Claws, Fangs, and a Network Connection: Filming Netflix’s ‘Our Planet’

Technology is making strides in the conservation arena

The sub-Antarctic isle of South Georgia lies deep in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s densely populated for an island so far south, but not by humans. Large colonies of penguins and seabirds throng there to breed and raise their chicks. The only humans braving the climate are researchers and a small group of officials from the Government of South Georgia, along with the occasional cruise liner. 

Natural and undisturbed, no vehicles are allowed on South Georgia. So when the crew from Silverback Films arrived to film a scene for Netflix’s Our Planet, they came prepared for engineering. They brought with them the parts for a beach buggy, modified to tote around cameras and stabilizers, and trundled around the island to the general consternation of its residents. 

Conservation efforts can take many forms, but viewers of Our Planet can attest to the power of film. It’s an eight-part series narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenborough, with each episode addressing both the preservation and ongoing destruction of various habitats around the world. The episodes, which explore every landscape from frozen poles to grasslands, were conceived solely with this message in mind. 

A winning combination of technology, expertise, and engineering has seen Sophie Lanfear and Jamie McPherson through the creation of multiple wildlife films throughout their careers. Both zoologists by trade, Lanfear has production and direction credits on several Our Planet episodes, while McPherson’s talents lie in cinematography and designing the innovative filming rigs used on shoots. 

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Whilst the crew stopped filming for lunch, a curious King penguin wants to know what this strange object is? After a good look and investigative peck, the penguin decides to leave the camera control deck alone. Image courtesy of Sophie Lanfear/Silverback Films/Netflix.

“We’ve all wanted to do more, and we’ve wanted to get that message out. It can be hard to get conservation films commissioned because the argument is that people don’t want to watch,” says Lanfear, who produced and directed the ‘Frozen Worlds’ episode. 

Each episode points viewers to  [www.ourplanet.com] for information on living sustainably. Visitors to the website can watch short explainers on sustainability or behind-the-scenes videos from the shoots. The main takeaways from each episode are also rendered into slideshows, accompanied by an interactive globe that visualizes the state of natural habitats and the spread of human civilization. 

“We’ve got a full-time team still working on [the website], and they will be working on it for at least the next year. They’re churning out the stuff that we couldn’t put in the show,” says Lanfear. 

With Netflix’s streaming service now accessible nearly globally, it’s an ideal medium for spreading the message of environmental protection. Our Planet and its predecessors, the Planet Earth anthologies, have widely been hailed as groundbreaking in the field of wildlife documentary filmmaking, as they showcase never-before-seen facets of animal life. In part, this has been made possible by advancements in filming gear. One such example is gyro stabilizers: futuristic-looking machinery used to turn chaotic scenes into perfectly steady footage.

“It’s really exciting for filmmakers,” says McPherson. “You can have a camera on drones where you can’t get a helicopter, to see aerials and show the other perspective. It just opens up the world a bit more, really.”

Lanfear referenced filming humpback whales’ feeding habits in Antarctica. It made a world of difference to capture the action with a drone rather than an expensive, resource-intensive helicopter. The result: sweeping aerial views of whales, dolphins, penguin colonies, and massive cascading ice shelves breaking off into a gray sea.

Technology is being worked into conservation in a multitude of different ways, helped along by greater accessibility of information to raise awareness for the cause. Conservationists have struggled for decades to observe wild animal populations and monitor the conditions of key habitats, but this task is gradually becoming easier. 

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The largest gathering of walrus on the planet. Over 100,000 walrus hauled out along a small stretch of coast in Northern Russia. The crowd is so dense, that walrus arriving must climb on top of one another, crowd-surfing, their way through to find a place to rest. When this happens heads rise up and the walrus jostle for positions in an attempt to avoid being crushed. Image courtesy of Sophie Lanfear/Silverback Films/Netflix.

One of the most striking scenes in Our Planet documents the annual walrus haul-out, where over 100,000 walruses are forced to gather on the Russian coast by drastically thinning sea ice. Anatoly Kochnev, who supervised the crew, is a naturalist who has studied walruses for decades. He used to gauge the number of animals on the shore by using a pair of binoculars to count them one by one. 

“Now, he can fly a very cheap drone across the beach taking photos, and then he can be very accurate when he counts them,” says Lanfear. 

While the advent of drones and availability of cameras and sensors has enabled great leaps and bounds in the field, Lanfear and McPherson are careful to point out that tech can, at times, hinder conservation efforts. 

“Anti-poaching units have been having problems with poachers using drones to find the animals,” says Lanfear. She adds that poachers can use mobile phones to coordinate rendezvous locations to escape from anti-poaching units. 

National parks have taken steps to protect against this new threat. When the crew was filming in Namibia, they were barred from using drones and required to have rangers in the car with them at all times, despite their filming credentials. While the crew was more than willing to abide by the rules, the experience served to underscore the pervasiveness of poaching. 

In the academic world, tagging marine animals and observing their movements is usually the first step in anti-poaching efforts. Technological advancements in this methodology have resulted in more granular data for research and less intrusive methods of attaching tags to the subjects. Tagging animals can also facilitate the gathering of oceanographic information–details about depth, salinity, temperature, and so on–that would be difficult for humans to obtain without a submarine. 

In 2018, researchers Berger-Tal and Lahoz-Monfort wrote about using remote sensing systems as early warning systems against poachers, and lab-made rhino horn and shark fin to replace the sought-after and often smuggled biological commodities. They also referenced an anti-logging device: a solar-powered recorder able to identify the sound of machinery and alert forest rangers to the activity. Satellite video streams are also proving to be an invaluable resource, as governments can no longer deny the scale of illegal deforestation.

Berger-Tal and Lahoz-Monfort also detailed how connectivity through tech has become a significant trend for conservation. In the past, researchers had no choice but to rely on hardware created for other industries. Now that they can collaborate online, organize hackathons, and request the services of volunteer professionals, researchers are effectively crowdsourcing innovation in this field–and are able to crowdfund when there are no other options.

Lanfear and McPherson have observed an increase in crowdsourced science, such as projects where anyone can help to count the number of penguins in a colony. These projects make the natural world seem more tangible and accessible to everyday people, most of whom live urban lives.

“It’s nice to involve people in [conservation projects]. They feel that they’ve got use and they’re helping,” Lanfear says. 

The software and hardware used by researchers are also becoming more affordable. Lanfear and McPherson say that scientists everywhere, even those in developing economies who may face financial limitations, can afford the right equipment for the most part. 

Wildlife institutions around the world are also exploring new ways to enhance their conservation efforts through tech. Zoos Victoria, a conservation organization with three zoos in Australia, turned to augmented reality (AR) to add a new dimension to visitors’ experiences. A large-format exhibit called Air, Land, and Sea, a collaborative project between National Geographic and AR experience designer INDE, was on display for two months at Melbourne Zoo.

“The role of AR/VR in shaping a more sustainable future could certainly benefit from further research, as it is an emerging area,” says Visitor Services General Manager Scott Killeen. “Visitors engage with the experience in many ways.” 

Zoos Victoria has taken other steps to care for the animals in their charge and the local wildlife populations, including installing hundreds of cameras, sensors, and GPS trackers to monitor populations of indigenous species. Zoos Victoria is also exploring integrating a variety of new technologies, including a voice activation feature, which can answer visitors’ questions when prompted, and a commercial VR experience to simulate realistic, up-close encounters with gorillas. 

“Technology helps us connect with more people, whether they visit our zoos or via our community conservation campaigns,” says Director of Digital Engagement David Methven. “Technology also provides the tools that are invaluable in monitoring the welfare of animals in our care and in the wild.”

Today’s prevailing sustainability thesis emphasizes the ‘prosumer’ and the individual as forces for change. Pushing the message about endangered animals and the destruction of habitats is impacting viewers of the series.

“The people I spoke to said that they’re just glad someone’s telling them the reality of what’s happening,” says McPherson. “All these shows, we come back with a tiger story and go, ‘Look at the tiger!’ But now we’re saying, ‘The tiger is threatened, it’s in a tiny habitat, we need to do something about it.’” 

“Loads of people have been writing to me about the things that they’re doing–like, I’ve given up meat, I’ve given up air travel, and so have my children,” says Lanfear. “As long as people start thinking that way, that’s a start.” 

These reactions are a testament to many things that we take for granted: high-definition footage of the world’s most inaccessible places, commercially-available drones, and the Internet as a unifying force. It’s becoming impossible to ignore the deadly impact of unsustainable practices on the natural world. Awareness and action could be deciding factors in saving the planet.

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