With the huge success of the documentary series "Planet Earth" on the BBC in 2006 and in the United States the following year, audiences were clearly fascinated with the groundbreaking look at our planet. It's no surprise then that the intention of the new 11-episode documentary series "Life," narrated by Oprah Winfrey, is to take audiences even closer into the world that we share with a variety of life both big and small on our planet. As the first episode, "Challenges of Life" premieres this Sunday on the Discovery Channel, our Jim Halterman talked one-on-one with "Life" Executive Producer Mike Gunton about the making of the series, the amount of patience necessary for the filmmakers and what truly surprised him during the over 3,000 day shoot.
Jim Halterman: "Life" was already in production at the time "Planet Earth" but the comparisons are inevitable, right? What's the primary difference between the two productions?
Mike Gunton: The shadow "Planet Earth" cast was a large one and it was such a success in the United States and the UK so, yes, of course, inevitably comparisons are going to be made. We've got similar ambitions, a similar scale but we have a broader spectrum. It was more about the landscape on the planet and the animals were kind of characters within it. I think "Life" is more about the characters and the challenges those characters face in their daily life. "Planet Earth" is a stage and "Life" is the play.
JH: When you set out to start filming, do you know what you want to capture on film or is it more about putting cameras out there and seeing what nature gives you?
MG: We pretty much didn't want a kind of distantly observed series. We wanted it to be an immersive experience. We tried to get very specific stories. We spent about a year researching and finding stories that would really emphasize their life and their struggles. That doesn't necessarily mean that one of them has to be fighting. We spent an enormous amount of time searching for stories that people would find fresh and new and you can't cover this by reading a lot of books or going on the Internet. This is all about going out into the field, using our contacts that we've built up over decades and our own experience of going around the world. What we did with this series is we had the time and resources to go for quite challenging and hard-to-get stuff. That is where the bar is now. The easy stuff was used up years ago so now it has to be challenging but it's good fun.
JH: So something like the Komodo dragon part of the series. How long did you spend on filming that sequence?
MG: Five weeks. We'd never be able to film that whole story in its entirety. In most predation stories you've got the build up and the animal is stalking and then they go in there, they attack, they kill and it's over in a minute or it fails. This story, given the nature of how the Komodo hunts and the venom they produce, is they bite their victim and stick the venom into their bloodstream and the animal slowly succumbs to that venom. To get that window right in a filming trip it's quite tricky. We reckoned it would take us a month to do it if everything went right. We'd arrive, try to find the best place where these animals were doing this behavior, be there at the right time where the time to catch them sticking [their victim] with the venom and then getting the final filming of the end of it. We turned up, we spent a week searching, we found the right location, we were worried because it did take a week before a Komodo eventually came, did the hunting behavior and then it followed it through.
You couldn't have timed it better but one of the things is that when it's all over, it's over quickly. The kill actually lasted a fortnight and nobody was used to that. In some ways, it's quite disturbing but also quite extraordinary. Kevin is the cameraman who I've known for years and said this is the most extraordinary thing he's ever filmed. The strategy was so brilliant. He said those Komodo dragons were so focused and once the venom had struck they would track it and track it and track it until the animal would tip over. As soon as it tipped over, they were feasting on the carcass and they devoured that carcass in an hour and a half. In a few hours it had gone from a full animal down to just bits of bones. He said it was like something out of a set of 'Jurassic Park' except the animatronics were real.
JH: The technology for the show is really groundbreaking. Can you tell me about the 'yogi cam' that actually flew through the monarch butterflies without disturbing them?
MG: It's interesting. On end of the spectrum, there are these very, very high-tech cinespecs cameras, which allow you to hover over a location, zoom right in and follow a behavior. That costs half a million pounds, or half a million dollars. At the other end of the spectrum we have a thing like the camera that we used with the butterflies. What the rig is is two bicycle wheels with a bit of lead around the rims, which spins as the rig moves up and down the cable. By spinning, they act to stabilize the camera. What it allows you to do is rig a cable from six points and you fly the camera along the cable and get the perspective of an animal if they fly.
We were able to get the speed of it just right so it flew at the same speed as the butterflies. There are two types of shots: one is when we film quite low to the ground and the butterflies come down to the valley to drink and then, two, they fly down that valley on their migration and we were able to fly the camera at the same speed that they were flying so it was as if you are with the swarm. You were in amongst them as if you were a butterfly. This is a contrast to 'Planet Earth,' which is quite stand-back and look at animals in the big, broad panorama. We wanted to get in there and see what it was like to be with them and experience what they were experiencing.
JH: So it sounds like from what you're telling me that you the producers and cameramen have to have a huge amount of patience, right?
MG: Absolutely. I think cameramen and directors are a different breed. They're focused and the patience and determination they have makes them a breed apart. As a producer, I don't have the same patience but I don't need to because I don't have to look through that lense or viewfinder hour after hour. You think 'is it ever going to happen? We've been here for weeks and we've got nothing!' Often it is the last day when you get it but it becomes the last day because you've finally got what you wanted and you say 'Now we've got it so we can go home.' But, say, you're on a four week trip, you look at what you shot, what you end up using, you might use a minute of everything you shot in the first three weeks and then the first four minutes of everything you shot on the last few days because it all comes together and, bang, you get it.
JH: With your own extensive background in this field, what did you learn during the film that surprised you?
MG: I learned lots and lots of extraordinary details and I was constantly being surprised at things I that I could not believe animals do. We'd have a story that we'd be following and we'd say 'Do you think this really happens?' and then we'd come back and we'd see it and we'd say 'Not only does it happen but it happens in even a more extraordinary way.' It's one of the joys of having this experience from working with animals in that you get surprised and amazed at what nature does. One thing I hope the audience gets from "Life" is that animals are not just in bland boxes and just do stuff.
They are all individuals, they have all got their own personal trials and tribulations and we tried to get that over to the audience. What we're doing is taking them on a particular day to see a particular individual animal have a particular challenge which you are going to see whether it overcomes or not. Somebody was asking me back home what was the one thing that I thought was the most amazing thing about the animals and that is heroism. So many of these things were just held-at-the-back-of-the-neck-heroic. The things that they will do to survive. This determination. It just makes you so humble about how extraordinary they are.
"Life" kicks off this Sunday on the Discovery Channel at 8:00/7:00c. For behind-the-scenes footage visit http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/life/.