Planet Earth II Producer Dr. Elizabeth White: 'The Longer You Spend With Animals, the More You Relate'

Image via BBC.

Like most people who spend their lives sitting in chairs and occasionally walking to different chairs, I’m a big fan of nature documentaries, and harbor acute feelings of jealousy for those involved in making them. Planet Earth II, the long-anticipated sequel to the groundbreaking David Attenborough-narrated series, is a spectacular experience—filmed over three years using Ultra-high definition camera technology, with a thrilling supply of dignified pronunciations from the now 90-year-old Attenborough, each of the six episodes brings the viewer within incredibly intimate reach of animals they’ll likely never get to see for themselves.

Camera techniques encourage us to see the world through their subjects’ perspective; you’ll watch a beetle doing a headstand to soak up mist in the desert, a regiment of flamingos bustling in cartoonish formation against a Himalayan backdrop, bears dancing on trees, and a horrifying swarm of locusts reap destruction across Madagascar. The series’ first episode, Islands, which premieres Saturday night at 9 pm ET on BBC America, includes a devastating look at the daily commute of chinstrap penguins on the remote Zavodovski island, who fling their awkward bodies into deadly surf every day in order to feed their families.

There’s something bittersweet, and a little ironic of course, in watching beautiful depictions of the wonders of the natural world from one’s couch while said wonders disappear all around us, and as Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt’s EPA, and a growing anti-science wing of political thought all loom overhead.


And while the script of Planet Earth II mentions climate and human impact-related challenges towards the end of each episode, it is decidedly not a documentary about climate change, which has earned it some criticism—BBC producer Martin Hughes-Games, for example, called it “an escapist wildlife fantasy,” chiding producers for relying on “rapidly shrinking parks and reserves to make their films.” A New Republic essay on the series probed similar questions: “The most dangerous and destructive animal on the planet is left, for the most part, unseen and undisturbed, content to glide silently over the landscape, entertained by our god’s-eye view,” author Colin Dickey wrote.

“A series like Planet Earth II isn’t going to be able to do everything in one,” Islands producer Dr. Elizabeth White told me, gently pushing back on these critiques during a phone interview in January. White, who also worked as a producer on BBC’s Frozen Planet, explained that the program is meant to sow an appreciation for and understanding of nature, which she hopes will transmute into action.

“The bottom line is, we got 30 million people in the UK talking about wildlife, and that’s the biggest audience we’ve had in 15 years,” she said. “If even a small [subset] of those people take more interest and start reading more about natural history and paying attention to the world around them, then that’s a success.”

(The following interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.)

Dr. Elizabeth White. Image via BBC.

JEZEBEL: How did you end up as a Planet Earth producer?

DR. ELIZABETH WHITE: Virtually all the producers had careers as biologists before coming into telly. So I studied zoology at university, [and] I was also really interested in doing a PhD and pursuing science a bit more and getting a speciality. And then after a while I just though, gosh, you know, I don’t really want to spend the rest of my life stuck in a laboratory. I was really keen on the arts and photography, and filmmaking about wildlife seemed like the ultimate way to combine both of those things.


I think that’s pretty typical, almost all the producers and most of the researchers on the project started off as biologists, and we’ve all been people who’ve loved storytelling and just wanted to communicate science. So most of us started out out doing science research, and then transitioned into doing television research. By working with more experienced producers and camera crews, you can learn the television [part], as long as you’ve got a real interest in good storytelling and a background in biology.

Obviously women scientists, women in film—really women in every career—grapple with gender bias, and sometimes harassment and discrimination. Have you ever faced anything like that? What is the gender ratio like in your current line of work, and has that led to any particular challenges?


I think filmmaking is a hard industry for women to get into, in the sense that yes, sometimes, if it comes to carrying camera kits around and going out in the field and working alone and stuff, there is a stereotype that a man would be better at that than a woman. But I think increasingly there is a very strong female natural history cohort. I think our series has been one of the most female-biased series in the sense that two of the six producers were women, quite a few of the directors and researchers were women. All the directors on the island show [and] the jungle show were female. For Series 2 we wanted a sense of intimacy and a sense of empathy with the animals—women can do that at least as well as men, and in some ways, perhaps there’s more sensitivity.

The place where women really struggle with wildlife is in the camera side of things. There are very few camerawomen. And we do try to work with them—on the Grasslands episode, Sophie Darlington, and also Sue Gibson worked on the Mountains episode. But there’s just not many opportunities for women on the camera side of things. I think physical strength is an element of it, certainly historically the cameras were very hard for women to carry around—however, cameras are getting smaller, and you often find that women find ways to work where they are playing to their strengths, so hopefully this will start to change.


As a woman, you can face problems in the field. I sometimes find that when you go and work in a place where there’s a macho culture and you turn up as a woman, people look at you quite strangely—I worked with an oil company out in the gulf to do an underwater shoot a few years ago, and literally no women go on those oil platforms most of the year, so as a woman talking to the dive team, they found it very alien. So there can be challenges like that, but on the whole I think a lot of guys we work with do really like having a woman wanting to be involved and able to be as rough and tough as the guys.

What is the goal of Planet Earth II? What do you hope audiences will take away that might be different from the first time around?


The first series, the style and the look, was very grand and was very awe-inspiring. A lot of it was filmed using Cineflex, which is the helicopter camera that allows you to look down on the world in a kind of godlike way. What we aimed for in Planet Earth II was to be much more intimate. So the idea is that you’re almost immersed in there with the animal, seeing what the world is like through their eyes. I think what we’re hoping is for people to come away feeling like they have related to those animals, connected more, and they’ve understood what it would be like to be in that animal’s position.

The autonomy of your subjects is so visible, and sometimes bordered on human-like in a way we’re not used to getting on film—I’m thinking particularly about the marine iguanas grazing underwater in the Islands episode, or the Indri lemurs jumping from tree to tree in the Jungles episode. On your side of the camera, were there moments of intimate connection with your subjects? Did you ever become attached?


The reason we all do this job is we all love spending time in nature, and the longer you spend with animals, the more you relate to them. The marine iguanas are just wonderful—the adults, especially, you can sit down on the plateau and just watch them walking out to the sea, these dinosaur-like, alien creatures. The more time you spend, the more you realize that they are almost like us.

I think the animals I most connected to were the penguins, because we had a lot of time with them, and they do have their own little characters going on, and their own little arguments, and there were certain nests that we got to see over the course of a couple of weeks and watch those chicks growing up and we’d watch their little fights. In the story, we try not to anthropomorphize too much—we have to be very factual in what we say, and not confer a particular emotion on animals. But when you’re actually looking at them it’s very easy to relate, to think, ‘Gosh, if that was me in that position, I would probably feel like this.’


But we try very much to get a mixture of stories, it isn’t just about being relatable—we wanted to demonstrate each of the habitats as well, which is why you’ve got stories about worms and glowing fungi and things which are totally out of our human perception.

How do you decide which storylines to follow, which islands to pick? How are those decisions made?  


We start off just literally talking to scientists, reading loads of books about islands, just looking for inspiration, and that can go on for the better part of six months. And there will be certain stories that lock in very quickly—the penguin story was one that we said yep, we definitely want to do that; the story of the pygmy sloth, that was a very quick one. Some of them, things like the Komodo dragon, we debated for ages whether to do Komodo dragons or giant tortoises. [Ed note: here’s a very good behind-the-scenes video from the filming of that segment.] You start to see what your mix is, and we knew we could only ever really have 10 or 11 stories maximum in the film, because for each story we wanted to have enough time so that you can really understand the challenges of that island. So you work out which are the ones you definitely must do, and then you have to search for the little stories that fill in the blanks.

I really wanted a story about invasive species, so we could talk about the fact that a lot of extinctions happen on islands—we looked at lots of stories about cats and rats and things like that, and then we came across this story about the yellow crazy ants killing the red crabs, and that ticks all the boxes, because the story of the red crabs has been filmed quite a few times before, but telling the story of the crazy ants it allowed us to do this story again but differently. It’s a real juggling act. As a producer, you have your wish list, you have some favorite stories, but it’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle that never quite fits into place until towards the end. Sometimes you’ll change your mind about a story quite late in filming; you have a plan, but you do have to deviate from that plan depending on how the stories go.


Is there anything that surprised you while filming? In terms of animal behaviors, or scenarios you faced?

The marine iguana story was way more, well, spectacular I guess is the right word. We didn’t expect to see so many snakes come for [the baby iguanas], so that was the big surprise for us.

As I was watching, I noticed that while there were several references to human impacts, we were often looking at these very pristine and untouched landscapes that don’t really square with the trends we’re hearing about in the news. Was it a conscious choice to focus more on showing what we have to lose, rather than focusing in on what we are actively losing? Because when we talk about nature these days, climate change tends to be the main story.


This series is very much a series about how amazing animals are at living in each of these different habitats on earth—so the series was never designed to be a climate change series, it’s not a series that sets out to tell you about human impacts specifically. It’s about celebrating the wonders of the animals, and how they’ve adapted to these places. But we implicitly felt that part of that story is the fact that some of these habitats are changing very dramatically, which is why each of the films do mention a relevant [challenge] that is a big theme for that habitat—so obviously for Islands, we chose to focus on issues of extinction. The Jungles episode included lines about habitat loss and logging and deforestation, Mountains talks about glaciers retreating, Deserts talks about how much desertification is increasing.

You can’t ignore the fact that these places are changing, but it’s not conceived of as a series that is going to put all the climate issues in front of you. It’s a program that’s designed to create a sense of wonder and fascination, and the fact that these places are precious and are disappearing is in there in the narrative. It teaches people about the preciousness of what we’ve got, but does make it clear that these are almost like the last wildernesses.

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About the author

Ellie Shechet

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.