre”:

I think if you pick up a 10- or 15-year-old wildlife documentary, you’d be shocked by how old-fashioned it feels. It feels like something out of a classroom. Whereas now we’re trying to compete with things like Game of Thrones or House of Cards. We really want to use every technique, from the image to the sound design to the storytelling, to really make that a really dramatic, emotional journey. ... When you’re talking about something of the scale of Planet Earth II, the market that we’re trying to reach — we’re really taking wildlife almost into another genre.

Learn more in the video at the top of this post, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for the next episode of this mini-series.

Planet Earth II airs on BBC America Saturdays through March 25.