Wander the world with wide-eyed wonder from the ease of your armchair, as Our Planet II, an inspiring new Netflix four-episode docuseries (premieres June 14), unveils answers to mysteries about why and how billions of animals relentlessly migrate — phenomenal travel adventures that have criss-crossed our globe for millennia. Silverback Films and its Emmy Award-winning team behind Planet Earth and Our Planet dazzle once again with gorgeous swoop-and-soar, dive-and-discover, cutting-edge cinematography, which showcases intimate storylines that are pulse-racing, perilous, enlightening, tender and joyful. “Only now are we beginning to understand that all life on Earth depends on the freedom to move,” declares narrator Sir David Attenborough, British author, biologist, broadcaster and natural historian, whose famously gold-standard soothing voice resonates. “Experience the extraordinary journeys that shape our world,” he invites. “For many animals, the instinct to move is overwhelming, despite the dangers. But for every trip that ends in tragedy, countless millions reach their destination.” This is an opportunity to peek at far-flung getaways and creatures that you might otherwise never see. Orchestrating this ambitious project, the program’s crew touched down in 21 countries on seven continents, tallying up 934 filming days, 292 travel days and 85 quarantine days. More than 200 people were involved in creating the show, including 50 camera operators. Special kudos to music composers Jasha Klebe and Thomas Farnon, who have scored stellar high notes for this production; the official soundtrack (released June 14) is available to stream/download on Amazon and other major digital music services. Series Producer Huw Cordey and Executive Producer Keith Scholey share their personal behind-the-scenes insights below.
Four thematic narratives — World on the Move, Following the Sun, The Next Generation and Freedom to Roam — weave this extravaganza together. Each episode covers three months of Earth’s orbit, celebrating key animal movements. At every hour of every day, astonishing masses of animals — gigantic and minuscule; in the air, on the ground, throughout the seas — are guided by instinct, sun position and a compass-like mental-mapping agility that is intrinsic to their essence, replicating the same often arduous routes that their ancestors followed eons ago, seeking havens to eat, drink, breed, give birth and secure safety. Each episode culminates with a cliffhanger.
Elegant drone shots record landscapes’ grandeur, as well as ride the skies alongside flocks of birds, so proximate that you can stare at their eyes and almost sense the air currents uplifting their wings. Newly advanced low-light camera technology now makes possible documentation of night activities and the infiltration of darkest rainforest hideaways. Underwater camera submergence spotlights splashy revelations.
For travel lovers, destinations abound. Among the favorites: lions and buffalo in Botswana; humpback whales in the Bering Sea; Laysan albatross and tiger sharks in the Northern Hawaiian Islands; lions, zebras and wildebeests in Tanzania’s Serengeti; rarely seen Tawaki penguins in Fiordland, New Zealand; elusive pumas in Patagonia; nesting turtles on Mexico’s Escobilla Beach; elephant seals in the Falkland Islands; Gentoo penguins in Antarctica; gray whales off the coasts of California and Mexico; orcas (killer whales) hunting in California’s Monterey Bay and, in the Himalayas, Demoiselle cranes that forge the most strenuous migration of any bird species, navigating at heights of almost five miles above sea level over the stupendous Asian mountain range and continuing across the desolate Gobi Desert in Mongolia before wintering in Khichan, India, where villagers kindly welcome them.
Understanding The Importance of Migration
Huw Cordey, Series Producer: “The integrity of every habitat is dependent on the animals moving in and out of it, particularly those in the more Northern and Southern parts of our planet. But, even in jungles along the Equator, you have animals moving very large distances. Movement is absolutely fundamental to every single habitat on Earth.”
Keith Scholey, Executive Producer: “It’s also about the life cycles of animals, and how crazy they sometimes are. The journey of the sockeye salmon is familiar, but I think a lot of people don’t realize that they are actually programmed to breed and die. They spend their life as an ocean fish until that one journey up the river.”
Embracing a Team Spirit
Scholey: “The scientists in the field, the ones who live in these remote places, are the people who know those stories. We are totally dependent upon their knowledge and their skills. Once we actually get on location, our experienced producers, directors and cinematographers can jump in and choose which of those stories to follow.”
Cordey: “That’s why I don’t believe in storyboards for wildlife films. It’s not that we don’t think very carefully about the sequences that we’re going to film, but if you go into a shoot with a storyboard, you will miss important things. Animals don’t read scripts. They do unexpected things and you have to be prepared. I try to get my teams to tear up the shot list at the airport. But we can’t make films without the scientists, or at least the scientific information that they provide.”
Scholey: “When that perfect combination of scientists and filmmakers come together, it’s really powerful. Sometimes the scientists even look at our footage and say, ‘Wow, I never knew that. That’s really helpful.’”
Cordey: “Obviously this is an entertainment series, and we do need to get the big iconic animals in there. But while the audience might come to it for polar bears and lions, I always think the things they remember are the smaller stories. Locusts, for example. Christmas Island crablets. When it comes to migrating animals, some of the best stories are birds, because of the distances they travel. We tried to use a balanced approach, and keep in mind that some shoots won’t work out the way we hoped they would. Although I have to say that for a project that was three years in the making, covering many different species across every single continent, there was very little that didn’t work out – which is, in my experience, quite unusual. I think we got a little lucky with some of the stories, but our research was also very good.”
Excelling at Exciting Film Advances
Cordey: “Nighttime and drone technology have vastly improved in the last five years. Macro technology, too – there are some very, very innovative macro lenses out there. Our bee shoot is a good example of a very special grip. It was designed by the cameraman that shot the bee story, and the whole shoot was probably a year in the planning. We were working with some very experienced beekeepers in Germany, as well as a photographer who has done an amazing book on bees and a scientist who had been studying bees for years. That was a classic example of where we’re dipping into years of experience to try to film the very best sequence we possibly can.”
Surprising With Spectacular Animal Stories
Cordey: “In the case of the Laysan albatross, we had the rare opportunity to spend almost the entire shoot following the trials and tribulations of a single chick. There it was — this big, chunky chick — and we could just stick with it for six weeks. The shoot itself was very interesting: It took six days to sail there from Hawaii, and I believe we are the first natural history series to film the maiden flight of a Laysan albatross. They’re the longest-lived birds of all, and they take this enormous journey around the planet for years before they breed for the first time. The original idea was to do an underwater shoot with the tiger sharks waiting in the shallows at Laysan, but the first day the tiger sharks were around, the crew got into these inflatable boats — and two sharks attacked them. It was like something out of Jaws. The crew was panicked, and basically made an emergency landing on the sand.”
Talking About The Impact of Climate Change
Cordey: “The changing world is very noticeable at the poles, the ends of the world. We were on a boat in the Arctic for a month, and our sightings of polar bears were virtually nil. We got [an] amazing sequence in the last 48 hours — the crew came across that mother and her two cubs and they were immediately on it. The audience is almost seeing it unfold in real time. The polar bear mother climbs on the island, followed by one cub, and the second cub just couldn’t do it. There were hardened Arctic watchers on that boat who were in tears, because they thought it was just so sad…. In the narration, I think David [Attenborough] handles it very well, because he tells you what’s going on. But as is always the way with David, he doesn’t push it. He just says, ‘Look, this is how it is.’ Where we witness unsettling scenes, we think sometimes you have to show the audience for them to really understand. It’s a delicate balance though, across the whole show. I think we have a duty of care.”
Cordey: “Animals move for a better life. As climate change makes things more difficult, the need to move is even greater. Of course, there’s a huge analogy there with humans, and it’s pretty understandable. If you grow up in a place where you can barely grow food to feed your family, you’re going to want to move.”
Scholey: “The underlying environmental story of Our Planet II is that to have a healthy planet, you can’t have borders. You have to let life roam. We as humans like to divide the world. We like to have territory and we like to protect our borders and stop movement. We have to use our intelligence to look at the natural world and compensate for this tendency of ours, if we want to actually allow the natural world to function. Because so many ecosystems on which we ultimately rely for our agricultural health need to have this movement of nature.”
Balancing Tourism and Conservation
Scholey: “Through my career, I’ve seen this really interesting scenario happen with the natural world. The big picture is that habitats are being destroyed, and there is less wildlife in the world than when I started. So that’s the downside. The upside is that there have been more people studying the natural world, and in some places, there has been intense conservation. That has led to two things: more knowledge, but actually more habituation.”
Cordey: “Places that become more protected get tourism, and through tourism, animals become more used to humans. They don’t see us as a threat. But it is the most extraordinary thing to get that close to a large, dangerous predator on foot, like a puma. That’s the most surprising thing. The crew did come across a male puma that was on a kill. It wasn’t one of the habituated animals, and he looked extraordinarily angry. They had to back off really, really quickly. So it’s not the species, it’s individuals.”