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Sleek dolphins glide through a glimmering cascade of fish, a Komodo Dragon hunts a Water Buffalo 10 times his size, and a Venus Flytrap snaps shut on an unwary fly. These are just a few of the amazing scenes that BBC and Discovery are bringing to television this spring with their new series Life. Incredible cinematography and technology combine to reveal rare and intimate moments in the lives of plants and animals all over the world.

  Oprah Winfrey

In 2007, The Discovery Channel aired BBC’s Planet Earth¸ the most ambitious, expensive, and - lets face it - exciting nature show ever to grace the small screen. In place of the yawning lions and fly-encrusted comatose hippos you normally see on nature programming, the filmmakers used time-motion photography, modern high-speed cameras, and all manner of devices and rigs to get the most amazing and shots of our world.


Dish sat down with several of the crew to discuss the series and its debut on this side of the pond. The only major difference between the BBC’s Life and ours is the change in narrator. Discovery replaced the venerable David Attenborough’s perfect British tones with those of afternoon talk queen Oprah Winfrey. 


Discovery President Clark Bunting explains why they chose her, “Well, obviously, a well-known personality and a personality that clearly on its own is a part of the Discovery family is a good thing, but it truly was her voice, her excitement, and her commitment to being part of this series. It really is something that she’s totally passionate about.”

While the voices may be different, the images are the same: breathtaking. This isn’t just your Dad’s nature doc with less flannel; Life brings every possible cinematic tool to the party in order to bring an audience the incredible stories and behaviors in stunning HD quality shots. 


Series Producer Mike Gunton reveals, “One of the things that is very important in a series like this is actually getting access to animals, and that’s one of the hardest things, and that comes from a number of approaches. And it very much depends on the type of story you’re after, you’re filming. For example, if you’re filming komodo dragons, you have one approach, working with a very unpredictable, very dangerous animal. If you’re working with butterflies, you can get much closer”

He continues, “We’re very, very careful not to disturb them because, clearly, if you do disturb them, they’ll stop doing the behavior, and we are in the business in this particular series of getting just amazing behavior.” 

Mike Gunton

“We used cameras that you can stick down little burrows or you can put on the end of little poles,” Gunton adds, “to cameras with the biggest telephoto lenses you’ve ever seen in your life, underwater cameras like Roger [Munns, a cinematographer] uses. We’ve had cameras in helicopters… we’ve used ultra high-speed cameras. These are cameras that can shoot at 2,000 to 3,000 frames a second so you can see things that the eye would never see. Also we’ve used cameras that can speed things up that take an extraordinarily long time, time lapse”


Wildlife Producer Steven Lyle also had something to say, “Just to add briefly to that as well, I think it should be mentioned that HD, as well, is fantastic for wildlife. The sensitivity that HD has really allows us to film subjects that we perhaps wouldn’t have done previously. For example, I filmed the Vogelkop Bowerbird, and one of the concerns was that it was in a very thick, deep jungle, and it’s only through HD that we could film that and represent the vibrant colors  involved in the structure that this bird builds.”


One of the most breathtaking scenes in the series was the first-ever recording of the Humpback Whale’s mating run. If you think getting good underwater shots of hundreds of tons of sweet whale loving is hard, try it without a tank, like cinematographer Roger Munns. He points out, “My problem is that I have to get very close to the animals to shoot them. Generally you can only see 20, 30 meters underwater. So my job was to get as close as possible to 10 testosterone-filled male whales as they chased tail, literally. A female would be far enough ahead, and these 10 bull males would be steaming after her with one thing on their mind. My job was to basically jump in front of that train of humpbacks, and dive down on a single breath of air.” 

“In terms of getting natural behavior, I wasn’t allowed to use a scuba tank because the bubbles that come out from the tank really annoy the humpbacks and detract from the natural behavior that they give.”


Although everything turned out all right, there were a few scary moments, “I was probably down about 25 feet as most of the males steamed past me and I was about ready to come up, when another male came sort of right over my head, just at the point where I was needing to come up. At that moment there were few palpitations, and I got a bit nervous.”


Although the fancy technology and daredevil camera work steal the show, a great deal of preparation went into each and every shot. Life Director Stephen Lyle points out, “A lot depends on the planning stages; speaking to scientists, getting really detailed information about what’s happening on the ground, what we’re likely to try to film with our subject.” Mike Gunton agreed, “A lot of it comes down to spending a lot of time with scientists, people who know these animals incredibly well, because they can give you insight into how to deal with them” 

With the enormous amount of preparation, groundbreaking new technology, and fascinating performers, Life promises to be a refreshing reboot of the nature documentary, and the most entrancing look yet into the lives of these creatures we share our planet with. 


“We were very keen to show things that people hadn’t really seen before, things that they find emotionally engaging, either funny or dramatic or sad,” Mike Gunton added. “This series is not about how cheetahs or how elephants or how whales behave. It’s how a particular cheetah, how a particular lion, how a particular humpback whale is behaving at one particular time in its life, and that’s very important because that gives real drama and real impact.” / Issue 106 - September 2018
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