by Dale Templar, Series Producer
When you’ve worked in television for over 20 years you get quite used to meeting and working with famous people. There are very few encounters that have ever really fazed me. One exception was meeting George Michael in a studio at the height of his solo career in the early 90s and, more recently, literally bumping into David Beckham behind the scenes at the O2 in London, with a beefburger in my mouth.
Well, a few weeks ago I was in another recording studio in Hampstead, North London waiting to meet one of our most truly talented British actors. I spotted him as he came through the door of the studio canteen and, as I walked towards him, a vast array of movies and characters flashed before me. Here was “The Elephant Man”, ” The Naked Civil Servant”, Harry Potter’s eccentric wandmaker and finally that stomach bursting scene from “Alien” leapt into my mind! Yes, it can now be officially confirmed that John Hurt is the voice of “Human Planet”. And what a voice! As soon as he shook my hand and said a simple “Hello, nice to meet you”, I just couldn’t wait to start our voice record session.
We spend months in edit cutting the pictures, crafting the films visually but we listen to the programmes with what we call scratch voices on them. At this stage, the script is usually recorded by the episode producer or, sometimes, the picture editor. They always do a great job but when the script is finally locked and we finally get to put on “the voice of the series”, a instant transformation occurs. The narrator gives it a unique identity. John’s resonant, commanding yet warm voice wraps itself around the pictures and draws you into the action and the characters. As I expected John was a consummate professional and we all worked incredibly hard, recording the voice-over for both the Arctic and Oceans episode. This is not an exact science but every line, every word is scrutinized. John had six sets of professional ears, including his own (which was usually the most critical), making sure everything was perfect.
What I loved was John’s dry sense of humour. In the Arctic script we do a scene which is effectively written as a pastiche of a television cookery show, of which we have many in the UK. Here was John Hurt doing his own wonderful interpretation of Delia Smith, or one of that ilk, reading out a recipe for how to prepare Kiviak, a Greenland delicacy, made from unplucked Arctic birds and a sealskin. A classic moment I will never forget.
by Roger Short, Producer, BBC Radio 3
Yes indeed, as Andy Kershaw tells us on his promo video, filmed recently in Papua New Guinea, he and Lucy Duran are currently travelling the globe for a new eight-part series of world music programmes. Music Planet will be a companion series for BBC One’s major new natural history project Human Planet, presenting the music of some of the cultures featured in the TV series.
As I write, Andy is on his way to Thailand, there to join producer James Parkin and engineer James Birtwistle for a trip that includes Laos and Burma; tomorrow Lucy Duran and I, with engineer Martin Appleby, head off on a rather shorter haul to Galicia in northern Spain – this is for a feature on how the local traditions are influenced by music from across the sea (and did you know there was a mass migration of Britons buying villas in northern Spain in the sixth century, bringing Celtic culture to that part of the world?).
Just as Human Planet shows how people relate to their landscape and environment, in Music Planet, we’re showing how all this is reflected in the local music. So far Lucy has visited Madagascar, Kenya, Greenland and Mali, and Andy has been to the Solomon Islands as well as Papua New Guinea. There’s plenty more before the series broadcasts early next year. If you’re interested, we’ll let you know how we get on…
by Bethan Evans, Researcher, Arctic and Mountains team
I’ve recently returned from my last Arctic filming trip for Human Planet. My amazing year and a bit in the North culminated with an encounter with a majestic animal known as the King of the Arctic.
The shoot was in the town of Churchill which is also known as the “Polar bear capital of the World”. The town is built near to an ancient polar bear migration route. Each autumn polar bears gather nearby, waiting hungrily for the sea ice to reform so they can get back out to their hunting ground. Forced onto land during summer due to the melting ice the bears have not eaten anything substantial for months. So who can blame them when they wander into the town enticed by the lovely food smells that are produced by restaurants or even the bins and rubbish dump!
We were there to film how people carry on their daily lives, when for several weeks of the year, there is a real possibility of coming face to face with the only land animal that is known to actively predate on humans! Luckily there is a specialist protection team set up in Churchill called the Polar Bear Alert. These guys work tirelessly, in the most unique way, to ensure that the both bears and people are safe and unharmed – watch the full story in Human Planet: Arctic programme in 2011!
The Polar Bear is an icon – a majestic animal that’s revered but also feared, a symbol of a lost wilderness. I felt so privileged to have the opportunity to see these incredible animals. So it was a shock when it finally dawned on me that my first chance to see a Polar Bear in the wild might also be my last. I’m so used to seeing images of the Polar Bear whether it be in Hollywood films, marketing campaigns for soft drinks or even Christmas cards. They somehow make these Arctic dwellers seem abundant but of course the sad fact is they’re not.
Climate change is causing a vast reduction in sea ice and therefore a loss of natural habitat for the polar bears which, in time, will lead to their demise in the wild. With this realisation I began to think of all the different Arctic people I have met on my Human Planet journey. If climate change continues at its current rate what will happen to them? How will Amos the Greenlandic fisherman make a living from fishing at winter ice holes when the ice isn’t thick enough to support him? How will Lukasi and Mary go under the ice to collect mussels when they can no longer predict how the ice will behave?
The Arctic people I have met are incredibly adaptive – their way of life has changed drastically in the space of one generation. Many people have the ability to take the best from western technology and adapt it to work with traditional knowledge. However, Arctic peoples are inextricably connected to the landscape – a change in their environment impacts on every aspect of their lives. This isn’t something that is going to happen in the future, it is happening right now.
The good news is that it’s not too late to slow down or prevent the negative impacts of climate change not only for Arctic Peoples and animals, but for all of us. Small measures from you and me can make all the difference. Take a look at these two BBC sites for more information http://www.bbc.co.uk/climate/ and http://www.bbc.co.uk/bloom/
Making this series has really raised my awareness of the incredible variety of cultures and wildlife that the Earth sustains. I hope that if I can change my ways the first time I see a polar bear won’t be my last and the environmental impact on Arctic peoples lives will be minimal.
by Willow Murton, Assistant Producer, Oceans/Jungles team
9th October 2009
This time a year ago, I flew to La Paz in Bolivia, the highest capital city in the world and there, short of breath and cheeks full of Andean colour, I began life on the Human Planet team. I type this blog now under the stifling heat of the Algerian Sahara, many miles from those early cool heights.
Sometimes it is good to stop and reflect. There has not been much time over the last year for moments to look back – so much looking forward into the matrix of kit lists, itineraries and budgets that the months and the countries can go by.
This October evening, we gathered on a carpet outside under the date palms and the eager gaze of the local well workers who we have been filming with. Swirls of white turbans and the excited movement of children surround a small screen as we play out clips of what we have filmed over the last few days. They watch the images and the sounds they have patiently repeated in order to get just the right shot, in the right light. They laugh and we relax. This is one of the best moments of film-making, sharing the work of crew and contributors. We hope all our ridiculous demands make some kind of sense when seen on screen, and we too begin to understand more as questions bounce between us.
The claustrophobia of the small tunnel where we have been filming opens out into the warm evening. Small glasses of sweet mint tea are passed about amongst the comments. Filming is a demanding and long process which the workers have participated in with huge patience and good humour. In order to give them a glimpse of how the final film may come together, as well as a chilly insight into another underground world, we put on an edit from an Arctic sequence. There we are, warm in the evening air, watching people wrapped up from icy cold. There are gasps when I say that the temperature there is thirty degrees below Celsius. The days here in the desert are usually thirty degrees above and not unusually much higher. Beneath the arid surface of the Sahara, the workers here have dug through thick red clay to make tunnels to feed an ever-growing irrigation system. They cannot believe the effort of these distant Arctic dwellers as they dig into frozen crevasses. They are even more incredulous when they realise why. What the Inuit consider a gastronomic delicacy, the workers of the Sahara struggle to imagine edible. The frozen walls of an igloo protecting those inside from the cruel cold of the Arctic belong to another world, far from the rich red buildings of this small village, where people seek shade from a relentless burning sun.
Yet, further North, the Arctic is beginning its own dark turn to the winter once more. This year on Human Planet has spanned continents and captured moments of incredible feats, emotion and beauty. As the workers leave to sleep before they are called to prayer again and back to their work, I contemplate a year which has taken me to a frontline in the Simien mountains, above Greenlandic glaciers, into the path of avalanches, under sea ice and onto its floe edge, from Arctic darkness to midnight sun, from the green of a desert oasis to the barren hillsides of a Caribbean island. Like the Andean heights where I began, it takes my breath away.
by Willow Murton, Assistant Producer, Arctic/Mountains team
“Wake up Willow!” shouts a voice.
I pull off my eye mask and open my eyes. The sun shines bright above me. I look at my watch. Three o’clock in the morning? I sit bolt upright, lifting my head from the make do pillow. Reindeer hair sticks to my cheek. Simon the sound recordist mutters as he rigidly stares out ahead of us. Beth the researcher alongside us is, like me, struggling with sleep deprivation and the daylight. I am still trying to focus my eyes in the dazzling night of the Arctic summer. Suddenly I see the figures along the ice edge. Five men, spread out along the horizon, all poised, waiting…watching for their target.
Simon swears. We aren’t hunters but we know the rules. We mustn’t do anything, we mustn’t move, cannot move from our dogsled bed. I spot our tripod and camera, no cameraman anywhere nearby. I am filled with a dreadful nauseous realisation – this could be the moment that we have spent over a year working towards. Months of careful negotiations and awkward logistics all for us to sleep through our only possible chance of filming a narwhal hunt. We can only sit and watch in confused disbelief… At that moment, the silhouette of a whale crests the ice edge. I wonder how on earth I am going to explain this to the team back in Cardiff…
Surreal scenes like this are surely what you are supposed to wake from rather than wake up to. It’s late Spring in Northern Greenland , there is no reference to time as the sun never sets so the days blend into each other. In the full glare of the midnight sun this is a place where anything seems possible and where dreaming and being seem to meet.
The landscape itself is constantly changing as the sea ice melts and the winds reshape it continually. One morning it is a distant horizon and the next it reappears broken against the floe edge like shattered glass. Weeks of watching ice charts are no preparation for what life on the ice demands. We are four hours from the town of Qaanaaq and a world away from the scientific maps of metereology. The brothers we are filming read the ice because they have learnt that their lives depend on it.
Our camp of six sleds is set on a floating platform of ice, around five metres thick. We must always be ready to move in case the ice cracks and we find ourselves adrift in the freezing Arctic Ocean. All the hunters have a warning tale to tell. We live between the anxiety of the hunt and the ice watch and the monotony of no day and night and the constant of rehydrated food rations. We put sun cream on at two in the morning and wear sunglasses in our sleeping bags. We laugh with the hunters, with each other, to ourselves. We develop our own ways of dealing with the daylight and the long hours of nervous despair waiting for invisible whales to return.
What happened next after that first daylit night on the ice edge, only the film can tell. Finally coming back to the predictable shades of the British summer was itself like awakening from a distant dream.
Dale Templar – Series Producer
I think I have already moaned about the British Summer in an earlier blog, and believe me it’s easy to moan. Reading Willow’s account of summer life in Greenland does make we remember how lucky we are here in the UK. Living with 24 hour sunlight is really strange and does mess with your head and sleep patterns. I was lucky enough to spend time in Antarctica filming penguins – the cameraman and I had to wait until 3.30am to film the sunset! The flip side however is far worse; there are many communities in the Arctic as well as the scientists down South, who have to spend months of the year in total darkness. That would totally do my head in! I would suffer from SAD (Sunlight Affective Disorder) and seriously go mad!
I was talking this week to a producer from Glasgow. Apparently SAD is a real problem there and the Scottish Government is considering handing out vitamin D to people because of the lack of sunlight in the winter months. So, can you imagine what it must be like in Greenland? Anyway, I’m looking forward to viewing footage from central Africa next week. Now there’s a great place to be, 12 hours of darkness and 12 hours of sunshine, the perfect mix for film makers.
by Brian Leith, Executive Producer, Human Planet
I realise these blogs are supposed to be action-packed accounts of daring exploits posted by intrepid members of our filmmaking teams scattered to the farthest-flung corners of the world. But this week I thought we’d bring you a surprise.
So, while we have one team (Mark and Renee) filming the capture of giant fish in the turbulent rapids of a river in Laos, another (Tuppence and Jane) filming tribesmen literally stealing a kill from hungry lions in Kenya, and another (Tom and Rachael) filming a house-move (!) atop a 40-metre tree in Papua – and yet another team (Nick and Bethan) filming a traditional Inuit whale hunt in Greenland… I’m bringing this front-line account to you from exotic Whiteladies Road in Bristol.
You see, not all of us in glamorous wildlife TV get to go on those exotic trips. Some of us have to man the telephones and sit in front of computers back at base, trying to keep track of it all. Some of us are ‘production management’ staff, in charge of making plans and making sure those plans actually turn into film shoots; some of us are technical staff, trying to make sure that all those sounds and images gathered from around the world are transferred, logged, and stored in a suitable format so that we can actually make the series at the end of all this action; some of us are picture and sound editors, destined forever to sit in darkened rooms imagining what it must have been like to be on location when that mad thing happened.
And some of us never get to go anywhere at all because we’re… well, because we’re just so darned IMPORTANT. As the Executive Producer of Human Planet I rarely get to travel beyond Redland and Clifton, here in deepest Bristol. This has its up-sides: I get to go home at a reasonable hour most days and I can take my son to school in the mornings; I get to drink lattes in fashionable cafes discussing the latest gossip in Broadcast magazine.
But there are down-sides too: I wave jealously to my colleagues as they head off down the M4 destined for Iguacu Falls or The Skeleton Coast in Namibia with tents and sleeping bags tucked under their arms; I have to sit silently at the lunch tables – no intrepid tales to tell, no scars to show off, no shrunken heads to give as gifts to adorn my colleague’s desks. Yes, it’s a tough life for us execs – we’ve moved on from the heady days of adrenaline and malaria to the gentler slopes of ovaltine and mogadon. We may get – I said may – the bigger bucks, but we’re hardly the tanned and chilled well-travelled explorers we once were – or once hoped to become.
So the picture of me above shows me standing by my hedge in Redland – about to head south down Whiteladies Road, a gruelling fifteen-minute trek to the BBC offices here in Bristol. The editor of this blog has threatened to add another photo of me in more adventurous days – crossing a river in the Congo on the trail of jungle elephants… But my shtick these days is purely vicarious adventure.
by Nicolas Brown, Producer/Director, Arctic and Mountains
“Is one of you Mr. Brown?”
Shock, blood rushes to my face. “Who knows me here? This is the most remote airport I have ever been to. (Have I done something wrong…?)”
We are in Ummannaq, which is nearly 600 km North of the Polar Circle, halfway up the West Coast of Greenland. The town sits on a tiny island (12 sq km) dominated by a towering rock called “Hjertefjeldet”, or Heart–shaped Mountain. It is easily the most picturesque fishing village I have ever seen – and the most far flung.
The woman in front of me laughs at my bewildered look. “My husband is Ole Jørgen Hammeken. He is friends with your father.”
Soon I am seated across from Ole Jørgen — the man my father calls “The Eskimo Errol Flynn”. The comparison is apt. Ole Jørgen has a stage presence that fills a room. A decade ago, he led my father on an expedition to the northernmost mountain in Greenland, now dubbed Hammeken Point. Ole is the first native Greenlander to be honoured as one the world’s elite explorers.
We laugh at the coincidence — Ole has been to my home thousands of miles away in Gypsum, Colorado, in the heart of the American Rockies. There he ate venison that we harvested from the forest behind our house. Now, totally unplanned, I am seated at his table, eating halibut harvested that morning from beneath the Ummannaq sea ice.
Weeks later, Human Planet takes us to Nepal. It is another place I have never been. Once again, I am greeted with a shock.
“You look like your brother…” muses a Nepali man standing before me. “But he is a strong climber—strong as a Sherpa. Are you?”
I stare into the beaming, mischievous smile so characteristic of Nepali Sherpas. A flash of recognition hits me. Put goggles on his eyes, an oxygen mask on his face—yes, it is Pemma Sherpa, who led my brother to the top of Mt. Everest last year. I’ve seen the pictures (it was my brother, Michael Brown’s, fourth successful summit).
I can tell that Pemma is going to push me. I’m not the mountaineer my brother is. I curse myself for not training harder for the expedition ahead…
When I started work on Human Planet I knew we would be exploring places I’ve never been before. But I never expected to keep bumping into people I know! In the famous words of my fellow countryman Walt Disney, “It’s a small, small world!”
Dale Templar, Series Producer – Icebreakers
Last week we had unfermented mud in Mali stopping a shoot, this week we’ve had sea ice breaking up far too fast in Greenland. Pushing complex filming trips back at the last minute is not ideal but bringing them forward can be a total nightmare and that’s exactly what it has been. Whether or not you believe the global warming theories, things ain’t what they used to be in the Arctic. One morning last week our “Queen of the Ice”, Bethan Evans got the call she never wanted from North-East Greenland. Overnight a big storm had come across the region and many kilometres of sea ice had been literally blown away – the team had to come and film “now!”, not in four weeks time as planned. With director Nick Brown away in Nepal (see above), the camera crew and safety co-ordinator booked to work elsewhere and flights every two weeks at best, we were starting from scratch. Willow Murton, our assistant producer had to drop the other story she was working on in Siberia and it was Arctic action stations. Somehow, I do not know how , we have an amazing team on location with one of the world’s top Arctic cameramen, Doug Allan. He had another shoot pencilled in for the series Frozen Planet that got cancelled due to weather! How lucky was that?
by Charlotte Scott
Assistant Producer, Jungles/Oceans team
As one of a team of four working on the Jungles episode of Human Planet, I said “yes” without any hesitation when asked if I’d like to take a colleague’s place at the last minute and go to Colombia. On this recce, a research only trip, my task was to go and meet the Emberá tribe based deep in the jungles of Colombia. The Emberá in this region are the last actively known group of people to still tip their blowpipe darts with poison frog venom.
It was only after looking into the whole trip in detail that I realised how much of a challenge this recce could be. The jungle is always a difficult place to work in and if I injured myself I would at times be seven hours away from the nearest help.
It all started with a bang before I got anywhere near the jungle. On my first night in Bogota I was uncomfortably close to a large car bomb that killed two people close to my hotel. So I was only too happy to set off for the jungle the next morning. Two days and a 4 ½ hour mule ride later we arrived at our village in the heart of the Chocó Mountains.
I then had to explain to all the men in the village that I was interested in seeing the process of finding the frogs, making the darts and going on a hunt with them. They were happy to help but first they told me of their malnutrition problems and the lack of electricity and trained health workers and asked if I could tell their story.
The next morning after the first obligatory rain shower (this is one of the wettest places in the world… 13.3 metres p.a.), we set off into the jungle on foot. Around 2 hours later ,after slipping and sliding along vertiginous and muddy paths, we stopped for a well earned rest at a dilapidated hut. Whilst taking a breather, we heard calls from above to say that some of the hunters had found poison dart frogs. They do this by calling to the frogs at certain times of the day until they call back, then they track them down in the undergrowth by following their calls.
I proceeded to film how they transferred the poison from one black-legged poison frog to around 60 darts. This process is only carried out by the hunters once every 6 months to a year as the poison is so potent that it lasts for over a year.
As I was filming the transfer of poison onto the darts, my foot found a bit of rotten bamboo and went straight through. The vibration through the floor caused all the darts to dance in the air. I held my breath, but luckily they all landed safely without scratching anyone…… Just one scratch from a tipped dart would have meant instant death.
Narwhal Alert – Dale Templar, Series Producer
It has been all systems go this week on the series. We have had to go into over-drive to get an extremely difficult shoot off to the north of Greenland to film an extraordinary sequence involving Narwhal. Bethan Evans, the ice queen of Human Planet, discovered that the sea ice has started to break up much sooner than expected. Hunting Narwhal is extremely difficult and one of the key hunting times for a particular community in the far north-west ties into the ice sheet melt. Everyone is looking pale and there are boxes of kit everywhere. The team is rallying around as ever and top Arctic camerman Doug Allan is falling off one frozen trip and straight on to another!
by Bethan Evans, Researcher, Arctic/Mountains team
As the “cold” researcher for the Arctic programme of Human Planet last month I was lucky enough to find myself in a tiny village on the West Coast of Greenland. With our small crew we were in search of the elusive Greenland shark, known to Greenlanders as Eqalussuaq It’s one of the largest sharks in the world and the only species living in Arctic waters. The Greenland shark lives in deep water, rarely seen near the surface, preferring the frigid cold at depths of up to 2000 metres. As the sea ice melts, local fishermen start seeking it out and we wanted to film their search.
Filming in the Arctic winter is incredibly tough, that’s without the prospect of trying to film an elusive shark that is particularly camera shy! Try passing the cameraman delicate lens tissue and filters while wearing three pairs of gloves. If you do risk taking them off, your fingers freeze to the filters’ cold metal casing.
Or try to keep your crew happy at lunch when their sandwiches have frozen into a solid block!
But throw in a camera crane and an inventive crew and the frozen fun really begins! In order to get some great shots of our fishermen, Amos and Karl-Frederik (a father and son team), we decided to set up the crane over an ice fishing hole. They were busy fishing there for halibut, before turning their attention to sharks.
The crane works on a counter-balance system so we had planned ahead and hired gym weights from the nearest town. Unfortunately we didn’t have quite enough weight, making the crane difficult to manoeuvre. We scoured the bare, white landscape desperately looking for something to use as a weight. Eventually one of the crew spied a hapless frozen fish which had been lying next to an old fishing hole for days. In Inuit culture every part of a caught animal is used, so in true Arctic spirit we decided this fish would be put to use.
The large and quite frankly extraordinarily ugly fish was hauled off the ice and heaved into our medical emergency bag. The bag was emptied of all life-saving equipment to make way for Freddie the Fish. Happily the fish, after a bit of modification, was just the right weight to balance the crane and we carried on filming, much to the amusement of the Greenlandic fishermen.
It’s been another busy month on Human Planet. Our Deserts team are just about to leave for Mali to film a fascinating story about elephants. It is always difficult trying to keep up with the crew in the field in these remote locations . We spend lots of time struggling with Sat phones, as satellites move away and break signal at the crucial moments. “You want a Doctor?…” Crackle , splat…10 minutes later as another satellite cares to drift into sat phone sight lines and we are all ready to contact the BBC Health and Safety Department… “Oh! You want Doctor Who recorded, no worries” . However, when I spoke to director Nick Brown from high in the Ethiopian mountains recently, he sounded as clear as a bell . It must have had something to do with being so close to those satellites!
Dale Templar, Series Producer