“Planet Earth II” allowed us to soar with eagles, scramble with iguanas, and dance with flamingos. But despite taking a perilous dip with penguins, the nature series kept to mainly dry realms. Instead, “Planet Earth: Blue Planet II,” the sequel to the 2001 series, is taking the plunge into the ocean’s depths to reveal the mysterious world that exists under the waves.
Filming in water poses its own challenges though, but fortunately, technology and mankind’s insatiable curiosity and determination have prompted innovations that have made it easier to film in the murky depths, under intense pressure, and in other inhospitable or tricky conditions. IndieWire spoke to executive producer James Honeyborne, as well as producers Mark Brownlow and Orla Doherty, to learn which devices and techniques were used to capture the series’ stunning aquatic footage of the phenomena and denizens of the sea.
“A bit of technology that wasn’t as available 20 years ago, when they set out to make the original series, is re-breather technology,” said Honeyborne. “So the ability to dive for up to four hours at a time in shallow water and not create any bubbles, therefore not creating visual disturbance or any loud sound, and that really helps fish just relax and let you into their world. And they forget you’re there. So that’s a really great tool. And you can stay down for maybe four hours at a time and that’s when a fish begins to show you its true character.”
Honeyborne also noted that sensor technology had improved on cameras. “You can film so much more underwater now, in the dark, in low light, in color at 4k, than you ever could before, and that’s really made a difference,” he said. “You remember in the first episode, there’s the mobula ray swimming through the bioluminescence? When we first heard of that in 2013, we couldn’t film that. There wasn’t a camera sensitive enough. We had to wait for 2015. And then we went out and filmed in 2016 and we got it.” Take a look:
Doherty produced the episode “The Deep,” which was shot along the ocean floor where there’s crushing pressure, brutal cold, and utter darkness.
“The low-light sense camera, that’s how we got these amazing scenes of the Humboldt squid because we wanted to be in their world, film these animals in their world, really for the first time, but not disturb their behavior,” she said. “And we’re in a giant, nine-ton yellow submarine. We’re kind of obvious, so we had to go into sort of stealth mode and put all our lights out and then use a camera that could practically see in the dark.”
During the Television Critics Association press tour panel for “Blue Planet II,” Brownlow revealed, “We worked with infrared technology to film this quite horrific monstrous worm called a Bobbitt worm. It grabs fish at night. You can only film it with infrared technology. It never-seen-before dramas like that that will just horrify the audience, grip them, in a good way. And I won’t tell you why it’s called a Bobbitt, but if you look back a couple of decades, it’s a story that came from the U.S.
“We built a megadome, which is this 24-inch dome lens that sits in front of the camera, which enables you to film and focus both above and beneath the water surface,” said Brownlow. “And so, for instance, you get to see a mother walrus with her calf in focus on top of the iceberg and you see the extent of the iceberg underneath.” Check out the megadome in action below:
It’s not every day that you see a fish that walks, but in the second episode “The Deep,” that’s exactly what happens, and it to capture that footage required new equipment.
“There’s that really cute fish that just sits on the sea floor and walks, the sea toad,” said Doherty. “In a submarine, you’re always looking down because you’re higher than the sea floor. We needed to get our camera out and down on the ground with him, so we had to design a whole system that could do that. Also, there’s another camera we designed to get down on a robot, 3,000 meters deep, to get some of that amazing, magical bioluminescence. We were bending technology to get [the cameras] into these extraordinary places.”
“We’ve miniaturized cameras, and I’ve worked with collaborative sciences to incorporate a whole array of scientific sensors including sound to place, with suckers on the backs of killer whales, of whale sharks, to give the audience the experience of riding into these vast shoals of herring up in Norway,” he said. “You attach it to a boom and the scientists will ease up to the killer whale as it comes up to the surface to breathe, and pop it down onto its back and it creates a suction cup seal. The killer whale then dives, does its thing and you get this unique perspective of riding on the back of these giants as they backflip and smash these giant shoals of herring.
“The challenge then is to get it back,” he added. “Now they’ve got two antenna pingers, one which is a broad range sat pinger, so we would get the call at two in the morning to say ‘it’s surfaced.’ This is 24 hours later, and we got out in this small Boston whaler in these big arctic waters, at night, pitch black, in a blizzard, and you track down the ping as it’s beginning to drift further and further out to the Arctic Ocean. Then switch to the VHF antenna so the scientist tries to pinpoint the precise position of the sensor that’s popped up to the surface. And eventually, after a lot of sea sickness and confusion, we manage to retrieve this box of secrets.”
“For [the probe cameras] we wanted to get on eye-level with these tiny creatures, and so it’s essentially a miniaturized wide angle lens we had,” said Brownlow. “Because it’s a very light-hungry lens system, it looks like the barrel of a gun. For the first time, we were able to squeeze through the cracks in coral reef and meet the characters eye to eye and film them at their level, and go into their world.”
Surfing or jet-skiing allows cameramen to capture footage alongside dolphins as they leap through the waves, but the equipment itself needs to be able to keep up with the speed of the action also, in order for viewers to see a version they can process.
“We work with this surfing specialist/underwater cameraman, Chris Bryan,” said Brownlow. “He’s developed this super slow-mo camera and housed it, and then risked it all off the back of a jet ski in these massive waves to film the surfing dolphins.”
“Planet Earth: Blue Planet II” will premiere on Saturday, Jan. 20 at 9 p.m. ET, simulcast on AMC, Sundance, IFC, WE tv, and BBC America.