Cinematographers on 'Our Planet,' 'Hostile Planet' Reveal Job Dangers: "We Assumed We'd Get Bit"

From filming gray reef sharks in French Polynesia to leopard seals in the Antarctic, the DPs behind two stunning nature doc series open up about the "nerve-racking" situations they were put into while capturing the magic of Mother Nature.
Courtesy of Netflix
'Our Planet'

Viewers got the opportunity to see some of nature's most majestic and unique creatures up close in two recent documentary series — Netflix's Our Planet and National Geographic's Hostile Planet — but for the cinematographers working on these projects, capturing these animals on film often put them in the path of danger. Not only did they have to find creative ways to film these creatures, they also had to take as much care as possible to protect themselves from harm.

So, safety was a big consideration as a team of cinematographers from the eight-part Our Planet planned to film gray reef sharks in French Polynesia. "We wanted the most immersive [feeling] but the sharks were biting each other, so we had to assume we'd get bit," says Doug Anderson, a director of photography on the series. "There were probably four times more emails on the risk assessment of this job than others."

The four-year production involved filming in 50 countries across every continent and represents an estimated 3,500 filming days, according to Netflix. The series, narrated by David Attenborough, debuted on Netflix on April 5.

To film the gray reef sharks, each diver descended into the water armed with Red Epic Dragon cameras (shooting in 5.5K resolution) in underwater housing, as well as a communication system — and each wore a shark suit made of chainmail that weighed roughly 15 pounds, and used a breathing apparatus that weighed roughly 45 pounds. "The shark suit's heavy, and we were using a rebreather so we could stay longer. But the worry was, what if you get bit and it affects the buoyancy control devices? So we used a foam on the weight belt," explains Anderson, who also worked on Hostile Planet. Another challenge for the vets was the 1 to 2 mph current.

The six-part Hostile Planet, which was narrated by Bear Grylls and premiered on Nat Geo on April 1, also used Red Epic Dragon cameras at 5.5K resolution. The team shot an estimated 1,800 hours of raw footage, lensed on every continent during roughly 1,300 days of filming, according to Nat Geo.

Cinematographer David Reichert, one of the series DPs (who also worked on Our Planet and earned an Emmy for Deadliest Catch), filmed wildlife including penguins and leopard seals during the summer in the Antarctic, which most days meant shooting in zero- to 10-degree temperatures. "We were pretty much cold for 40 days," he admits, explaining that the filmmakers set up camp on the ice. "Antarctica was one of the most challenging shoots I have ever done. It was a combination of just surviving in difficult circumstances and tricky filming situations."

For part of the series, a small team also filmed underwater. "I would either go solo or with an assistant," Reichert explains. "We needed support because leopard seals are really aggressive and we were afraid they would try to grab us. So we were tethered with ropes to the surface. It was nerve-racking. They were lunging out of the water."

Back on land, the cinematographers used a variety of camera setups, oftentimes going handheld, and other times using a dolly, gimbal or drone — and even mounted a camera on a snowmobile. Sometimes, it was about letting the subjects do the moving: "We set the dolly up and let the penguins get comfortable, and they then moved around the dolly," says Reichert.

Another shoot involved lensing opalescent squids in Southern California off Catalina Island. "At 115 feet we would get about 25 minutes at the bottom with a rebreather," Reichert says. "Without that, we would have had only a couple minutes on the bottom."

They were not only bringing down cameras, but LED lighting as well, for backlight and key lighting. Says Reichert: "We wanted it to feel like moonlight, natural and soft."

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Lensing Dramatic Tension
For these two limited series and one drama series, the cinematograhers were tasked with capturing the intensity of prison escapes, chaotic military missions and a dark family drama. 

Catch-22

Cinematographer Martin Ruhe's work on the Hulu miniseries, lensed in Italy and based on Joseph Heller's 1961 satirical novel set during World War II, started with reviewing period newsreel footage with producers and directors George Clooney and Grant Heslov. "It was clear that Catch — with its range from absurd comedy and satire to really touching and shocking drama — needed different ways to get to you," says Ruhe, who shot the series with an Arri Alexa Mini. "Our work on the ground is accompanying [protagonist] Yossarian, often in fluent moves with a lot of Steadicam use. In some of the absurd dialogues, we are more classic and let the comedy play out. When the soldiers are on their missions, it is chaotic, [so we used] handheld very close to our characters."

Ozark

In the Netflix crime series about a financial planner (Jason Bateman, who also directs and exec produces) who relocates his family while caught in a money laundering scheme, cinematographer Ben Kutchins aimed "to create this feeling of an immediate threat and a constant feeling of looking over the shoulder." The series, shot with the Panasonic Varicam, was filmed primarily in the Atlanta area. Kutchins says they used a "simple approach that was very subjective — a slow-moving camera that peers around the corner or a shot that dollys in and reveals more information. The key to this kind of storytelling is how you reveal information. If you slowly tease out little pieces of information, visually as well as with dialogue, I think it creates a feeling of tension." — C.G.

Escape at Dannemora

The Showtime limited series based on the escape of two convicted murderers from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, was filmed on location in upstate New York as well as in Pittsburgh at a decommissioned prison. "We really wanted contrast and strong blacks with a lot of richness, so that it felt as filmic as possible," says DP Jessica Lee Gagne, who drew inspiration from films like Dog Day Afternoon, Klute and Norma Rae. The most challenging scene — the nine-minute continuous shot in episode five that follows Sweat (Paul Dano) on a dry run of his escape — was made up of 15 stitches across 17 shots in four different locations using various rigs, including a gimblette and Technocrane, with the Arri Alexa Mini camera.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.