How "real" is "Planet Earth"?
May 16, 2007 9:41 AM   Subscribe

Just how "real" is the nature footage seen on the show "Planet Earth"?

I understand that nature photographers go to great lengths and spend a great amount of time to get footage of animals in the wild. But still, some of the shots I see on this show are just too perfect to come upon by happenstance. Cameras inside the burrows of rare mammals (lit with artificial light), or creatures falling into a frame perfectly composed to receive them, for instance.

Do they ever "set up" scenes, and weave them seamlessly into the "real" nature photography? Do they shoot some stuff in zoos or otherwise controlled environments? Do they use computer graphics to create the shots that show changes in the seasons?
posted by Brian James to Pets & Animals (29 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
They do put cameras in burrows, etc. But they are all real. It took them 5 years to get these pictures. It is the most amazing TV I have ever seen. They spent 2 months in that cave in Mexico. Just really great stuff.
posted by JayRwv at 9:56 AM on May 16, 2007

Planet Earth is one of the (many) great arguments for needing an HDTV. Simply brilliant.
posted by misha at 9:59 AM on May 16, 2007

Very little nature photography is the result of happenstance. For a documentary like Planet Earth the producer/camera operater will meticulously scout out a location, note what time of day an animal is looking for comes to feed, set up a blind nearby and wait for sometimes days for the right conditions. Sometimes setups like placing a plexiglass panel over a nest in a hollow tree or next to an excavated burrow are used to gain access to toherwise unseen locations. In general, staged shots are highly frowned upon; here is a lengthy analysis of a National Geographic photo that may have been staged to give you an idea of what most nature photographers think of the practice.
posted by TedW at 10:03 AM on May 16, 2007

Be sure to check out the Planet Earth website. Great stuff.

"The 11-part series will amaze viewers with never-before-seen animal behaviors, startling views of locations captured by cameras for the first time, and unprecedented high-definition production techniques."
posted by ericb at 10:08 AM on May 16, 2007

All about The Making of Planet Earth.

Apparently there's a whole show devoted to how they made the series.
posted by mathowie at 10:08 AM on May 16, 2007

For the US market, did they keep the original Attenborough commentary or re-voice it with local talent, as with Walking with Dinosaurs et al?
posted by meehawl at 10:09 AM on May 16, 2007

I want to know how they did the avalanche shot. They must have had beacon boxes with cameras in them b/c everything was so still before the avalanche and cameras were pointing straight up the mountain. Then, *WHOOSH* and everything is covered in 20 ft of snow. I guess they then had to go and retrieve all the cameras.

I also saw something on Discovery after an episode aired that showed how they get the floating above the earth feel by using hot-air balloons to get right next to something without the noise and disturbance of a helicopter.

I agree with misha, its a fabulous (eleven-part) hour long HD demo.
posted by ijoyner at 10:10 AM on May 16, 2007

For the US market, did they keep the original Attenborough commentary or re-voice it with local talent

Sigourney Weaver narrates the US version.
posted by briank at 10:12 AM on May 16, 2007

creatures falling into a frame perfectly composed to receive them

This is the job of a good cameraman, to "invent" shots in a natural setting. The stuff that was easy to shoot, like a polar bear on a hill, had nicely composed and clever shots. The stuff that was so hard to shoot that they were lucky to get it, like the snow leopard, tend to be crummy. Lots of snow blocking the frame and sometimes even losing the animal.

meehawl, they replaced him with Sigourney Weaver. They also split off the making-of pieces, so they had time for commercials, and then showed them en masses as a 12th and 13th episode.
posted by smackfu at 10:13 AM on May 16, 2007

There was a special "our favorite shots" episode I saw a few weeks ago. They showed the shockingly boring process of getting these shots - the ones you see really are one in a million! At one point they had to sit in the rain in a bird-blind in the jungle for a week to get a good shot of some particular bird's mating dance. In another, tey had special computers that were constantly recording and discarding super-high-speed shots from the video camera while they were getting footage of great white sharks. The camera man would push a button when something good finally happened, just to tell the computer to save the surrounding 15 seconds of footage, because otherwise it would be deleted to make space for more footage. As I recall, they were out for at least 10-14 days to get 2 really great shots.

Anyway, see if you can find that episode. It finally cured me of my desire to be a nature photographer.
posted by vytae at 10:16 AM on May 16, 2007

At the Planet Earth website there are excerpts of the 'Making of the Series' (already mentioned). At the "home page" click on the "Video Higlights" tab (on top). In the new webpage, click on the 'Capturing Planet Earth' tab. There are 8 videos in the right-hand navigation frame.
posted by ericb at 10:26 AM on May 16, 2007

Response by poster: The "Forests" episode in particular I saw a couple shots that made me think CGI. For instance, there is an apparently time-lapse shot that shows the change in a forest over an entire year, with no sign of the camera moving in the slightest. Then, the same change as shown in satellite imagery, again, each image syncing up with the other perfectly, with no sign of change in perspective.

Both looked to me like shots that, while they could have been done the "old-fashioned way," were more likely to be either computer generated, or computer-enhanced.
posted by Brian James at 10:35 AM on May 16, 2007

The Planet Earth diaries, shown with each episode are just as fascinating viewing and throw more light on how the shots were obtained. The super long distance overhead shots, days spent in solitary hides, weeks tracking herds across hundreds of miles of wilderness, living underground, on top of bat faeces...

Utterly jawdropping stuff and was my first purchase after buying an HDTV.

And Attenbourough's voiceovers just make the whole thing perfect.

Gobsmacking film-making.
posted by brautigan at 11:56 AM on May 16, 2007

I don't know if they're computer-generated, but the forest one got the group I was with thinking about it. Most striking wasn't the change of seasons, but the camera panned while the change of seasons occurred. It happened very smooth, I am guessing they either had an ultra-wide shot that panned very little (that they reduced to a wide shot that panned a lot) and just used CGI to smooth everything out or used heavy CGI in smoothing/gradient changing and panned a normal camera over a normal distance over a long time frame.

Same thing with flowers that were blooming, they moved around as if in real time, when the things happening occurred over a month or two month time frame. It was very smooth, but I doubt it was done with just a camera and hard work.
posted by geoff. at 12:08 PM on May 16, 2007

One thing with the time lapse is that they clearly are cutting out the dark parts of the day.
posted by smackfu at 12:21 PM on May 16, 2007

Realize that it took multiple crews Five years to get just under half a day's worth of footage.
The instances where the animal drops into a perfectly composed frame was probably the result of the animal dropping into frame 10 times over the course of two weeks (and another 20 time where it dropped in out of frame), and from that, one shot was used. Additionally, there's a good chance that they filmed with a wider-angle lens than the shot they wanted, so as to be able to crop off a few inches on any side to improve composition

But yes, I too think the time lapse stuff probably had some CGI help.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 12:50 PM on May 16, 2007

"...with no sign of the camera moving in the slightest"

If you were setting up a camera to shoot for a year of time-lapse, wouldn't you make dang sure the camera wasn't going to move?! If only to make sure it didn't fall in the night and destroy itself?! And that one can't program a computer to put together pictures from exactly the same point in orbit every pass of a satelite? Why in the world would you be expecting the perspective to change?

5 years and millions of dollars with herculean efforts of the crews, and for some they still can't believe what was done to bring it before their own eyes. Sad.
posted by mattfn at 1:01 PM on May 16, 2007

on the dvd (at least the chinese one i borrowed from a friend), it has Attenborough, and every segment is followed by a 'making of' segment. I HIGHLY recommend it.
posted by imaswinger at 1:12 PM on May 16, 2007

For those who *already* possess a licensed disc but with only a DVD player, a HDTV/monitor, and no bluray or HDDVD player, I recommend bittorrenting the HD-DIVX- or H264-encoded versions. There's a world of difference between an upscaled 480p and a native 720p or 1080p. It's still amazing to me that a good codec can pull such amazing quality from a regular DVD disc given its limitations (10.1 mbps max, 6.5 mbps realistic). But then again, the Planet Earth source material is outstanding.
posted by meehawl at 1:46 PM on May 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

A few years ago I met a couple of wildlife producers from the BBC One of them told me about a very long day spent filming spiny lobsters migrating across the sea bed somewhere in Florida. The ship's cook surprised the crew by serving up exactly the ones they had been filming for dinner that evening. Eating the cast is officially frowned on however delicious.
posted by rongorongo at 3:15 PM on May 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm very much looking forward to seeing some of the behind the scenes stuff. After watching several of the episodes I had to go back and try to pull apart how they would have had to accomplish some of the shots.

...Ok, it's stop motion, based on what I'm seeing it looks like two or three weeks worth, it's panning to the right which means that they used some sort of computer controlled dolly, and it's underwater... How the hell did they keep the rails clean?

Fun stuff.
posted by quin at 4:14 PM on May 16, 2007

If you're still here, meehawl, what are you using to play those 1080p . . .what . . . .avis? What are they? I can see burning a 1080i avi to DVD and playing it in a DiVX-capable player, but do you just play the 1080p ones directly on your computer? Is this what is referred to as the "VC-1" codec, or something else?
posted by The Bellman at 6:28 PM on May 16, 2007

For instance, there is an apparently time-lapse shot that shows the change in a forest over an entire year, with no sign of the camera moving in the slightest.

I think this shot in particular isn't real time-lapse. It looks like they just did four or five pans of the same scene, spread out over the year, and then cross-faded between them. You can see objects fade out, and there is none of the sped up motion you would see in a real time-lapse. Still tricky though, because the shot is ruined if you don't get the camera in the exact same place every time.
posted by smackfu at 6:46 PM on May 16, 2007

Weaver and others ruin the US version ("For the first time EVAR!", "Caught on our super duper high definition planamajig!"). Get the original BBC if you can. Attenborough is awesome.
posted by zackola at 9:11 PM on May 16, 2007

The mini documentaries, and the producers appearing on Oprah say the main ingredient was patience. They had to wait weeks, months or years to get the shots. The key was likely that someone finally fronted the money to pay a photographer and the equipment to get 2 minutes of finished footage per year of work. (For example.) Yes, 5 years in the making. Stunning, especially in HD.
posted by The Deej at 9:20 PM on May 16, 2007

"The key was likely that someone finally fronted the money to pay a photographer and the equipment to get 2 minutes of finished footage per year of work"

and they say the licence fee is a broken model ?!.,

Viva BBC !!
posted by burr1545 at 2:28 AM on May 17, 2007

FYI, Weaver only narrated over the episodes that were aired on American TV.

The region 1 DVDs retain the Attenborough narration.
posted by zebra3 at 7:45 AM on May 17, 2007

do you just play the 1080p ones directly on your computer

Well, you need to use a PC (or Mac, whatever) for output (to monitor, TV, whatever) because there are as yet no consumer-level DVD/DIVX players with hardware support for HDTV resolutions (other than upscaling 480p). That will change.

You also need a lot of CPU for 1080p. I use VLC. A lot of people seem to favour Matroska for HDTV encodes, so it helps if you get a good codec pack for that. Isn't VC-1 the Microsoft codec or something that works with WMP?
posted by meehawl at 10:14 AM on May 17, 2007

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