‘The Year Earth Changed’ Documents Wildlife Response To A Covid-Altered World – Contenders TV Docs + Unscripted

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Matthew Carey
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When the planet went into lockdown over the Covid-19 pandemic, the animal kingdom took notice. Within little time at all, species adapted to the retreat of humans, exhibiting different behavior and in some cases venturing into territory formerly bustling with people and automobile traffic.

The Apple TV+ documentary The Year Earth Changed, narrated by David Attenborough, examines this remarkable transformation.

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“There were some really rapid changes and I think it’s the speed of the bounce back or the speed of the response by wildlife that surprised lots of people, including researchers that have studied animals for all their lives,” director Tom Beard said during Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted event. “We kick off the film with…this incredible story of white-crowned sparrows by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, how they actually manage to take advantage of the quiet to change their song. They sing a sexier song as a result of the quiet.”

The film also documents examples from the oceans and other waterways.

“Less shipping and less noise underwater meant that humpback whales were able to communicate further and that changed the relationship between mothers and their calves, so that mothers could feed better,” Beard said. “The capybara in the suburbs of Buenos Aires in Argentina…poked their head out from the wetlands that they live in. … Suddenly, there’s no one on the streets anymore, there’s no vehicles moving around, so they can swim across and claim back what was theirs.”

The filmmaking team shot around the world, from North and South America to South Africa and Japan. In Florida, camera crews recorded as female sea turtles came ashore by night, taking advantage of the absence of beach traffic to lay their eggs in relative tranquility.

The implication for a post-pandemic world, said executive producer Mike Gunton, is that modest changes in human behavior can positively impact wild animals.

“You don’t have to say [to people], ‘Don’t go onto the beaches at all.’ But just in that little narrow period when those turtles want to come ashore, just a few hours, just keep the beaches free,” Gunton said. “If they lay 100, 120 eggs, that’s potentially 120 little baby turtles going to be born…For an animal that is so endangered and under such pressure, that small change in us could make such a big impact on the natural world. And that, I think, is amplified throughout many of the stories we told.”

Attenborough, the famed naturalist, recorded the film’s narration while in lockdown in the UK. Baffling was used to make for a better audio environment.

“He was recorded in his home, surrounded by duvets as the sound engineers poked cables through the window from a shed out in his garden, to keep everything safe,” Beard said. Attenborough, 94, has earned three Emmys for his work narrating other films. “As ever, he’s such a great professional at what he does and it’s a fantastic narration.”

Beard added: “I think he’s enjoyed seeing what’s unfolded over this year as much as we have in terms of the natural world and the speed at which it’s been able to recover…It’s not a year that any of us wished for, but if we can take a lesson from how nature has responded and apply that to our relationship with wildlife going forward, then we’re all going to be in a better space for that.”

Check out the panel video above.

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