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Around the World in 1,790 Shooting Days: BBC America’s “Seven Worlds, One Planet”

Seven-part series narrated by Sir David Attenborough employs 8K cameras and boundary-defining drone techniques to capture unique perspectives and new species.


Seven unique stories, one landmark event. BBC AMERICA’s Seven Worlds, One Planet, which began airing in the U.K. in October 2019, has been set to premiere in the U.S. on Saturday, January 18, 2020, at 9PM/8c as a multi-network event airing on BBC AMERICA, AMC, IFC and SundanceTV.

Following Emmy-winning series Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, Seven Worlds, One Planet tells the story of earth’s seven spectacular continents and how they shape the extraordinary animal behavior and biodiversity we see today. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and featuring a theme co-composed by Hans Zimmer and Jacob Shea, and series score by Jacob Shea for Bleeding Fingers Music, Seven Worlds, One Planet reveals how each distinct continent has shaped the unique animal life found there. Seven Worlds, One Planet is a BBC Studios Natural History Unit production, co-produced with BBC AMERICA, Tencent Penguin Pictures, ZDF, France Télévisions and China Media Group CCTV9.

The seven-part series features filming firsts including polar bears jumping from rocks to catch adult beluga whales and a firefly spectacle in North America captured with a motion control tracking time-lapse camera, puma successfully hunting adult guanaco in South America, spidaboo mating dance in Australia, grave robbing hamsters in Europe, the largest aggregation of great whales ever filmed in Antarctica and Sir David Attenborough with the last two northern white rhinos on Earth in Africa.

The series was shot by director of photography Mark MacEwen on the RED Helium 8K digital cinema camera outfitted with a set of Cooke miniS4/I lenses. “I’ve used Cooke lenses before and always loved them. The look of the Cooke lenses does it all for me, and the way they separate the subject and background and flare is the way I see the world. I also like the way they work on digital sensors — to me, they just help take some of the digital edge off the camera and help keep it looking more organic and natural,” MacEwen, who has more than 20 years of experience in wildlife cinematography, says.

“The miniS4/i’s were great as the size and weight of them allowed me to use them not only for tripod work, but for hand-held gimbal work with animals where I have to hold the MōVI Pro rig for hours, following the animals waiting for the right moment or bit of behavior,” MacEwen addds. The build quality is also amazing and works so well with the follow focus gear. Outside of the flora and fauna, it’s the huge amounts of time we have to invest and of course the extreme demands we place on the kit, due to the environments we subject them to. I am happy to say that the miniS4/i’s performed flawlessly in every situation.”

MacEwen also praises the RED Helium for its versatility: “The frame rates, resolution and the size mean we can use it as a long lens camera, put it onto small hand-held gimbals or into larger helicopter systems like the GSS/Shotover/GSS,” he says. “Also we have the ability to use pre roll and so on, which is a huge advantage when trying to film things that may only ever happen once.”

Sir David Attenborough in Iceland – Seven Worlds, One Planet _ Season 1 – Photo Credit: Alex Board/BBCAmerica

The biggest challenge for cinematographers specializing in Wildlife Documentary, McEwen notes in an interview with Yossy Mendelovich at Y.M.Cinema Magazine, is the reliability of equipment subjected to extreme conditions. “The cameras are not necessarily designed to be subjected to these environments, but with some care, they allow us to do so much more than we could with larger-bodied cameras,” he says. “Also, the larger sensor size these days, although I love it, makes filming wildlife where we use extreme focal lengths like 1000mm much harder for focus. We don’t get to take focus pullers on these jobs as budgets are smaller than in many other avenues of filmmaking. It’s all about time in the field — the more we can have, the more likely we are to capture the behavior. So all focusing is done by the DOP at the time, it’s quite an intense and personal way to work.”

One particular scene from the series sticks in MacEwen’s memory. “I filmed elephant seals fighting for the Antarctica episode. I wanted to try and make the sequences feel and look different to others I’d seen shot, but they are a challenge to film — huge behemoths up to 18-foot long and 8,000 pounds. Thousands of them turn up in mating season and the males prepare to fight for their right to breed,” he recalls. “I used the miniS4/i’s on a gimbal to try and get among them, capture the feel of the combat and creatively control the visual scene. But it’s no easy job moving around these monsters. I was frequently having to jump out of the way as one animal charged another, while others charge past you to escape. It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been.”

“This series has got new species, new behaviors, new animals that people won’t have seen and places and locations that we’ve never been to before,” says executive producer Jonny Keeling. “We’ve filmed them in new ways as well. We’ve been using a lot of drones and though drones aren’t brand new, in the last couple of years, during the lifetime of this project, they’ve come on massively in terms of the quality of image that you can get, the time that they can fly, how quiet they are and how much animals are able to ignore their presence. It has given us unusual, interesting angles and behaviors that couldn’t be captured any other way.”

Visiting 41 countries, the production for Seven Worlds One Planet comprised 92 shoots undertaken over 1,794 days filming with 2,260.5 hours of footage shot. More than 1,500 people worked on the project worldwide. The filmmakers employed new technology for the series, including 8K cameras and boundary-defining drone techniques, to capture unique perspectives and new species.

Series producer Scott Alexander detailed the production’s mandate to include more drone footage. “One thing that I was really keen on for this series was to make sure we used drones as much as we could,” he says. “I made sure that when we first started every team had a member who was trained to be a drone pilot and we’ve taken drones out on every shoot we can. It wasn’t just about showing amazing landscapes, it was about getting behavior that we hadn’t seen because the drones are quieter now, they fly for longer, the quality of the cameras on them is 4K. That’s given us a new perspective. It’s given us a top-down view, enabling us to watch wildlife, not disturbing it but holding the shot. That in turn has shown us new behaviors that you don’t really understand until you get to see them from the air, like polar bears hunting beluga. Combine that with stabilized shots from, say, a boat with a Cineflex and you get a very rounded sequence where you understand exactly what’s happening.”

Using low light technology and cable dollies with a motion control tracking time-lapse camera, the film crew glided cameras through the forests of Mississippi and Ohio to shoot firefly spectacles. During the filming of South America, camera crews for the first time captured multiple Andean bears feeding in a single tree 90 feet high in the cloud forest. In the Australia episode, BBC filmed a shark aggregation which only happens every 15 years, using the magic of drone technology to film the shark’s unique tactics, which could not be captured from the sea via a boat as the viewer would only see splashing and fins.

The spectacle continues in central China, where the highest mountain ranges are remote, and to date, have been largely inaccessible to film crews. Yet for hundreds of years stories of the “Yeti,” a golden snub-nosed monkey, have emanated from this region. BBC captured footage for the first time of these incredible creatures with bright blue faces and golden coats who spend a lot of their time walking upright just like humans. These monkeys are the “holy grail” for Sir David Attenborough who first learned about them in the 1960s.

Seven Worlds, One Planet. Photo Credit: Chadden Hunter/BBC America

In the Europe episode, camera crews take audiences into the 12,000 limestone caves in Slovenia to capture a rare creature called the olm, which is a blind salamander that inhabit the area and can go without food for nearly a decade. Using drone technology, the film crew was able to get footage from underground inside the caves, which required expertise in freestyle drone flying to navigate the cave’s strong air currents when location accuracy tools didn’t work underground.

In Antarctica, BBC narrowly captured footage of the largest great whale aggregation ever shot, searching for seven weeks to find the sequence, nearly missing the opportunity when production’s helicopter broke and drone malfunctioned. And in Africa, for the final episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet, film crews capture Sir David Attenborough in Kenya with the last two northern white rhinos on earth.

Advancements in technology have also meant changes to storytelling. “All the big talk is about the technological advances,” Alexander observes. “You go from film to Beta, you go to HD then you go to 4K and on this series we’ve been shooting in 8K. But actually I think that where we’ve really evolved is in our storytelling and how we characterize our stories. In the past, it was all about behavior. Here’s the behavior, look at that, isn’t that behavior amazing? Now it’s look at this animal, look at the challenges it faces and look at the things it does to meet these challenges. I think we’re making the big advances by improving on our storytelling.”

Seven Worlds, One Planet. Photo Credit: Chadden Hunter/BBCAmerica