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.