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Pairing Natural History and VFX Together in ‘Life on Our Planet’

Produced in partnership with ILM and narrated by Morgan Freeman, Netflix’s new documentary series uses the latest technology and science to resurrect creatures long extinct as it follows life’s epic battle to conquer and survive on planet earth. 

Over the course of the four-billion-year history of life on Earth, there have been five - and an impeding sixth - mass extinctions that are used to frame the narrative of the Silverback Films, Amblin Entertainment, and Netflix series, Life on Our Planet. Overseeing the eight episodes that chronicle the rise and fall of dynastic species is showrunner Dan Tapster; resurrecting long-lost creatures was left to visual effects supervisor Jonathan Privett and Industrial Light & Magic.

The documentary series follows Prehistoric Planet, where Apple, BBC, and MPC joined forces to recreate the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago. “We started in 2017, and it takes a long time to tell the story of life because of the four billion years span,” states Tapster.  “When we heard that Prehistoric Planet was commissioned around 2019, we were mostly excited because this showed that there is an appetite for the paleo-doc-type genre.  They were able to fast-track their process as there were fewer episodes and the focus was on one moment in time.  Prehistoric Planet has some nice stories. I liked how they used modern-day animals to get behavior out of the dinosaurs, and the animation was absolutely first-class.”

Silverback Films was founded by former members of the BBC Natural History Unit, Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey.  “I took a meeting in 2017 before leaving DNEG for ILM and the most exciting part of project was we were going to make it with the top wildlife filmmakers and shoot it in that exact style,” remarks Privett. “There wasn’t an element of filming it all like a drama at any point in time.  We rarely came off the 50-1000mm lens and were quite often beyond 300mm, which you just wouldn’t do in a drama.”  Conveying the proper size and scale required paying attention to the environmental details. “We did a lot of running around with rulers and measures and me or other people crawling on the ground being a Lystrosaurus or the tail of the T. rex.” Says Privett. “And obviously we used the experience of Jamie McPherson [cinematographer], who has spent his whole life filming creatures, so he has a good natural feel for how something would behave and where he would be to film it.  We didn’t do close and wide on the T. rex because if you were filming a huge, ferocious predator, one thing you don’t do is go and stand right next to it. You’d be eaten!”

The visual style is described by Tapster as being “time travel cinematography”.  “One of the goals of Life on Our Planet is to give context to the world that we see today, and because of that, we aim what we call ‘the lens of loop’ at modern day natural history trying to understand its backstory,” he states. “Because it has this marriage of natural history and visual effects, we wanted them to fit seamlessly alongside each other. Since natural history has a grammar, we had to impose that grammar on the visual effects with the idea that if you were going back in time to film something, let's imagine what that would actually be like. Not getting eaten and from a health and safety point of view?  How would you do it with the arsenal of cameras that we would use in modern day?  That made the visual effects challenging because they’re long close-up lingering shots.  J.P. might have preferred that we didn’t do it that way!”   

Natural history documentaries have a tradition of varying framerates depending on the animal and what it is doing at the time.  “The cheetah goes from 23 to 30 to 60 to 150 and everything in-between,” explains Tapster.  “But when we shot our background plates with that in mind, it didn’t work with visual effects.  It took you out of the moment and suddenly seemed wrong.”  Slow-motion shots were kept to the minimum.  “We did have more slow motion scheduled into the show when it was storyboarded, but we could never get it to look right,” reveals Privett.  “We scrapped the two or three significant bits that we had.”

Most of the visual effects photography was captured by Jamie McPherson; shooting took three years because the production tried to keep to one or two cinematographers.  The first visual effects shoot took place in October 2019 in Chile, and the last one was Summer 2022.  According to Tapster, “Jamie and J.P. led the visual effects team, and that took three years to film across all episodes. Meanwhile, the producers would look after the natural history, and that shoot went much more seamlessly. ‘When is the best time to shoot snow leopards?  We’ll go now.’ The two dovetailed, but the simple answer is that it was difficult!” 

Five different directors were competing for resources.  “We had this idea of being able to combine shoots,” notes Tapster.  “Someone wants to go to America for Deinonychus, so let’s combine with it this other episode that has to go to America for Anchisaurus. But that rarely worked out because of seasonality, as one person would want a scene in the spring with the bud bursts, but another would want it in the Fall with multicoloured leaves.  It was definitely challenging!”  A hybrid methodology was adopted that saw the techniques associated with animation and natural history working alongside each other.  “It's interesting what I learned from it not being based on a natural history world,” Privett says. “Natural history filmmakers go in with an idea of what they would like to tell, and then they film what happens and make the story afterwards from the rushes of whatever it was that happened. We were completely flipping that on its head for the CG bits because we were doing it like an animated feature, making storyboards and going, ‘This is exactly what we’re going to film.  We’re not going to shoot more than what we need because we don’t have the money for it.’ Those two components, although stylistically they were filmed in the same way, the actual approach to them couldn’t be more different.” 

Natural history documentaries require editing together what could be weeks of footage into segments mere minutes long, while animated segments have to be meticulously planned out beforehand, down to what are supposed to be accidental discoveries.  “There is a huge difference in the logistical operations,” observes Tapster.  “A typical natural history shoot is a camera operator and director going somewhere for three weeks, waiting, waiting, waiting, and getting everything in a short amount of time. On the visual effects side of things, you have to plan it, plan it, plan it, and go out with slightly bigger teams of around six people, and maybe go for 10 days.  There are two reasons why our shoots are quite long.  We still wanted the beautiful light that classically dictates natural history imagery.  We would arrive at a location with a set of storyboards and then start interpreting the landscape. With our years of experience with natural history, where would the animals come out, stop, and scratch?  That is a time-consuming process.  But in terms of the luck of natural history, we did try to incorporate that into our storyboards.” 

Previous documentaries were watched to provide inspiration. “Some of what came out of that was that maybe things aren’t framed 100 percent beautifully,” states Privett.  “Maybe there is a bush that obscures where the action is.  We did try hard to do that in the storytelling.” 

Episode 107 demonstrates the idea of embracing accidental moments, even with the CG characters. Tapster explains, “We follow this story of a male Megacerops who has to try to find a partner but is like a new kid on the block. There is a moment when he just has enough confidence to follow a female and gets blindsided by this other male.  If we were perfecting the storyboard, you would have seen that male coming, cut wide and show the whole thing, whereas instead we’re on the loser male, the camera does a tiny creep but almost imperceivably small to the right as he gets blindsided.  It’s like the cameraman suddenly thought, ‘Shit! Something is happening.’ And starts to adjust, but like all good natural history camera operators, it doesn’t adjust in a crazy way.  Rather, they have this tendency to be Zen because if they act too quickly, their camera movement will spoil the shot.  It was those little moments that we tried to get in.  But also, I should give a special shoutout to J.P. and his team [at ILM] because they became natural history gurus and kept putting things in.  We didn’t ask them to. There is a great bit in the cave lion scene where the cave lion roars. It just does a stretch before leaving the cave. They developed such a great understanding of the natural history way.  Putting those sorts of behaviors, or the ear flick of a Smilodon or when the Smilodon nicks the shell of the big armadillo thing, all those moments were about bringing that sort of realism into it.”     

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.