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‘Planet Earth II’ Producers Reveal 6 Sneaky Ways They Filmed Their Animal Stars

The stunning nature docuseries sequel featuring leopards, penguins, sloths and more will be simulcast on AMC, Sundance and BBC America.

A pygmy three-toed sloth on "Planet Earth II"

A pygmy three-toed sloth on “Planet Earth II”

BBC America

It’s been a decade since the original “Planet Earth” became a cultural event on TV, thanks to its stunning filmmaking and unparalleled access to the natural world. Since then, the team has surpassed its previous efforts to capture footage for “Planet Earth II,” thanks to innovations in technology and good old-fashioned human tenacity.

Being able to observe the natural world is not as easy as sending out a cameraman to just point and shoot. Elusive snow leopards are rare and avoid humans, soaring birds spiral up and down heights with dizzying speed, some predators are too dangerous to get near, many prey animals are too skittish to hang around humans, and some animals — such as a massive population of penguins that rule a remote island — are simply too difficult to access because of the unfriendly terrain.

READ MORE: ‘Planet Earth II’ Video: Epic Iguana and Snake Battle Sets Internet Ablaze — Watch

Fortunately, “Planet Earth II” used a variety of sneaky ways to film their animal stars. Executive producer Mike Gunton and “Islands” episode producer Elizabeth White spoke to IndieWire at the Television Critics Association press tour about how they were able to capture the priceless footage.

1. Camera Size Matters: “Cameras are so much smaller — you can now have them on a kind of handheld gimbal, you can put cameras into remote boxes and leave them up a mountain,” White told IndieWire. “Even filming ‘Frozen Planet’ five or six years ago, the size of the cameras was massive. Mostly it was tied to a tripod. So with this you could be much more free to move and free to send a camera up in a tree with a rope. It’s just so much more portable.”

Chinstrap penguins on "Planet Earth II"

Chinstrap penguins on “Planet Earth II”

BBC America

2. Attack of the Drones: “In terms of remote places, the only thing that was massively useful for ‘Islands’ was drones because we couldn’t have taken helicopters,” said White, whose most difficult challenge was capturing film of the chinstrap penguins on Zavodovski Island, which is an uninhabited (except for all of those penguins) volcanic island in the South Atlantic.

Although White and her team set up camp on an outcropping of rock and used handheld cams to shoot penguins up close, most of the sweeping vistas showing the millions of penguins and how they leap into rocky waters had to be accomplished with drones. Having a good pilot for the drone equipped with an expensive camera was essential, but there were other issues also involved with the use of drones.

READ MORE: ‘Planet Earth II’: Listen to Hans Zimmer’s Breathtaking Score

“In the time that we’ve been filming, they’ve gone from being something quite unheard of and not particularly popular to being massive,” said White. “All the legislation involved in piloting round the world is big. So you normally need quite skilled pilots, people who have flown drones in that country. Some countries, not. Some countries haven’t even begun to think about drones yet.”

Golden eagle on "Planet Earth II"

Golden eagle on “Planet Earth II”

BBC America

3. Extreme Eagles: Following the flight of a bird of prey like the golden eagle is no easy feat. The speed, the altitude and the steepness of its flight is a challenge that a regular cameraman could hardly replicate. “Planet Earth II’s” solution was to treat the eagle as if it were an extreme sports athlete and strapped a Go Pro-like camera to it.

Gunton explained, “We thought, ‘How can we show what it’s like flying at that extraordinary stoop?’ The ultimate way of doing it would be to actually get an eagle to show you what it’s like. So they got an eagle and put a camera on the back of it. Obviously it was a trained eagle. That causes all sorts of trouble because then people would say, ‘Oh, you’ve used the trained bird.’ In some ways, I regret that shot…but that is a genuine POV, a genuine shot of what it’s like to be an eagle flying.”

White added, “It’s only about three shots, but …the thing I do love about it is you see its head twitching, you see its eyes going.”

4. Hanging Out: Although not quite as accurate, another way “Planet Earth II” mimicked an eagle’s flight was with an expert hang glider. There’s a twist to this approach though, which you can find out more about in Episode 7, “The Making of Planet Earth II.”

A snow leopard, "Planet Earth II"

A snow leopard, “Planet Earth II”

BBC America

5. It’s a Trap! Advances in the technology of camera traps, which are triggered by motion, helped capture footage of very rare animals such as the snow leopard, which is endangered and lives a solitary and secretive existence.

“It allowed us to tell that story, which was untellable without that technology. In some ways, it is my favorite sequence in one sense — because even the racer snakes, which I think is one of the all-time greatest pieces of television ever — we could all go there potentially and sit down with our binoculars and see that,” said Gunton. “You could never see what happens with those snow leopards. It’s only through that camera that you can do it. I think there’s something rather also kind of old-fashioned-ly magical about it. You leave those cameras there, there’s no cameraman involved other than setting it up and then you go away. And you come back and think, ‘Well, what’s in here?’ You take this card out, you put it in the machine and then think, ‘Nothing.’ And then suddenly, as if by magic, over the crest comes a snow leopard.”

READ MORE: ‘Planet Earth II’ Extended Trailer: Hit Nature Docuseries Gets Gorgeous Sequel

“The crew who put those in position did such a beautiful job because they were working with scientists who knew that certain rocks — they called them kind of ‘pee mail’ where they spray,” added White. “So on those particular rocks they would rig a camera so that you had a view that also gave you the landscape. So you could put the context in, but they would also have a couple of others that would give the close-ups and so on.”

“The bears scratching is another example of you probably wouldn’t be able to see. You certainly couldn’t get that perspective,” said Gunton.

White agreed. “A cameraman up a tree would be distracting the bear.”

Check out a clip of the bears scratching themselves on trees (set to music!) after emerging from hibernation below:

6. Packing Heat: “Planet Earth II” focused one episode on a surprising habitat that hasn’t been featured before: cities. “It felt very, very personal. It was kind of unmined territory in a sense,” said White. “You can’t avoid the fact that cities are a key habitat and that many, many, many people live in cities. So it felt fresh and contemporary but it also felt like it was very, very relevant. It was timely.

“The leopards in Mumbai were filmed using old military technology that films heat signatures,” she said. “That story you wouldn’t be able to do without that technology.”

The leopards featured in Mumbai hunt at night, and the heat signature technology presents the big cats in an eerie fashion that highlights some aspects — such as the way their muscles move and the texture of each hair — but downplays others, like their eyes.

Leopard seen with heat signature in Mumbai, "Planet Earth Ii"

Leopard seen with heat signature in Mumbai, “Planet Earth II”

BBC America

Gunton added, “It was important that the approach to film that was to say, ‘This is a habitat.’ So it’s beautiful and it’s filmed with the same technology. The same techniques, the same grammar is used. And so the choice of the stories is the same in that how you choose the stories is exactly the same as you’d choose it in these other shows. It’s another three-dimensional jigsaw. You need different types of behavior and different types of creatures: you need mammals, you need reptiles. You also need different types of emotion: you want some scary stories, you want some sad stories, thought-provoking [stories]… So you’ve probably only got one funny mammal or one scary reptile or one thought-provoking bird. It’s like a matrix.”

Enter the matrix when “Planet Earth II” premieres Saturday, Feb. 18 at 9 p.m.,  simulcast on AMC, BBC America and Sundance.

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