Nature series, at times, can be nerve-racking. Anyone who watched a pod of killer whales work together to “wave wash” a seal in Frozen Planet knows this. But the new six-part series Life Story premiering June 6 on Discovery takes it to a whole other level — starting with a heart-stopping 10-minute opening sequence of two-day-old barnacle goslings jumping off the 400-foot tower of rock where they were hatched.
Why is the sequence such a nail-biter? They won’t actually be able to fly for another eight weeks. To get from their nest (which was made that high to protect against predators on the ground) to grass (which is the only thing they eat), they have to free-fall. All they can do is spread their bodies and flap their tiny wings to slow the descent, hoping that when the inevitable first impact comes, it’s on a fluffy, well-padded belly.
The dramatic clip above of gosling No. 5’s dive does have a happy ending.Not all of them do, which viewers will learn. Life Story producer Tom Hugh-Jones, who directed both of Saturday’s back-to-back episodes, “First Steps” and “Growing Up,” was there in Greenland for the fateful jumps. He talked to Yahoo TV about filming that sequence and previewed what else awaits in the hours narrated by Sir David Attenborough.
These two episodes are arguably more of an emotional roller coaster than any nature series I’ve seen. Was that something you anticipated because of their themes: the first days of life when animals can be at their most vulnerable and when they must strike out on their own?
I think we thought because we’re telling the life story there was a natural resonance between our own lives and animals’ lives, and we really tried to do something that hasn’t been done that much before, and that’s to really tell the story from an individual animal’s point-of-view. That informed how we filmed it and the stories we told. … It’s a reminder that animals, at every stage of their lives, have to face all these challenges, but the stakes are so much higher, and it’s kind of amazing how they get through these things, really. Obviously it’s factual content, but we wanted it more like a drama, more cinematic.
Did you always know you were going to start the series with the barnacle goslings?
No, not at all. This was something I remember seeing when I was really young, and no one had filmed it again because it was so hard to get to. There used to be a research station near the site where they jump, and that’s long closed down. It was one of these kind of high-risk shoots where no one really knew what to expect or whether the goslings would still be there. So we didn’t really know what it would be like. I think once we saw it, it was very clear it could be a very dramatic opener.
We didn’t know when they were gonna hatch. We got there about a week too early. So I spent about a week, in 24 hours of daylight, just watching these eggs waiting for them to hatch. And then when they hatched, we had no idea when they were gonna jump. We had to be on-call all day and all night for days on end, so I got quite attached to the chicks. It was largely my job to tell the two cameramen when the goslings were gonna jump, and I would radio down. I felt a bit like their dad.
Was that the most attached you’ve ever become to animals during filming?
Maybe in some ways. You see in the “making of” that after the geese jump, having gone through all this trouble trying to avoid the foxes, the irony is that the geese calling each other makes so much noise. The foxes have caught on that when they hear that noise, it means that the goslings have jumped off. The ones that manage to survive, I’d say one out of two times end up getting gobbled up by an arctic fox anyway. The first time we saw that, we were all devastated. Normally, you’re trying to focus on the lion or the tiger and get those shots. You don’t like seeing animals being ripped apart, but there’s a part of you that goes, “Yes, we got what we came for.” Whereas this, I thought I wanted to see that part of the story, and when we saw it, I just thought it was horrible. I didn’t like it. We actually kept it for the making of because we thought it’d be too much for the viewers within the film, what happens to some of the chicks. Luckily the nest that we featured in the film managed to get away without being eaten. So that was lucky.
As the director, you have to allow that innate suspense to build and know when to pull back before you send viewers over the edge.
Even though it affected me quite deeply when I first saw it, I guess I’d seen it so many times I’d become desensitized to it. My instinct was to make it as hard-hitting as possible. Then we showed it to the team. Interestingly, the women on the team came out, and I was going, “Wasn’t that great?” And they were going, “No, I didn’t like that at all.” We had to be quite sensitive with it, and I think we got it just about right. I think a lot of people, until they saw the end, had no idea that geese could survive that kind of thing, and people felt like they were just being shown a kind of goose snuff movie. [Laughs.] So we were quite careful to reword it, and just let people know that this is meant to happen and that they can survive this. But it still has a huge impact on the audience. In England, there’s a famous program called Gogglebox, which is basically a series that watches people watching TV. They showed that, and it was very interesting watching the nation respond to these geese.
Another incredibly tense sequence in “First Steps” is a humpback mother, who’s migrating with her calf, having to outrun a group of aggressive males who would like to mate with her in Hawaii. There’s a second humpback segment [that has been trimmed for time in the U.S. airing] in which a male humpback redeems his kind weeks later when this mother can no longer protect her exhausted calf from trailing sharks on her own. She makes a deep dive and brings a male humpback up with her who blows a screen of bubbles to keep the sharks at bay. How did your team capture that?
We were filming the aerials out in Hawaii, and it was not going particularly well because it was just raining for about three days solid, and then on the last day, we spent the whole day out in the helicopter. Towards the end of the afternoon, the cameraman and the assistant producer spotted this situation. They just followed it, and I think what they soon realized, which you could probably only really appreciate from seeing it from the air, was that this baby calf was being protected by the whale blowing bubbles. We were speaking to the scientists at the time to get permission to film the whales and get the intel where they had been, and they were really excited when we showed [the footage] to them. It was something they never really would have imagined happened. At that [breeding] time, as you see in the first part, [males are] normally cast as the aggressors getting in the way of the moms and the calves. But I suppose it shows since they’re underwater and we only capture them at certain times, there’s a whole complexity to their lives that we don’t really know about.
Obviously, you know you need moments of levity in the hour. Let’s talk about the fur seal pups in New Zealand. [In the last decade, pups who need to practice evasive swimming maneuvers before they venture out to catch their own food in the predator-filled ocean have started journeying into the forest and following a stream to the pool of a secluded waterfall.] How did you decide to include them?
It was one of the researchers who just suggested it. With wildlife films, you’re always wondering, “Should we film this? Should we not film that?” We knew about it for a while, but we never quite knew what the individual story would be. And then someone looked into it a bit more, and we discovered that the pups never go back to that pool. They only go there once, and no one really knows how they know how to go there. So it became this slightly kind of magical fairytale.
The second episode, “Growing Up,” has its lighthearted moments. [An ingenious veined octopus manipulates two halves of a discarded coconut shell in Indonesia to use both as cover from a stalker flounder and for its own stealth attacks]. But it’s got another heartbreaking story with a tiger cub in India. You follow three siblings, first when they’re seven months old [and we’re told that their battle-worn father patrols his territory protecting it from rival males who will try to kill any cubs they find that are not their own]. Then we see them a year later, still dependent on their mother, who has suddenly hidden them away in an abandoned fortress. How do you track the same cubs for a year?
All the tigers in that area are very well known — and that [mother] particularly, because she’s got one eye. They’re in a park, a very popular place for people to go and watch tigers. The guides who take the tourists know them by name. So we went out one year and followed them when they were cubs. And then we went back the second year and caught up with them. We knew all their face markings. With that story, we were absolutely devoted to making sure it was completely true: so whenever you see that female [cub who ventures out of the fortress], it is that female. It’s such a compelling story.
The female cub spots her mother — with a new male. How do you “direct” those shots?
With big cats, it’s more about choosing where you go in the day. You’re desperately trying to find these cats, and because you can’t get out of the vehicles in the parks and there’s only so many roads, we try to discuss where to position the car and where to be and how to make the shots good, but a lot of the directing is up to the animals and what they choose to do. You have to live with what you get and rely on the cameraman’s skill to capture it in a poignant way. … Interestingly, it was a really successful first shoot [when they were young], and then we went back, and a new male had come in and the cubs were just hiding right in the corner of the park. The cameraman couldn’t get near them, only catching glimpses here and there. Tragically, for the [female] cub, it got killed [off-camera], which none of us were happy about. But we thought, well, perhaps that’s the story. The concept of adolescence in animals is something I hadn’t really paid much mind to, and when I was told I was making that program, I thought that’s going to be really difficult. But actually, it’s really interesting, the idea of what animals do at this stage that humans also know as really difficult. I think for big cats and a lot of predators, it is the most difficult time in their lives because it’s the first time they’re not being helped by their parents. They have to survive on their own.
I think the [18-month-old] cheetah sisters [in Africa] are really interesting. The cameraman had followed them since they were cubs, so we knew their entire life history and story. He had this incredible relationship where he could literally walk right next to these cheetahs [who had to make a kill or starve]. As you can see by the end, he gets out of the car and runs after these cheetahs as they catch this impala. I think some of the viewers just thought, “Wow, I don’t know what to make of this. It must be a tame cheetah.” But it’s just this incredible situation where you were standing right next to wild cheetahs as they were growing up and hunting.
Life Story premieres June 6 at 9 p.m. on Discovery. It continues June 13 at 9 p.m. with “Home” and “Power” and concludes June 20 at 9 p.m. with “Courtship” and “Parenthood.”