September 24, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

We met up with Ed Charles at the Natural History Unit to discuss deserts and making the sequel to 'Planet Earth'.

Like most of us, I have spent hours in a zombie trance watching Sir David Attenborough as he winds his way through the natural world. Behind Sir David however, are vast swathes of filmmaking professionals who work together to source, shoot and edit the incredible wildlife films we see on our screens at home. Last week, we met up with Ed Charles, a producer at the BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU) in Bristol to find out about locust swarms, unsafe locations, and making the sequel to ‘Planet Earth’…

cactus in desertCan you tell our readers about your role at the moment?

I’m a producer specialising in wildlife television, currently at the NHU. I work on large scale ‘blue chip’ shows without a presenter, 3 years in the making, that kind of thing. We’ve actually just finished filming ‘One Planet’, though it might be called ‘Planet Earth 2’, and we’re now in the edit, which is the fun bit really. I mean, obviously going off and going around the world shooting is really fun, but we’re in the creative bit now where we get to craft the film that we’ve been making and working towards for the last 3 years. Plus, we get to sit in a room and drink tea and eat biscuits which is always nice.

Of course, who can say no to biscuits. So, as a wildlife film producer are you on location a lot?

Yes, we all have a team working on the show so generally there’ll be a producer, an assistant producer and a researcher and you’ll divide up the shoots between you. Producers generally go away quite a lot because though many people work to shape a show, ultimately it’s our responsibility to come up with the goods. It sounds glamorous but when you go away five or six weeks on the trot and you do that six or seven times a year it’s pretty exhausting, but I’m not going to complain, it’s amazing!

It really sounds it! So how many producers will be on something like ‘One Planet’?

So the series I’m working on at the moment is a little bit different- we have got one producer doing one show each which is quite unusual but done very deliberately because it meant that we could really focus on one episode and just put our heart and soul into it which has been great.

Which was the show that you were involved in?

I’m making the ‘deserts’ show at the moment.

 What’s it like as an environment to shoot in, is it pretty tough?

It’s brilliant. I mean, it sounds stupid- it’s very hot! In wildlife filmmaking you tend lose at least a third of your time to bad weather but there’s always blue sky in the desert, which is great. There are a few deserts around the world which are quite politically unstable though. We found a fantastic story in Niger, for example, but I couldn’t sanction a trip there because we would have needed armed guards and the risk of kidnapping meant it was understandably not worth it.

So have you ever had any disaster shoots?

I haven’t had any complete clangers that haven’t worked but I did a shoot on locust swarms in Madagascar, an incredibly tough place to work, it’s a very poor nation and it was one of those shoots where every single thing that could go wrong did go wrong, but we kept going and eventually we got right in the heart of this massive swarm with a couple of billion locusts and it was amazing.

Given what rests on a shoot like that, it must be very frustrating when you don’t get the shot you need…

That is one of the main difficulties with wildlife filmmaking- animals don’t read scripts! It’s a real problem because you go out with a very specific story in mind and either the animals aren’t doing what you need them to do or the weather doesn’t co-operate… and those are the shoots where you earn your money because you either somehow make it work, or you try and come up with another story completely off the bat, which is not easy.

two burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) adult and baby
Tricky customer: a burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia)

Who’s been a tricky customer then?

A burrowing owl! We went out to film one and it wasn’t there! Luckily, we found some swift foxes, which were amazing so we switched our focus and came back with a sequence on that.


So ideally you go on location with the stories already laid out?

Yes ideally. I have to wear a lot of hats being a producer- it’s part travel agent, part logistical nightmare, the creative side of it is actually a relatively small part of the job, but certainly, before we start filming we watch films that have been made before, find out who the lead scientists are who are working in a particular field like desert ecology, work out what the key species are. The main thing we’re looking for is new stories, that’s the holy grail of all wildlife filmmaking is trying to find something new, which is harder and harder, the more TV is put out there! So I look at the individual sequences which are going to make up the film and then try and work out how we’re going to weave those together to tell (the audience) about what it’s like to live in a desert so before I go out I know what the sequences are and how they’re going to fit into the story and what we’re trying to say over each of those sequences. As I say, it doesn’t always work out but by and large, that’s what we try and do.

 Do you think we’ll run out of stories?

We’re not running out just yet, certainly the ratio of new stuff is getting smaller but the science community is our biggest ally, without scientists and contributors giving us information, helping us get the shots and putting us in the right place, we would be scuppered.

And is there any sort of protection of the stories you uncover given that it can take years to get the shots?

There are a lot of independent companies out there and, by and large, whoever finds the stories and gets in touch first will get the ‘rights’ as it were, but it depends on the scientists and the contributors. We have a story in our film which was only described very recently and we worked with a team of Israeli scientists and scientists based in the University of Bristol, and they are giving us exclusivity. We don’t own the rights to that story, we don’t own the animal or the behaviour so to be given exclusivity is fantastic.

Plus, it gives you the time to film it!

Yes, because if a film is 3 or 4 years in the making, we run the risk of going out shooting something which has never been done before and if someone else has a quick turn around and goes and shoots it then they can beat us to the mark.

A camera attached to a helicopter
A camera attached to a helicopter-an example of what can now be used to capture stunning shots from the air.

And with the advent of new technology like drones for example, you must have the capability to film even stuff we’ve seen before in a fresh way.  

Yes absolutely and I think that’s one of the things that’s really helped in the series I’m working on. There’s been a revolution in technology, drones have revolutionised the way we can do a lot of stuff, as have MOVis which act like steady cams but are very lightweight and cheap. Stories that were done for ‘Life of Birds’ for example, almost 15 years ago, we can film again but bring a totally new feel to it.

How long were you shooting ‘deserts’ for?

On and off for 2 years!

And presumably you have to be quite prescriptive about the kit you can take with you?

We have to be pretty prescriptive. As a producer I’m in charge of the purse strings so that is a big factor.

So that’s your responsibility…?

Yes, it’s my job to bring the film in on budget, I have to look at the kit we might want to take because you have to rent the kit, or purchase it, excess baggage is phenomenal, in extreme cases it might be a ton of kit to each location for a 2 or 3 week shoot, so although it’s nice to take all the toys, you have to be realistic about what we’re actually going to use and which ones are going to deliver shots in an exciting way.

Is there a producer there for every shoot that you do?

Mostly but not always, occasionally you might send a cameraman out on their own if it’s somewhere they’ve been before or its it’s local to where they’ve live. We’ve got a cameraman who lives just outside Yellowstone and he’s doing a shoot for the ‘mountains’ show on his own because he knows the place like the back of his hand. By and large though, there’s always someone from production to help steer it.

Do you ever get behind the camera?

Yeah I do shoot every now and then, I wouldn’t want to do first camera because I know I’d mess it up but I do second camera which can be helpful because for a behaviour that happens very rarely, it means you’ve got 2 cameras shooting the same thing, so you’re doubling your output!

Sophie Walsh is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

‘One Planet’ is due to be screened on BBC1 later this year

Images: desert ilyshev ; burrowing owl Mauricio S Ferreira; drone Alexander Kolomietz