Sunday, March 20, 2011

Human Planet - Arctic: Life In The Deep Freeze - 7:30pm Sunday, March 20 2011 on ABC TV

Human Planet

About The Program

Narrated by John Hurt and following in the footsteps of Planet Earth and Life, this epic eight-part blockbuster is a breathtaking celebration of the amazing, complex, profound and sometimes challenging relationship between humankind and nature.

Humans are the ultimate animals - the most successful species on the planet. From the frozen Arctic to steamy rainforests, from tiny islands in vast oceans to parched deserts, people have found remarkable ways to adapt and survive in the harshest environments imaginable.

We've done this by harnessing our immense courage and ingenuity; learning to live with and utilise the other creatures that share these wild places. Human Planet weaves together eight inspiring episodes, set to a globally-influenced soundtrack by award-winning composer Nitin Sawhney.

Each week the series focuses on a particular habitat and reveals how its people have created astonishing solutions in the face of extreme adversity. In episode one - Arctic, the temperature is sixty degrees below zero. It is the harshest environment on Earth, yet four million people manage to survive in the Arctic. This film follows a year in the human freezer.

In the final episode we visit the urban jungle, where most of us now live, and discover why here the connection between humanity and nature is the most vital of all.
more program information (don't miss these short video clips)

Talking Human Planet with Brian Leith

Events of the past few days are a potent reminder that, no matter how much we've created our own steel and cement environments, nature is still a very fundamental part of human existence. 

This coming Sunday, a spectacular new series, Human Planet, will celebrated the amazing, complex and sometimes challenging relationship between humankind and nature. Narrated by John Hurt, each episode focuses on a particular habitat, starting up north in the Arctic. 

We spoke to its Exectuve Producer Brian Leith about the inspiration behind Human Planet, some rather precarious encounters, and us puny humans are a remarkable species.

What was the inspiration behind creating Human Planet?

I guess the Natural History Unit here at BBC had already made some big, impressive wild life series, such as Life, Planet Earth and The Blue Planet. We became increasingly aware that we'd been ignoring humans, people. So, we decided to turn our cameras around and feature them.
So often, too, human beings are portrayed as pollutants on the planet, as a menace.
We wanted to show how human beings really are an exceptional and unique species - we're the only ones to have adapted to every habitat.

How long did it take to make?

I was brought on as executive producer three years ago. Before then, the original intention was to approach the task by taking an anthropological approach. The unit realised this was a complex and potentially huge task.
I was brought on to give the concept a focus, and that focus became the relationship between humankind and nature.
Filming took around two years, in 80 locations across the world.

From rugged cliffs in Galicia, Spain, African grasslands home to prowling leopards to sulphur pits in Indonesia, Human Planet takes us to some spectacularly precarious places. Was there a particularly treacherous shoot?

The scene that's really captured people's imaginations was in Greenland. In one region, the Inuit venture beneath sea ice in Spring to harvest mussels and cockles. At low tide, the sea water recedes and the sea ice drops 40ft. The Inuit go beneath the ice to harvest the marine life.
It's pretty dangerous because the tides comes back after 30 minutes, and if you get stuck you're basically lost. It was eerily frightening beneath the ice - quiet and terrifying.

What was it like working with local communities and establishing trust with them? How long would you spend with them? Were there any times where that was difficult or challenging?

There are a lot of challenging and funny stories - we found ourselves in some pretty interesting situations!
For the jungle episode, we filmed the building of a treehouse. Afterwards, they were invited to join the locals for a celebratory meal 100ft up. The team were expect to eat all the food, sago grubs included.

I understand that the series actually contains a few 'filming firsts'. Can you give an example of one.

Well, a few filming firsts as far as we know.
One of the most dramatic was our footage of an uncontacted tribe in Brazil. A contact knew the location of the tribe, so we chartered an aeroplane to fly over the location in one of the remotest parts of The Amazon.
To our knowledge, it was the first time the tribe had been filmed.
It was very spooky to see these people peering up at us in our plane. One of the guys in the tribe had his bow-and-arrow poised as if he was pointing it at us. They'd have no conception of what an aeroplane is.

The series is full of some incredible stories and moments, so this might be a difficult question. What was your favourite?

To be honest, my favourite moment was the mussel harvest by the Inuits in Greenland.
Another wonderful moment, was when the team filmed a guy climbing 120m up a tree to get honey at the top. He was making his way up with nothing but a liana vine and chatting as he climbed. He was explaining how his wife had been nagging him to get some honey.
It was amazing - he was taking his life into his own hands, without assistance or safety ropes.
When you watch the episode, there's an incredible tracking shot as he climbs the tree. Unlike the climber, the crew had all sorts of safety equipment and requirements. It was a really funny clash of cultures.
[Video below: Brian talks us through the Inuit mussel harvest.]

Nitin Sawnhey is the composer. Why was he chosen and what does a soundtrack add?

The soundtrack is very, very important in terms of setting the mood and tone.
There are moments full of jeopardy and danger, and the music really sets the tone for these.
Music also expresses other things. We decided we didn't want to paint humans as the 'good guys' or the 'bad guys' - we had to enjoy moments of humour, irony and warmth. The music had to express all these too.
The soundtrack is critical to a good documentary, and Nitin was a wonderful and sensitive composer for the series.

Human Planet is on par with the David Attenborough Life series, the BBC's series The Planet - all immensely popular series. What is it about these productions that's so popular do you think?

All together these kinds of series show us remarkable moments, glimpses of other worlds,
Human Planet touches a different nerve, one that's really struck a chord here in the UK. The series has been enormously popular, especially amongst a young audience, because we're all a little fed up with having the finger wagged at us as if we're the baddies.
This series celebrates humans without judgment, and it allows us to enjoy seeing humans use nature. Us humans are shown to be a natural part of nature, which is a refreshing change.

Global warming, ocean acidification, overfishing - did any communities notice changes in their environment in recent years?

For sure. One really good example was when we were filming an Inuit narwhal hunt in the Arctic.
We were filming in April/May, and the Inuit told us they were beginning to feel the effects of climate change, with the ice melting much faster than expected for that time of the year.
We got caught in a rather dramatic moment when the crew got stuck on a huge ice flow that had become separated. As they tried to get off, the Inuit very quickly realised the danger they were in. One of them stuck his hand over the camera lens and told us to stop filming.
These people live on the ice and when they begin to get worried, you know you're in trouble.

Now all of the episodes look at how humans adapt to different natural environments - bar one, which looks at cities. How much have we, living in the cities, become detached from the environment, and those parts of ourselves that are about adapting?

The worrying thing is that if you spend your life in cities, you become almost entirely removed from nature - you lose track living in a world where meat comes in a wrapped package from a supermarket.
It's kind of dangerous because, at the same time, we in the cities depend on wild nature more than ever.
I think the very things that have enabled us to survive in the past - our ability to communicate and our social nature - will be a really big solution to our problems. We begin working towards a solution by realising the problems out there, that we've caused them and that we need to act.

We often cast ourselves as villains when it comes to the environment. After being involved in this series, what do you admire most about human beings?

How audacious and bold we are. Whether it's climbing trees or diving into the depths of the oceans, it's the sheer bravery that's most remarkable.

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