David Attenborough’s A Perfect Planet filming secrets: How we made the BBC wildlife documentary series

We get the filming secrets from camera operator Matt Aeberhard about the BBC’s new breathtaking David Attenborough event series, A Perfect Planet.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 4 January 2021 - 11.35am

2021 has begun with a breathtaking TV event; Sir David Attenborough’s latest stunning series with long-time collaborators Silverback Films, A Perfect Planet.

Premiering on Sunday, January 3rd, the series takes us on a dazzling journey from lands drenched by the Indian Monsoon to the slopes of fiery Hawaiian volcanoes, from the tidal islands of the Bahamas to the frozen wastes of Ellesmere Island.

The show’s creators hope the series will shape the way we view our home and our planet’s natural forces.

"Oceans, sunlight, weather and volcanoes - together these powerful yet fragile forces allow life to flourish in astonishing diversity. They make Earth truly unique - a perfect planet," said Attenborough.

"Our planet is one in a billion, a world teeming with life. But now, a new dominant force is changing the face of Earth: humans. To preserve our perfect planet we must ensure we become a force for good."

A Giant Tortoise. Once hunted to near extinction, there are now around 100,000 giant tortoises living on Aldabra Island - a remote and uninhabited atoll in the Indian Ocean. Silverback Films

A Perfect Planet is a staggering piece of film-making, which has pushed technological boundaries and human ingenuity to capture scenes and wildlife in ways we’ve never seen before.

Ahead of the premiere, BT TV spoke to camera operator Matt Aeberhard, who filmed part of the opening episode of the series Volcano, to find out the techniques, secrets and skills required to bring A Perfect Planet to our screens.

'You can make your own luck'

A brown bear with salmon in Kurile Lake, Kamchatka, Russia Silverback Films

Filming facts from the volcano episode

  • Fewer than 30 people are thought to have entered Fernandina’s crater. More people have travelled into Space.
  • The remote breeding grounds of the lesser flamingo filmed in Ultra HD and by drone for the first time. 
  • It was the largest recorded lesser flamingo breeding event in more than 10 years.
  • Travelling across Lake Natron - the world’s most toxic body of water and the scene of the mass nesting of flamingos - is impossible by boat or on foot.

"Thinking on your feet is very important and also being sensitive to what you have in front of you. That’s where experience comes into play. How do you position yourself to get into shot? How important is this shot relevant to other filming you are doing and the complete sequence? One or two good shots isn’t going to tell your story.

"One of the key things about this sort of filming is that because you don’t have complete control, you have to think very quickly and start assembling a tool kit for the editor so that they can tell a story.  That means sometimes you have to be quite ruthless. Once you have done something and got a particular image and it’s satisfactory, move on. Move the camera, change the angle. Don’t sit there for a week repeating stuff that you’ve already nailed for the sake of one slightly better image. Or to correct one small mistake that nobody will see except you.

"Sometimes you are faced with amazing things that no one can ever predict and they can change things in a big way if the production is creative enough to accommodate these little gifts.

"You can make your own luck from spending more time in a place. That helps reinforce the purpose of this high-end wildlife filming. We are lucky to be in a position where we can go out to a field for six weeks. We can wait."

'Like the ghost of Sid Vicious'

 Flamingo chicks locate their parents by calling to them. Each call is unique and can be recognised by the parent. Finally reunited, the chick gets a meal from its parent. Silverback Films

"I was mainly responsible for the Lake Natron sequence at the beginning of the first episode and I had some experience working there before. The volcano itself I don’t think is a worry.  But the lake’s PH is little less than common household bleach.

"The surface of the lake when it evaporates leaves these incredible soda formations on which the flamingos breed. The only way to get out there is through the use of a hovercraft and that’s quite adventurous. We did have problems out on the lake.

"The problem with hovercraft is that the floating bed of air you float on is contained through rubber skirts and the rubber skirts racing on the soda, are being ripped up all the time by the jagged sharp teeth of the mineral formations.

"It’s a noxious environment that also has great beauty."

 Yasur Volcano, Tanna Island, Vanuatu Silverback Films

"Up until recently more people had stood on the moon than had stood amongst these colonies of birds. It was really, really risky and every shot had to be thought through. Even when you are out there, the hovercraft is just a delivery vehicle. It involves early starts, strategy and moving into position on mud that is so toxic it can scratch and burn your feet.

"The bitterness of the salt just gets everywhere. Because of the wind direction on the way back, the hovercraft sends all this spray into your face and you are bathed in caustic soda. You are literally covered in white salt when you get off and it is stinging you in every cut. Your hair is all spiked up like the ghost of Sid Vicious. It’s quite the experience."

'Even little things can make a big difference'

"Drones are becoming more and more important everywhere you look. But perhaps people are using them too much. You need to have a good reason to use them. In this series, we use drones to capture the visuals of this enormous and incredible environment where these flamingos nest on tiny little mounds to keep them from the intense heat of the soda flat. And you can only get the story and huge scope of it by using drone aerials to show the colours of the soda patterns.

"Moving cameras are important. Your ability to run a digital camera for as long as the battery lasts is a massive improvement on film. Digital tech is improving all the time. Even little things can make a huge difference. I just used a set of batteries that I’ve never used before made by a British company. They are half the size of ones we even used on Perfect Planet. And they last for longer.

"You are refining kit all the time in incremental measures. Digital technology brings a lot of benefits to the wildlife film world."

'A small cog in a big machine'

 A brown bear in Valley of the Geysers, Kamchatka, Russia Silverback Films

"I rate myself, I’m a good wildlife cameraman, but I work with Silverback and they are the best in the business. The faith the producers invest in me is shared. I enjoy working for people like Hugh [Cordey] and Alistair [Forthergill] because I know they will put me in the right place at the right time with the right support.

"So I know when I’m in position in the field, all I have to do is bottle down and find the shots with the camera and make it work. And if I don’t find a particular scene, usually I can steer the filming into a slightly different direction.

"One of the problems with wildlife, no matter how good your preparation, things can evolve differently to what you expect. An example in A Perfect Planet was that we wanted to capture flamingo chicks with the soda in Lake Natron around their legs that acts like a chain and balls so the birds can’t manage and die. We wanted that story, but we couldn’t get it. But we did manage to get them struggling with suffocating muds, which filled that hole. A bit of flexibility is something you always have to bring to the equation in the field.

"The pre-production work is massive and very much part of any production like this. I’m a small cog in a big machine. It’s a production depends on everyone pulling their weight."

'There are things that can be done and individuals can make a difference'

n otter sniffs the air and surveys its surroundings as it prepares to hunt; it must remain vigilant on land when coyotes or wolves could be on the prowl. Silverback Films

"One of the downsides of wildlife filming is that we are cherry-picking more and more from less and less. It can be difficult looking at the way people are destroying their essential support system on the planet.

"For Perfect Planet we did a drive that was through ex-Amazon that has been chopped down since the 1990s. You could smell the smoke in the air and it’s still going on and increasing in scope.

"I’m really an explorer of diminishment. The world is contracting all around us. People are starting to take notice and there are some solutions out there. We have to focus on that, if not for our lives, but for the sake of humanity. More people need to align those two elements. If we’re not looking after the forests of the world, we’re not looking after ourselves. It’s really that simple.

“Every school child should learn about ecology because it underpins everything. That’s a doable thing that people can demand. ”
- Matt Aeberhard

"People can do things. Ecological education should be part of the core syllabus. Every school child should learn about ecology because it underpins everything. That’s a doable thing that people can demand. There are things that can be done and individuals can make a difference.

"And communities even more so. It’s about people banding together and demanding change.

"Wildlife films that entice people to look at the natural world without making them feel like there is something wrong might be part of the problem too. That’s why it’s good that David [Attenborough] and Silverback are saying things and making these things evident. Showing how the world is fragile and need attention."

'Our six-week shoot is boiled down to eight minutes in the final film'

A rockhopper penguin A rockhopper penguin brooding its chick on Sealion Island in the Falkland Islands Silverback Films

Volcano facts

  • Across the surface of our planet, there are more than 1,500 active volcanoes.
  • Kilauea in Hawaii is the most active volcano on the planet.
  • Volcanoes are known as the architects of our planet: more than 80% of the earth’s surface is the result of magma bursting up from the earth’s molten core.
  • Volcanic islands make up just 5% of the planet’s land, but are home to nearly 20% of its species.
  • 250 million years ago, a change in the planet’s atmosphere brought on by volcanic activity was behind the biggest mass extinction in earth’s history.
  • Today, humanity has been come a new kind of super volcano. Every year, human activity releases 60x more carbon than all our planet’s volcanos combined.

"There is always stuff that gets dropped, but it’s the collective of shots that is the important thing. That’s what differentiates film from your picture on the wall – where you want the one image to be absolutely perfect. A film is much more than that.

"Lots of filming doesn’t make the final cut, but that’s part of the process. One of the disadvantages of digital technology is that most people think you can just shoot everything and not think anymore, but that can lead to massive amounts of overshooting and editors have problems finding the right shots because they are saturated with material.

"That’s why self-editing becomes so important.  You can save a lot of time in the edit if you think about what you shoot. I’m well served in that because I used to shoot in film and you have to really think with film before you press the record button.

"Our six-week shoot boiled down to eight minutes in the final film, which is kind of extraordinary. That’s actually really good, normally it might be a minute-a-week when it comes to used footage."

How to watch David Attenborough's A Perfect Planet

A Perfect Planet continues on Sundays at 8pm on BBC One.

Catch up on BBC iPlayer.

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