Filmmaker Jonathan Keeling has walked on the wild side for 30 years now. A longtime BBC collaborator, he has produced and directed numerous wildlife mini-series and documentaries, including The Life of Mammals (2002), Planet Earth (2006), Man Vs Wolf (2012) and The Zoo (2017). He has also worked on BBC’s wildly popular Planet Earth II (2016), presented by renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
Nature documentaries and shows have been around since the late 1940s, but their popularity has only been increasing and the audience getting younger, Keeling told Scroll.in during a recent visit to Mumbai. Such a programme gives the smartphone generation the chance to experience something real and beautiful and “is a little bit of a last chance to see the wildlife because we might be seeing some of these animals beginning to get close to disappearance”, he explained.
Keeling is now working as executive producer on BBC’s Seven Worlds, which will travel to each continent to examine the intricacies and unique characteristics of its wildlife. The Sony BBC Earth show will be premiered in the United Kingdom in 2019. In an interview, Keeling talked about how nature shows have evolved over the years and the path-breaking popularity of Planet Earth II.
What can audiences expect from Sony BBC Earth’s ‘Seven Worlds’?
We are making a big, ambitious wildlife series that is coming out in the UK in 2019 and probably the rest of the world in 2020. It is a seven-episode series, where each episode is a continent. We cover the wildlife of each of those continents.
Each sequence has real revelations and fascinating stories. There might be new species, sometimes there is often new behaviour and new ways of filming. We have managed to film some of the iconic animals in a new way doing new things.
You have been working with wildlife for 30 years now. How has technology changed the way wildlife is filmed?
Some things remain the same. We are still getting new and interesting behaviours and great original stories.
But two things have changed. One is the way we shoot things. We used to shoot on film and tape, but now we shoot on hard drives. We also have a thing called a pre-roll that caches the memory. So you can point the camera on something, but it is not recording yet and is waiting. And then when you hit record, it stores the previous few seconds and you can film something that has already happened.
We have got a lot of miniaturisation in cameras now. Film cameras would have been impossible to send up on a drone because they would have been big clunky things. But now you have tiny cameras that you can put on drones to get great views.
The other change is in storytelling.
In what way has the storytelling changed?
We used to be very informational before. And now we are much more attuned to movies and drama. So we are looking for multiple beats in a story. We are looking for stories that are not just A to B. You have a hero, a villain, a challenge they have to overcome and a lot of twists and turns.
The sequences are longer. When you have a long sequence, you really fall in love with that character and then when it struggles, you are fighting with it. The animals reflect our own human condition. We may have come from a family with parents and children. So when we see animals, sometimes it’s very evident that they are going through a similar set of emotions as us.
But the one thing that still remains the same is that we still want to have factual integrity. In a world of fake news, it is really important to be able to say here is an animal and this is what it is and that it is biologically correct.
With the advent of aerial videography, the safety of animals is arguably put at risk, as was highlighted with the recent viral video of a baby bear.
Definitely. We are trying to film natural behaviour so in any circumstance that I am filming, I say to the team that the animal’s welfare is the number one priority. Having said that obviously, the team’s welfare is number one priority as well. We do not want them to get killed or injured.
But if an animal is looking like it is disturbed, then move away and don’t film it. Because we want natural behaviour anyway. Who wants to have an animal that is running like crazy and not doing something normal. It does not serve any purpose.
What are some of the changes you have observed in viewership? Are audiences more interested in wildlife today?
It really has changed certainly in the last 10 years. We used to have an audience in their fifties, sixties and seventies. And now we have teens [and people in their] twenties getting involved.
Blue Planet II, which came out recently, was the most watched show of the year in the UK. It beat all sports events, all dramas and all reality shows. That is amazing that a third of the country tuned in to watch that show.
In terms of the global reach, we have Chinese companies investing in our programmes now, and that is huge. We had an estimated 750 million people around the world who watched Blue Planet I, even when social media was not around. And I suspect that it is higher now. Even in India, everyone seems to be really interested.
Where do you think this interest stems from?
I think there is a disconnect now. Lots of people live in the city and most of them are on their devices in their mobile phones. But all of that is not real. It is nice to see something that feels real and beautiful. Also this is a little bit of a last chance to see the wildlife because we might be seeing some of these animals beginning to get close to disappearance.
Also there is a fascination around nature. If you imagine the next generation growing up loving wildlife, it is kind of heartening, really.
What are some of the challenges that accompany shoots? Could you explain this in the context of the iguana-snake chase from ‘Planet Earth II’?
Every shoot has multiple challenges. Sometimes, it is about logistics. How do you get somewhere, how do you get permissions. Is the weather going to come, are people going to come and disturb you.
In the snakes and iguana shoot, the biggest challenge was the logistics. You had to sail to an uninhabited island. There were big waves on the Pacific Ocean. So coming to the shore and land on a little boat was quite difficult. And there are volcanic stones that are spikes.
The moment also happens very quickly. So the challenge is to capture that from different angles and not miss a moment.
What are some of your takeaways from a challenging wildlife shoot?
In all my filming, I have kind of had one failure and that was filming these Muskoxen, which are like these big sheep. They live in Greenland and the Arctic. When it becomes mating season, the males run at each other and smash heads. So we did all the research, and it was a great location.
There were all sorts of behaviour where they were preparing to fight, but they never actually had the fight. We even saw it at a distance. We heard them banging heads, but eventually we had to call it and say it was not going to happen.
The cameraman walked back to the hut where we were staying and I could see in the distance maybe a mile away. I told him that I was just going to stay here because I wanted to watch these animals as they were so gorgeous. As he was walking away, the animals suddenly decided that they were going to have a massive fight right in front of me. If I had called the end of the shoot half an hour later, it would have been done.
Now I have learnt to really hang in there till we get it. So now when the team says we have nearly got it, I tell them to stay out there and come home when they got it.
What are among your most interesting shooting experiences?
We filmed lions hunting elephants for the first Planet Earth. That was very dramatic and traumatic, with 30 lions running around in pitch black around your vehicle that is totally open. You have elephants running past you. It was chaos in the night.
In the Arctic, we filmed white wolves. And even though they hadn’t seen people, they were not afraid of us and they were super-relaxed and came right up around us. That was an incredible experience because we did not see anyone for the whole five weeks that we were there. There were just the wolves. They got to know us and we got to know them and we filmed never seen before behaviour.
Another one was when we went to New Guinea to an extinct volcanic crater that was covered in the jungle. The local people said they never go inside the crater as it is a sacred place. But we could go in there. The animals were never hunted, so they were very relaxed. We were just able to walk up to animals and kangaroos. We also found a brand new species. There was the biggest rat in the world. These days, there are not many unexplored places.