‘Planet Earth II’: How the Score Captured the Thrilling Chase for Survival

Whether it was the iguana eluding snakes or the giraffe scampering away from the lions, the Emmy-contending score brought us closer to the action in "Planet Earth II."
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The great achievement of “Planet Earth II” is bringing us closer to the animals and witnessing their survival instincts in action. For composers Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe of Bleeding Fingers, their atmospheric score was a large part of that intimate and thrilling connection, highlighted by the iguana being chased by snakes (the promotional clip below went viral in the UK).

Newborn marine iguana siblings, hatched from buried eggs on one of the Galápagos Islands, experience a rite of passage by traversing the beach and eluding hungry racer snakes with the hope of rejoining the colony.

Here they focused on one particular iguana. “We were all crowded around the screen and rooting him on,” said Shea. “The will to live is very strong.”

READ MORE: How ‘Planet Earth II’ and Other Nature Docs Manipulate Footage to Mess With Our Emotions — Watch

“When the footage first came in, I couldn’t believe how close they got to the iguana,” said Klebe. “All odds are against you to keep running.”

Galapagos racer snakes peer from their hiding places in the rocks, watching for emerging marine iguana hatchlings that would make for an easy meal.
“Planet Earth II”BBC 2016

Recreating the Prehistoric

The way the sequence was shot, it seemed almost prehistoric to the composers.

“Everything on screen was so big that we thought we should take skin drums that harken back to old times and visceral, ear-piercing bowed cymbals,” said Shea. “The snakes were definitely painted as the bad guys, so I brought in a lot of weird, warped acoustic sounds that were bent with time to just put you on edge. When I had a draft, I brought Jasha in and got his input on how we could amplify the emotion.”

The aim was to make it feel as kinetic and frantic as what’s going on in the iguana’s head, dropped into a terrible situation moments after being born.

“And it’s very relatable because we all have our own obstacles,” said Klebe. “You always want to root for the underdog. The idea was to feed off the rhythms that he was making going across the sand.”

Carmine bee eaters, "Planet Earth II"
“Planet Earth II”BBC America

Finding the Right Theme

The iguana chase, part of “Islands,” contains its own percussive, prehistoric theme that carries over to the rest of the episode. The musical aura is one of remoteness.

Of all the episodes, it seemed the most foreign to the composers.

“For ‘Deserts,’ it was almost like we were on Mars, with raw synthesized sounds,” said Shea. “For “Mountains,” we went for a grandiose score since you’re on top of the world. For ‘Cities,’ we incorporated more modern, synthetic instruments. For ‘Grasslands,’ we used some of the sound effects used while recording the animals, such as the rustling of grasses.”

A snow leopard mother (left) and her daughter. For two years, the bond between them has been close. Soon they will go their separate ways and the cub will face surviving in the mountains alone.
“Planet Earth II”BBC 2016

Blending Sound Effects with Music

Indeed, incorporating sound effects into the score helped facilitate the feeling of being there with the animals.

“We turned the rustling of grasses into percussive instruments, blurring the lines between natural sounds and music, Klebe said.  This idea carried them through the series, and was integral, for instance, during ‘Mountains’ where they used sounds of winds and bent it to ease into chords.

There’s even an otherworldly aspect to the snow leopards sequence.

“It was like we were seeing something we weren’t supposed to,” said Klebe. “It was the first time they had three in one shot. They had camera traps set up. We played up the mysticism in the score and gave it a warm feeling. They’re lonesome animals that are separate from each other.”

Because prey is so thin on the ground, desert lions must hunt whatever animals they come across. As giraffe are relatively common here they are an important prey species even though they are large enough to pose a considerable threat to a lion.
“Planet Earth II”BBC 2016

Another Memorable Chase

For Shea, a pack of lions chasing a giraffe in “Deserts” was another highlight.

“The way they strategically get it to run toward the leader of the pack, waiting to pounce, was, like the iguanas, another of those that you had to see to believe,” he said.

READ MORE: ‘Planet Earth II’ Producers on Showcasing Our Fragile Planet in Troubled Times – IndieWire’s Turn It On Podcast

The lions in that area go for days without eating. Seeing a chase of this magnitude was like a special window. “And the way they played with the light texturally, I had fun playing with atmospheric sounds in what should be a very action-packed chase scene,” Shea said.

“But the action itself wasn’t very fast-paced,” added Shea. “It was a great reminder that this is life or death.”

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