Award-winning documentarian Alastair Fothergill traveled across the world to capture footage for his latest film.

Greetings from 'Earth'

on March 26, 2009 by Amy Nicholson

As with so many people behind famous pictures—the LIFE magazine shot of a ’50s audience in 3D glasses, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, a shadowy hump at Loch Ness—the fame of director Alastair Fothergill's images surpasses his name. As the producer of the wildly expensive television series Planet Earth, he brought little-seen wonders of the globe into the audience's living rooms, and was thanked with DVD sales that shot through the roof. ( Planet Earth ranked first on Amazon's best-selling box sets, with the Blu-ray and HD DVD version rounding out the top 15.) Now, as a director, Fothergill is bringing his astounding footage to where it belongs: the big screen. B OXOFFICE spoke with him about the beauty of great whites, why music matters in a nature documentary and how to squeeze the entire world into 90 minutes.

If you went to another planet, how would you describe Earth, having seen more of it than anybody?

Golly. Gosh. I would say "The Blue Planet," because that is what you see. Water. And water is life. I remember when it was first seen from space. They used to call it "The Blue Marble" because that's what it looked like from space. Blue is a rare color, especially because it's associated with water.

It's interesting you mention the first time astronauts saw the Earth from space, because for people watching Planet Earth and now the film, it's seeing something they've never before seen about the planet they live on.

Clearly the film has three characters that take you on a journey, but equally important for us is the planet itself. We felt we were in a privileged position to make a big movie about our planet—to cover it from pole to pole. We hope that people are emotionally engaged with the characters, but we also hope they're emotionally engaged with the planet itself. When we started working on the project, which was way back in 2002, I don't think anyone would have guessed how people's care and sensitivity towards the planet would grow the way it has. I think people's recognition of the fragility of the planet has significantly grown in the last five, six, seven years. The movie is perfectly timed for a change in the zeitgeist. To be honest, I think it's also perfectly timed for the election of your new president. As far as I'm in touch with the feelings in the States, whenever I've been there recently, people are much more interested and much more engaged with the whole planet. We really wanted to say to people, "Look, come to this movie because we will be able to give you this extraordinary roller-coaster perspective of the whole planet. We will take you from pole to pole; we will show you in 90 minutes something that, if you had all the money and all the time in your life, you could never see." And that's what we're hoping to achieve.

As you did take on the challenge of making a movie about the whole world, how did you decide what made the cut?

One of the wonderful things of making the movie is we knew from the very beginning that we were making a movie with a TV series as a parallel. We had the challenge of making a cinema film along with the series, and while the series was very popular in the United States, the big-screen experience is entirely different from what you get at home. What we wanted to do was look at the whole planet. The sun's journey, the seasonal journey from north to south, is vital. But we had to tell it through the eyes of three characters. And we very specifically chose animals that were very engaging but could also take us on the journey. In the Northern Hemisphere, the polar bear is such a symbol of the Arctic and the ice and the coming of the summer. It's a seasonal story because for the polar bear, the Arctic has a wet season and a dry season. The elephants' migration is about a migration in search of water, and of course the humpback whales are amazing because they go from the tropics all the way to Antarctica—the longest migration of any animal. We had that structure in mind. In terms of spending our money, the TV series paid for the behavioral sequences. The Blue Planet (the series' aquatic predecessor) paid for all the work for the big screen: the aerials and also the special shoots of our characters. We did a special thing on humpback whales which never aired in the TV series. We went back to all our material of the mother and her babies. It's very important to us that even somebody who's watched the DVDs of the TV series a hundred times still comes to the cinema and gets [a] completely fresh, completely different, completely enhanced experience. And … so far, certainly if you look at the box office in Europe and Japan, that has proven to be the case.

I noticed a switch in the narration. Before in the series, it mentions a male polar bear and then later, a female and her cubs. Now, the narration describes them as a father and a mother and their two children. What's behind the change?

We're trying to engage a family audience. I think that's a subtle way of sending a message. It's true, we're very careful not to say that we followed one individual—you never could. We filmed a number of individuals to create our story. That's a familiar technique in wildlife filmmaking. It's important for people to understand that a father polar bear has absolutely no involvement with his own offspring besides the actual fertilization of the egg.

The male-to-father switch makes the film both more approachable and more sad when the male polar bear starts struggling for life. Before, you have one dying bear alone. And now, if you stretch it out, you have two orphaned children.

I suppose, yes. I think that people want to be entertained and emotionally engaged. You have to accept the real importance of the narrative. Television, you could argue, could have a more didactic role; people come to it with different expectations. We wanted a really engrossing 90-minute cinema experience. And yes, if that means we changed males and females to fathers and mothers and it makes it more interesting, then I'm glad.

The common wisdom is that entertainment is just entertainment and that's all people want. Do you feel that the public appetite for education is underestimated?

I think so. Do people underestimate their audience's intelligence? Absolutely. Should you try and give them more than they want? Absolutely. Is cinema able to do that like television? Absolutely. I think our biggest challenge—and the journey we've really, really enjoyed—is working in the cinema. Even if you've got the best surround system at home, natural history looks amazing on the big screen. The lions roaring when you've got all the surround speakers—it’s a completely different experience than watching it at home. The other thing is that if you watch telly with the kids, you've got the phone ringing, the dog barking, they're swapping channels. To get people to come into a darkened cinema is an extraordinary privilege. And actually, a privilege that really suits nature. A lot of nature is about peace and quiet. Yes, the film has a lot of dramatic sequences in it, but one of my favorites in the movie is when the woodlands change from spring to summer to autumn. You hear the birds singing in a typically North American woodland. That's one of my favorite moments in the whole movie because if you go out into nature, you can have it. All of us live increasingly urban lives, and a lot of people don't have the privilege of just going out there and sitting in nature enjoying the wide-angled surround sound. If we can bring that experience to the cinema, then we're very happy about that.

I'm curious about making directorial choices in a nature documentary—for example, the choice to be very frank about predators and prey. And I love that you included what, to me, is the signature moment of the series: when the starving polar bear is trying to find food and he's attacking the walrus. The audience has always been on the side of the prey just by default, but here you're torn between who you want to prevail.

It's very important. The other one I would point to is the cheetah hunt. You've got little Bambi being killed by the cheetah. We very deliberately slowed that cheetah down to 1,000 frames per second. And we chose the beautiful voice of an Armenian singer because what I wanted to do was look at that cheetah—really look at every sinew, every muscle of that body—and say, “This is a predator at his very, very peak.” The same with the great white shark. I've seen a million TV shows that just say this is a horrible, beastly, nasty shark. Actually, it's not. It's an exquisitely designed top-of-the-chain predator. I think that if you treat your audience intelligently and you realize that the polar bear, if he's going to survive, has to kill a walrus, then that is interesting. That is what can turn predators into characters that you emotionally engage with.

Can you tell me more about steering the tone of a documentary by musical choice?

[Co-writer and co-director] Mark [Linfield] and I are very fortunate to have worked with George Fenton. George is a brilliant composer; his list of credits is enormous. I love working with him because I myself am not a terribly musical person. But I can go to George and say, “This is how I want the audience to feel.” He's very, very important to us in telling the story—practically on board as one of the authors. In a very fast sequence such as the wolf running down the baby caribou, if you listen to that, he's picked out the individuals. He sort of holds the audience in his hand through the music. That's helped us to be sparse with the narration. As far as I'm concerned—particularly in the cinema—less is more with narration. If you're constantly talking, constantly giving information through words, there is a danger that the film can become didactic, a danger that the film can seem like a television documentary rather than the cinema experience. People do not go to the cinema for a lecture. I'm proud of the music and proud that we managed to persuade the Berlin Philharmonic to play our score. This is arguably the best orchestra in the world. They've never really done a cinema score before, and working with them was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.

You were around for many of the shoots. Which was the toughest?

We went to over 200 locations in 64 countries. In a sense, the toughest was the best. Working in the high Arctic in April, which is when we filmed the swimming polar bear and other polar bear material, was really demanding. But my goodness, it was wonderful. There's a shot in the movie that I really love: looking down at the male polar bear when the ice has all but melted. You've got these beautiful patterns of the white ice and the ocean's dark blue, and, as the audience, you're thinking he's in real trouble. It's a world that's never been filmed before. You can't go out there on foot, clearly. You can't go out there on a boat because you'd disturb the bear. Using this specially stabilized camera system, we were able to film without disturbing the bear. Amazing footage. And that, to me, was one of my all-time highlights shooting the movie.

It's a beautiful shot. Another shot people talk about is when the crew stays up all night filming lions in infrared as they attack a herd of elephants. Did they know that was going to happen?

It's extraordinarily rare behavior. Most lions cannot bring down elephants. They do it through desperation because of the dry season. We had to [use] special cameras, special lights. The elephants couldn't see the lions. Well, we couldn't see the lions—or the elephants, either. The only [person] in the whole crew who could see the action was our camerawoman, who was seeing through the camera that could see in infrared. It's quite interesting because we're working from our vehicles, and the lions don't tend to jump on them. What was frightening was the elephant mothers, who were understandably worried. They were charging around like crazy, and at any time, they could run into our vehicles. It was far and away one of the most dangerous shoots we did while shooting the movie. Extraordinary behavior.

In such a scary moment, does the crew still love their jobs?

Yes. I think they do. Yes, they definitely do. I'm very, very fortunate to work with people who—that's all they do. They are wildlife cameramen and camerawomen. They go into these worlds because they love these places. They're not photographers who become wildlife people. They're devoted to the wildlife industry and then they become photographers. They are wonderful people. I feel very privileged to work with them.

The more that you're around nature, does the line between human and animal blur, or does it seem more distinct?

I've always felt that the line is very thin. I mean, we are an animal. I've always felt that an awful lot of human behavior is very easily explained by our genetics. I have to say that I see the animal side of people much more in cities than I do in nature.

What do you want people to be talking about when they leave the theatre?

I want them to be talking about the emotional engagement they've had with the characters. More than anything else, I want them to think, “This is a really wonderful planet.” The trouble with a lot of the messages that we're getting at the moment—be they economic, be they global warming, all the messages—the vast majority of messages that people receive at the moment are bad news. That's understandable. But everything in Earth is still there. There are still enormous mountains out there. There are still enormous numbers of unspoiled areas. All the animals we filmed are still there. Many are threatened, but they're still there. It's not too late. I want them to be inspired. I want them to say, “It is amazing.” And I want them to tell their children, and I want their children to care.

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