Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles These images of a swarm of locusts are from the BBC’s groundbreaking Planet Earth series in 2006. And this footage comes from the brand new sequel to that program — this is Planet Earth 2. You might notice the improvement in resolution from HD to Ultra-HD. But another big change is that in Planet Earth 2, it’s not just the grasshoppers that are moving. The cameras are moving too. These dynamic tracking shots are part of the reason why Planet Earth 2 is the BBC’s most cinematic wildlife film yet. GUNTON: We know when we go to the cinema now the camera’s never static. It's always on the move, it’s always on a steadicam, it’s always on tracks, it’s always flying. And I think we wanted to reflect that in our approach. Not just because we wanted to do homage to cinema but because the reason why cinema does that is because as soon as you have that sense of moving camera it feels more immersive, it feels more connected. Watching Planet Earth 2 feels a bit like watching a hollywood blockbuster. You almost forget that these actors are hiding in remote corners of the globe and they do not follow scripts. The BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol has been producing wildlife films for 60 years. Their frequent presenter, sir David Attenborough, is most recognizable voice of the genre. “This extraordinary creature is half blind, half deaf, and this is just about as fast as it can move” And through the decades, they’ve continually raised the bar for the look and feel of nature films, too. That evolution, as we’ll explore in this 3-part series, is in large part a story of technology. The first big breakthrough was lightweight, 16mm film cameras. NIGHTINGALE: If you remember, television began as a studio operation. It just had ginormous video cameras that were larger than a person. Then in the film industry, of course, that was all movies, and again, they were very, very cumbersome. There simply weren't cameras that you could take into the jungles and deserts and so on. 16mm cameras were portable, but they were controversial inside the BBC, seen as amateur cameras, since 35mm film was the broadcast standard at the time. But Attenborough insisted on the smaller cameras for his first trips overseas. And sure enough, he came back with footage of animals that had never before been filmed, like these Indri lemurs in Madagascar. Fifty-six years later, filming the Indri means moving the camera around them and traveling with them through the trees, but the technology they used to do this has only come around in the past few years. The issue is stabilization. You can see the shaking in these rare handheld shots from the BBC’s 1990 series The Trials of Life. Aerial shots had the same problem. And if they tried to zoom in, those bumps just got magnified. Producers could achieve cinematic motion with cranes, dollies, and sliders where it was practical to do so. But for decades almost all the shots that weren’t underwater involved a camera on a tripod — panning, tilting and zooming to follow the action. There’s definitely no shortage of incredible animal behavior to film that way. But it all changed around 2002. That's when BBC switched from film to digital HD cameras for the Planet Earth series. That switch gave them access to a tool called the Cineflex heligimbal, a stabilization system for a helicopter-mounted camera. The heligimbal delivered the smooth sweeping scenic shots that defined the epic look of that series. But it also let them film individual animals from a kilometer up in the sky, and zoom way in to follow them without the noise of the chopper scaring them off. And that changed the way they could capture behaviors like hunting. GUNTON: If you look at how people shot and edited hunting sequences, because of the nature of where you had to put the camera, you could never get long continuous shots because you would you get a shot on a tripod, the wolf would run off, you had to jump up and get in the land rover, run across, put the tripod down and get another shot. So it always had to be quite edited and quite constructed. Compare that to the wolf hunt in Planet Earth. GUNTON: Once that wolf started hunting you could just fly along, keep your distance and in one shot, you just see how that drama played out. And you just do not know what's gonna happen: is it gonna stumble, is gonna catch it, is the little caribou gonna run away, is it gonna stumble? It was so gripping because it was unmediated. The Cineflex system required digital cameras because it separates the lens from the camera’s data storage, which at the time was digital video cassette tape. You just can’t do that with film. The 400mm zoom lens is mounted inside a series of rings called a gimbal, that isolate it from the movement of the helicopter, with the help of small sensors called gyroscopes. Those sensors detect changes in orientation so that motors can correct for those movements almost immediately. So the camera operator can control the lens with a joystick inside the helicopter and zoom in without losing any stability. Ten years later, that stabilization technology comes in smaller, much more affordable forms. It’s embedded in drones, and built into rigs that you can hold in your hands. And that technological change aligned perfectly with what the BBC wanted to do with Planet Earth 2. GUNTON: We wanted to push the proximity, getting close to the animals because we wanted to see the world's landscapes, our planet, through the animals' eyes. Gyro-stabilized drones provided more intimate aerials, and handheld shots showed what it feels like to really move through these habitats. WHITE: I think we've gone for a much more emotional narrative in these. It's much more trying to put you in their world and what would that animal be feeling. Trying not to be anthropomorphic about it, but just sort of taking the viewer on a journey where they can start to relate to how that animal might work in that world. It's a slightly warmer, closer take on Planet Earth. Hollywood filmmakers have been able to get stabilized walking shots for decades using a Steadicam. That’s a bigger, more complicated rig that stabilizes the camera with balanced weights and a spring-loaded arm attached to a vest that the operator wears. Those long walk-and-talk shots that ER and The West Wing made famous, those are all Steadicam shots. The producers of Planet Earth 2 used Steadicams for a few sequences, like this footage of a serval cat hunting in South Africa. But it most cases Steadicams have been too cumbersome, expensive, or inflexible for shooting in the wild. Instead, the Planet Earth 2 team relied heavily on smaller handheld stabilizers. Like the heligimbal, these rigs have gyroscopes that measure orientation along 3 axes and motors that counteract those movements. These rigs are so small and versatile they can often replace several other tools like sliders and cranes. WHITE: On some of the trips, like the trip to film the penguins, we took a crane with us, we talked about taking sliders. The reality is it didn't come out of the box. Everything was done with a cameraman holding a camera on a gimbal. In an environment like that, just to be able to move around quite freely, have a camera that you can put down at penguin level but be able to pick up and get above the penguins was just so useful. Handheld stabilizers are most effective when you can get close to the animal, and a lot of animals don’t like that, so they’ll never replace tripods. Rather they add to the rapidly growing arsenal of tools becoming available not just to pros, but to everyone, to be able to get shots that look like hollywood blockbusters. But ultimately, what makes a movie great isn’t just the pictures, it’s the story. The Natural History Unit’s style has shifted over time from more educational to more cinematic, but they haven’t forgotten that. GUNTON: The imagery of course is that first thing that catches the eye, catches the attention but without the revelations the storytelling brings, in the end, it palls quite quickly. So no technology will ever replace the ability to be able to tell a story that grips and fascinates and emotionally connects with an audience. Thank you for watching! You can find Planet Earth 2 on BBC America. It will be airing Saturdays through March 25th. You can also find tons of clips from their archive on BBC Earth’s mobile app. It’s called Story of Life and it’s actually where I found a lot of the clips that I used in this video. And it’s free! So check it out.