The making of Planet Earth

Surviving stingray bites, blizzards and snakes in the kitchen

The iguana stake-out

When I speak to White on the phone from her Bristol home, she admits: “We never expected scenes like that.” Instead, she says: “we expected a single iguana, a single snake. But when we found the patch of beach where the iguanas were hatching, one of our crew ran up the beach to get a good shot, then suddenly 13 or 14 snakes poured out of the cracks in the rocks. We all went ‘oh my God that’s a lot of snakes,’ and we knew that we had hit the jackpot.”

Suddenly 13 or 14 snakes poured out of the cracks in the rocks
The one thing you learn very early on with natural history is to be extremely patient

Of course, cynics would suggest that documentarians are rarely passive onlookers and the temptation to scoop up the odd iguana to safety must be overwhelming, but White insists the entirety of their work Is observational:

“The moment you interfere with animals, they stop doing what they do. So you can’t. The one thing you learn very early on with natural history is to be extremely patient. If you rush it you’ll mess it up. Our job is just to film.”

The making of Planet Earth 2

Planning, preparation and patience

It’s the timing and preparation involved in creating each episode that’s really staggering. Islands was three and a half years in the making, including a year of preparation before any cameras were so much as switched-on. For an episode to work, it must include the perfect combination of mammals and moods – from the dramatic to the astoundingly beautiful, and even the skin-crawling (as in the swarm of crabs featured in the episode). The final result required 12 separate location shoots, ranging from two to six weeks at a time.

The penguin shoot alone was booked a year in advance and the trip required over six weeks, for just one week of filming. The long and perilous journey to Zavodovski Island included flying from the UK to the Falklands via Ascension, then spending a week in a yacht with nothing to do but eat and sleep and avoid those suffering from sea sickness (a few, I am told, but no names are mentioned). Travelling like this involves living in close quarters with colleagues which is why, White tells me, “it’s important to choose your team carefully.” She’s peaking from experience, I suspect.

Once on the island, the yacht can’t dock for long as the storms roll in every other day, so the team is dropped off and left with just their kit and tents– you’ve got to be committed, explains White. “I was really nervous for this trip. Once you’re there, that’s it – you can’t leave.”

The making of Planet Earth 1

And they’re brutal conditions to stick around for. White shares her personal diaries with me from her trips and they make clear how, when you’re away from home working in difficult conditions, it’s the simple pleasures that make all the difference. On 20th January, following a particularly inclement period of weather, she writes: “We finally have a break and the boat has been able to come in. They’ve brought us bread, beer and homemade pizza! Tonight I am going for a change of clothes after living in the same things for almost a fortnight. They are in a terrible state after being shat upon by one penguin and puked on by another.”

Highs and lows

A job this extreme comes with its downfalls, the reality of which can be difficult to comprehend when you’re watching the programme. And they’re not for the faint-hearted. “You’re constantly aware that something could happen,” White explains. “One of the team was stung by a sting ray. We had a horrible time trying to get him out to help, we were two hours away from the mainland on a little boat. Another time, somebody had an infection – just from a small cut. Sanitation is a real issue.”

And, let’s not forget the creepy crawlies: “tropical islands are pretty gnarly,” she quips. “While we were in the Seychelles there were so many mosquitos there was no way of avoiding being bitten all over – they bit through my trousers and all over my face. It was mosquitos in the day, then centipedes biting you all night. One night in Panama we came back and there was a boa in the kitchen eating all our eggs!”

When the filming is finished, the tents are packed up and the jet lag and blizzards behind you, the hard work really begins.

White and her editor spent 14 weeks in the edit suite, tirelessly trawling through footage to shape it into a story, before running it by BBC execs and, of course, David Attenborough himself. While Attenborough – now 90 – no longer attends shoots, he’s still hands-on, running through the team’s final script and editing it as he sees fit. “He will phone you up and challenge you. He wants to make sure that what he’s saying is accurate and tells a good story.” 

The day the film went out, I felt sick all afternoon, imagining what people would think

After you’ve wrapped, all that’s left is waiting for the episode to air. “The day the film went out, I felt sick all afternoon, imagining what people would think. It’s utterly nerve-wracking,” she laughs.

Needless to say, White had nothing to worry about. Islands became the best performing first episode of a natural history programme in 15 years, bringing in a whopping 12.3 million viewers, and racking up almost 8 million YouTube views for the Iguana versus Snake showdown alone.

That’s more than most of us can say after a day in the office. 

Planet Earth II is on BBC One on Sunday at 8pm until 11th December. Catch up with previous episodes on iPlayer

Images: BBC, Elizabeth White