‘You don’t have to work hard for the beauty:’ Sir David Attenborough on filming ‘Blue Planet II.’

A metre-long worm with dagger-like teeth rising from the coral reef. A cuttlefish hypnotizing its prey by turning itself into an underwater lava lamp. Dead-eyed sharks gorging on spawning grouper fish, like an undersea adaptation of The Walking Dead. Just another night for Blue Planet II — in the U.K., that is.

Blue Planet II won’t bow in Canada and the U.S. until spring, 2018. BBC America won’t be more specific than that, at least for the time being. BBC Earth, the tepid Canadian version at any rate, will follow suit.

Even though it hasn’t aired yet in North America, the David Attenborough-narrated follow-up to 2001’s The Blue Planet is already making waves, so to speak.

 ©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

And not just in the UK, where the first episode went into the record books as the most watched program of 2017 so far, when it debuted on Oct. 29. 

BBC’s marquee wildlife series was seen by more than 14.1 million viewers the week it aired, according to UK media reports. That’s including repeats, streaming and PVR viewing in the week following the initial broadcast, but still, that’s a telling number.

The UK Daily Mail reported this past weekend that Blue Planet is such a hit in China that it slowed that country’s Internet.

Yes, consider the source — the Daily Mail is the UK intellectual equivalent of the New York Post, but still: Even the idea that Sir David Attenborough, who the Daily Mail described tongue-in-cheek as “the most viewed creature on Earth,” could slow China’s internet service — owing to all those downloads, see — is a conversation starter in itself. Blue Planet II has already had a profound effect, in other words, even if it has yet to air in the land of The Walking Dead and NBC Sunday Night Football.

 ©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The world’s oceans — one of planet Earth’s last enduring natural resources — are in serious trouble,  environmentally and climate-wise, and yet they remain home to many of Earth’s most enduring, eye-opening mysteries.

Judging from comments on Weibo, a Chinese social media site modelled after Twitter, Blue Planet is having a profound effect in China, where comments range from, “I watched with my mouth hanging open,” and, “it’s a profound humanistic appeal to protect our environment,” to, “I’ve been crying all the time … it’s just so beautiful.”

Writing in the Guardian this past weekend, media critic Stuart Heritage wrote that BBC’s wildlife sequel has it all — profundity, wonder and trippy visuals. Crucially, he added, it transports viewers to a tranquil place, “untouched by the awfulness above the ocean.”

There’s something more at play, too.

“I can remember with uncharacteristic clarity watching the first episode of The Blue Planet,” Heritage added, “thanks to its context. BBC One broadcast the first episode at 9pm on September 12th, 2001, and it felt . . . necessary. Graphic images of the Twin Towers in flames were on the front of every newspaper. Television schedules were shoved to the wall in favour of rolling news coverage. It was the topic of every conversation, no matter where you went. The anxiety of the moment was suffocating.

 ©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“And then the clouds broke. At roughly the same time that most broadcasters were overcooking 9/11 coverage, setting clips of the attack to a Gounod oratorio, BBC One treated us to the most soothing thing imaginable. The Blue Planet, with its whispered narration, gently pulsating light and quiet wub-wub noises, was a screensaver. It was a lava lamp. It was the closest that television had ever got to letting you crawl back into the womb, right at a moment when everyone wanted nothing more than to ball themselves up in a duvet and shut the world out.”

We are living in disquieting times once again, even if these times lack the immediacy and emotional hot button of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Blue Planet II, from what I’ve seen of it so far, is unlike anything else on TV. The second episode —  called, appropriately enough, “The Deep” — ventures to the bottom of the ocean, an area we know less about than we do the surface of Mars, and explores where life may have started.

Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor — including a vent in the Atlantic Ocean dubbed “The Lost City” — contain as much life as a tropical rainforest. “Something truly extraordinary is taking place,” Attenborough narrates. “Under extremes of pressure and temperatures, hydrocarbons — the molecules that are the basic component of all living things — are being created spontaneously.”

 ©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Indeed, Attenborough adds, “many scientists now believe life on Earth may have begun around a vent like this four billion years ago.”

Filming was dangerous — life-threatening, even — on several occasions. In one instance, a  submersible deep dive in Antarctic waters nearly ended in disaster when a leak sprang a less than hour after submerging. Cameraman and producer managed to avert catastrophe by first finding and then plugging the leak with whatever they had at hand.

Then there was the producer who, while swimming in deep waters off South Africa, found himself within arm’s length of a rarely seen species of  octopus, only to be attacked — cameraman and octopus together — by a marauding shark.

Then there gnarly critters like the colourfully named fang tooth fish, which roams the depths, “snapping at anything that moves or glows,” and the sea toad fish, an ocean predator which can transform its fins into feet, like some kind of marine, sub-aquarian superhero villain.

Blue Planet II was four years in the making. It was filmed virtually wherever there are oceans, from Mexico to Japan and New Zealand, with stops at Hornoya Island, Norway; Sipadan, Borneo; Monterey, Calif.; the Sea of Cortez off Mexico; and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef along the way.

 ©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

 

“The wonder, the knockout quality that you get from the natural world is infinite and never ending,” Attenborough told a gathering of reporters at the semi-annual meeting of the Television Critics Association, in Beverly Hills, Calif., back when his Planet Earth was about to change the way many people look at the world. “When you see something for the first time, you are knocked out. It’s extraordinary. It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. But when you see it for the second time, you are beginning to understand more about the way (it) works.”

If programs like Blue Planet II have anything more to offer than the original, it has to do both with the increase of scientific knowledge over time and rapid advances in camera technology, Attenborough explained.

“The technology today is amazing. I started in 1954. My first animal, I was then using a clockwork camera, which ran for 90 seconds, and a hundred-foot roll of film, in black-and-white, which we tried to run for two minutes 40 afterwards. You had to change it. We were using lenses that couldn’t give you a closeup of anything beyond about 10 yards away. And, of course, the results were terrible. Thank goodness no one looks at them anymore. But, in 1954, people hadn’t seen giraffes or even heard of giraffes. Even if they were just a herd on the skyline, or a far distance away, people said, ‘Wow, a herd of giraffes, and they are fantastic.  Which, of course, they were. But now, with the increasing complexity and sophistication of the gear we have, we can do anything. We can put a tiny camera down the burrow of an armadillo or in the nest of a bird. We can slow down a hummingbird’s wings so you can see how they move. You can speed up how plants develop. You can film at night. You can film at the bottom of the sea. The range of images you can bring back is simply breathtaking. Year after year, my breath is taken away more and more.”

 ©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

 

There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty, John Steinbeck wrote, in East of Eden. Attenborough would agree.

“The beauty is there,” Attenborough said. “You don’t have to work hard for the beauty, really. Ugly is . . . what is ugly? It’s very odd. You can’t say necessarily an amoeba or a trilobite is beautiful or ugly. I happen to think it’s beautiful, but, in fact, that’s what it is, and that’s what you are dealing with. You are dealing with that funny animal with those eyes, multiple eyes, and a tower on either side. Is it beautiful? I think it’s  absolutely knockout, but it’s up to the viewer to make up their own mind whether it’s beautiful or whether it’s ugly.”



Blue Planet ©James Honeyborne:BBC Natural HIstory UNit.png