Nature is hot. Just ask the folks at Discovery Channel who have scored no less a celebrity than Oprah Winfrey to narrate their latest blockbuster documentary series, “Life,” an 11-part extravaganza that debuts this Sunday at 9 p.m. (EDT).
The program is shot in high-definition and celebrates the truly jaw-dropping, eye-popping natural wonders of the planet, many never before seen. Among them: a fast-paced mating run of 10 humpback bull whales as they pursue a single female and the animal kingdom’s most elaborate courtship ritual – the Vogelkop Bowerbirds’ creation of fantastic “huts.”
This is the latest from the Discovery/BBC partnership that brought first “Blue Planet,” then “Planet Earth.” This time around, say the cameramen – who actually held their breath beneath the mating humpbacks (no scuba gear allowed since bubbles would disturb the courtship) and camped out for days in remote jungle blinds to capture rare fauna footage – the images take nature photography to the next level. First, and most important, they shot entirely in HD, moving directly from film as in previous collaborations, skipping video altogether. This allowed them to shoot in low-light conditions that were never possible before.
“[The show] has an extraordinary battery of filming techniques,” says Mike Gunton, executive producer for the BBC, at a January press event in Pasadena, Calif. For instance, he says, they were able to use state-of-the-art cameras “that you can stick down little burrows or you can put on the end of little poles, to cameras with the biggest telephoto lenses you’ve ever seen in your life.” In addition, he says the team used underwater cameras and cameras in helicopters. One of the goals of “Life” is to show people behaviors and sights “that they wouldn’t normally be able to see, trying to give a new perspective, a new insight.”
Ultra-high-speed cameras have produced some of the most groundbreaking imagery of the series, adds Mr. Gunton. “These are cameras that can shoot at 2,000, 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 extraordinary long time.” These time-lapse shoots “show you things that plants do that you would never be able to see.”
The team wanted to challenge the notion that plants are inanimate, says assistant producer Stephen Lyle, who captured the Venus flytrap on film as it killed and consumed prey. “We filmed climbing plants, which were phenomenal once you finally see them moving almost like animals because you are watching them on their time scale,” he says.
He filmed a plant called a cat’s-claw creeper, “which had these trident hooks and it was literally gripping the tree that it was climbing up, and it had sort of shoulderlike appendages, and you saw it lift itself as it climbed.”
The program, which took more than four years to complete and tapped the talents of more than 500 people, including directors, producers, cameramen and women, sherpas, caterers, and more, is ambitious in its range, says Discovery’s executive producer Susan Winslow, with something for every taste in natural history.
“This isn’t just about big, furry mammals at all,” she says. “There are fascinating, moving, funny stories that happen among marine invertebrates, with reptiles, with amphibians, with insects – unbelievable stories about insects. And they are stories that we can relate to, I mean, that have to do with enduring, surviving, adapting.”