03.18.10

Extreme Nature Closeups

With visuals showing tiny details of the animal world, the Discovery series Life gets up close and personal with nature. From leaping cheetahs to hunting dolphins, watch spectacular videos.

Three years after the U.S. debut of Planet Earth, the Emmy-winning nature documentary that reinvented expectations for the genre, the BBC and Discovery have joined together again and produced Life, which focuses on the earth's inhabitants.

Broadcast on the BBC late last fall, it comes to Discovery—and six of its sibling networks, including Animal Planet and TLC (six out of seven of which are in HD)—Sunday night, and will air two new episodes every Sunday through April 18. Oprah Winfrey narrates for U.S. audiences, who'd apparently be lost and confused if a British man, original narrator David Attenborough, tried to explain something to them.

A group of living things, such as mammals, primates, insects, and even plants, will be profiled in each episode, and scenes focus specifically on adaptations that help creatures live. Discovery says its focus is "the most spectacular, bizarre, and fascinating behaviors that living things have devised to thrive."

Click Here to See Images from Life.

But like Planet Earth, what will really makes Life stand out is its photography of these behaviors. Extreme closeups, high-speed photography slowed down, and high-definition all combine to bring viewers into the frame (even without 3-D glasses) and illustrate the resourcefulness of the environment (even without James Cameron's help).

Executive producer Mike Gunton told The Daily Beast that in the series, "We're trying to tell people about the extraordinary range of survival strategies that animals have, to be able to paint a broad picture, but in contrast to that, the approach is to show that actual individual animals have individual struggles, which hopefully connect with ourselves. … We're talking about individuals: This particular cheetah on this particular day has this particular challenge, and we're going to see how it overcomes that challenge, because that makes it much more intense. It gives an anxious tension and drama because you don't know for sure if it's going to be able to pull off its trick or not."

That approach presented a number of challenges to the filmmakers, and Gunton's work started in August 2005. "We spent about nearly a year researching, sending out our feelers all over the world," Gunton said, adding that field workers and scientists were their best sources, because they "see things that are very unusual."

For example, in Kenya, his team spent 12 weeks trying to film a group of cheetahs hunting in an unusual way. The production team was in contact who someone who'd seen it, but only rarely, so Gunton had to decide whether or not to pursue that story and footage. "In terms of resources and whether we were going to get it or not, it was probably the one I was most worried about, actually," he said.

Cheetahs Hunt Ostrich

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That footage, like so much of Life, is "absolutely unique," Gunton said. "They're a very, very unusual group of cheetahs, and every hunt is very different and never seen before. When we saw them pulling down that ostrich, it was absolutely extraordinary. None of us—who between us have worked dozens and dozens of years the world over—had seen anything like that before."

How exactly filmmakers find and capture those sorts of moments could be its own series. "Because the animals are doing such unusual things, you often have to get yourself in their head. You have to spend time with them, they get used to you, you get to used to them, you get to understand how they're operating," Gunton said. "There's always a photographic challenge in these shoots, because what we're trying to do with the photography is not just simply observe the animals, but try to get you actually in their world."

He credits his film crew with being able to do that well. "When we go out there, we often see things or capture things they even haven't seen because the way camera [operators] observe is unique. They're so focused. Not even the most dedicated field scientist will spend eight hours peering down the viewfinder of a camera just watching, watching, watching, watching. They also have such great field skills and sensitivities; they can often just sense when something interesting is going to happen, and that's when they start rolling."

Although there's plenty of screentime for larger animals, some of Life's most stunning footage is of tiny creatures, like the hamster-size mammal known as the elephant shrew, and that smaller scale presents a different challenge. "That challenge becomes increased when you're dealing with small animals because just the physics of the cameras and the lenses makes it quite difficult to get them into their world. We put a lot of effort into getting things like frogs and reptiles and insects, and actually get the cameras right down to their eye level, or eye stalk level if they're insects. So you feel in their world."

Waterfall Toad Leaps From Danger

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Such spectacular sequences are sometimes the product of multiple shots edited together. "As long as you're very, very careful with approaching them, they will behave very naturally and they will tend to do their behavior very readily," Gunton said. "You can often get a piece of behavior repeatedly, so you can get different angles on it and build up the sequence, and you essentially coalesce all of those different moments into one symbolic moment or sequence."

Technology helps draw viewers in: "Because of the sensitivity of the cameras, we were able to get better depth of field than we had previously. So rather than the animals being two-dimensional, because there's such a short depth of field, you get a sense of them being in their habitat."

But once they got to their level, the filmmakers actually tried to film those creatures as if they were working with much larger animals. Gunton said that they asked themselves, "How would you film this if this were a cheetah instead of an elephant shrew? Suddenly a little animal can feel like it's got the same dramatic and extraordinary life as perhaps a more familiar big one."

That's especially evident in the sequence with an elephant shrew in Africa. Gunton said that to him, it "seems like it's out of Jurassic Park, being chased by this lizard down its trail, shot in super slow-motion. We managed to track with it as it's running around its track and screeching round the corner, and dust flies toward the camera, and it's shot at a thousand frames per second. It's pretty dramatic stuff, but that animal is only the size of a hamster."

Elephant Shrew

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The 2,500 hours of footage shot by the crew includes a lot of material that illustrates animal behavior for the first time. A group of dolphins in Florida had a particularly distinct way of hunting for fish, and Gunton said that it stands out for him "in terms of how amazed I was when I saw the footage for the first time. The first time I saw it from the air… my jaw literally—thunk—hit the desk. This was the story we were going for. We'd been told it happened; people had been seeing it happen from the surface of the water, you'd see these fish leaping and dolphins catching them. People thought this was how they did it, but no one had ever been able to see it from this bird's-eye, and it's only from this bird's-eye view that you absolutely can see it and understand it."

Dolphins Find a New Way of Hunting Fish

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And that, Gunton said, is what Life is all about. "What I think we've really tried to do in this series is show people things they could never see, either because they could never get to the place, or because it's very rare, or because even if they were there, their eye would not be able to see it: because it happens too slowly, it happens too fast, it happens too strangely," he said. "So we really tried to show people and give them an unprivileged, unseeable view of the natural world."

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Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.