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25 November 2016

The irony of “fakery” claims and backlash against production tricks on Planet Earth II

Criticism of David Attenborough’s latest nature series is at odds with the enhanced authenticity of how we record our own lives on social media.

By Hasan Chowdhury

A decade on from the BBC’s landmark series Planet Earth, a groundbreaking new sequel has arrived – Planet Earth II – promising to match the qualities that propelled its predecessor into the pantheon of television. Stunning imagery, crafted storytelling and fresh perspective, in equal measure.

The natural world’s resident expert David Attenborough has, so far, guided the audience through a triptych of nature. Three episodes in, the show has reached its midpoint with no frontier off-limits; islands, mountain peaks and jungles have been explored, offering moments of stillness and bouts of rage through scenes of courtship, confrontation and controversy. At the halfway mark, what have we learned?

We live in an age where social media creates a collective viewing experience for audiences, allowing them to share their reactions and emotions to television’s most dramatic moments in realtime. Planet Earth II’s first three episodes make it clear that Attenborough and his producers have upped the ante to reflect this.

Take Episode One. We are flown to Fernandina, a remote, volcanically active island sitting within the Galapagos archipelago of the Pacific. Home to the marine iguana, a peculiar sea-going reptile which “can dive to 30 metres and hold its breath for half an hour”, viewers are presented with an insider’s view of what appears to be a relatively quiet, idyllic island life for the iguanas.

Moments later, however, we learn that the iguana hatchlings emerging from eggs buried under the sand are vulnerable and under threat the moment their lives begin. Racer snakes lie in wait for the youngsters to surface, and what follows is footage with all the hallmarks of a multi-million dollar Hollywood thriller. A life and death chase sequence, a musical score that could easily find itself at home on a Christopher Nolan film, a satisfying ending.

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In Episode Two, Nubian ibexes – desert goats adapted to traverse the razor-thin cliff edges of mountains in the Arabian Peninsula – find themselves on the precipice of defeat when red foxes appear to hunt them. Using their “soft cloven hooves” to navigate the mountain face and dispersal tactics to confound the foxes, the ibexes give viewers a glimpse of a day-to-day game of survival, a snapshot of an experience that at once seems otherworldly yet familiar enough for viewers to awe and empathise.

The outpouring of emotion on social media to these scenes is a testament to the producers’ awareness of what audiences inhabiting digital spaces will most appreciate.

The series has not been without controversy. Early on in Episode Two, we are shown breathtaking scenes of a golden eagle soaring above the Alps. Known to be able to dive up to 200mph, viewers were treated to a dizzying look at the eagle’s perspective while flying and diving, its journey ending when it is seen to feast on a dead fox upon landing. It has been a standout moment from the series’ first half, and, judging by the reactions online, one that demonstrates the growth of the series since 2006.

However, following a footnote in the diary of that episode explaining that a paraglider was used to recreate and simulate the view of the eagle, along with a post-episode note about the employment of a trained and tamed eagle named Slovak, claims of fakery have been made. These accusations echo the outrage over newborn polar bear footage – filmed in an animal park rather than the wild – in Attenborough’s 2011 series, Frozen Planet.

But to say that this ruins the show is a claim that would rob documentary filmmakers of the artistry of their craft. In order to capture the most illuminating of moments, particularly in nature documentaries, a range of techniques must be employed. Timelapses in Episode Three speed up the opening of flowers, and slow motion captures the most intricate details of animals’ gait and motion. Golden eagles fly above the Alps, and a view of flying above the Alps is what we were given. These are merely tools of a filmmaker used effectively to provide an experience, to capture the imagination of its audience, not to stain the authenticity of the documentary.

These snapshots of life on islands and mountains have also received criticism due to the loose ties between clips, a lack of a clear narrative arc within each episode, and “fake” sound effects. But it can be argued that this works in favour of the series, for what it perhaps lacks in a linear narrative, it certainly makes up for in terms of mood and tone. The sound effects work to add to this atmosphere.

Aided by advancements in cinematography, the lush, ultra high-definition images of side-stepping lemurs in Madagascar to the warring Komodo dragons of Indonesia turn each episode into a stunning, highly-curated profile of islands, jungles, mountains – almost akin to the enhanced authenticity of a heavily invested-in Instagram account. The behind-the-scenes “diary” clips ending each episode, then, are more like Snapchat moments, providing raw, unfiltered, intimate looks at the making of Planet Earth II.

Attenborough’s work is an international treasure, and the latest series does nothing but add to the grandeur and spectacle that he has gathered and developed from a career deep in the field. As creatures of capturing our own lives in a chaotic manner, then enhancing and curating them on social media, audiences should cut him some slack.

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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage