By Harriet Hall
29 Nov 2016
A lone marine iguana hatchling sits, statuesque on a pebbled Galapagos beach. A hungry racer snake slinks dangerously close by, seeking its breakfast. But the serpent is near blind and the motionless iguana is missed.
Within seconds, another snake appears – this time, close enough that the hatchling cannot risk dangerous statue play and bolts for its life. As it scarpers across the beach, desperately seeking safety, the snake is joined by tens of others who appear from between rocks, darting in all directions, desperate to catch the new-born reptile for their morning meal.
A horror-movie-like score starts up as the baby reptile meanders around its perpetrators, scuttling across pebbles and between rocks before it is caught by several, who begin to constrict his young body. Thankfully, after a dramatic struggle, he wiggles free from the Medusa-like tangle and climbs to meet his family.
This was the moment at which Sunday night viewers sat, stomachs clenched, shouting at their television screens. A piece of documentary film making so captivating one could think it was a Stephen King creation: scripted and manipulated just so, to give the perfect level of build-up, suspense, sheer terror, then relief.
But, King it was not. This was episode one of the BBC’s Planet Earth II, and the chase scene came to an exultant conclusion with the warm purr of David Attenborough, confirming: “a near miraculous escape.”
Bringing this breathtaking and unfathomably brutal two minutes of action to our screens was 38-year-old producer and director, Elizabeth White, who was given the mammoth – and career-defining - task of creating the first episode of the series, Islands, a decade after the unprecedentedly popular first series aired in 2006 – since watched by more than half a billion people worldwide.
White really put in the hours to get here – having got a foot in logging hours of fish footage for an unpaid internship on Blue Planet as an undergraduate, before completing a PhD, becoming a researcher then an assistant producer – only producing her own work for the past four years.
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 ”
But, of course, this wasn’t a one shot wonder. The team spent over two weeks watching the beach, waking at sunrise and retiring at dusk, just focused on the hatchlings. “You can’t tell when those babies are going to come out of the sand. We had two spotters on the beach and only two cameramen, so if one of them was off filming elsewhere on the island when an iguana appeared, we’d radio over and say ‘get back to the beach, quick!’ and hope to capture that perfect shot,” White describes. “And of course, it took an awful lot of time to get it right because everything happens so fast.”
Such chill-inducing scenes were difficult enough to watch through hands over eyes in the safety of our own living rooms, but being on the actual beach, within close proximity to the snakes, must take some real grit. “I have to say, I’m not a big snake fan,” Liz says, “but I came away really liking them. They’re quite pretty little things, and they were entirely disinterested in us. If we left a case of equipment on the sand, we’d find them hiding behind it when we returned, so we had to be careful – but they are totally focused on food. Of course, we were all wearing decent boots, just to be sure.”
They were lucky with the weather (which translates, I am told, as being unlucky with downtime), shooting non-stop to take advantage of the light. Every evening, the team would retire to the boat in which they were staying, devour some much-needed dinner and flop into bed, exhausted. White would stay up, running through rushes trying to determine what was missing, how they could capture stronger footage, and what was required to secure that elusive money shot, all while serenaded by the snoring of an exhausted crew on the other side of the thin wooden cabin.
“ 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.”
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.”
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!”
“ One of the team was stung by a sting ray. We had a horrible time trying to get him out to help ”
After filming for hours, sleeping brings with it its own challenges. “You’ve got to learn the tricks,” White tells me. “In cold climates you take of all your most of your layers and just wear merino thermals. Then you shove any wet clothing into your sleeping bag to let it steam off, and surround yourself with electronics so they don’t freeze.” And all while sharing a tent with a colleague. “Today was bleak,” she writes in her diary on Friday 23rd January 2015, “big winds throwing gravel at the tent as I logged footage. Cheered up with boil-in-the-bag curry. Winds from the SE overnight so boat had to move again.”
But for all the harsh weather, biting insects and undesirable accommodation, it’s a job like no other, and one that brings with it moments that most of us will never experience in our lifetimes. “I woke up one night in Zavodovski, recalls White, and there was no cloud, just the most incredible view of the stars. The penguins were so excited, they got all shouty and I just sat and watched them, some in groups, some alone, squawking and revelling in it. It was the most incredible thing to witness.”
Other moments noted in her diaries include: “crèche groups of huge grey fluffy baby penguins,” and: “Just saw my first Southern right whale.” It’s enough to forget all the risks involved – and the fact that the job often results in the missing of family events – and several friends’ weddings.
The big reveal
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