Vijaya Cherian meets the team behind the latest documentaries Dynasty and Serengeti, to understand the new approach to storytelling from the BBC Natural History stable.
Six hundred hours of footage for each one-hour episode, two years of dedicated filming in one case and four in another, several bee stings, raging storms and numerous challenges later, teasers for two very powerful and engaging natural history programmes – Serengeti and Dynasty – were screened at the BBC Worldwide Showcase in Liverpool earlier this year. Although the BBC has always managed to find new and innovative ways to take natural history programming to new levels that never fail to enthrall audiences, Serengeti and Dynasty promise a different way of storytelling.
- Our biggest genres are drama and natural history programming Grant Welland, Executive VP, CEMA, BBC Worldwide
- On buying content for the African market
With Serengeti, an unusual collaboration between Simon Fuller, creator of American Idol, and award-winning producer-director John Downer, who has made several groundbreaking natural history programmes over the last three decades, has led to the first soap-style animal drama, with a large ensemble of characters from the African wild.
Fuller, who has made his first entry into natural history with this project, explains how he wound up in this neck of the woods.
“I quite often get asked confidentially to give advice to certain charities on problems like animal trafficking. I found myself on a safari in Tanzania just thinking about how one could stop animals being treated so terribly, and arrived at the conclusion that a lot of it has to do with our lack of empathy towards animals.
“We also worked with good drama writers to ensure we were then able to give it a certain structure. We have broken a lot of new ground with this programme” Simon Fuller, idol franchise creator
“I thought that if there was a way through some TV programme to encourage empathy for these animals among people and if we could relate to them in a different way, that might be quite a powerful opportunity.”
That thought led to a meeting with Downer, and the result of that collaboration is Serengeti.
“We often tell natural history stories from one individual’s point of view,” explains Downer. “This was a chance to tell a bigger and more profound story, because the lives of all the animals here are interconnected. If one animal does something, it has a knock-on effect on all the other animals. When you are in their world and they become characters that you can identify with, you start to see the connections between all these different lives in a way that is thought-provoking and you begin to think about your own connections on the planet. Serengeti is a microcosm of the world in a way, and all the animals and the interconnections there are at the heart of this drama.”
The team had ten camera systems for the shoot, with five to six employed at any given point of time. This was especially important, Downer says, to not just capture the animals in their environment unobtrusively but to also get them from different angles and points of view, which is especially important for the drama approach to storytelling.
“I have been filming animals for the last 30 years, but it’s only now that I had all the tools at my disposal to film animals in a way that is non-intrusive and true to their natural behaviour. Simon had the perfect location – a private reserve in the heart of Serengeti. The cameras were not visible to the animals, which meant that we could follow them and capture their extraordinary behaviour. It allowed us to move and travel with them and become part of their world while being invisible to them,” explains Downer, adding that the team shot for two years with two sets of crews.
“We were able to capture major events because this story takes place over the course of a year, which means you have climatic impacts, the migration, fire burning and storms” Producer-director John Downer
“It was continuous filming. There were always two crews and they’d take a couple of weeks off and then come back again and pick up the story again, so we were able to tell a complete story across one year. We were also able to capture major events because this story takes place over the course of a year, which means you have climatic impacts, the migration, fire burning and storms. The whole place is changing all the time, and these changes became part of the narrative.”
The camerawork was especially critical to the storytelling, explains Downer.
“We often experimented with several ways of filming and settled on 10 different types of camera systems, often deploying five or six at a time and combining it with remote filming. This is such a big advantage. In the past, we would probably manage to get about 5% of what we saw. Now, when we see something, we have the ability to film it. In Serengeti, we were able to capture every moment that happened out there because we had deployed several cameras and so we were able to cover the action from every angle. This helped immensely to construct the drama because for drama, you need different angles and points of view,” explains Downer.
The big Serengeti show covers all of Africa’s favourites – the stress of a teenage elephant who has turned 14 and must leave the herd; a lioness who has cubs outside the pride, is not allowed back in and has to survive on her own; the conniving baboon, who wants to be a leader; and then there are the cheetahs, the mongooses, the warthogs, hyenas, crocodiles and elephants. Each one enters the drama at a different point in time.
“What we have done is constructed it more like a drama, where you have all these different families. You don’t see them all in one story. Of course, we are only taking true-life events to create the drama, and most of the time we are following these individual characters too closely.”
Fuller adds that the team filmed for two years “before we wrote a word”.
“The natural history element comes from recording and filming this magnificent footage. But with the knowledge of the story, we also worked with good drama writers to ensure we were then able to give it a certain structure. We have broken a lot of new ground with this programme,” Fuller says proudly.
If Serengeti is a massive opera-style show, Dynasty is a lot more intense. This five-part series, shot over a period of four years, follows six individual animals from amongst lions, hunting dogs, chimpanzees, tigers and emperor penguins, at the most critical period in their lives. Each is a ruler, a leader of their family, and each is determined to hold on to power and protect their family, their territory and their dynasty.
“It’s all about animal politics and how they survive,” explains Julian Hector, Head of the BBC Natural History Unit.
The Serengeti and Dynasty teams both worked closely with scientists who have been studying these animals for a good couple of decades.
“In these films, you see the struggles of the animals and you can’t help but feel engaged,” says Attenborough.
Executive Producer Mike Gunton says the team has worked very hard to develop new photographic techniques to give a sense of being in the world of the creatures, and got down to the eye level of the animals in this one.
“Camera technology has been miniaturised massively. We put the cameras on animals and let the animals film for us” Julian Hector, Head of the BBC Natural History Unit
“Today, our camera teams are able to get much closer to the animals and immerse the audiences in their world. We developed some technologies to get down to the level of the animals while also ensuring the safety of our crew. For the lion’s film, for instance, our producer and his camera operator created a tracking system that could be attached in place of the doors on the side of the vehicle and it was situated down. This meant they could sit in the car safely while filming at the eye level of a sleeping lion. That makes it a very clever piece of kit,” explains Gunton.
Both teams were careful to say that their films are not intended to serve any moral purpose.
“You are a privileged spectator and engaged in one of the great dramas of life and death. What more do you want?” asks Attenborough.
“You don’t know whether it is a tragedy or a comedy, but neither do those who are making the programme. They watched the story develop as they were shooting. Whether a young animal will become a hero or a villain, only time will tell.”
When asked if the team had a plan B should any of their characters die before the film was complete, Gunton said the fifth Beatle is “always going to be a meerkat, because you can always make a great meerkat film”.
In the best traditions of modernday television, ‘actors’ do get killed. Only here, TV writers did not have to get creative concocting deaths.
“Our lioness in the pride fortunately makes it to the end. Quite a lot of her pride don’t make it,” explains Gunton.
What catches our attention, though, is the passion with which every person associated with natural history programming speaks about it. Gunton says there was no turning back for him once he started on the path, while Attenborough called “natural history films” his life “for the last 60 years”. “This is a privilege and one I greatly value,” he says.
Making blue-chip natural history films is, of course, not easy. Besides the time and effort that goes into them, significant money is also invested in these productions.
“Everything about blue-chip natural history programme making is about putting huge amounts of money into the capture. The men and women we put into the field are amazingly skilled and get our audiences close to the subject. Dynasty broke that boundary of observation,” explains Hector.
“You are a privileged spectator and engaged in one of the great dramas of life and death. What more do you want?” David Attenborough, Broadcaster and Naturalist
“It includes very strong individual stories, for instance, and more filming days were put into those individual films than we have ever done in our filming history. Each film had about 600 filming days per episode. It took all of the filming crews and directors to the very edge of what they can do, and it’s not just filming technology and innovation and storytelling, but in terms of going to different parts of the world and observing a single group of animals and documenting every single piece of behaviour in really tough conditions, and putting so many hours in. It’s going to be a really good series. We haven’t done anything quite like this.”
Hector goes on to say that bringing “relevant and edgy content into our storytelling” has helped draw in younger audiences as well, in addition to social media engagement efforts.
Although Serengeti and Dynasty took most of the limelight at the showcase within the natural history segment, Hector draws our attention to another landmark programme, Big Cats.
“There are 40 species of cats in the wild and the series filmed 32 of them, and it rated fantastically well on BBC 1. And again, the digital activity around this programme was amazing. Some of these cats were so tiny, with the rusty spotty cat weighing just 120g.”
He also speaks about the camera technology innovation that has made it possible for the producer to go even deeper into the habitat of the animals.
“Technical innovation is at the heart of much of what we do. This is where we work with scientists all over the world. We employed someone who was amazing at building bespoke camera housings. Camera technology has been miniaturised massively. We put the cameras on animals and let the animals film for us. They revealed parts of their lives that we couldn’t possibly have got. It gave a new look to the programme, as the pictures were very racy and inviting.
“We put a camera on a habituated chimpanzee that was going to be released into the wild. The chimp was curious about the camera and took it off and on, but on one occasion, it went up into the trees and showed exactly how it makes its nest in the trees and how it manipulated twigs in the canopy. We even saw him wash his hands in a hole in the tree that was filled with water. Then there were the meerkats that took it deep into their underground chamber in South Africa, where some babies had been born.”
Hector adds that the team often works closely with biologists.
“We can put a camera on an animal only for a few hours, although the battery life is much better now and can stay for days. We had one on an African penguin in South Africa, which we took off. The cameras themselves are bomb proof, but the animals could make absolute mayhem of the devices that we built. We also ensured that the devices came off or were taken off by the biologists when they returned. It is an amazing series to do.”
In the case of Planet Earth, Hector points out that the team used HD thermal imagery to film leopards in Mumbai at a resolution never seen before. With a 50% decline in global wildlife numbers just in the last 30 years, he says there is an increasing need at the BBC to “tell inspiring and compelling stories in a different way” that will inform audiences about “the fragility and our relationship with the natural world”.
“Our biggest genres are drama and natural history programming” Grant Welland, Executive VP, CEMA, BBC Worldwide
“Our biggest genres are drama and natural history programming” Grant Welland, Executive VP, CEMA, BBC Worldwide, outlines strategies for marketing British content
“BBC Worldwide’s purpose is to partner with the best creative talent in the UK and bring premium quality British content to the world. We are the single largest distributor of content outside of the major US studios, and Showcase is our event where we bring together 700 executives from the TV industry to share our latest programming. We have around 3,000 hours of content and 600 booths where our buyers can watch our content.
“Of BBC Worldwide’s one billion pounds of revenue, our TV sales business brings in about £420 million and that grew by 10% last year, which we see as fantastic evidence of increasing appetite for British content. Our biggest genres are drama and natural history programming.
“For drama, we had Idris Elba at Showcase to publicise the new series of Luther and Jodie Whittaker, the first female Dr Who, graced the event as well. In drama this year, we announced a really exciting piece called The Split. London is now known as the divorce capital of the world, and this is a very fast-paced drama set amongst high-powered female divorce lawyers who also have families. So this is a great relationship and legal piece. We have also introduced two new epics with Serengeti and Dynasty in natural history programming.”
On buying content for the African market
Insights from Farzana Wadee, Content Specialist – International Series, Showmax, and Shaamila Fataar, Content Specialist, Showmax Originals and Non-fiction.
“We watch content for a living and work at Showmax, a subsidiary of Naspers. We are interested in Born to Kill and Good Omens at this Showcase. The first season of Dr Foster was well received, so we have come back for the second season and hopefully, it will do just as well. Dr Who has a new female lead now, and we cater to an emerging market where the appetite for drama, comedy, sci-fi, action and female-driven pieces is huge.
“After Liverpool, we will head to London, where we will attend some independents and close some deals there as well. We fall under the umbrella of Naspers, Multichoice, but technically we are still a start-up and this is the second year of our operations.
“We buy content for the whole African market, but from a curation point of view, we separate the content based on region. The single biggest challenge for OTT in Africa is the data accessibility and the price of data. Our price is extremely affordable. We have a fixed RPU based on our Rand value and we can offer that to our customers at an affordable price, but to stream it you still need the data package, and this has been the challenge. In the last 10 years in South Africa, we have seen six or seven VOD players who have come to the market and folded because of the data issues. It’s challenging to hit that subscriber/scalability number. In our case, as a Multichoice company, we have great backing and we use our relationship in a very smart way.”