We dived into the BBC Big Blue Live Masterclass in Bristol to learn about the secrets of their latest live wildlife-drama hit.
Laura Thorne, Paul Deane and Sam Hume took to the stage to reveal the digital highs and lows of this new immersiveand multiplatform series celebrating the wildlife of our oceans co-produced by the BBC and PBS. “Bringing the world to Monterey Bay” created many logistical, technical and editorial challenges for the team. The boats out in Monterey had been rigged with live cameras but nobody knew which individual animals would be filmed! Back in the UK we’re used to seeing the similarly formatted “Springwatch” with a more regimented character appearance, but as experienced producer James Honeyborne said, “Nature is literally writing our script!”
However the adorable Southern Sea Otters at the Bay offered the crew a life line, allowing them to follow the story of a female mother, Bixby and her young pup. There’s nothing cuter than a literal ball of fluff- a single looping vine clip had over 4 million views on social media. Now that’s transoceanic!
The social campaign was hugely successful with experienced Digital Development Lead Paul Dean on board, where the stories, wealth of archive material (70% digital exclusives) and hot-off the platter video-bites were served up on the BBC Earth Unplugged social platforms to some of the largest audiences the broadcasters have seen online. In a world of increasing content, there is little time to grab an audience’s attention.
And so the wealth of GIFs, videos, Vines, stills and infographics kept both UK and American audiences entertained and enthralled by this little known oceanic part of the world.
Even 360 got a test dive… a virtual interactive reality video where you can dive among the verdant and colossal kelp forests, or have a swim with seals and Steve Backshall in an equally engaging virtual world. The BBC were however careful to choose the right video clips to fit a particular platform, and were able to partner with PBS and Monterey BayAquarium to promote their content.
Influencer campaigns of people with ‘big accounts’ such as conservationists and presenters were also targeted to “re-tweet” material, with the Blue Whale’s last minute appearance stealing the headlines.
This indeed proved to be a crucial element in making Big Blue a splashing success worldwide. Co-branding the BBC and PBS worked surprisingly well for the team as well, despite traditional ways of publicising programmes. The team shared their top tips for getting your content out there:
Know your audience
Try out material
Know your team
Pre-release your best content
Listen to you audience
But most of all, be HUMAN. Audiences want to be entertained on Digital Platforms as well on TV, with stories that are risky, humorous and inspiring. Big Blue Live was a truly ground-breaking and thrilling interactive experience. The Live Team are now looking for the next big series where the logistical issues of filming at different times of the day can be overcome, but not at the expense of finding amazing wildlife. We racked our brains for a few places we thought might fit the bill- let’s hope they have potential!
A tiger sauntering through the long, tall Vetiver grass, an African leopard quietly padding down a gully, a spider delicately reeling out and laying a deadly silken trail….
Their story begins with the fight to live another day in their unforgiving habitats – these ultimate “villains” of the natural world are given a second chance by Silverback Company Director Alastair Fothergill, Series producer Huw Cordey and their team in an epic visual feast- “The Hunt.”Packed with stunning visuals of the like you’ve literally never seen before, dramatic story telling through cutting-edge editing, colours to pop your retinal cones and sound to resonate with your wild animal instincts…The Hunt truly marks the new age for incredibly high-end drama and storytelling.
We (wildlife filmmaking students), were treated to one of the first talks about this remarkable new series….
In the heart of the Chemistry building in Bristol University, barely a student made a shuffle to reveal their presence in the dark. Their only light source permeated from a screen which displayed the never-before seen markings of a new landmark series. Then enters Alastair and Huw- the ultimate documentary predators of our time, a most formidable duo set to storm the wildlife film industry market with a flurry of experience and talented flair… we didn’t stand a chance- we were preparing ourselves to be amazed….
They both spoke with such eager passion and confidence about their remarkable 6X60 blue-chip landmark series, which explores the dynamic relationships between predators and prey, each based in a particular habitat, with its own unique challenges. One thing in common that unites these animals is their struggle to survive and fail as predators-something that Alastair really wanted to capture,
“We wanted to put our audiences in the footsteps of a Cheetah. The previous shows have always depicted predators as ‘red tooth and claw, and so this is one of the most exciting relationship to film. We decided to base the animals in different habitats where each of the different ecosystems create these different challenges. Be it the open ocean– a big blue desert with ephemeral and notoriously difficult to find species, or the vast plains of the savannah where there’s nowhere to hide- where competition (interspecific- between different species) between other predators is rife.”
Although he admits that they were going to film the “BBC blue chip” animals (ie: Charismatic species), but also the more unusual such as the ancestral Telophores and Portia Sider.
It took 3-5 years to make, and I’m guessing at least £3 million per episode to make… But when your throwing in all the possible latest kit (Cineflex or ‘Eleflex’ as its known in Episode 2, jibs, cranes, Sony F55’s, helicopters, editing suites, sound crew, SF, musical composers, flights, travel…ect), you can’t expect to get incredible visuals if you cut corners. The remarkable almost mystical image of the polar bear that talented cameraman Jamie McPhearson captured was made possible with the use of the £300,000 cinflex camera and boat crew- and a total of 14 people and 8 weeks to capture that sequence! The co-proability of this series will, I’m certain, make a lot of it back so that we can enjoy even more exciting series to come (such as BBC 1’s One Planet, 2017!)
Alastair mentions he often think about what the next series will be, for example after Frozen planetthey decided to look at habitats. But rather than just to look at the polar regions and tropical jungles for a sense of place, they also they turned to a new areas of natural history- animal behaviour…The most exciting dynamic behaviour is arguably between predators and prey. They haven’t forgot about the prey- despite not appearing as the “sexiest” of animals. One such species shown is the snow goose- where it will form large flocks to protect themselves from predators and use instinctive ‘next nearest behaviour’ movements to coordinate the huge triangular flock formations we associate them with.
Off to the Polar Regions in the first episode. If you live in the poles you have to be adaptable. After frozen planet he was worried there would be no new stories to tell about its iconic wildlife. But again they managed to give us a literal brain freeze with the superlative polar bear sequence filmed by talented cameraman Jamie McPherson– it was absolutely stunning! Hats off to the remarkable colour grading by Adam Inglis, and editing by Andy Netley too. At some point I felt as if I was transported into Narnia with its gorgeous cool colour pallet. These animals are unique in that they change their hunting tactics serval times during the stalk.
“We didn’t manage to capture how this incredible behaviour stats in Frozen Planet, and so we wanted to film it this time.”
This is usually when the ice breaks up and they are no longer hunting seals on the ice. The weather however made it very difficult for the team to make it through one of the most inhospitable places on earth. At the very beginning of summer when there’s meltwater, the skidoos can be used to get through this vast terrain. Polar bears weren’t at all bothered by their presence, if anything they could pose more of a threat to the crew and so they took “polar bear” security very seriously. At the end of summer, the ice breaks into a mosaic of ethereal blue-coloured ice pancakes, which forces the bear to change its behaviour accordingly. The ‘Aquatic stalk’ is where the bear pursues the ringed seals within the water, which is no problem for it is supremely adapted to swim with its webbed feet and high body fat ratio to prevent it from dying of hypothermia. The metal boat allowed the crew to move in the ice and move with the bear, use the parallax of the moving ice in a beautifulway, which led to creating this incredible sequence.
Another polar tale was filmed at Elsmere Island, most northerly Canadian islands. It is the nearest land to North Pole, 8 degrees north, and a total population of UK and Scotland (150 people), most of which are Inuit. This lack of people that makes it perfect for Arctic wolves, they are completely fearless of people. The challenge here for the team was keeping up with these finely tuned long-distance runners which can reach speeds of up to 40mph. So a larger crew was needed on the ice… 2 cameramen, 1 wolf scientist, 1 producer and 1 helicopter pilot. Then it was Arctic hare characters that leaped into the story with the wolves, leading to a rather entertaining sequence!
In this weeks episode we take a look at one of my favorite animals of all time- the Cheetah. This evolutionary powerhouse can run at 56mph at its top speed for 10 seconds, and has to get within 50m of its prey before the lactic acid burns into its fast twitch muscles and need to slow down to recover. The stalk is a very important part of the sequence, and the amazingly talented high-speed specialist camerawoman Sophie Darlington and the team tried to emulate this hugely important behaviour and put the audience in the footsteps of the cheetah… where every detail and sinew of the hunt can be analysed. They filmed it at a level of detail never seen before, capturing a very intimate and tense moment…at which most cheetahs will fails at this point to successfully make a kill.
This sequence was made possible with the use of the Cineflex- slowing the image by 40 times at 1000fps. This ‘black ball’ is home to a very powerful lens, with gyroscopic stabilizers which could make Taylor Swift’s Shake it off look like a graceful ballet. Mounted onto a make shift arm on the safari vehicle…it makes for the most remarkable follow up shots as the animal glides through the savannah grasslands. They were able to track the cheetah alongside it as it stalked without disturbing it from 100m away, preventing any interference. Alastair tells us rather counterintuitively that one of the skills about filming cheetahs is…
“Don’t follow the cheetah… Predict and follow WHERE the prey will go, and then go beyond it to try and capture the “down the barrel shot.”
The Massia field guide, Sammy Munene, had the superb ability to get the team in the right place at the right time to capture one of the highlights of the series.
“The last and most crucial thing is to choose the RIGHT Cheetah.” They spent much time deciding who would be their hero…and it was to be Malaika, BBC’s Big cat diaries star, with four 8 month old cubs. Such a remarkable feat for a feline, as 50-70% of cubs die at within their first 3 months. She was under pressure to kill every day for her young and growing family- and so the action heated up…2 cameras on the vehicle, 2 aerials and 6 weeks later led to the team capturing one of the most detailed and incredible hunting sequences of all time. Make sure you tune in this Sunday (TODAY) 9pm BBC One to see it!
But it’s not just all about mammals- the army ant sequence filmed by the brilliant Jonnie Hughes was a feast for the entomological eye and bliss for keen sound recording artist. Just enough of the tittle-tattle sound of the tiny footsteps of one of the smallest and yet deadliest of predators in the rainforest, which demolished everything in its wake.
Equally the Darwin’s bark spider featured in episode 2 certainly proved that what it lacks for in size it makes up for in awe and charisma (YES I used an anthropomorphic word!) This spider was only described by science in 2009, and perhaps the reason it has never been filmed before. But nevertheless the teams found that the spiders were quite easy to find, and yet was still challenging in that they required just the right amount of wind and light to film. Huw tells us rather unwittingly that the number of camera kit cases required on such a shoot is inversely proportionate to the size of the animal- and with over 40 cases weighing over 40 tonnes… you can see why!
To really tell the story about the spider, a similar camera set up to the other sequences was required to get the shots they were after with all the dramatic elements and action. This quirky arachnid sprays out a stream of silk for over 20m, with which we are informed by the voice of natural history, Sir David Attenborough, that such material is stronger than steel. This sequences took 5 weeks (almost as long as the Wild dog and cheetah sequences) and so was no mean feat of technical skill and patience… even the smallest of creatures require the same level of detail to pull off a good story.
The sound effects of the silk being expelled sounds rather like a spring coil being trailed along the floor, and is rather entertaining I must say! Anyone hear the sucker squelching sound of the crocodile’s nictitating membrane of its eye opening and closing? Or the mission impossible zipping effects of the Portia spider? The last squeaking breaths of the mantis? Hats off to the foley effects artist for being so brave! The music throughout the series has been quite sublime, the perky little notes with our smaller insect protagonists and action bass heavy chase sequences creates so much depth and engages the audience further. Clearly Alastair and Huw were proud of their music assembly and so they should be. Attenborough’s performance as a narrator and storyteller as always is faultless…a true master of hitting every single syllable and verb with incredible passion and verve- what a true legend!
The shear amount of dedication that went into making this series is truly astounding – and a HUGE inspiration to us up-coming wildlife filmmakers. Now that we’ve learned about how the whole team coordinates and how the industry works, we can really appreciate the hours, blood, sweat, tears, talent and of course money that goes into blue-chip productions like this. But if you have the right team, you end up with a remarkable piece of natural history that will inspire others to want to protect these fascinating species, with their array of intriguing animal behaviours.
Can’t wait to see what’s next for the team! (**Hint hint.. Keep watching out on BBC 1 and Netfilx!**) Tune into BBC One tonight 9pm to see the Cheetah hunt!
[All images above were taken by BBC staff and I do not take any credit for them, simply sharing their content in a review/analysis/report].
It is only when, for the first time, that you see one of these COLOSSAL creatures in their element do you realise how small species we are – and yet able to cause so much damage to the world’s greatest biome that the Great whales live in.
These great whales are frequently found along the coasts of South Africa as the currents that pass through the Indian Ocean bring up-welling’s of nutrients and food to feed these 20 tonne giants. This is where the fresh, cooler waters from Antarctica meet with the warmer currents of the Pacific. However the main reason for the presence of the whales is to mate– this is literally a clubbing lek for whales wanting to find love, and also for mothers to give birth to their calves. Many locals have told me about remarkable sightings of females being pursued by amorous males for many kilometres on end, what sight that must be!
Their numbers are slightly increasing since the 1970’s ban imposed by the Whaling Union in Durban, and the dreadful practice of killing these magnificent mammals has halted. Most people now see the whales as being more valuable alive than dead which is huge plus. The whaling industry was hugely prolific back in the 1950s, from the shores of Argentina and South Georgia, (in particular during the Falklands war). South African whaling stations along the coast were also being established along False Bay where the meat was processed, where you can see remnants of the place today. Namibia also had a large station as well as Durban and Cape Town as well as in New Zealand and South Australia.
Thankfully, there are dedicated researchers setting off into the blue in all weathers to study different species and populations around the entire coast of South Africa. This is principally conducted by aerial photography, isotopic DNA analysis from samples as well as fin photography. Through identifying individuals, the researchers are able to determine the return of philopatric individuals, where previous calves were born and returned to their birth place to mate and give birth themselves. Humpack whales in particular are attuned to this cycle. They will take 3 years to recover from giving birth, as it’s a very energetic process. I’m pretty sure if I was that big and gave birth to a 4m, 1.5 tonne baby I’d be in no hurry for more…
To see whales in their natural environment has always again been a life-long ambition. Watching SirDavidAttenborough documentaries, and seeing incredible camera operators such as the multi-talented and hardy Doug Allen and Diddie made me want to come into contact with these gentle giants myself. Ocean Safari’s made this possible with their coastal tours of Plettenberg Bay, they are the oldest whale watching tour guides on this part of the coast and offer discounts to volunteer students (was 800 rand, now to 500 rand which is around £25-27) for 3 hours of whale watching. You have different excursion times from 9:00am, 12:00 and 2:00pm daily throughout the whole week (weather dependent). So you should always call up if you want to have a tour and book it.
The different species of whales you can see include Southern Right, Humpack whale, Brydes whales, and bottle nose dolphins, common dolphin, sharks, cape seals and Orca! The possibilities are endless. The Captain of the Ocean Dafir’s was Marvin, who was an expert sailor- and I asked him how long he’d been sailing this particular vessel- and his response of 15 years assured me that we would be in good company and able to see and spot the whales. Our guide was equally qualified and friendly to us all. We had a quick safety briefing as usual and then headed off to the Plett central beach bay with our life jackets.
We were ready to set sail!
Thrash! We speed off towards the sea and jet stetted off towards the headland of Roberg where the Cape Seal colony resides. The weather had improved significantly compared to the previous day, although clouds did loom ominously in the distance. I had taken my trusty sea sickness tablet, Kwells, which I would recommend taking even if you “don’t get sea sick,” just because it give you that reassurance. I warn you, you WILL GET WET.
Do take a rain jacket if the company you go with doesn’t provide you with one. The sea salt will leave you looking like a shipwrecked drugged up model with sea salted hair but don’t let that put you off! It was glorious bouncing along the Indian Ocean, and being kissed by the spray peppering our face. As we approached the seal colony everyone grabbed their cameras and gasped at the extent of the Seals climbing abilities. These were apparently the highest climbing seal colonies in South Africa, some at least 40m above the progressively swelling sea that thrashed against the rocks, sending a jet of white foam into the air like flecks of white paint.
Above is Roberg, a fantastic place to hike and below the seal colony is visible as well as the whales and sharks!
Posing for the camera! Cape Seals on the rocks. There’s a fantastic opportunity to “Swim with seals” which is run by the same company.
I’m not going to lie, I was a little perturbed by the size and progressive onset of swells that efficaciously emerged from the seemingly endless ocean- this was my first experience on a boat on a choppy day. I have previously been on a dolphin safari in Spain, but the waters were tame compared to this. As we bounced along the sea, we kept focusing on the sea horizon, and the reassuring words of our friendly guide who assured us we would see Whales, and to keep looking out for the spouts of spray. The humpbacks and Southern Right whales have the two blow holes from which they breathe when they surface.
The sound they make as they breach is a characteristic “ptfffffffff” which is seemingly imperceptible amongst the sound of the waves and wind resonating through the hull of the boat. Everything seemed to be a Whale, every wave! After 30 minutes even I was beginning to lose hope and wish the trip was over as my stomach began to churn…but then I saw the cool waters break and an immense grey dark shape emerged from the depths and glided across the surface effortlessly, the afternoon light reflecting profusely along its streamlined body- it was a Humpack!
“Over there!” I gasped in awe.
The captain and guide then followed my hand signal to my surprise, was it a whale or did I imagine it? Nevertheless we sped on, and then there it was again, the spouting and the appearance of the whales back, this time accompanied by a miniature version of itself- a calf! This was a female travelling with its mother, perhaps one that had been born there and now off to feed. They did indeed seem to be hungry and moved with remarkable speed. I had no time at all to take photos, and so filmed everything on the GoPro. I would recommend the same. The water and spray could really damage your camera, and the Gopro on the selfie stick works wonders as a stabiliser.
We followed them towards the north and Roberg, and then were surprised to see yet another whale join us at the side, and fluked with its broad and knarred tail, slipping once more into the deep dark depths of the ocean. It’s truly was magical. Then to top it all off, one of the males breached and its immense body left the waters for seconds, water streaming down its muscular and colossal body, and then landed with an all mighty splash. Wow! We saw a few more sightings of the mother and calf, and I believe we saw up to 4 individuals all busy on their way to feed or mate…
And then all of a sudden as soon as it had started, it was all over, and the skipper had already extended our trip to get further views, and so we headed back past the seal colonies. I spoke to our guide about any BBC film crews that had shot in these waters, and apparently Dolphin Army was filmed off these waters! I mentioned my plans to film in South Africa as part of my final film project next year, and he said that they would be more than happy to accommodate students! Score!
So who knows, I may return to film some of these remarkable marine species in more detail the following year. But if you’re around Plett or South Africa in general, I can’t recommend a Whale Safari more highly, it’s one of those experiences that never leaves you, and it’s now made more aware of what we’re putting into our oceans. As part of the #BigBlueLive filming that will shortly hitting our screens on the BBC, I think it’s vital that we get behind our gentle giants of the oceans and keep putting pressure on our governments to create more marine reserves around our waters in the UK and worldwide. Happy Whale watching!