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Navigating the Urban Jungle

by Emma Smith, Assistant Producer/Fixer in New York City

Human Planet crews have become used to their senses being pushed to the extremes in tough environments across the globe- blistering heat, pungent odours, jaw-dropping sights, ear-splitting sounds and palate-stretching cuisines.  But at the end of eight days of filming in New York City, the crew had to admit nothing had prepared them for the frenetic energy of Manhattan - the very definition of an all-round sensory assault.

Me on a rooftop in Long Island City, Queens

Tens of thousands of TV shows and movies are filmed here every year, but even though Americans technically speak the same language, when you’re not a native, a guide is advisable. That’s where I come in.  As a former BBC Wales Assistant Producer who now lives in NYC, I join the team as a ‘fixer’ which has a nice Mafioso ring to it. In practice, it means everything from Locations and Casting Manager to Assistant Producer and Local Restaurant Expert.

Bee Hives on Location

 

China Town, Manhattan at Night

In the midst of the August humidity, when anyone with sense and money leaves the city, the crew arrive for filming. Director Susan, Cameraman Toby and Soundman Nick have just flown in from Bristol when I meet them at their hotel in the Flatiron district.  We have seven days to film two stories for the last episode of Human Planet the Urban programme.  We will be covering rooftop beekeeping, a growing trend here since legalisation in March and the slightly less romantic topic of man’s ongoing battle with rodents in the city.   

Rooftop Garden in Queens

The next morning we’re joining the frantic pace of New Yorkers with a 6 a.m. start at location, to set up a 30 foot long filming crane in a packed Farmer’s market in Union Square.   That was to be the easy start. Over the week we fight the weather, the crowds and the traffic. We climb eight storeys with heavy equipment to a farm amongst the skyscrapers, try not to get stung filming honeybees on a factory rooftop, tread through rat-infested restaurant basements and hang around lots of dark alleyways. We also spend a lot of time in the production van, crawling through the congestion, watching our carefully planned schedule tick by.

Cameraman Toby Strong at the Urban Garden in Queens

Then there is attempted extortion by some locals in Chinatown and getting chased by some angry graffiti artists in Queens. One day there is 5 a.m start, another we don’t finish until 4 a.m. And then because every hard-working TV production unit needs to wind down, there is night out which ends up with some crew members riding a mechanical bull in a Lower East side bar. As a finale there is an unconfirmed case of Martini poisoning.

Soundman Nick Allinson next to some New York Graffiti

At the end of it we are all burnt out. New York City has performed its most common trick of chewing everyone up and spitting them out on the rubbish strewn sidewalk.  On the last day we film some shots in Central Park, the great, green goddess of Manhattan. As a Welsh girl used to lots of trees, it’s a place which has often saved my sanity, simply by allowing me to feel the grass beneath my feet.

When the crew step onto the sprawling Great Lawn, they seem to come back to life. Around them are postcard-pretty flowers, birds humming and lots of open space. They all confess to me they’ve just realised what they’ve been missing over the last week.   More used to The Amazon than the Concrete Jungle, they’d felt quickly hemmed in by the city. Now they were themselves proving the very essence of what Human Planet is all about-that no matter where humans choose to reside, they will eventually seek out the natural world.

 We all stop and breathe and stand very still, in the calm amongst the insanity of New York City.

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