A change of pace doesn’t always mean faster. Dynasties’ five hour-long life stories of five individual animals have now aired in the US, following their BBC One debut late last year, and it was evident from the start — each hour-long episode was filmed in a single location over a two- to four-year period — would have a different rhythm and pace than traditional nature programs.
Dynasties was always going to be different from earlier David Attenborough spectacles like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. By focusing on a single family group of animals over an extended period of time, Dynasties would bend and twist to the rhythms of life, and pack a real emotional punch. Survival of the fittest is never more urgent than when it affects individual animals viewers have grown to know and care about, even if only for a moment. There were times when Dynasties was both profound and poignant, and hard to watch. Life in the wild is a struggle, and there are never any guarantees that the noble — whether lion or penguin — will win out of the ignoble in the end.
(New editions of Planet Earth and Blue Planet are on the drawing board, by the way, following the next in the BBC-Attenborough canon, One Planet: Seven Worlds. Film composer Hans Zimmer confirmed earlier this week that he’ll be composing the theme for One Planet, as he did for Planet Earth II; no word yet if Radiohead will follow, as they did on Blue Planet II).
If any of Dynasties was hard to watch for the viewer, imagine what it must’ve been like for the cameramen — and women — sound technicians, location managers and field producers who followed each family group for months and years at a time, for the sense of achievement, if not the pay exactly.
Their stories, and the rollercoaster of emotions that rocketed them from highs to lows with an almost capricious regularity, form the core of The Making of Dynasties, which will air this weekend exclusively on BBC America (Sat., 9E/8C).
As with the original program itself, The Making of Dynasties’ doesn’t dwell on the obvious — the bugs, the heat or, in the case of Antarctica, the cold — but rather the emotional, inner story of what it’s like to, say, witness an African wild dog grow from infancy to become a strapping, adolescent would-be hunter and clan leader, only to stand by helplessly while it’s snatched, screaming, by a gargantuan, Antediluvian crocodile after pausing at a riverbank to drink.
It’s hard not to admire the physical and mental toughness of these filmmakers as they spend long days and nights outdoors in places that haven’t changed in millions of years in some cases — there’s no room service on the ice sheets of the Antarctic Peninsular, or in Mana Pools National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, for that matter.
There’s Will Lawson, field producer of the Antarctic episode about penguins, rocked to his core at the sheer power and rugged beauty of the Earth’s most remote region, admitting softly to the camera, “I am absolutely speechless,” and 10,000 kilometre away, in Senegal on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Rosie Thomas, producer-director of the episode about chimpanzees, struggling with her emotions as she admits. “It’s heartbreaking to see this chimp that was so powerful has just become so weak.”
Many nature programs, even those that claim to take themselves seriously, make the mistake of anthropomorphizing their subjects — deliberately giving animals human characteristics — in the belief that will make the program an easier sell with viewers.
As this hour of Dynasties shows, for the filmmakers themselves, these animals proved relatable in their own right, on their own terms. It’s easy to relate to any living creature when their very lives are at stake. There’s no need to Disney-fy the story. When the aging leader of a chimpanzee clan vanishes for several days after being badly injured in a fight with a younger, would-be alpha male, cameraman John Brown is shaken to his core.“We saw him not only nearly lose his position in the hierarchy but we saw him nearly lose his life,” he says to the camera. “The injuries he sustained in the last coup would have been enough to kill me. . . .
“We’re still looking.”
The confessional to the camera, a type of aside used as a stylistic, storytelling device, is a tried and true staple of reality TV. Watching Dynasties, though — not just The Making of Dynasties — but the entire series, is a reminder of how much more trenchant and relevant documentary is than reality-TV. Here, the personal confessionals really mean something.
Seeing these cameramen and women in isolation, sharing their innermost thoughts, creates a sense of intimacy, emotions close to the surface for all to see. The Making of Dynasties provides depth and added perspective to what was already a rich and deeply textured series.
“It’s tough, actually,” Nick Lyon, director of the African painted wolves episode, admits. “Because you spend day in and day out with these animals, for months and months and months, and their lives become very important to you. The stories can be incredible but it’s actually an emotional rollercoaster to see what’s happening with them.”
There are many moments in The Making of Dynasties that will surprise even those viewers who hung onto every word of every episode.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most dramatic revelations of life behind the scenes emerge in the Antarctica episode, where three intrepid filmmakers, Lawson and camera operators Stefan Christmann and Lindsay McCrae, spent an entire Antarctic winter — in months of round-the-clock outdoor darkness — hunkered down inside an isolated German research station, Neumayer Station III, with just half a dozen German researchers to keep them company. A violent polar storm descends on them, on a scale witnessed by few human beings. Antarctic storms are more violent and powerful than any hurricane. There were times, Lawson admitted, when the sheer noise and violent stresses against a German-made structure designed to withstand just about anything, made him think the entire research station was about to come apart at the seams, taking them with it.
“We were told the likelihood of us being evacuated [in the event of an emergency] was less than 10 percent,” Lawson told the BBC’s RadioTimes. “So, yes, that massive level of isolation was very apparent.”
The best nature programs give voice to endangered animals that can’t speak for themselves. As The Making of Dynasties shows, the conservationists and filmmakers behind the camera have some interesting stories of their own. The Making of Dynasties ends, not with the Northern Lights but the Southern Lights, as seen from Antarctica.
“That is absolutely amazing,” Will Lawson says, nearly overcome by emotion in the black pitch of the Antarctic night, as clouds of green and amber light play overhead. “Oh my God.”