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How was Dynasties filmed? Behind the scenes on David Attenborough's new BBC natural history series

The broadcaster's new nature documentary focuses on five different species. But how did the wildlife filmmakers capture their incredible stories?

Dynasties with David Attenborough
Published: Tuesday, 19th February 2019 at 1:22 pm

David Attenborough returns to present BBC1's new nature documentary Dynasties, centring on five endangered species: chimpanzees, tigers, emperor penguins, lions, and painted wolves. But how did the show's wildlife filmmakers capture their stories?



Programme Name: Dynasties - TX: n/a - Episode: Dynasties - Chimp (No. 1) - Picture Shows: An ambitious rival with an eye on David's alpha position.Senegal, West Africa. Luthor - (C) Mark MacEwen - Photographer: Mark MacEwen
Photographer: Mark MacEwen

Where were they filmed? Senegal, West Arica

How long did it take to film them? 309 days

Meet David. An alpha male chimp who’s clinging on to power and all the benefits that being leader of the pack bestows. “He gets the best access to the food and the females,” says producer Rosie Thomas, who was part of a crew that filmed him and his group over two years in the border area of Senegal and Guinea

But David’s three-year grip on power is under threat. Other males want a piece of his action and this episode follows them as the struggle for supremacy unfolds.

“They are quite a unique group, in that there are many more males than females, so there’s a lot of aggression,” says Thomas.

Observing the plotting and the treachery involved following the chimps on foot, sometimes up to 15 miles a day in temperatures of above 40° Celsius.

“The physical demands were huge, but the rewards immense,” says Thomas. “You have to be careful not to anthropomorphise too much, but it was just like being in Number Ten watching them play all their games.”

Some might say… Actually, no, let’s not go there.

Emperor Penguins

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 04/11/2018 - Programme Name: Dynasties - TX: n/a - Episode: Dynasties - Emperor (No. 2) - Picture Shows: **PRESS PACK EMBARGOED UNTIL SUNDAY 4TH NOVEMBER 2018** A pair of six-week-old chicks, left on their own by their parents, huddle together for warmth. Atka Bay, Antarctica. - (C) Stefan Christmann - Photographer: Stefan Christmann

Where were they filmed? Atka Bay, Antarctica

How long did it take to film them? Eleven months on the ice shelf, six months filming

Take three intrepid BBC film-makers, maroon them in Antarctica for the best part of a year and challenge them to bring back penguin footage that will blow our socks off.

Will Lawson, Lindsay McCrae and Stefan Christmann flew into German research station Neumayer Station III in December 2016. When the last plane left ahead of the southern winter in February, they knew they and the nine German researchers stationed there were on their own until flights resumed nine months later.

“We were told that the likelihood of us being evacuated [in the event of an emergency] was well below ten per cent,” says Lawson. “So, yes, that massive level of isolation was something that was very apparent.”

The team spent the first few months getting used to their surroundings and equipment. Then, in April, the sea ice started to freeze and the penguins began to return to breed. But there was frustration. “In the first few weeks they came in long lines, hundreds and hundreds of them, all going back to the exact location where they had previously bred,” says Lawson. “But at that point the ice wasn’t thick enough for us to go on it.”

When test drilling revealed the ice to be about 30cm thick, they were confident it was strong enough to support the team and their equipment.

Descending the face of the ice shelf, using techniques they’d learnt on glaciers in Austria, they set off on skidoos on the one-kilometre trek to the penguin colony.

By this time temperatures had plummeted, so two shipping containers — one holding a small kitchen and the other a toilet — were used for respite from the cold. “It was a great safety net, because when the temperatures got extremely low — and for three or four months they hovered around the minus 30 mark — you had to take a break just to warm up again. It was the wind and visibility that were the big limiting factors. If there was a white-out, we just couldn’t go out.”

They did, however, have one piece of specific penguin behaviour they wanted to film — the penguin huddle — and that’s only observed in the most extreme of conditions. When freezing winds rage, the male penguins pack tightly together in order to incubate the eggs (the females have gone to sea to feed). And Lawson and co needed to be at the heart of that impending storm.

“It took a lot of planning, because we had to wait for a developing storm, find the colony, film them and then get back to base before the wind speeds got too high and before it got too dark,” he says.

But no amount of planning can eliminate all risk — and in Lawson’s case, it nearly proved catastrophic. A tiny gap in the padding of his goggles meant that every time he exhaled a breath into his face mask, the moisture crept into the goggles and froze.

“The only way that you can deal with that is to take your goggles off and literally scratch the ice out. So we would all stop and I would scratch the ice out and we’d carry on. But the wind picked up and we couldn’t really speak over the sound of it. At one point Lindsay turned around, thought I’d scraped the ice out of my goggles and carried on. But I hadn’t cleared my goggles and within a couple of seconds he vanished into the white-out.

“We were happy that Lindsay was safe, because he had the GPS operating and knew the way back. But when Stefan and I took a GPS out, which we’d switched off to reserve power, it wouldn’t turn on again. We always kept a battery in an inside pocket, but for a very short period of time there was a bit of a scramble for Stefan to get that spare battery out, replace it in minus 60 degrees and wind speeds that were rapidly increasing, in order to get the GPS working again.

“As he got it going, Lindsay suddenly reappeared out of the white-out — he’d managed to find us. We made the rest of the way back without any problem, but the visibility was so poor that we only knew we were back at the station when the GPS told us we were. It was a very welcome sight."


Dynasties, Lion (BBC)

Where were they filmed? Masai Mara Reserve, Kenya

How long did it take to film them? 420 days

Charm by name, fearsome by nature. This 14-year-old lioness proves that on the plains of east Africa, the term “king of the jungle” is a misnomer. For it’s females like Charm who are the force to be reckoned with.

“They seem to be born with a lot more sense than the males, so the female lions grow up mimicking their mothers, whereas the males just sort of find their own way,” says Simon Blakeney, the producer who followed the pride over the course of two years.

In Charm’s case she’s the perfect single-mum role model. Abandoned by the adult males of the group, she and her cousin Sienna both feed and fend for the ten-strong group.

“The two of them had to care for the pride as well as hunt for them, so they had to do all the protecting and the muscle work as well,” says Blakeney.

Despite the lions’ position at the top of the food chain, one scene in the film reveals just how vulnerable they are. Local herdsmen, frustrated by attacks on cattle, deliberately poison a carcass, with terrible consequences.

“It was something we were aware could be a problem, but really it massively shocked us,” says Blakeney. “It really brings home the scale of the challenges facing lions today. They’re almost silently slipping away, literally slipping away.”

Painted Wolves

Dynasties, Painted Wolves (BBC)

Where were they filmed? Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

How long did it take to film them? 669 days

These pack predators have the reputation of being ferocious killing machines, but Nick Lyon hopes they will be viewed more sympathetically after people see his film. For a start, they’ve had bit of an image rebranding — they’re referred to as painted wolves rather than the more commonly used African wild dog.

"I want the audience not to think of them just as predators,” says Lyon. “Yes, we show them hunting, and those sequences don’t pull any punches, but we really hope people will warm to them when they see that actually they’re something of an underdog. Crocodiles, lions and hyena are all threats — so you see how tough their lives really are.”

The film follows a family pack led by an ailing matriarch, Tait. But her days seem numbered when daughter Blacktip ousts her from both den and hunting grounds.

“The greatest challenge was just finding them, because they can cover such huge distances,” says Lyon. Yet there were moments of breathtaking closeness.

“One day I walked into the water and they played all around me. It was an amazing, intimate, perspective. I hope people fall in love with them.”


Dynasties, Tiger (BBC)

Where were they filmed? Bandhavgarh National Park, India

How long did it take to film them? 220 days

Loss of habitat is one of the key reasons why wild animals are under threat. But the tigers in this reserve in India face a bittersweet predicament — their numbers are booming, but there’s not enough space for them.

“There are so many tigers that they have to move outside the park, and that’s when the problems begin,” says Theo Webb, whose film follows Raj Bhera as she gives birth to and raises four cubs. A remote-controlled camera on five-metre-high scaffolding peers into the birthing den on a rocky hilltop, operated by joystick in a hide 30 metres away.

Problems start to arise when a daughter from a previous litter, named Solo, returns to try to seize control of her mother’s territory.

“The park is surrounded by villages so there’s nowhere for Raj Bhera to go. She runs into humans, and that is a real moment.” So the jeopardy is very real, but so too is the joy.

“It’s hard to make people love tigers more than they already do, but seeing the cubs play is incredibly joyful.”

Dynasties is a five-part series airing on Sundays at 8.30pm on BBC1, beginning Sunday 11th November 2018


This article was originally published in November 2018


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