Sir David Attenborough is into the sixth decade of his career.
In that time, he has appeared on black and white, colour, high definition, and even 3D television. And, over the decades, he has been consistent in educating us about the natural world while also highlighting the grave threats it faces — such as Blue Planet exposing the damage posed by single-use plastics.
Now, thanks to his narration on the new natural history series Our Planet, Attenborough will soon be making his debut on streaming television. When it lands on Netflix next month, all eight episodes of the nature series will be available to watch in 190 countries simultaneously. And, with the issue of climate change never more prominent in public and political discourse, this is arguably Attenborough’s most crucial and timely project of all.
But in case you were wondering, Attenborough isn't leaving the BBC for Netflix. In fact, Attenborough is due to present a climate change documentary for the British broadcaster later this year. His involvement in Our Planet is directly down to the show’s executive producer, Alastair Fothergill — a filmmaker who has collaborated with Attenborough on other memorable natural history shows such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet — who started his own production company and partnered with Netflix.
“My job is not to do the pictures, my job is simply to provide the words and I was very flattered that they invited me to join them,” Attenborough told BuzzFeed News.
Another partner on the new series is the wildlife charity WWF, which was the subject of a BuzzFeed News investigation in March — some time after this interview took place — that revealed it was funding paramilitary anti-poaching groups implicated in torture and killings of indigenous people. WWF said it is investigating the allegations.
Our Planet certainly matches the scale of productions that viewers now come to expect in the ever-increasing, high-stakes world of natural history filmmaking. It’s taken four years, 35,000 hours of shooting, 600 members of crew, and filming on every continent of the world.
“The conditions are very demanding,” says Fothergill. “From the depths of the ocean in submarines, to the coldest conditions in the Arctic, diving with hundreds of sharks, you name it. The cameramen and women that I work with are extraordinary.”
And the pictures themselves are staggering. The series is shot not only in 4K, but also in HDR (high dynamic range). Many shots of the animals were taken by drone because, as Fothergill explains: “Some animals are completely relaxed around them. And unlike the helicopter that you have to call up when you need it, you literally can launch the drone when you need it.”
BuzzFeed News met Attenborough and Fothergill in November to talk about the new series.
All eight episodes of Our Planet are being released on the same day. That’s going to have quite the impact on creating environmental awareness...
David Attenborough: That’s something that I have never taken part in before, ever. And as you say, it is an extraordinarily exciting prospect. The fact that you might be able to address people in China and America and Europe and Australia all at the same time is a most extraordinary phenomenon — that’s never happened in the history of human beings. And to take advantage of it, to talk about something which is of such urgency and importance to the whole planet, is a great opportunity.
Alastair Fothergill: We’re still celebrating the enormous natural wonders that remain, we’re not filming destruction. We’re trying to explain to people the value of habitats. I don’t think many people realise that every second breath of air you breathe is created by the oceans. You can’t care about something unless you value it.
Why do you think that young people are so passionately interested in nature documentaries? I remember, David, reading how pleased you were when you found out Planet Earth II had more viewers than The X Factor.
DA: You may say it’s because it is about tomorrow and tomorrow’s world and it’s their world and not our world, but I think it is more profound than that.
I don’t think a child has been born who has not, at some early stage, looked at an earthworm or an earwig or a hedgehog and [had] their eyes come out with wonder and astonishment at how extraordinary it is — that there’s other things out there that can feed and feel and react, and you share the same world. That is a very, very profound truth and fascination, which children see very, very early.
Of course, as they get older, they see computers. But if they lose, in the face of computers, that vision of the natural world, they have lost a great treasure. And most people don’t lose it. And even those that do, it’s still there latent within them, and you can set it aflame.
Do you feel humanity understands this environmental urgency?
DA: You can’t really generalise about the whole human population of the world. I mean, what goes on in Northern China and what goes in Southern Australia or indeed, in West Kensington. But the extraordinary thing about making programmes of this kind is that the pictures themselves are understood by viewers all over the world immediately. They don't require words from me except every now and again, and they can do perfectly well without them altogether. So these images that these films show, both of the enormous abundance of life but also the damages, the dangers that face it, don’t require words.
AF: Environmental changes don’t happen that quickly, but over the 20 and 30 years that I’ve been making wildlife films, I’ve definitely seen it. I go to Svalbard, Spitsbergen, a lot to film polar bears in the high arctic, and the amount of sea ice in the summer is definitely reducing every year and that’s making polar bear cubs smaller.
I’ve been to Antarctica and I’ve seen ice-loving penguins…being replaced by penguins from the north that like hotter conditions. It’s definitely happening — just in the last few years, two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef have been bleached.
It’s important to not just be doom and gloom — we need to empower people. There are solutions. There are things that we can do, but we have to do them quickly.
Blue Planet II helped change people’s relationship with single-use plastic. Do you think enough steps are being taken on environmental issues like this?
DA: Well there can’t be enough. We can’t solve the problem in plastic just [claps] like that. There are millions of tonnes of plastic in the ocean. The technology required to actually render that inactive or destroy it is gigantic — it’s one of the most intractable problems I can think of. And yet, in part, it’s simple. It’s simply getting up and putting it out of the sea and burying it. But when you come to hundreds and millions of tonnes of it, it’s a huge, huge problem.
I hope the world is going to devise some big thing. It can only be done worldwide, because it is not just on our shores, or on the American shores, or indeed Chinese shores — it is the whole of the oceans of the world. Two-thirds of the world’s surface is infected with this appalling stuff, which is lethal to life.
Are you more hopeful than before?
DA: Well, at least we’ve recognised what the problem is, and at least people all over the world and saying: “Yes, we will stop doing this.” We have to strain every muscle and sinew in order to solve it.
It has to be a more unified solution.
DA: You know, it is possible that human beings can collaborate — they have done. I think you can solve problems — simple problems — on your own doorstep. But the big problems require big solutions, and they have to be national, international agreements are going to solve them. The Paris Agreement was a big step forward.
I can remember a time when people were dismissing renewable energy as being just “pipe dreams” or “silly people who have got their little bees in their bonnet.” But that’s happening.
Natural history shows on a scale like this always promise to show us things that we have never seen before. What will this series show us?
AF: A lot of things. We filmed the first-ever intimate images of Siberian tigers in the wild — there are only 600 left in far eastern Russia. Two cameramen for up to periods of six weeks were literally locked into a hide — they couldn’t leave it for six weeks. Everything they needed — food, the loo — everything was in this hide. They didn’t film a frame. Luckily, we had 40 motion-sensored cameras and they captured some beautiful images of these animals in the wild. That was very, very special.
One of the most shocking things which has never been filmed before, again filmed on the eastern pacific coast of Russia, [was] over 100,000 walrus. These are massive animals that like to live out on the ice — they never normally come to the land. 90% of the global population of walrus [were] hauled out on one beach — this beach being solid walrus blubber. It was so crowded that some of the walrus climbed 80 metres up a cliff to get some space. They have very bad eyesight. In order to get back into the sea, they did suicidal leaps off the cliff. If you ever want to see the effect of global warming — because of course, the ice they used to have has disappeared or has gone too far north — that sequence was very, very moving.
But there’s lots of fun as well. Birds of Paradise — these amazing birds in Papua New Guinea — these displays which we filmed, David Attenborough’s real favourites, [showing] wonderful behaviours, that again have never been filmed before.
And of course, there’s so much effort taken to capture these pictures.
AF: The cameramen and women that I work with are extraordinary. They are unbelievably patient. Rarely did we have a trip less than six weeks, and if we got three or four minutes of usable footage out of that, we would be delighted.
David, are you always amazed by the footage that you’re shown and asked to narrate?
DA: The natural world is an infinite complexity and a man hasn’t been born who can possibly say that he understands all of it. The longer you live, the more you realise that knowledge is expanding, not only across the animal kingdom, but in terms of depth — we understand so much more, about the way evolution works, the way genetics works. There’s a lot more still to discover.
We haven’t even catalogued all the species that exist on the world today. There’s good reason, I suppose that it’s only a tiny fraction of what is actually there.
That’s startling. I assumed that thanks to the internet, most animals had been discovered.
DA: Of course, the reason you can say what I have just said with absolute assurance that it is correct, is because there is a sort of backlog of unexplored territory in the insect kingdom alone. We haven’t scratched the surface of the number of insects that there are. It’s easy enough.
If you said to me: “I will give you a million pounds for conservation if you could find and put my name to an unknown insect,” I guarantee I can find you that insect within the next six months.
DA: Of course. If you go into the jungle and you pick up a log and you start looking through it, [you’ll find] all these beetles and strange creatures that you’ve never seen. The difficulty is not finding them, it’s finding the expert — the zoologist who is an expert on this particular kind of beetle. They would be able to say: “That is known, and that is known, but that one is different.” That’s the rarity — the scientist, not the beetle.
Do you ever set out with a plan to film one thing, and end up filming something else?
AF: Everything is very carefully researched. We actually go out with storyboards — the storyboards you do for an advert or movie. Of course, the animals don’t read the script, they don’t look at the storyboards, so you have to try to constantly try and adapt that. What is exciting is that often you see things that even the scientist who has spent 20 or 30 years studying that animal don’t see, just by being there all the time.
Sometimes we fail, sometimes the animal don’t deliver, the weather makes it impossible — we do come back often with failure. Sometimes we go back twice or even three times to do the sequence. We get part of it each time. Very rarely do we plan something that completely hits the cutting room floor.
Do you think that your work will cause an impact, so that people who are watching at home will be encouraged to work in that field of research?
DA: It’s absurd for one person to generalise on that, but what I can say is that I get a lot of letters, I get 30–40 letters a day, and a good proportion of them say: “I [have] watched natural history programmes all my life, and that is what made me feel that we should do something. I wanted to know more about the natural world.”
I get a lot of letters like that, and if that is the case — and I would like to believe this is the case — then I think television has done something that’s good.
Do you see television as a public good?
DA: TV is a way you communicate, and it started off as a very limited one. You had a limited picture that spoke to limited people. But now you don’t need a television set any more — you need a thing the size of my hand. Press two or three things and there it is. And that is transformative for the human race. What it’s going to do to the human race is another question.
It’s like printing — when Gutenberg did it, everyone said: “Fantastic! We’re going to be able to tell great truths, spiritual truths, poetry and so on,” but you end up with the gutter press. And the same thing will happen in television, and has happened in television. You still get, one hopes, big broadcasting organisations with high ideals, but there’s also stuff which goes on with no consequence at all that you might say is the equivalent of the gutter press.
We’re now getting used to seeing landmark natural history documentaries every year. Now Netflix is getting in on it. Do you think that this is a trend, or do you think that this is here to stay?
DA: I have no idea to be honest. I didn’t even foresee that anyone could see a television picture while they walk about. From my point of view, I haven’t been speculating about the size of the audience. To be truthful, what has excited me is that I got to see these fantastic things, which, when I was a child, I thought: What a fantastic thing to be able to see something like that. And here I am, I’ve spent my life doing it.
And as time went on, I didn’t think: What am I going to do in five years’ time? I think I know what I am going to do next week! It’s thrilling. It’s been like that for 60 years.
Our Planet debuts on Netflix in all territories on Friday, April 5, 2019.
(Note: Alastair Fothergill and David Attenborough were interviewed separately and their answers have been edited for length.)