Producer Dr. Emma Napper pulls back the tree canopy on the epic nature docuseries.
When BBC America’s Planet Earth II premieres on February 18, keep this in mind: It takes about four years to make one episode of the groundbreaking nature documentary series. “We spend about nine months to a year talking to experts and looking for new stories and animals to follow,” explains Dr. Emma Napper, the producer of the “Jungles” episode. “Then it’s about two-and-a-half years in the field filming, followed by editing. It’s a long process so it makes it particularly nice when people like the end product—because we really put our heart and souls into it.”
If the United Kingdom’s response to the six-hour documentary series, which was shot in 40 different countries on 117 filming trips over 2089 days, Napper has nothing to worry about. More than 12.26 million people tuned in to watch the premiere in the U.K., making it the most-watched natural history documentary there ever. While stateside viewers have been anxiously awaiting the February 18 premiere, clips on YouTube, including harrowing footage of a marine iguana barely escaping a nest of hungry snakes and the series’ trailer, have already racked up more than 9 million views each.
In order to answer some of the inevitable questions (like how in the world did they get that shot?) that will arise during episode three, we spoke to Dr. Napper, a biologist who has worked at the BBC Natural History Unit for over 10 years, about what it’s really like to be out in the jungles of Madagascar, Brazil, and Costa Rica.
How do you go about finding the animals that you feature?
There’s something like 3 million different species of animals in the jungle, so there is a huge amount to choose from. To help narrow it down, we spend a lot of time keeping up with the latest scientific research and working closely with researchers and scientists in the field who have stories to tell about animals. Then we go through hundred and hundreds of different ideas to really hone in on what we think is going to be most interesting or engaging.
In the “Jungles” episode, you capture a recently discovered species of river dolphin that lives in the flooded areas of the rainforest in Brazil. How did you find them?
One thing I really wanted to do was show a new species that nobody had ever seen before. In 2014, a scientist published a paper saying they’ve found a new species of dolphin, which we just felt was incredible. You’d expect to miss some new insect species that is small and easy to miss, but the fact that we’d missed the [Araguaia river] dolphin for all these years is quite incredible. Of course the downside is that nobody really knows anything about them, so it took a lot of time to track them down and get that footage.
How many hours of footage did you and your team capture for the episode?
Hundreds of hours. It’s something like for every minute on TV, there’s 200 minutes filmed. Of course, a lot of that is just waiting for the animals to appear.
You and your team capture so many incredible shots: an adult male spider monkey rescuing a baby that climbed too high, a flying dragon lizard, jaguars prowling caiman. How do you do it?
We use lots of different cameras. One of the things we did for this series, which hadn’t really been done before, was filming animals with steady cams, sort of like the ones they use to capture football games. They’re cameras that allow you to run around but still capture a stabilized image. You can also put them on a drone, which we used to film animals at the top of the tree canopy. We even flew in helicopter pilots from Australia to fly the drones, because they were particularly skilled at flying through trees and not crashing into them.
Do you worry about the camera drones startling the animals?
We’re really careful not to startle the animals. You have to be considerate of them. First of all, we’re all in this because we love wildlife and animals, and it’s wrong to scare them. But, second, you’re not going to film good natural behavior if you’ve scared the animals. Whenever we film a new group of animals, we turn the drone on and off on the ground a few times so that they can get used to it. The typically just notice it, but don’t react. Then, slowly over a couple of days, they get more used to it. It’s like showing a kid a new thing. They’re a bit interested at first and then they eventually get bored and go back to watching television—or in this case, eating leaves.
How big is your crew when you’re in the field?
We tend to have a really small crew so that we’re mobile and we don’t scare of the animals. It’s usually a director, me, a cameraman, and then we normally have a field assistant or a local expert who knows the animals and can predict what is going to happen. The local expert is also quite useful in pointing out dangerous snakes and spiders.
What are your accommodations like in the field?
We tend to stay in fairly basic huts with occasionally running water. We’re in each spot for around six weeks at a time, sometimes longer. For the dolphin shoot, four of us stayed in a single hut. Because it was the only dry piece of land in an otherwise flooded rainforest, it had become home to all of the other animals seeking shelter. There were spiders and one rat that kept chewing holes in my underwear.
What was the most harrowing moment on the shoot?
We had a couple of close encounters with snakes that were a little bit frightening. We were in Brazil and we were filming at night, crouched down filming glow-in-the-dark fungus for three or four hours. When I got up, I realized I had been kneeling about five centimeters away from one of the deadliest species of coral snakes in the world. There was another scary moment during the dolphin shoot when we got caught in a really bad storm. We couldn’t move our boat and trees started falling down around us. We were worried we were never going to make it out.
What was your favorite moment?
My favorite moment was during the jaguar shoot. They are just absolutely magnificent animals. They are just awe-inspiring.
What do you hope viewers take away from watching Planet Earth II?
I just hope that they realize just how precious the natural world is, how beautiful it is, how surprising it is. It’s always full of surprises. The animals have incredible stories to tell. I just hope that people watch and feel the same kind of sense of enjoyment and value for the natural world that I do.
BBC AMERICA’s Planet Earth II premieres Saturday, February 18 at 9/8c, simulcasting across BBC AMERICA, AMC and SundanceTV. The remaining episodes of the season will air Saturdays at 9/8c on BBC AMERICA.