Wildlife filmmakers often encounter extremely difficult filming challenges. These include scenarios where it is impossible to get a camera team into position – such as an underground burrow – or where the animal being filmed is so small that it is buffeted around by wind or water currents, making it impossible for a camera operator to follow their subject and keep it in focus.
In Natural History programming, we sometimes augment our sequences with footage that was originally shot for other productions. We are always conscious of the need to manage budgets on our projects carefully.
Sharing or re-using footage is one of the ways we ensure the licence fee payer gets the best value for money, and enables us to use our budgets to maximise the amount of truly extraordinary, new animal behaviour and natural phenomena in our series.
Sometimes filming in the wild would put at risk the welfare of the animal, or the camera team, or both. In these instances it might be possible to film the same kind of behaviour in a controlled environment – known as a "set".
Natural history filming sets are often elaborate, recreating as much as possible the ecosystem of the animal being filmed, with the aim to record images that are true representations the natural environment. This could take the form of a specially built filming burrow or aquarium, into which wild or captive animals are placed with all the resources they need to carry on their natural behaviour.
The "set" might be close to the animal’s natural habitat on location so the animal can be returned safely after filming, or indoors in a studio or laboratory if working with a captive animal. Wherever filming is carried out it is done by, or in consultation with, scientists and experts to ensure both the welfare of the animals, and the accuracy of the behaviour of what’s being portrayed.
For the Spring episode of Frozen Planet the team wanted to reveal the tiny life forms found flourishing under the melting sea ice.
Filming small creatures is a huge challenge in any environment, requiring tiny specialist macro lenses focusing on minute subjects with complex lighting requirements. In this instance, the creatures were so small that the swell and current of the open ocean made them almost impossible for a camera team to follow and focus on.
So, with guidance from scientists, the team recreated a little bit of melting ocean in a laboratory in Svalbard. Their specially built sea water aquarium featured a system to circulate the water keeping the delicate little sea creatures buoyant.
Frozen Planet also had a challenge at the other end of the scale. They wanted to show a female polar bear in her birthing den with newborn cubs. Filming polar bears in the wild can be dangerous and requires careful planning, but capturing this behaviour posed greater practical issues for the team.
Their main concern was how to access a den in the snow in the wilds of an Arctic winter and ensure both the safety of the vulnerable cubs and the cameraman. Even if remote cameras were used, they would have to be installed. A captive breeding programme in an animal park seemed to offer a rare opportunity to see this intimate behaviour.
The team went to enormous lengths to prepare a den set within the polar bear enclosure, long before the birth. They rigged the den with remote cameras, and despite it being filmed in captivity, managed to record a beautiful, natural event.
The Burrowers: Chris Packham reveals how a specially-built studio enabled programme makers to film the secretive underground lives of British mammals in detail, from full-scale rabbit warrens to badger sets.