At the TCA press tour in Pasadena last week, BBC America presented a panel on the upcoming Blue Planet II. Narrator Sir David Attenborough, executive producer James Honeyborne, series producer Mark Brownlow, producer Orla Doherty, and composer Hans Zimmer were all on hand to discuss the latest installment of the fantastic series, and provided a lot of facts not only about what we can expect from the new episodes, but some of the incredible behind-the-scenes work that went into it. Filming for Blue Planet II took over four years, as BBC America President Sarah Barnett explained: “Teams mounted 125 expeditions, visited 39 countries, and filmed on every continent and across every ocean. So remarkable was the level of discovery in this series that no fewer than 12 scientific papers are being written as a result.”
When it comes to the new technology that the teams used, Honeyborne explained how that “allows us to go surfing with dolphins. It allows us to look a fish in the eye as it uses tools for the first time. It allows to us watch the incredible predatory antics of the giant trevally that launches itself out of the sea to grab a bird in midair. That’s just the first three sequences in the first program, but it gives you ‑‑ we haven’t seen that behavior before.”
I have peeked a few of the upcoming episodes, and can confirm that the new Blue Planet is, to put it scientifically, lit AF. To give you a sense of what is coming, here are 10 key facts and amazing behind-the-scenes stories we learned about the new series:
- Think crows are special for using tools? “There is a tusk fish that uses a tool,” Honeyborne told us. “It picks up a clam and smashes it against its coral anvil to open it up and get to the meat inside […] Now, we never really thought that fish were capable of these levels of complex behaviors. So we want to just show the whole rich plethora of behaviors that are happening in the oceans and really surprise the audience with the complexity and sophistication of life beneath the waves.”
- The ocean can be a pretty terrifying place. As Brownlow explained, “We worked with infrared technology to film this quite horrific monstrous worm called a Bobbit worm. And it grabs fish at night. You can only film it with infrared technology. But it’s never‑seen‑before dramas like that that will just horrify the audience, grip them. And I won’t tell you why it’s called a Bobbit. But if you look back a couple of decades, it’s a story that came from the U.S.” (Yeah, this one).
- One of the most extraordinary things about Blue Planet is its ability to capture sounds happening under water. “We spent a lot of time recording sound underwater,” Honeyborne said. “We have a four‑way directional hydrophone that allows us to pinpoint which fish is making which noise And actually, we’ve worked with scientists who have been discovering that there’s a whole dawn chorus of fish song on the coral reef, for example. And we’ve got those sound recordings and they’re in the film. And if you kind of listen in to that frequency, you can hear this extraordinary cacophony of fish singing, which is amazing. It was a revelation to us.”
For composer Hans Zimmer, that could sometimes be a challenge to match. When asked what kinds of instruments work best to illustrate underwater sound, he told explained, “it wasn’t so much about the instrument. It was more about how people would play it. And so we came up with this sort of idea of a more pointillistic way of playing the instruments. And without getting into great, boring, geeky details, we tried to figure out how an orchestra could play stylistically different that would be more appropriate to the nature of water. New colors.”
- Sir David Attenborough has been narrating nature documentaries for a very long time — is there anything that really stuns him still? “Those trevally [fish] calculating the speed of a bird which is in the air. They’re in the water. It’s got to be refractive index, whether it bends the light as it comes out of the water,” he said. “It’s got to be refractive index, whether it bends the light as it comes out of the water. They’re going to have to calculate where it’s going to be, when they’re going to have to take off in order to catch it. I mean, it would take a bank of computers to do that, and yet that’s what the trevally does. And you see it. It comes out of the water and, wallop, it gets that bird. It’s quite extraordinary.”
- It’s easy to get caught up in the stories that are woven into a series like Blue Planet, to the point where it can be stressful to see animals or sea creatures in any kind of peril. But as Brownlow explained, the editing process does not include undo anthropomorphizing. “Everything you see is absolutely true to nature,” he explained. “We may film a story like the giant trevally over a period of three weeks. In fact, we went back every two years to get all the material, and then we have to stitch it all together. But what’s important is the story we show is a true reflection of what happens in nature. Young fledgling birds have to run the gauntlet of these giant fish. And the fact that we show in the end one escaping is, again, representative of most; the majority of the young birds do make it through eventually. So, of course, it’s got to be gripping and compelling, but it’s absolutely defined by the science.”
The producers also shared some stories about the trails of filming this kind of intense nature documentary, including how fleeting some of the things are that they can capture on camera (and how lucky they can sometimes be). Doherty talked about seeing giant bubbles of methane gas erupting from the deep sea floor, which was other-worldly. The next day they went on a dive to record some more, and it was all gone. “We were in a desert, and it was like the deep sea had let us see something that could be happening who knows how often, and we got to see it just that once,” she said. “I don’t think any human will ever see again what we saw that day and it’s ‑‑ I still find it extraordinary that we were there and that we captured it. And thank God we did.”
- Brownlow and Doherty also spoke about how one of the first shots of the series was a total disaster after three weeks of filming on the open ocean, because of an El Nino that caused sea temperatures to be unseasonably warm. The hope was to see lanternfish come to the surface to spawn, and the producers gave up hope of being able to film it. But, “Eighteen months later, we went to the other side of the Pacific Ocean off of Costa Rica, which hosts its own boiling sea with lanternfish, and because we managed to get access to a helicopter stationed off of a research vessel 20 miles offshore, it enabled us, over the course ten days, to track down these huge boiling sea events and film it both from the air for the first time and with a dive team,” Brownlow shared. “So that’s just a typical example of the challenges, but, I mean, Orla has been in leaky subs at 400 meters.”
Doherty went ahead and shared that story, when she and her crew were 450 meters deep off the coast of Antarctica when they started to see water pooling at the bottom of their submarine. “We didn’t start screaming and panicking because you don’t, and we went through 20 minutes of, you know, quite heart-fluttering excavation of the sub to find out where this water was coming from, but we found it,” she said. And when asked by the sub pilot if they were ready to call it a day, she said they just carried on — as the first team of people in history to dive to the very bottom of Antarctica. Badass.
- Speaking of peril, there was one harrowing event with a playful sperm whale baby that wanted to interact with a camera, and brought over a plastic bucket to chew on. “And the cameraman filmed this for a bit and thought, actually, this is really worrying, isn’t it? He tried to take the bucket off of the sperm whale, and the sperm whale thought this was a great game. So it snatched it back. And the cameraman thought this is really bad news because it’s right in its mouth,” Honeborne said. “So he took it away again, and the sperm whale thought, ‘Hey, that’s mine,’ and he grabbed ahold of the cameraman’s leg and just began to take him deeper into the water.” Thankfully, the cameraman was released and both returned to the surface, and the bucket was put back onto the boat.