It could be said that David Attenborough is the voice for/of the planet. The British broadcaster and nature historian has introduced generations to the wild world as narrator for numerous documentaries, including the BBC’s comprehensive series about the Earth, beginning with 2001’s The Blue Planet, followed by Planet Earth (2006), Frozen Planet (2011), and Blue Planet II (2017).
In 2019, Attenborough and the Blue Planet crew teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Netflix to create a different kind of nature program. Titled Our Planet, the series strays from the conventional “blue-chip” themed approach — i.e., highlighting the grandeur and biological rhythm of the natural world — and instead focuses on human being’s destructive impact on the environment. Its conservation-minded motif, accompanied by stunning wildlife footage, offers viewers the opportunity not only to see magnificent creatures close up but also to learn what they can do to preserve Earth’s flora and fauna.
Attenborough’s conservation message is paired with superb production values; Our Planet was shot by many of the same photographers who contributed to the “Planet” docs, including renowned underwater wildlife cinematographer Doug Anderson. I recently spoke over the phone with the Scottish native about how he came to the project, his favorite critter, and Attenborough’s message.
How did you get involved with Our Planet? The executive producer on Our Planet, Alastair Fothergill, was the exec or series producer on 75 percent of all the stuff I’ve ever worked on from Blue Planet to Planet Earth. … [Producer] Hugh Pearson … asked me and a couple other guys whether we would like to become heavily involved. Honestly, it was probably the best shooting experience I’ve ever had. It was really a fantastic team. … We knew that David [Attenborough] was involved from the start and we knew that … everyone wanted to drive home more of a “save the planet” kind of thing. I guess the acquisition period felt quite meaningful on that level, knowing that David really wanted to speak his mind about a lot of things.
Was the series conceived by David Attenborough? Actually, I’m not sure. The premise of the series from the start was that David was going to be given an opportunity to talk about … environmental problems and measures and situations in a way that he hadn’t before. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it felt different during the acquisition period. And that difference brought meaning in a way that we hadn’t really experienced before, or at least I hadn’t, given the types of bad TV programs that I’ve worked on where, given in general, they’re really stories with, at best, a very light environmental message. … It was that mixed with the fact that we had an incredibly good underwater team that really had skill sets. And the other cameramen involved — Richard Harks, David Glackcar — these guys are just really at the top of their game. It was really nice, not only being involved in the trips I was involved in but also seeing the rushes coming through from all the trips. Everything looked so good.
Was your directive to shoot footage of environmental impact? Not really. In many ways, it’s an extremely traditional, but well-done, modern take on “Blue Chip” wildlife [series]. … For example, the shark scene … could just be in a blue chip … but the context of it was that David talks about the loss of sharks and many habitats on the planet, the importance of sharks to top predators in many coastal marine ecosystems. That was the way it was framed. It’s the same with the kelp forest. … The context of that was as a complex and beautiful and biodiverse and species-rich … [that survival counts on] the inter-reliance of the lives of the animals that are involved in that sequence. … Remove a keystone species [such as sea urchins], and you lose everything.
That part of that story was talking about marine reserves, mostly, and the importance of these areas where animals are allowed to go back. These areas are allowed to go back into some level of a natural state, and how important that is to marine ecosystems moving forward.
The two big messages from the marine shows were [that] in coastal seas, it was really about the importance of area management, marine conservation zones…. To basically set aside areas where nature can return to some sort of natural state, and the way that those areas benefit, other areas that are impacted upon. And then, the high seas [segment] is about the importance of [international] treaties and these areas that are beyond the borders, and also the economic zones of individual nation states. … The humpback scene at the end of that film is really about how incredible it was that the treaties involved in the cessation of whaling — 30 years ago — [have allowed] whale numbers to rebound.
How did you get involved in underwater photography? I did a degree in marine biology in Scotland, but then after that, I kind of realized that I didn’t want to be a scientist. … I didn’t really want to be involved in that kind of science-y stuff. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, so I became a commercial diver. … I did that for five years. Then I was 25 … I just decided that I wanted to become an underwater wildlife cameraman. I got in my car and drove to Bristol. I worked for a couple years for a company that specializes in water film video equipment, and then I got a job as an assistant on The Blue Planet.
When you’re under the water and you’re filming these critters, is it frightening? The only time I’ve ever felt frightened was the first time I got in the water with leopard seals in the Antarctic. Because they’re just such a big seal, and they’re super interactive. I remember that feeling of, “Okay, you’ve come all this way. You have to do this.” I got in the water, and it was totally fine…I just had the most exhilarating time of my life with [a big female seal]. That’s really the only time I’ve ever felt kind of out of control, kind of fear-ey feeling. On the whole, these shoots are really, unbelievably well-researched, and the risk-assessment side of things is just done to death.
Do you have a favorite underwater critter? I love killer whales. I’ve spent over a year of my life running with killer whales. They’ve given me some of the most extraordinary wildlife experiences of my life. … So, yeah, I’d say killer whales just straight out of the box. But, in terms of pure joy, of just being near an animal, narwhals are just really hard to beat. I mean, they’re just magical animals — you just couldn’t make it up. Just even the way they look. I absolutely love narwhals.
Our Planet streams on Netflix