Finally, it’s America’s turn.
Late last year, Britain got to watch Planet Earth II, the seven-episode follow-up to the benchmark original series that, a decade ago, became the first natural history series to be filmed in high definition. Starting Feb. 18, it will air Saturday nights on BBC America, beginning with “Islands” — which features the harrowing marine iguana and racer snakes sequence that was voted England’s Timeline TV Moment of the Year — and followed by Feb. 25’s “Mountains,” March 4’s “Jungles,” March 11’s “Deserts,” March 18’s “Grasslands,” and the March 25 double-header “Cities” and “The Making of Planet Earth II.” (Cities?, you’re thinking. Trust us, it’ll be one of your favorite episodes, with pigeons becoming prey for both peregrine falcons in New York and catfish in Albi, France; hyenas being hand-fed inside the walls of Harar, Ethiopia; and leopards filmed prowling at night for sleeping piglets in Mumbai, India courtesy of military-grade thermal imaging.)
Executive producer Mike Gunton says there isn’t a formula for the perfect, immersive episode of Planet Earth II, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. In his mind, it’s more like a checkerboard: you want different types of sub-habitats, different types of creatures, and different types of behaviors that have to be combined in a way to hit different emotional beats. You want stories that follow an individual animal and stories of sheer spectacle (and occasionally, you achieve them simultaneously: the exclusive sneak peek above from the “Islands” premiere zeroes in one of the 1.5 million chinstrap penguins at Antarctica’s Zavodovski Island as it braves deadly waves and cliffs to fetch food for his chicks). Above all, you want connection and revelation.
“Of course we couldn’t have predicted it, but one of the reasons why we wanted to make the series was we felt there was a kind of a groundswell building about people wanting to reconnect, and just a sense of the preciousness and the fragility of the planet. I know saying, ‘timing it right’ makes it sound a bit Machiavellian,” Gunton told Yahoo TV earlier this week, sitting at a hotel restaurant that had every TV tuned to cable news. “But I think the stars kind of weirdly aligned and people have a moment where they’ve spent so much time thinking inwardly, looking down, looking into their phones, looking at their world… To have the opportunity to look out and see that there is a bigger planet here and that we are only part of it — and 99.9% of the other lifeforms on this planet are not us — I think has resonated.”
We asked Gunton to preview some of his favorite sequences, which we’ll continue to share throughout the series’ run. For now, here’s what to watch for in “Islands”:
His Favorite Edge-of-the-Seat Moment: Iguana vs. Snakes
On the island of Fernandina in the Galapagos, marine iguana hatchlings must make a run to the rocks to reunite with their parents. Racer snakes know it, lie in wait, and give chase in numbers that astounded the film crew.
When did Gunton know the sequence would be a global hit? “People are very funny: when they’re in the field, they never want to oversell. But we heard it had been remarkable, so we knew there was something that was good. When we saw the rushes, which are the raw footage, we thought, ‘This is extraordinary,’ partly because it ticked all the boxes of what we were trying to do at a fundamental level: It’s close to the animals. There’s that sense of movement with it. It’s got the interaction. Three snakes. ‘Wow. This is getting exciting.’ Eight snakes. ‘Oh my God.’ We were very fortunate because we had two cameras on that shoot, which meant that we could cover both perspectives — from the iguana’s and the snakes’. That’s not something you can normally do. You normally have to kind of re-shoot bits to be able to tell [the full story you witnessed], but we were able to tell that story in its entirety.
“Then, the assistant editor, who’s our person who collects all the footage, put together a rough edit of it for me to show at a conference the BBC has every year. It didn’t have David Attenborough’s voice. It didn’t have any of Hans Zimmer’s music — just the sound that we recorded, which was rough. But I showed it to this group of, I don’t know, about 200 buyers. These are hard-nosed people who have just seen everything. The gasps! People were standing on their feet going, ‘Oh no!’ Then when it escaped there was cheers and applause. I thought to myself, ‘This is going to work.'”
His Favorite Moment of Levity: Swimming Sloth
“I’ve always been a strong believer that every film should have comedy in it, one, because I think the natural world is funny if you spend any time there. Animals are great at slapstick — they don’t know it, but they are,” Gunton says. “Also, I think it just gives an audience a sense that there’s a humanity in the stories, which I think helps.” He points to a pygmy three-toed sloth on Panama’s Escudo Island that “rushes,” over land and water, to find an elusive female he hears calling somewhere in the distance.
“If you know what’s going on, there is genuine comedy there,” Gunton says. “I think the script decided to just pull it out: ‘What does it do? Well, swim, of course.’ It’s the sort of ridiculousness of the opposite of hyperbole — when you understate something for the sake of effect.”
Planet Earth II premieres Feb. 18 at 9 p.m. on BBC America, AMC, and SundanceTV. The remaining episodes will air on BBC America only.