The Film Technology behind Planet Earth 2

For the past 5 weeks, we have been enthralled by stunningly beautiful landscapes and the dramatic struggle for survival of life on the landmark series of Planet Earth 2. Every Sunday, more people have been tuning in to the soothing tones of Sir David Attenborough’s trademark narration than have been watching the X-factor. The BBC states that 2.27 million people tuned in to watch that plucky little iguana outrun an entire pack of snakes compared to viewing figures of 1.6 million for the X-factor. Planet Earth 2 has been hailed as therapeutic viewing for the millions of viewers whom avidly follow the series, especially among young adults (16 to 34). Professor Rasjid Skinner, a lecturer at Sheffield University, told the BBC that Planet Earth 2 appeals to ‘a part of the self which can be summoned to do extraordinary things in a difficult or survival-threatening situation’ and that reminding us all that we have the capacity for heroism is comforting in such trying times as the ongoing nervous breakdown that has been 2016.

In this article, we take a look at the filming technology that has brought the wonders of our planet to our sofas on a Sunday night. The industry has changed since the filming of the first Planet Earth series nearly a decade ago and it has given us new insight into animals points of view by letting us experience flying like an eagle, a full chase between a lion pride and a giraffe and a super-swarm of locusts.

Camera Traps

For the rarest and shyest animals, remote cameras are the only method that can be used to capture the animals on film. They can also be used in dangerous or difficult terrain to prevent putting a camera-person in danger. Camera traps are a common wildlife filming technique and are often used in Planet Earth 2 such as for the stunning Snow Leopard and her cub. Movement near the camera triggers it to start filming using movement sensors or a light beam, such as infrared, as a trigger. The camera then films for a short period whilst the animal is in the vicinity and can capture images that otherwise would never be seen.

Drones

Before the invention of drones, most aerial shots had to be collected by helicopter or airplane using heligimbal technology (a stabilised aerial camera system). This involved many challenges such as maintaining a stable image and the noise of the aircraft scaring wildlife away. The advent of drone technology has vastly improved the ability of filmmakers to collect aerial footage. There is a miniature stabilisation system underneath the drone that allows the mounted camera to capture smooth aerial shots from a range of heights above the ground. The smaller size of drones also opens up the possibilities of areas that can be filmed as the drone can fit in between trees and steep sides of ravines where helicopters could never reach. With the use of drones, the Planet Earth 2 team managed to film a new species of elusive River Dolphin showcasing behaviour that was previously unknown to science.

Macro-filming

For sequences such as the fiercely protective Glass Frog fighting off wasps in the Jungle episode, a special lens is required to film the tiny animals in detail. A Macro Lens magnifies the subject so that the image can appear many times larger than the real life object. However, the challenges of following such a tiny subject means that many macro filming sequences have to be shot in controlled studio environments rather than the real world environment. It is understandable though, if you consider that the Glass Frog is the size of your fingernail!

Time Lapse

When filming at ‘real time’ speeds, cameras usually record images at a rate of 25 frames per second. By varying the number of frames taken per second and then playing back the frames at a rate of 25 per second, filmmakers can create slow motion or time lapse sequences. Slow motion sequences are filmed at up to 1000 frames a second to give a fascinating view of high speed action, such as a snake strike or a cheetah chase. Time lapse records long time intervals by taking images at rates as low as a frame an hour. Digital stills cameras are used for time lapse and often environmental factors over long time periods such as wind mean that the images need stabilising. Lapsed time is a variation of time lapse which shows changes over long time periods, such as the Planet Earth 2 example of deserts receiving rain and the plants that were dormant grow to make the desert turn green. In order to achieve this, the same shot is filmed from the exact same position, using the same camera and equipment so that the two sequences can be edited together to give a dramatic portrayal of a changing landscape over time.

Night Filming

Filmmakers are now able to film during even the darkest of nights thanks to Infrared cameras. Infrared cameras detect reflected infrared light which is invisible to human eyesight at 700nm wavelengths. They are limited however by the size of the area which is lit by the infrared emitting lights and can therefore only film a small area. Thermal cameras also detect infrared light but they show the infrared radiation given off naturally by living creatures rather than just a reflection. These thermal images therefore have a much wider range but produce images that can look artificial.

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