Emmys: How the 'Planet Earth II' Cinematographer Filmed Komodo Dragons With "Teeth Like Steak Knives"

"They can run as fast as I can, with no warning," says Mark MacEwen.
Courtesy of BBC America

Planet Earth II — BBC America’s epic sequel to 2006 nature documentary series, Planet Earth — involved 42 different camera operators, who filmed in 40 countries over the course of a four-year production schedule. That included photographing such rare creatures as snow leopards and Komodo dragons in a wide range of remote, and sometime dangerous, terrains.

Cinematographer Mark MacEwen related that, during the shoot, the team also aimed for a “more intimate, involving style” to tell the David Attenborough-narrated stories. “Wildlife programs have more usually been very observational, long-lens style, and for this series, we wanted to try and take the viewer on a journey with the animal character whenever possible,” said MacEwen.

One way that he did this was with the use of a Freefly MoVI, which he described as a handheld stabilizer "that allowed for a very cinematic look with freedom of movement that I've not had with older technologies like sliders and jibs. It meant we could move with our characters and take our audience on the characters’ journeys. To be able to follow an Indri lemur leaping through the forest was amazing, or walking with a Komodo dragon hopefully allowed people to feel closer to each of the characters.

“Filming dragons was very challenging for me, as they are top predators,” he related. “And trying to be immersive and close to a top predator that has teeth like steak knives, skin like armor plating and can run as fast as I can, with no warning, is definitely something that gets the pulse racing. I worked alongside an expert scientist and had someone keeping an eye on the dragons and me, as it's easy to become absorbed in the moment or the shot while filming, and with something like a Komodo dragon, having someone to keep my safety in mind was really necessary.”

For MacEwen, filming in jungles or near the sea was also particularly challenging. “Jungles are tough places; they can be very inhospitable, humid, hot, dark places with animals, insects and plants all trying to defend themselves, suck your blood or hide,” he said. “The canopy cover can make it incredibly dark, and the vegetation is often so thick you can't follow animals or see them. Many times I could hear branches and leaves being moved and know I'm close to the animal character, but never see them, due to vegetation. They also tend to be in fairly remote parts of the world where it's hard to get much support if you have any problems.

“Jungles also put lots of pressure on equipment; the constant humidity and rainfall is something no camera likes, especially modern cameras and stabilizers. I've had stabilizers break and go down on location because of a single drop of water falling from the tree canopy and landing in exactly the wrong place, causing it to go up in a puff of smoke. I've had insects crawling into fan systems of cameras and stopping them working.” He added that other crews had challenges such as camping on volcanoes, filming penguins in remote areas or shooting snow leopards in the mountains.

The entire production was shot in 4K resolution (four times that of HD). "Filming in 4K resolution also really lets you see every scale on a dragon's skin or the hair on an Indri's hand. For other sequences, like the rain sequence in the jungles episode, we used [high-speed cameras], up to 1,000 frames per second in 4K," said MacEwen.

Each department had its own challenges. For instance, the editorial team had a large volume of dailies (according to editor David Pearce, about 300-400 hours of dailies for the “Cities” episode). Additionally, the series was “unscripted to a large extent,” explained Pearce. “A shooting script had been created as the shoots happened, so I knew roughly what the main behavior of each sequence was that had been captured, but often I found it more dramatically gripping or visually revealing to cut sequences in an alternate way. Many of the sequences featured 'characters' as well; these obviously developed and became more apparent as the sequences evolved.”