“A hundred years ago there were one and a half billion people on earth; now over six billion people crowd our fragile planet. But even so there are still places barely touched by humanity,” says narrator David Attenborough in the opening scene of the 11-part mini-series, Planet Earth. “This series will take you to the last wildernesses and show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen them before.”
Four years before audiences around the world saw the wonderment of Planet Earth on television, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) set out to make the most ambitious documentary ever witnessed. Planet Earth captures the full range of experiences in observing wildlife in their natural setting, and arouses emotions in the viewer typically associated with major Hollywood films.
Baby chicks leap courageously out of a nest only to bounce off the ground unscathed, evoking both awe and feelings of triumph. Orca hunt a baby whale for fun, eliciting fear, anger, and sorrow. Animals attempt to court a mate, calling forth a variety of personal memories with each suitor’s success or failure. A group of chimpanzees kills a member of a rival group, stirring both horror and empathy.
Planet Earth shows audiences that the world around us is much more than a simple concrete jungle that consists of busywork from nine to five. The creators of this documentary clearly demonstrate just how diverse and intriguing our blue planet truly is.
From the Remarkable to the Mundane
In the various episodes throughout the documentary, the audience witnesses many wonders that quite possibly have never been filmed before: the absurdly strange, yet beautiful, birds of paradise; the amur leopard – the rarest cat in the world; and bactrian camels eating snow in the Gobi desert. Attenborough’s enthusiasm for the subject matter is evident throughout the series. The inflections of excitement in his voice and the urgency with which he tells some of the stories let the audience know that these events on screen are truly spectacular.
Yet Planet Earth does not focus solely on animals; one episode is devoted almost entirely to grass! While this may initially sound unremarkable, the filmmakers and the excellent narration make the subject fascinating by explaining just how grass has shaped our world and benefited life on the planet. This is just one of the many examples where Planet Earth drives home an important message that many of us may never have considered: Grass was the only food source with an ample enough supply to feed the great herds of buffalo that once roamed the planet.
Planet Earth is a highly relevant and often poignant series that gives its audience access to scenes most viewers would never be able to witness any other way. After an entire field has burnt down, time-lapse photography shows the greenery sprouting out of ashes; if grass is destroyed, it will always restore itself. It even showcases the significance of the most commonplace creatures on the planet.
Pole to Pole
The first episode of the series, “Pole to Pole,” is an overview of the upcoming episodes, yet stands on its own by delivering a sensory overload of gorgeous animals and blooming plant life. As the series progresses, the audience explores the highest mountain peaks, the deepest oceans, and the tallest waterfall — Angel Falls, in the comfort of home. The series’ filmmakers and photographers spanned the globe, and with special access to normally protected animal reserves and sanctuaries, the audience learns the importance and hardships of survival.
Watching Planet Earth is a stirring experience. Early in the first episode, the filmmakers take the audience into a secluded polar bear sanctuary to show a mother and two cubs emerging after months of hibernation. The sight is remarkable as the mother tumbles down the slopes, presumably cleaning her fur, as well as stretching her reawakened body. Her cubs soon follow, curiously poking their small heads out from the snow. Immediately, I fell in love with this precious family of bears.
But Planet Earth does not always feature such feel-good moments. I was left mortified as I watched a Great White shark leap out of the water in slow motion to catch a seal in its jaws. In this scene, every droplet of water is miraculously captured, and the experience is nearly as harrowing as if I were there to witness it.
While the cuteness of the polar bear cubs and the aggression of the shark took me to extreme opposites on the emotional spectrum, the vast majority of what I felt while watching Planet Earth was awe.
Earth is represented as a treasure of experiences and sights, from the most common to the most bizarre plants, animals, and ecosystems. I was moved by the series, seeing even the ubiquitous field mice no longer as mundane, but miraculous in their forms and functions.
This mini-series powerfully reinforced to me that our planet does not exist in isolated pieces; everything is interconnected. After watching this documentary I not only felt a greater understanding of my world, but I had a much more profound appreciation for it and my place within the order of things.
Filming Planet Earth
The actual footage of Planet Earth is something to behold. From serene time-lapse forests coming into bloom, to the aerial perspective of wolves chasing young caribou across plains, the footage can be dreamy or visceral. In either case, it is remarkable.
The development team created a stable camera-mounting system that allows for long-range lenses to attach safely to the exterior of helicopters. This allowed the filmmakers to take footage without disturbing the animals. They captured other footage by hand, and collected still more using remote cameras that detect even the most miniscule motions.
These various techniques give viewers insight into natural cycles and animal activities, some of which had never been captured on film before.
A Love Letter to the Planet
Sadly, many segments within the episodes are prefaced with warnings informing the audience that the species on screen are on the verge of extinction because of human interference. The visual information, coupled with the informative narration, elicit an emotional reaction.
Sometimes viewers feel reverence for the sheer majesty of the natural beauty, sometimes awe at the ferocity with which animals struggle for life, and sometimes wonderment at the diversity present on our own planet. Other times the audience can feel nothing but fear as a predator descends upon its prey.
As the planet changes, so do its species and inhabitants. Planet Earth reminds its viewers that the world has so much to offer beyond human life. Above all else, the documentary strives to paint a portrait of a lush and living planet, a planet we call home.
We humans have brought much harm and degradation to the natural environments and species of the world, but instead of focusing entirely on the negative, Planet Earth serves as a reminder of what is left and why it is worth preserving.
Never have I been so moved or compelled into action by a single piece of film as I have with Planet Earth. This documentary is more than just that, it is a love letter from its makers to the world we live in, and a message to its inhabitants that there is no end to the wonders one may encounter on this planet.
Since watching Planet Earth, I find myself buying more products that are produced naturally and that give back financially to organizations that help preserve wildlife; I’ll even pick litter up off the street. But most importantly, I am constantly educating myself on other ways that I can give back to the planet, whether it’s in the form of the foods I eat to the products I use, in order reduce my carbon footprint one step at a time.