Multi-Emmy®-winning producer Alastair Fothergill has been a part of the BBC Natural History Unit for over three decades, serving as producer on Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, The Blue Planet and more. Here he reveals the revolutionary technology and editing process behind The Hunt, some of his most epic filming “firsts”, and what Sir David Attenborough is like off camera.
Don’t miss The Hunt season finale on Sunday, August 14 at 9/8c!
The Hunt has explored the relationship between many different predators and prey. What appealed to you about this theme?
Fothergill: Well it is, undoubtedly, the most exciting behavior in nature. It’s what people like. So I knew I had an enormously sexy subject matter. The other thing that really interested me is that people have always depicted predation as rather tooth and claw — you know, like Shark Week’s approach to sharks. Not only is that boring, but it’s also absolutely not true. The outcome is never certain, and most hunts actually end in failure. All that failure makes it that much more amazing when an animal succeeds! There are many sequences where I hope the audience will start by rooting for the prey — really hoping it will get away — and then change teams.
To give fans some scope, in what various locations was The Hunt filmed and over how long of a time period?
Fothergill: We filmed in around 100 locations worldwide, and the shoots varied from four weeks to eight weeks. It’s actually been a relatively rushed series. We only worked on it for about three years, which is short for this type of production.
The Hunt features many filming “firsts”, particularly in the ocean episode. How were you were able to film the underwater hunts?
Fothergill: When working underwater, the biggest was challenge was that a lot of the sea predators we wanted to film move very fast, and we humans are very badly designed for going fast underwater. The main reason that blue whales had never been filmed feeding before is because you can’t keep up with them. So in this case, we worked with a scientist to satellite tag the blue whales so that we could follow them. When a whale wants to go really fast, it stays at the surface, but when it wants to feed, it goes down properly. So often the speedboat would go ahead and then the cameraman would dive in the water and hope the whale would go past him. Often it didn’t. It was very, very tricky.
Throughout your career, you’ve employed lots of innovative film techniques to capture previously inaccessible footage. Can you describe any revolutionary improvisations you used on The Hunt?
Fothergill: The one on The Hunt was with the Cineflex, which is a series of gyros inside a ball that stabilize a very powerful lens. It was revolutionary in Planet Earth because we filmed wolves chasing caribou for the first time. Now in the old days, in order to get a close-up, we’d have to fly so low that the wolves would run away. But now the helicopter can be really, really high in the sky and yet you can film incredible close-ups that are totally smooth. It’s very complex technology that’s actually driven by military — they’re same gyros that guide missiles.
We used it from the air a lot on The Hunt, but the real revolution was to take it off the helicopter and mount it onto other platforms. We’ve mounted it on everything from vehicles driving 40 mph across the really rough savannah filming animal chases to boats going through the ice following polar bears. We even had a special mount made to put on an elephant in order to film tigers hunting in the forest.
What is the editing process like for natural history series like The Hunt?
Fothergill: Well, everything is digital now. We have a logging system in which every shot is described — closeup, wide angle, whatever it is — and it’s all rated from 1-5. We probably shoot 200 times what we actually end up using, so often the directors will go into the cutting room having already pre-selected the best ten percent of footage. If you went into the cutting room with everything, you’d just be swamped. So at any time, the editors can go back and say, “I need another close-up,” and when you put in “close-up,” all these options come up. So that allows us to do the editing. It usually takes an average of 12 weeks, which is not that long, but it’s enough.
You’ve teamed up frequently with broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. What’s it been like, working together?
Fothergill: I was inspired, like many people in our business, to get into filming natural history content because of David. I watched his first series Life on Earth when I was at school, and I remember that I just knew that was what I wanted to do. I’ve been very privileged to work with him. What I would say about David is that he is just as nice as he appears on screen, which isn’t true about lots of people. He’s also a brilliant writer and an extraordinarily intelligent, talented man who is generous with his time. He’s just inspired my whole working career.
Fans of Planet Earth may remember the gorgeous sequence with a snow leopard, an animal that had never been filmed before. Can you tell us about this shoot?
Fothergill: To film that leopard took three different trips. There were two eight-week trips where we didn’t film a thing, not a single frame. Those were in the Himalayas in Nepal. And then we heard a tip-off from a local contact that there was a snow leopard in the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan. The only problem was that at that stage, the US marines were looking for Bin Laden in that area, and the BBC wouldn’t allow us to go in for another full year. Eventually it eased off and they caught Bin Laden and it all became a bit safer, and the BBC allowed us to go in and we were able to find and film the snow leopard.
What kind of project are you looking to tackle next?
Fothergill: Gosh, that’s a big question. One series that I’m starting for the BBC, which is in very early days, is called The Perfect Planet. The show is about is the forces of nature that keep this planet what it is. Tides, currents, the water cycle. A lot of people have made weather shows, but nobody has done it and photographed it in an absolutely beautiful, landmark way. I was inspired to do this series from seeing the movie Gravity, because there is something very, very unique about the space view. When you look down at our planet from space, it has a serenity and an emotional resonance. I’ve done space views in my series in the past, but almost always they just geographically locate you. What nobody has done is time-lapse from space, and there are a lot of events on our planet, like hurricanes and storms, that you need to see from outer-space in order to really appreciate their power. Having the Cineflex in space will allow us to tell stories about why our planet is perfect. The series will also allow you to experience the power of the tornado through the eyes of the animals that it effects on the ground. You’ll start small, but grow very big. This series is on track to air in… maybe 2020? We’ll all be older!