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'Frozen Planet' went the distance to get scenes of polar worlds

The Discovery Channel and BBC documentary series spent four grueling years capturing footage of the Arctic and Antarctic circles.

March 25, 2012|By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
  • A cameraman films underwater for "Frozen Planet."
A cameraman films underwater for "Frozen Planet." (Chadden Hunter / Discovery…)

There's a world out there where a finger of ice can destroy everything in its path. Where strobes of green light dance across the sunless sky. Where unicorn-like creatures roam the sea. And it's not the stuff of CGI-loaded blockbuster fantasy film.

It's "Frozen Planet, "a seven-part Discovery Channel and BBC mega-series exploring the Earth's arcane polar regions. (It premiered last week, but its first installment will repeat Sunday just before the second episode.) Made by the documentary team behind 2006's groundbreaking "Planet Earth" and narrated by Alec Baldwin, "Frozen Planet" is epic in scope and cinematic in execution, demonstrating how far nature documentary series have come.

"This is not your grandfather's 'Wild Kingdom,'" said "Frozen Planet" executive producer Alastair Fothergill, referring to the show launched in the '60s that studied wild animals in their natural habitat. "There's been a long history and lots of different techniques that have been tried since then to document nature."

Although the footage unspools seamlessly across seven hours, production extended a strenuous four years, with 38 camerapersons in the field. The filmmakers shot all over the Arctic and Antarctic circles — above ice and below — using "winter-ized" cameras to bear the chilly temperatures; batteries were placed on heated pads to keep them functioning lest weather-related technical difficulties — like electrical cords "snapping like breadsticks" — prevent them from capturing something.

Nine months of preproduction research went into the project, with a 10- to 15-page script set as a guideline. "We had to work out how we spend our money," Fothergill said. "And we try to be calculated and film novelty, because you don't want the dedicated natural history audience to say, 'We've seen every wild beast in Serengeti.' The bar is constantly getting higher and higher."

To get those scenes required much trial and error — and a lot of waiting. Cameramen battled howling winds and sub-zero temperatures to shoot a never-before-caught-on-camera "wave wash," in which a pod of orcas cooperate to wash a seal off an ice floe — in a six-week trip, they witnessed more than 20 before getting the image viewers see. And director Chadden Hunter and his team scoured Wood Buffalo National Park for weeks, lugging equipment while wearing snowshoes and cross-country skis, to capture the dramatic scene of wolves closing in on bison prey that made it into the series.

"We had to be incredibly silent as we snuck up," Hunter said. "We had to use sign language. But of course, when you have these huge down mittens on because it's 40 degrees below zero, sign language is pointless because you're sort of just waving these big boxing gloves around." Hunter faced an extra challenge: His eyelids froze shut.

But the unexpected moments caught on camera made the discomfort worthwhile, such as the spectacular first-ever footage of a phenomenon known as brinicles, in which salt-rich water drains from an ice sheet above and forms an ice finger of death — as it grows down toward the seabed, the brinicle freezes everything it touches.

"That was a story that we not only did not research, we came upon it accidentally," Hunter said. "But even when we filmed it, we didn't know what we actually filmed. We took it back to scientists and were like, 'What on Earth is going on here?' That was magical."

Developments in underwater time-lapse photography helped them achieve such a scene. Fothergill said a number of special, miniaturized motion control systems were also developed, allowing the filmmakers to show, in a single 40-second panning shot, a whole year as the ice retreats and advances.

"Frozen Planet" was originally broadcast last October on BBC in Britain, where it sparked controversy after media learned that dramatic footage of a polar bear tending to her newborn cubs had actually been filmed in a Holland zoo using fake snow. The filmmakers aren't fazed by the fuss, insisting they did such things only when practicality demanded.

"You cannot film inside a polar bear den in the wild," Fothergill said. "You would never be able to find them, in the first place, because the mother makes the den in October and it's hidden in the snow. If you were, by chance, to find it, she would kill you or kill her cubs. So yes, we did that in a zoo. Even doing that in a zoo was unbelievably difficult. We had to build a special den, we had to have infrared lights and remote HD cameras in that den and hope that she used it rather than her own."

While the footage makes for breathtaking and gripping television, Hunter hopes it triggers viewers to reflect on the enduring changes the regions are experiencing. The final episode in the series looks at climate change and global warming — a contested issue in the presidential race.

"We wanted to capture that there's this really magical place on this planet that so few people know about," he said. "I think that because it's unfamiliar to people, it's sometimes hard to get through the message that there's something really valuable here worth saving. It's not that far away, and it's changing faster than any other habitat on the planet."

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