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'You Don't Have to Work Hard for the Beauty': Sir David Attenborough on Filming 'Blue Planet II'
November 14, 2017  | By Alex Strachan
 

Blue Planet II won’t bow in the U.S. until spring, 2018. BBC America won’t be more specific than that, at least for the time being.

Even so, the David Attenborough-narrated follow-up to 2001’s The Blue Planet is already making waves, if you will.

And not just in the UK, where the first episode went into the record books as the most watched program of 2017 so far, after it debuted on Oct. 29.

BBC’s marquee wildlife series was seen by more than 14.1 million viewers the week it aired, according to UK media reports. To put that in perspective, 14 million viewers — that’s including repeats, streaming and PVR views in the week following Blue Planet’s initial broadcast — is the UK’s third largest TV audience of the past five years, behind only the 2014 World Cup soccer final and — wait for it — last year’s big reveal in The Great British Bake Off.

World Cup soccer and a baking competition wouldn’t cut much ice with a US TV audience — the Super Bowl and NBC Sunday Night Football pretty much have that title sewn up — but make no mistake: Blue Planet II is a genuine worldwide TV phenomenon. The UK Daily Mail reported this past weekend that Blue Planet is such a hit in China that it has slowed that country’s Internet.

Yes, the Daily Mail is the UK intellectual and political equivalent of the New York Post, but still: Just the idea that Sir David Attenborough, who the Daily Mail dubbed “the most viewed creature on Earth,” could slow China’s internet service is a conversation starter in itself. (The internet was said to be slowed by so many viewers trying to download Blue Planet at the same time; an estimated TV audience of 80 million watched the broadcast across China on state TV.)

BBC America reaches a tiny fraction of the homes the original BBC does in the UK — no newsflash there — so it’s hard to imagine that Blue Planet II will have anywhere near the same effect on the American TV viewing audience that it has had in the UK and China.

Judging from Weibo, a Chinese social media site modeled after Twitter, comments have ranged from, “I watched with my mouth hanging open” — this, according to the Daily Mail — to, “I’ve been crying all the time … it’s just so beautiful.”

Writing in the Guardian this past weekend, media critic Stuart Heritage wrote that BBC’s wildlife sequel has it all — profundity, wonder and trippy visuals. More importantly, perhaps, it transports viewers to a tranquil place untouched by the awfulness above the ocean.?

(If you’re unfamiliar with the Guardian, all you need to know is that Steve Bannon once famously counseled Trump supporters to read the Guardian, to find out what “they,” i.e. “the enemy,” are thinking.)

To explore why Blue Planet is the right show at the right time, the Guardian’s Heritage asked readers to think back to the original series, 16 years ago.

“I can remember with uncharacteristic clarity watching the first episode of Blue Planet,” he wrote. “BBC One broadcast the first episode at 9 pm on Sept. 12th, 2001, and it felt ... necessary. Images of the Twin Towers in flames were on the front of every newspaper … It was the topic of every conversation, no matter where you went. The anxiety of the moment was suffocating.

“And then the clouds broke. At roughly the same time most broadcasters were overcooking 9/11 coverage … BBC One treated us to the most soothing thing imaginable. The Blue Planet, with its whispered narration, gently pulsating light and quiet wub-wub noises, was a screensaver. It was a lava lamp. It was the closest that television had ever got to letting you crawl back into the womb, right at a moment when everyone wanted nothing more than to ball themselves up in a duvet and shut the world out.”

No one who lived through 9/11 can ever forget it, of course. It can be a grave mistake to view everything on TV in those terms, though, as media scholar Robert Thompson told this writer at the time. There is a tendency to overreact, Thompson said, to assume that everything is connected, even when connections aren’t there.

These are disquieting times, however, even if they lack the immediacy and hot-button emotions of Sept. 11, 2001. Blue Planet is both a balm for the soul and surprisingly soothing TV. From what I’ve seen of it so far, Blue Planet II is unlike anything else on TV. In an episode called, appropriately, “The Deep,” cameras venture to the bottom of the ocean — an area we know less about than the surface of Mars — and shows where life may have begun and therefore might have begun on other planets.

“Something truly extraordinary is taking place,” according to Attenborough’s narration. “Under extremes of pressure and temperatures, hydrocarbons — the molecules that are the basic component of all living things — are being created spontaneously.

“Indeed, many scientists now believe life on Earth may have begun around a vent like this four billion years ago.”

Four billion years is a long time, even in TV terms.

There were adventures along the way, during Blue Planet’s four years in production. A deep-dive into sub-freezing Antarctic waters nearly ended in disaster after a submersible sprang a leak just an hour after submerging. An on-board producer managed to avert catastrophe by finding and then plugging the leak with whatever was at hand.

Then there was the cameraman who, while swimming in deep waters off South Africa, got within arm’s distance of a rarely seen species of octopus, only to be attacked — cameraman and octopus together — by a marauding shark.

Then there was the colorfully named Fangtooth fish, which roams the depths, “snapping at anything that moves or glows,” and the equally colorfully named 'sea toad' fish, an ocean predator which can transform its fins into feet, like some kind of sub-aquarian superhero villain.

“The wonder, the knockout quality that you get from the natural world is infinite and never-ending,” Attenborough told a gathering of reporters at the semi-annual meeting of the Television Critics Association, years ago in Beverly Hills, Calif., around the time he was about to introduce his epic Planet Earth to the world.  “When you see something for the first time, you are knocked out. It’s extraordinary. It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. But when you see it for the second time, you are beginning to understand more about the way (it) works.”

Advances in technology play a huge part, Attenborough noted.

“I started in 1954,” he said. “For my first animal, I used a clockwork camera. It ran for 90 seconds, on a hundred-foot roll of film, in black-and-white, which we tried to run for two minutes 40 seconds afterward. You had to change it. We were using lenses that couldn’t give you a close-up of anything beyond about 10 yards away. And, of course, the results were terrible. Thank goodness no one looks at them anymore. But, in 1954, people hadn’t seen giraffes or even heard of giraffes. Even if they were just a herd on the skyline, or a far distance away, people said, ‘Wow, a herd of giraffes and they are fantastic.  Which, of course, they were. But now, with the increasing complexity and sophistication of the gear we have, we can do anything. We can put a tiny camera down the burrow of an armadillo or in the nest of a bird. We can slow down a hummingbird’s wings so you can see how they move. You can speed up how plants develop. You can film at night. You can film at the bottom of the sea. The range of images you can bring back is simply breathtaking. Year after year, my breath is taken away more and more.”

There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty, John Steinbeck wrote, in East of Eden.

Attenborough would agree.

“The beauty is there,” Attenborough said. “You don’t have to work hard for the beauty, really. Ugly is . . . what is ugly? It’s very odd. You can’t say necessarily an amoeba or a trilobite is beautiful or ugly. I happen to think it’s beautiful, but, in fact, that’s what it is, and that’s what you are dealing with. You are dealing with that funny animal with those eyes, multiple eyes, and a tower on either side. Is it beautiful? I think it’s  absolutely knockout, but it’s up to the viewer to make up their own mind whether it’s beautiful or whether it’s ugly.”

 
 
 
 
 
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