11 secrets to making an epic wildlife series like The Hunt
Be ruthless, find your heroes and pick your technology, say David Attenborough and the world's greatest filmmakers
As David Attenborough's new nature epic The Hunt begins on BBC1, here's the king of the jungle and the best wildlife filmmakers on how they make such enthralling series about the animal kingdom.
1. Find your heroes
There’s a simple choice at the heart of any new natural history series: do you zero in on one particular habitat – the rainforest? the polar ice caps? – or do you focus instead on a particular type of animal behaviour?
Alastair Fothergill’s new series opts for the latter approach: it looks at predators and the way they hunt for their food.
“There is no doubt that the most exciting behaviour in the natural world is predation,” says Fothergill. “But, interestingly, if you look back at films about predators, they’re all the same. The predators are always red in tooth and claw, they’re always the villains of the piece. What people don’t ever say – but which is the case – is that predators usually fail.”
Neither do they explain the consequences of repeated failure – the death of the hunter and, often, the animal’s young cubs.
The Hunt aims to switch your allegiance – from the hunted to the hunter. “Predators are the hardest-working animals in nature,” says Fothergill. “We’re trying to put people into their shoes to really make them feel the challenge.”
2. Think big
Fothergill won’t say what a series costs to make – “but it’s very expensive.” Millions. Why? “Because you need the money to fail.”
The truth is that you’ll only get the most fabulous action scenes if you’re prepared to deploy an expensive film crew on the other side of the world... and risk them coming back with nothing. For example, it took 14 people a total of eight weeks to capture just 15 minutes of (amazing) footage of a polar bear.
All this means that a top-of-the-range natural history series needs to raise funds from more than one source. The Hunt has been paid for by two different parts of the BBC: the broadcaster provided a third of the cash and its commercial wing, BBC Worldwide, supplied the rest. (Incidentally, Fothergill’s next project – the eight-part series Our Planet, due for broadcast in 2019 – is commissioned and financed by on-demand broadcaster Netflix.)
3. Do your homework
“It’s important that every episode has two or three completely new stories,” says Fothergill. His team of four researchers – most of them qualified biologists and zoologists – trawls scientific journals and international conferences in search of examples of animal behaviour that haven’t been shown on television before. That’s how they came across Madagascar’s Darwin bark spider – the only spider in the world that can spin a web across a 25 metre-wide river.
Does the research always pay off? Usually, but not always. Fothergill had hoped to film an amazing wildlife collaboration in the Rocky Mountains of North America. They knew that golden eagles chase mountain goats downhill, into the path of waiting wolves, and wanted to film the the two predators sharing dinner. “That didn’t work,” he admits. And how long were the cameraman and his director on the mountainside, waiting for the eagle ambush to happen? “Four or five weeks.” Now you see why natural history films are so expensive to make.
4. Pick your team
A series like this needs a lot of people: ten producers, 40 camera operators (six of them permanent, the others brought in for perhaps just one shoot), a production manager (who looks after the money) and a team of people to sort out the logistics.
5. Find a first
Fothergill says: “One of the issues with natural history television is that there’s a lot of it. So it’s important to cover things that have never been filmed before – two or three ‘wow’ sequences in every episode.” There has been plenty of footage of tigers hunting on the open plain, for example – but never in the depths of the forest, mainly because of the difficulty of getting cameras close enough to the action. The Hunt, for the first time, features tigers hunting in the forest. And, in another first on the Arctic ice caps, a small skiff with specially mounted cameras tracks polar bears through the drift ice.
6. Pick your technology
The Hunt has been shot in the highest resolution available. Known as 4K, the picture is more than four times as detailed as any UK “high definition” (HD) television. But why film a series in such detail when no broadcaster in the UK transmits 4K pictures and almost nobody owns a 4K television? Simple – in time, all decent broadcasters probably will. And if the BBC wants to make sure that this hugely expensive footage will continue to be shown around the world, it needs to “future proof ” the series.
7. Be ruthless
How much of the footage that Fothergill’s teams bring home ends up on the digital equivalent of the cutting-room floor? The answer will astonish you: more than 99.5 per cent. “I would say we shoot probably 300 hours for every hour you see on screen,” says Fothergill.
8. Book Attenborough
The narrator for this series is David Attenborough, whose famous authoritative, whispery tones are central to its appeal – and will, of course, help it to sell internationally.
So what are the tricks of the trade, Sir David?
“A good narration is sparse,” he says. “Don’t use any unnecessary words. The visual is always more powerful than the words – so you should only add information that is necessary to fully understand the pictures. You shouldn’t repeat what the pictures say.”
The narrator must resist the temptation to be too clever, he adds. “Although all sorts of poetic similes may come into your mind, similes are there for the printed word, in order for you to invoke a picture. If you’ve already got a picture, there’s no point in a simile.”
Other tricks are also banned: there’s nothing to be gained by the use of alliteration or assonance. “Ugh! Assonance can be tiresome. What are you trying to prove by getting a near-rhyme? That’s an affectation.” However, says Attenborough, “rhythm is important. You have to tailor the words so that they hit the right picture – the right close-up, the right cut, whatever it is. Pauses are rather more important than the words.”
So how is a script written? Attenborough is sent a draft written by a producer and then spends a fortnight adding bits here, changing bits there. “Most of the words I wouldn’t dream of interfering with,” he says modestly. “But there are occasions when you think, ‘A small change might make this a bit more pointed.’ So I fiddle a bit.”
Does he write his words while scanning the footage using state-of-the-art technology? Not quite. He’s in his living room, with a ballpoint pen and a paper script. And he watches the pictures, believe it or not, on an old-fashioned VHS video recorder.
“I work with VHS videos. If you’re trying to get the words absolutely right, you want to move backwards and forwards over a particular cut – and you can only do that on VHS. If you use a DVD, it goes back 30 seconds and you’ve missed the place. It would take for ever.”
Attenborough, who is now 89, has been making and presenting natural history programmes for more than 60 years. Does he think that his voice has changed over time?
“Oh yes,” he says, smiling. “If you listen to me in the 1950s [he puts on his best received pronunciation, reminiscent of Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondley Warner], eem talking a beet like thees. Very precise. But even the Queen speaks differently now.”
9. Add the mood music
The music is crucial to setting the mood of a scene. Composer Steven Price, who won an Oscar for his work on the film Gravity, was brought in to write the music for The Hunt. He recorded it at Abbey Road Studios in London with a 65-piece BBC Concert Orchestra. Price says, “The music is all about getting inside the characters. You’re trying to bring out the emotion and the excitement.”
What techniques does he use to convey those emotions? When a pack of wild dogs chasing wildebeest gets close to a kill, “the intensity of everything increases: the tempo rises, the key gets higher, the range gets higher... everything works together to put you right in the heart of it.
“The film-maker was very strong with me,” he adds. “There are no baddies. The reason these animals are hunting is that they’re trying to bring up their children – so there are times when you want to emphasise that emotion: their desperation and frustration.”
10. Order custard powder
Every time you see a polar bear padding across a glacier in The Hunt, you hear its paws crunching the snow underfoot. But think about it. The picture was obtained using a zoom lens and, as Fothergill says, “there’s not a microphone in the world that can bring the sound of a polar bear’s feet close to you”.
Send, then, for a Foley artist (named after Jack Foley, an early Hollywood sound pioneer), who artificially re-creates the sound using some fairly rudimentary techniques. Series sound engineer Kate Hopkins reveals, “If it’s a polar bear on snow, custard powder is usually very popular, with some salt crystals added for a bit of crunch.” Simply mix your ingredients together inside a stocking, scrunch it up and press it against a hard surface.
Other tricks: the crunch of bones as an animal eats can be replicated by snapping sticks of celery. If you slowly peel an orange, it sounds like a predator ripping flesh from a carcass. Even the sound of a killer whale launching out of the water isn’t what you think it is: the huge splash you hear contains an archive sound of an explosion. (Often several sounds are mixed together to achieve the final result.)
But hold on a moment? Isn’t all this artifice really cheating? Hopkins says: “It is real: the pictures are real, any animal calls are real, but you are still making television. Having sound attached to the picture gives you that sense of being there.”
11. Cross your fingers
When the series is finally finished and goes out on air, then come the reviews! What will the newspaper critics – and Radio Times’s discerning readers – make of the series? “I am always very nervous,” says Fothergill. “You know whether you have made a good series, but you never know whether it will catch people’s imagination.”
The Hunt continues on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1