Television Time: An Interview with Scott Alexander, Producer of BBC Earth’s Seven Worlds, One Planet
Scott Alexander is a veteran of the nature documentary game. Having worked at the BBC Studios Natural History Unit for over the last 20 years, Scott has been at the helm of successful programmes such as Big Cat Live, award-winning children’s wildlife series Deadly60 and even directed Sir David Attenborough on AFTA-winning series Life In Cold Blood.
“I’ve always had the passion for the outdoors and studying wildlife,” says Scott, brandishing an impressive, wild mane of hair. “I studied zoology at university, and when I graduated, I realised I didn’t want to have to put on a suit and tie or cut my hair and look respectable. So I started work as a researcher and finding all these nature stories. Eventually, you get a chance to go on location, directing and producing, and now, I’ve been on all 7 continents, been chased up trees by black rhinos and killer bees and had plenty other hairy moments, but I’m still here, so I must be doing something right!”
If the adventurer in us wasn’t already convinced this was essentially a dream position to end up in, Scott goes on to talk about going to all the fabulous places he does, the chance to get privileged, rare access to see all the wildlife and do his life’s work, radiating with pride and joy. “I once spent 6 weeks in Rwanda where every day, we’d go up to film these mountain gorillas, and you see them practically snap trees with their strength,” he says. “Eventually, we got to the point where we could get so close, and the gorillas wouldn’t care and just fall asleep. To be accepted by a wild animal of that level is nothing short of remarkable, and that connection we make with wildlife such a priceless experience I’m thankful to have.”
That then brings us to the topic of BBC Earth’s newest documentary – the David Attenborough-fronted (who else?) Seven Worlds, One Planet, which Scott produced. Over the course of 7 episodes, the new series takes viewers across the entire world, with each episode dedicated to a specific continent, detailing new animal and nature stories for a 2019 audience.
When asked how this series differs from other past documentaries such as the runaway success Planet Earth II, Scott explains: “The approach is primarily what makes it different, where we’re looking at continental makeup as opposed to Planet Earth II’s focus on habitats such as mountains and oceans. 200 million years ago, all the continents were a single entity – Pangaea, before they split apart to go their separate ways and each develop their own unique characteristics and distinctive wildlife. We’ve managed to get such great, never-before-captured footage as well, such as dingoes hunting kangaroos in Australia, or one of the largest gatherings of whales ever filmed for the Antarctica episode, and even this new species of spider that performs a charming courtship dance.”
Scott also emphasises the heightened quality of the show, now that new technology has been developed to bring new perspectives and depth to the filming process, thanks to developments in drone and camera tech. “We’ve got 4K cameras that ensure that our shots are always stabilised, and we’ve got drones that’re lighter than before that we can take into volcanoes, underground caves, into forests and over icebergs and waterfalls,” Scott elaborates. “The drones are also much quieter than helicopters, so we can practically hover over wildlife and they remain undisturbed, and we get this whole new view of what’s going on. It’s let us observe behaviour like how the humpback whale blows circles of bubbles to catch the krill they eat, and we’d only be able to see these thanks to our bird’s eye view of the water from above.”
While nature documentaries have always subtly hinted a the idea of promoting the sanctity of life and maintaining the beauty of the planet, at the heart of Seven Worlds, One Planet is also the emphasis on climate change and the important of conservation efforts to slow down its negative effects. “Previously, a lot of our shows focused on the beauty of the natural world, but not always the peril,” Scott says. “We’ve been pretty bold this time and included some hard images, like how deforestation has affected the Sumatran Rhino, whose numbers are down to less than 70. They have this beautiful haunting call, and the tragic thing is that it’s not going to be answered by other rhinos. We zoom out and reveal that the ‘forest’ it’s in is actually behind a fence, and it’s being kept in captivity in an attempt to breed them and reinvigorate the species, and that’s not something previous shows might have shown.”
“There’s other stories of issues facing wildlife today too, like how the albatross has been affected by stronger wings, or about the issue of poaching that still plagues the world today,” Scott adds. “I think it can be a hard watch, and audiences do expect that now, because they have a much better understanding of how climate change is happening, and the threat is posed towards both wildlife and humans.”
“But it’s not all bad news – we also feature how Antarctica has introduced a ban on whaling, and it’s helped bring the population back, or how the Iberian Lynx is down to less than 100 animals, but with conservation efforts, it’s back up to maybe 700. We want to show that we can still make a difference and it’s not too late.”
It’s certainly no easy feat to put all these stories together, with the series having been in production for the last four years. The first year was spent on research alone, with the team searching for stories, calling up scientists and reading scientific papers, trawling the Internet for stories and accruing a respectable collection. Over the next two years, the team then proceeded into filming, with trips taking up to two months at a time, before the final year spent putting it all together, with Attenborough’s narration and Hans Zimmer’s cinematic soundtrack.
Considering how massive each continent is however, curation of stories must be varied and showcase a range of landscapes, species and still remain entertaining and educational. On the selection of stories and features for this series, Scott elaborates: “You want a good spread of stories, from mammals to insects and in different environments, and you need to present stories that people expect as well as completely new ones. Take Africa for example, which has been filmed so many times, you’d think everything has already been done. But we found this new story there, where we spotted a big bull elephant that has a unique way of getting its food – it raises itself up on its hind legs, and uses its trunk to get to the highest fruits in the tree! To see a 4 tonne animal like that balancing on its hind legs is such an incredible sight, and so fresh to see a familiar animal doing something unfamiliar.”
Often though, with animals being themselves and not following a specific script, the process of filming can be a very unpredictable process. Says Scott: “We do have a general idea of what the animals will do thanks to our research, but things don’t always go according to plan. In Georgia, we initially wanted to film a story about how this river runs through a penguin colony, and it ends up washing some of them out to sea. But when we got there, it turned out the river had changed course, and no long ran through the colony. But then we got this other story about a mischievous chick who got lost from its parents, and the great thing about wildlife is that something is always happening! It’s really thanks to the flexibility and skills of a wildlife filmmaker to see the stories present, choose the right ones, and follow them as they evolve before your very eyes.”
“Even though I’m series producer, I do sometimes get a chance to go on location,” Scott adds. “I followed them to Chile to film this remarkable puma sequence, where you’ve got these iconic 2000m high mountain ranges rising out in the backdrop, and that’s the hunting ground for pumas. We were following this mother and her 3 cubs, and for 3 times, they attempted to hunt, but failed each time. We knew they were getting hungry, and we were already coming to the end of our time after 7 weeks – we were so close to getting the shot we wanted. I decided to take a risk, stay for another week, and sure enough, there was a successful hunt and we caught her feeding her cubs in this lovely sequence.”
Unpredictability goes beyond animal behaviour into the natural world itself, with the weather often posing as a particular danger at times. Says Scott: “Antarctica is one of the most hostile, coldest, driest continents, it’s so daunting with almost negative 30 or 40 degree temperatures, so watching wildlife is a real challenge. Plus. it takes so long to get there because of how remote it is. It takes 6 days of sailing across the ocean, and everyone is horrendously seasick, but once you get there, you find the jewel in the crown, and it’s a marvellous sight of hundreds of penguins on the beach. These are places where the wildlife is curious about you, not afraid.”
“There was this one story I wanted to do, where we ended up filming under the ice,” Scott adds. “There’s this whole ecosystem living underneath, and it comprises all these beautiful, colourful starfish, giant sea spiders, 3 metre nematode worms, and it’s a rare and remarkable sight. To get to it, you have to drill through 3 metres of ice, then send your divers down into it. Down there, there’s no GPS system to navigate, and you have 40 minutes of air to get your stories, before finding your way back to the hole again. That really is the most challenging shoot we’ve done, and it takes a special team to achieve that.”
Emphasising how much dedication they put into the safety of their crew, Scott goes on to tell us how they always ensure they know where the nearest hospital is, especially those equipped with anti-venom when filming in the jungles, as well as the evacuation plan and helicopter routes in worst case scenarios. “We take the safety of the crew very seriously, and of course, you’re expected to act sensibly in some of the most remote places dealing with the wild. But really, our team comprises the best cameramen, scientists and wildlife experts, literally people studying these animals their entire lives and knowing their behaviours, so we’re all aware of when things are dangerous and when to back off.”
What keeps them going then? “The reward is seeing it onscreen at the end of it all,” Scott answers. “All these remarkable sequences and incredible behaviour, it all comes together as a celebration of the diversity of life on Earth and a showcase of all the amazing wildlife on this planet. We all hope that our passion for this comes out in the final show, and that people watching it will be inspired to have the same passion to look after the planet and take an active interest in that.”
Those words couldn’t ring more true, as we saw for ourselves during a free outdoor screening event held at Gardens by the Bay’s Supertree Grove last Saturday. While the team had only expected 300 to show up, the event ended up welcoming far more than that, with the entire lawn filled with families and visitors come to catch the first episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet. bringing their picnic baskets and lying down on beanbags and mats. There was an audible gasp and tension in the air as we watched a leopard seal embark on an aquatic chase hunting down a desperately fleeing penguin, and cheers and applause from all around when a fallen chick successfully found its way back to its nest, the crowd united in our shared reactions to what was happening onscreen.
Even with so many nature documentaries that have been produced over the years, there’s just something about them that keeps us coming back for more, and a timelessness to them that we simply cannot deny, with Seven Worlds, One Planet continuing to contribute to that canon of quality work. “There’s still so much out there to discover,” Scott concludes. “New species, new behaviours, and this planet, it just keeps on giving. It’s incredible how rich the diversity of life is on this planet, and it’s something people love seeing. We are all connected to nature at the end of the day, and watching these documentaries really is a way of reconnecting and remembering where all of us came from.”
Photo Credit: BBC Studios
Seven Worlds, One Planet premieres on Monday, 4th November 2019, 9.00pm on BBC Earth (StarHub channel 407). Download and watch the series on BBC Player, available as an app on both Apple and Google Play stores, and at www.bbcplayer.com