Sharks, Drones, and Nauticams: What It's Like to Shoot Netflix's 'Our Planet'
'Our Planet' cinematographer Doug Anderson reveals what it took to get some of the series' most iconic shots.
Netflix's Our Planet is one of the most spectacular nature series ever attempted. For one, each episode ends with a sobering call to action that implicates humanity in climate change. Each episode's awe-inspiring scenes play almost as if they are elegies to a disappearing natural world. When we learn that almost all of the biodiversity onscreen is threatened, if not irrevocably damaged, by global warming, the series assumes a tenor that distinguishes it from Planet Earth and other wildlife shows.
But the series is also incomparable when it comes to the sheer craft and artistry of the filmmaking. Our Planet was famously four years in the making, filmed in 50 countries with more than 600 crew members. Each unit boasted some of the most skilled professionals in the industry—including Doug Anderson, one of the most renowned underwater wildlife cinematographers in the world.
Anderson studied Marine Biology in college, and went on to spend five years as a commercial scallop diver on the Scottish west coast. When he decided he wanted to get into wildlife cinematography, Anderson moved to Bristol, home of the BBC Natural History Unit. In 1999, after four years of camera assisting, Anderson shot his first sequence for BBC’s The Blue Planet series. (He captured a Bryde’s whale feeding on a small bait ball off the Pacific coast of Mexico.) Since then, he has shot more sequences of The Blue Planet, along with Planet Earth, Life, and Frozen Planet. For Netflix's Our Planet, he shot four challenging episodes that involved dangerous diving expeditions and trips to remote ice floes in Antarctica.
No Film School caught up with Anderson to discuss his complex rig, ensuring safety in extremely dangerous situations, the realities of a career in wildlife cinematography, and more.
No Film School: Which episodes of Our Planet did you work on?
Doug Anderson: I worked on sequences that made up part of the "Freshwater," "High Seas," "Coastal Seas," and "Frozen Worlds."
NFS: Of those episodes, what were some of the most challenging sequences to shoot?
Anderson: I suppose different sequences are challenging in different ways. But, probably, two sequences that stand out would be shooting the Grey Reef Shark sequence at night, and probably shooting the narwhal in the Canadian Arctic. That was challenging underwater photography, but mostly it required a topside effort in terms of using helicopters and getting across the sea ice.
"The first night I was in the water, I got bit on the leg by a shark. They seemed to really like my flippers. Every time I kicked too fast, I'd get a shark coming in and clamping onto my calf and giving me a good shake."
Anderson: With the shark sequence, I was trying to make the way that we wanted to film it safe because the chance of us getting bitten by sharks was really high. That was probably the sequence where we had the most ongoing and in-depth conversations about safety and how it related to filming. We knew that we wanted to get into a place where those sharks bite each other in a very frenzied feeding event on the reef at night. We wanted to get in there with the camera, but also we wanted to light it in the best way possible.
The problem with the place where sharks hunt is that there's a lot of current there. We wanted to film it on the incoming tides, where the freshwater from the ocean was coming into the lagoon. And sharks are at their most active at night. So, solving those two problems was the key to coming back safely, and with a successful sequence.
Underwater, we wanted to use re-breathers for the sequence. They don't blow bubbles, which is great because often animals are sensitive to bubbles, and also it makes our underwater communications worse when we have to exhale bubbles. Also, we wanted to use them because we're working in such a high current situation, so the amount of air that we get is really high. It's a bit of a workout, and with the re-breather, you have much more available gas than you would if you're exhaling the bubbles, like with normal scuba gear.
"You're often faced with what looks like insurmountable odds in terms of what can be achieved in the time that you have."
But one of the things we were really worried about is what would happen if our re-breathers flooded or got bitten [by a shark]. We wanted to wear chainmail suits underwater, which are super heavy. We realized that if we lost buoyancy in either the buoyancy control device or a re-breather, then we'd be too heavy to come up. So we actually had to add some weird things to our gear, like having to take the lead out of our weight belt pockets and fill those with special foam. That works really well under water at pressure. It's called syntactic foam. It adds buoyancy rather than weight.
There were about four times more emails for this sequence than any other in terms of safety. We ended up with diving equipment that we felt would be safe to use amongst the sharks, and would protect us not only from being bitten on our bodies but also from being bitten in either the re-breather or our buoyancy control devices. That way, we could still come up if we had a major hemorrhage or something.
I'm really glad we had these safety conversations beforehand because the first night I was in the water, I got bit on the leg by a shark. And then we got a proper bite on the arm or the leg probably once every second or third night we were filming. The sharks seemed to like my flippers. Every time I kicked too fast, I'd get a shark coming in and clamping onto my calf and giving me a good shake. It really is quite an experience, but you get used to it.
NFS: Wow. I can't believe you can get used to being bitten by sharks.
Anderson: Yeah, weirdly. I mean, to be honest, Kathryn Brown, the underwater camera assistant, had the hardest job. Every now and then the sharks would just hammer into her lighting rig. Kat was just so cool. She absolutely kicked ass on that project.
NFS: Since you were shooting at night, how did you light those sequences?
Anderson: We wanted to use a pretty big lighting spread. We used Orca lights, these 300-watt LED lights. And we used 4 of them. Trouble is, they're really, really heavy, and my diving assistant, Kathryn Brown, literally wouldn't have been able to hold all the lights and swim into the current and keep the lighting steady. The way we solved it was by putting all of the battery packs and the lighting on an underwater scooter. It looks a bit like a 4-foot torpedo. It's got a big, long, torpedo-shaped cone, and then a propeller at the other end. We hung the lights underneath that thing and balanced it all so it's level. Kat used this propeller-driven lighting rig to keep the lights super steady and on the action for as long as she could.
It became a bit of an effort! There were actually two teams working on the project. There was me and Kat, and then a French team did some of the nights as well—a guy called Dennis Lestrange, who had a lighting technician named Gretchen.
"On the underwater stuff, we ended up using Nauticam domes and flat ports and super-macro converters on the Gates housing."
NFS: When you shot at night underwater with the sharks, what was the rest of your rig like?
Anderson: We were shooting on an old RED Dragon body. The shoot was just before the new DM6—you know, the new RED cameras—came out, and particularly Gemini. If we had the Gemini, then we would certainly have used it on that shoot for its native ISO. We were running around 800 to 1200 ISO on the Dragon with the H20 OLPF, and then three lenses on my camera. We used the 1342 standard Nikon lenses, 14-24mm, and the 24-70mm at f2.8 behind the Nauticam 10” dome.
We used an ancient 13mm Nikonos lens from an old Nikon that had a DSLR underwater system. I think that one had 13mm fish-eye at 18mm aspheric, which they made very few of, and then a 20-35mm and maybe a longer one. The 13mm is the really nice lens for a wide angle for underwater, where there's very little light. Even a very good dome lens setup tends to soften a little towards the edge of the frame when you're wide open. As long as they're properly set up, the lens and the dome works pretty well above f11, but when you get into that kind of darkness, then you can start getting pretty soft on the edges. And the 13mm Nikonos lenses absolutely come sharp right up to the edge, even wide open. So we used that for a wee bit of the wides. We shot lots of it on the 24-70mm.
Anderson: We used Gates housing. Gates is an American company based in San Diego and they make really nice, borderline agricultural but extremely reliable underwater housings. We had a little adapter made so we could use the Nauticam domes. Gates have a pretty nice suite of domes and flat ports, but Nauticam had a few bits and pieces that we wanted to use in this project.
So, on the underwater stuff, we ended up using Nauticam domes and flat ports and super-macro converters on the Gates housing. And we were view-finding with a TVLogic 58, I think.
NFS: Was this rig pretty consistent with what you used to shoot sequences from the other episodes as well?
Anderson: Yeah. I only used one rig on this series, and that was a rig that we purchased and kind of developed through the company that makes the series, Silverback Ltd, in Bristol. We had meetings at the beginning of the project and kind of came with an idea of what we'd like to try and achieve from the photography, and then put a rig together with an underwater housing and camera kit for the project. I pretty much used it all the way through.
"When we're thinking about a good photography sequence, it's in simple terms of the logistics—getting in the right space for long enough to achieve what you want to achieve."
NFS: For sequences like the Grey Reef Sharks, how many days do you shoot for?
Anderson: The shark sequence was 21 days actually on location, and then a couple of days travel on either side of it.
NFS: Is that similar for the other episodes?
Anderson: No, it really depends where you're going. For wildlife filming, if there's any rule of thumb, it tends to be that the trips are longer to places that are difficult or expensive to get to. So if you're working down in the Antarctic, then you might want to be there for longer and try to achieve more. Antarctic trips are commonly six to nine weeks, whereas more often than not, the sort of diving trips that I get involved with are two and a half to four weeks. Out of that, usually, you're hoping to come away with one or two complete sequences, or one and parts of another sequence. So you're looking at somewhere between three and seven minutes of finished television.
NFS: Are there any sequences from the other episodes that stood out to you as being specifically challenging from a cinematography standpoint, artistically?
Anderson: You know, the interesting thing about wildlife filming is it takes so much effort getting yourself to the places. So you want to try and film for as long as possible, and then the photography will come. So, often, when we're thinking about a good photography sequence, it's in simple terms of just the logistics—getting in the right space for long enough to achieve what you want to achieve.
Anderson: Something I was really impressed with in the series was the use of drones. Drone pilot Hector Skevington-Postles worked on the sequences with us, like the blue-fin tuna sequence, and I was just absolutely amazed at the skill of the pilots with this new equipment. It was mostly from DJI—they run into IBM the Inspire 2, I think. It was just incredible the way that the guys just have jumped on this new tech and now they have incredibly high skill sets in it.
For that blue-fin tuna sequence, I was sort of view-finding for Hector, just making sure that the basic parameters of the photography were okay, like the exposure and sharpness, while Hector was concentrating on everything else. He was flying that drone so far away from the boat that we couldn't see it. He'd literally have to just go up and pan the camera around to try and find the spec of the boat in the distance. He'd fly back literally using the viewfinder on the camera to tell where he was.
Jamie McPherson really developed the use of the GSS Heligimbal on other platforms apart from helicopters. That came through in the episode "The Hunt," another Silverback production, where Jamie really pushed the envelope in terms of sticking that thing on four-wheel drives. Jamie made a rig for an elephant!
I trained up on the Cineflex for the series and used it mostly on boats—you know, building a big jib on a boat and then having the Cineflex. That gave us the potential for that high cliff photography where you can get the ball of the camera very low and incredibly stable. It was super exciting.
"The Cineflex was probably the most demanding to operate on a photography level."
The Cineflex was probably the most demanding to operate on a photography level, partly because it's really hard to keep things sharp when everything is moving. You're going one way, and the boat's going the other—that sort of thing. The gimbals are incredibly complicated. We had just such trouble keeping these things running in environments and locations and platforms they worked well in but really weren't designed for.
NFS: How many people are on a crew, normally? For example, on the blue-fin tuna shoot?
Anderson: Our crews are reasonably small. My doc team is about four. Usually, for our diving projects, we're bringing to the field with somewhere between two and four people, depending on what the project is. Often, we get support from people on location who slot in supervisors and boat drivers and sometimes even divers.
NFS: That's pretty nimble.
Anderson: Yeah. It's all about time. Having worked in this field for long enough, it's all about keeping people in the field for as long as you can. Lots of the budget goes on the wages of the people involved. That's a major difference between what we do and what other people have the opportunity to do. We just get so much time. We get to really understand and then pick out these behaviors and often photograph them in different ways that haven't been done before. And that's really what I think the producers are looking for—new behaviors, done differently. That is really what an audience wants, too.
NFS: Can you remember an instance on the series where you were looking for a specific new behavior, and it required you to be really patient in the field? Maybe frustratingly so?
Anderson: It's probably anything in the open ocean—anything that we would describe as an offshore filming event. For us, that would be things like the tuna in California, bait bowls with multiple predators hitting a shoal of fish, or the sequence that we did on narwhals up in the Canadian Arctic when we were working under the sea ice.
Often, these types of jobs come down to really two or three good days in a month. Each one of the days, you might be looking at maybe as little as 15 minutes with your subject. So that really is the constant—if you can put a team with the right skill sets on location for long enough, you're giving yourself the best chance to get what you want.
"Then, it just stops. The predators leave, and you're looking at an empty ocean again. It's the most bewildering experience."
The narwhal shoot's a pretty good example. That sequence wasn't really behavior, per se, apart from trying to get this incredible animal in a location that makes sense from the point of view of the narrative. Sophie [Lanfear, the director] was really keen to see the narwhal right on the sea ice floe edge. That was a team of five, plus Inuit crew on the sea ice, for a month in Admiralty Inlet, on the top end of Baffin Island, working the receding floe edge.
The photography that we got underwater came down to really one 24-hour event, when we had the narwhal in the right place and the right mood. Of those 24 hours, we maybe had half an hour where it was really good. And then it was done. It's over. The behavior just evaporates.
And the weird thing is, you want it to stop! You feel like it's never going to end, even though you've been waiting for, like, four weeks for it to start in the first place. Then, it just stops. The predators leave, or the narwhal leaves, and you're looking at an empty ocean again. It's the most bewildering experience.
NFS: Many aspiring cinematographers might be tempted to romanticize your job because it's so exciting—you get to travel, there are a lot of really unique challenges. What would you say to somebody about the realities of what you do, both the good and the bad, that might influence their decision to pursue this path?
Anderson: It's been an incredible trip for me. I've loved it. I mean, it's a job, for sure, and I treat it like a job. I really value my time off. It is demanding—especially diving projects. You get so tired. You're often faced with what looks like insurmountable odds in terms of what can be achieved in the time that you have. But I think I have learned to deal with the pressure better over the years.
Mostly, this job is about problem-solving. And when the action happens, remembering the art. Even before you go on location, you're just solving problem after problem after problem, and you just feel like these list of problems is never going to end. Eventually, you solve enough problems to get yourself in the right place at the right time with the animals doing what you want them to do. Then, you've just got to switch over to your right brain and just create. You have to remember the photography, the principles of it—composition, sequence, story, everything else. And then that'll switch off and it's back to problem-solving.
"Mostly, this job is about problem-solving. And when the action happens, remembering the art."
If you think that's what you want, then you must go for it. I think it's an amazing career and I've met some absolutely incredible people through the course of my life. I wouldn't change a thing.
Moving forward, the only thing is that we've got to ask ourselves proper questions about the footprint of what we do. It's not carbon-free. But I think that that is becoming more and more a part of the conversation about wildlife photography, whether it's stills or filmmaking. There are amazing cameramen like Jeff Hester, based out of San Diego, who is doing a lot of really local photography. That is a part of his raison d'etre—to make sure that at least, in some way, his work is as good to the planet as he can be. And I really respect that. I think it will become a big part of the conversation of what we do moving forward. Even now, we're looking at trying to achieve more from individual locations rather than having this [globe-trotting] approach to flying equipment around the planet.