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Scoring ‘Hostile Planet’ and ‘Our Planet’ With a Musical Sense of Environmental Urgency

The Nat Geo and Netflix docuseries don't shy away from climate change, which is reflected in the scores by Benjamin Wallfisch and Steven Price.

Our Planet Netflix

“Our Planet”



For Benjamin Wallfisch (“Shazam!”), scoring Nat Geo’s “Hostile Planet” was like working on a thriller, and for Oscar winner Steven Price (“Gravity”), scoring Netflix’s “Our Planet” demanded a similar musical sense of urgency. That’s because both nature docuseries don’t shy away from the crisis of climate change on the planet’s conservation and the survival of many animal species.

“I felt very fortunate to have been approached to collaborate on a series that addresses the issue of climate change in a way that’s so powerful, visceral, and moving,” Wallfisch said. ” It’s an opportunity we have to take for the sake of our children and their children, and it was a true honor for me to be involved in a project where that message is loud and clear, and put into the context of both incredible filmmaking and also an underlying feeling of hope for the future.”

“It’s an unashamedly emotional score,” added Price, who recorded 50 minutes of music a day with the London Philharmonia Orchestra (which also worked with him on “Baby Driver”) at Abbey Road Studio. “There are eight [episodes] in the series that are thematically linked but each sounds very different, from the frozen to the jungles to the deserts to the grasslands to the oceans to the forests. But we wanted to be positive about it – there are solutions – we didn’t want to wallow in the despair of the whole thing.”

A caracal (Caracal caracal) in the Namib Desert, waiting for temperatures to drop so it can start hunting. The caracal is quick over short distances, propelled by its powerful hindquarters, which also give it remarkable powers - one was recorded leaping 11 feet vertically. They are known to jump into flocks of startled birds and grab them out the air - some are so fast they can catch two birds in a single leap. (National Geographic/Stephanie Thompson)

“Hostile Planet”

National Geographic/Stephanie Thompson

With Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) serving as the executive producer of “Hostile Planet” and emphasizing a cinematic sense of drama to the storytelling, Wallfisch said it was like scoring a thriller. “To this end, there is a central protagonist in each episode: a snow leopard in the ‘Mountains’ piece; an emperor penguin in the ‘Polar’ piece,” he added. “It was the job of the score to give these animals a kind of dialogue almost, so the audience was drawn closer to them and could identify on an emotional level. Each episode has an arc.”

“Hostile Planet” is about survival against the odds, and so Wallfisch thought of the animals in heroic terms, “rising up despite the realities that have been increasingly stacked against them because of climate change. So the main theme, which you hear in each episode in one form or another, is all about strength and survival, heroism and hope.

“We were very fortunate to be able to use a full orchestra for each episode, but I also wanted to really expand on the musical sound you typically hear in a natural history documentary. I wanted to use some extreme contrasts in musical sound world between each of the environments and a lot of that was done using custom synth patches and other electronic means.”

KENYA - African bull elephant searches for a mate in Amboseli National Park. It's been attracted by the scent of a female in oestrous. (National Geographic/Tom Greenhalgh)

“Hostile Planet”

National Geographic/Tom Greenhal

In the “Oceans” episode, which Wallfisch has  submitted for Emmy consideration, the hardest scene and one of his favorites involved the blue whale. The composer was stunned by the footage of the majestic creature, and, after struggling to compose an original piece, he played with the main theme in an intense, scaled up version. “And eventually it worked,” he said. “And it’s clear that, as the starting point of all life on Earth, the ocean is so clearly one of the habitats we must protect at all costs from the impacts of climate change.”

Meanwhile, for “Our Planet,” Price combined solo piano and violin with more sweeping orchestral music, and then added distorted or sub-sonic sounds and vocals (such as Irish singer Lisa Hannigan) for texture. However, in the first episode, “One Planet,” which Price submitted for Emmy consideration, he introduced the musical idea of linkage. “We see the idea that every single area of the planet is interlinked and that creatures are starting to leave us,” he said. The main theme offers a hint of melancholy inside its grand scale but never relinquishes its upbeat tone. “We tried to find this pattern of notes that could be used in various ways throughout the series.”

Female lowland gorilla in pristine jungle - eating termitesMondika, Republic of Congo

“Our Planet”

Sarah Walsh / Netflix/Silverback

Yet Price doesn’t shy away from humor involving a dancing bird of paradise in contrast to a baby flamingo that gets left behind in East Africa. And he made effective use of the crunching sound of ice alongside orchestral drums to provide an extra layer. But among the most powerful images is that of the melting away of a glacier in Greenland. It’s Price’s proudest musical moment, not only because he captured the right sense of melancholy with piano and violin but also because he persuaded the producers to pull back on the massive sound.

“They got this incredible footage of 75 tons of ice crashing but I wanted to try and make it intimate,” Price said. “And then these images become weirdly beautiful.”

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