'Frozen Planet': How they made it
In March, Discovery debuted Frozen Planet, a breathtaking polar exploration series from the makers of Planet Earth and Life. During four years of production, the temperatures went as low as -58°F and the winds as high as 148 miles per hour. In total, the crew spent 2,356 days in the field, 840 hours trapped in blizzards, and 134 hours filming under the ice to capture jaw-dropping footage like the killer whale “wave wash” behavior in which orcas swim in a line to make waves that knock a seal off an ice floe, and a pack of 25 patient wolves working together to separate a bison from its herd. Below is our interview with series producer Vanessa Berlowitz and director Chadden Hunter, originally published in two parts. For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012: Behind the Scenes coverage.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you’re putting together a series like this, how do you balance “happy endings” — like a gentoo penguin escaping a southern sea lion multiple times on land — and sad ones, like the Weddell seal being targeted by the orcas, which is both absolutely fascinating and excruciating to watch.
CHADDEN HUNTER: To me, that’s the most emotionally-draining sequence of the whole series. But then the power of it — it is nature and it is what happens. So part of conveying it is capturing that drama that these animals have to deal with day in and day out.
VANESSA BERLOWITZ: We do think quite carefully about how we pace those sequences and in what order. We really wanted to have a light moment — it’s very uplifting when the penguin gets away — because we knew the ending of the orca sequence. We had lots of debates about whether to show that shot.
The final shot of the exhausted seal being slowly pulled off the ice floe.
BERLOWITZ: To be honest, compared to be what we filmed subsequently, that was absolutely tame. We captured the whole amazing behavior. Once that seal’s dragged in, there was underwater shots of the way that they butcher the animal, which is really precise. The reason they spend so long trying to tire this animal out is that these are feisty seals. They’re huge. They’re about 10 feet long, and they’ve got teeth. So it’s partly a game, it’s partly training, but it’s also for [the whales’] own protection. Once they’ve got it down, they kill it very quickly, and then they take the skin off. Literally, the seal comes out, almost intact. So we didn’t show you any of that. [Laughs]
HUNTER: The one thing I find fascinating when you’ve got friends with families who watch it is that it’s all the parents who have the emotional baggage. “Ohmygod, I can’t watch this. It’s harrowing, it’s too emotional.” We keep thinking of it as Frozen Planet is quite adult viewing. This is real drama, a classic wildlife series not that appropriate for kids. Most of my friends’ kids, say, “No, no, come on, mum, dad. I want to watch this. How am I ever gonna learn if I don’t see a seal chasing a penguin?”
BERLOWITZ: My 3-year-old was being cool about it. I said, “It’s a bit like Tom and Jerry, isn’t it?” He’s fine. As Chad says, the adults bring to it the horror of what you don’t see. Which is the way horror movies work — it’s all about what you don’t see that scares you. In some ways, it may have been actually less disturbing if you saw the kill. But by not showing that, we actually made it acceptable for kids to watch, and they just don’t have that problem. They just read it differently.
Are there other examples of that, where you had to debate how much to show?
BERLOWITZ: [To Hunter] Well, it was very handy with your wolf hunt. I have to say, we were grateful for the knock. [An adult bison running from behind through a pack of wolves accidentally plows into the juvenile bison the wolves are chasing, knocking him down and ending the long battle. Watch the sequence here.]
HUNTER: What’s remarkable about wolves versus bison, because they’re so big and evenly matched, it’s like a real chess game that goes on for hours and hours and hours. We’d follow groups where the pack of wolves would sleep right beside the bison, and the adult bison don’t worry too much. As long as they can keep wolves in front of them, they know that if one comes near them, they can just toss them with their horns. So the wolves would test them, and the adult bison are like, Don’t even think about it, and the wolves go and sit down again. For us, it’s harrowing. Imagine if you were face to face with a predator, you wouldn’t be calm. But these bison know as long as they don’t run and expose their rump, then the wolves can’t get them. To them it’s just a game of nerves. In the opening episode, that circling and chess game is what’s going on. The wolves are trying to disorient the bison, trying to surround them. As the bison spin, eventually some of them are like, I’m in the middle. Are we running? Let’s just run. Then the group splits up, some of the older ones stay back like, What are you doing? Don’t be stupid. That’s when the advantage changes to the wolves. We had to really pace ourselves, especially with the helicopter. You’d get up and watch the chess game. Is anything going to happen? You’d land again. You’re always making those hairline decisions about whether to film now….
The “Winter” program has got a solo wolf and bison battle where just the alpha female takes on the bison. That is absolutely emotionally exhausting. And one reason we decided to do a making-of section about that [in “The Making of Frozen Planet” episode] is that we wanted to basically take the viewer’s hand and say, “Okay, this was emotional to watch, but we go through the same emotions when we film it.” So as opposed to revisiting the hunt because it’s gratuitous or dramatic, we actually wanted to revisit the hunt in the making-of almost as a therapy session. We wanted to say, “Okay, let’s go through this together and explain that we’re not heartless lenses on cameras. It can be upsetting to see all this drama in the wild.” When you’re back in the edit, it’s quite interesting. Vanessa might come and see it for the first time, and she’ll be like —
BERLOWITZ: “Holy s—.”
Next: Don’t get misty, your eyes will freeze shut
Watching the series, there are moments that made me misty, either from being in awe at the beauty of a landscape or overwhelmed by the emotion of an epic battle. Does that ever happen to you in the field?
HUNTER: It’s not often that you get a chance in the field to just stop and reflect, but I think when you’re all back at camp and you all talk about the shots, the high of that feeling is pretty unmatched. I think a lot of it has to do with how much effort you put in to get it. When we filmed that wolf hunt, we worked so hard in -40° conditions, our eyes were freezing shut out on foot. So when we filmed that first hunt after weeks and weeks and weeks, you’re very emotional. That’s probably why our eyes are freezing. Too many tears. [Laughs]
BERLOWITZ: Similarly, I’d been waiting for, I think it was six weeks, to try to get up in the air to fly to the South Pole to the base where Chad and I were working in Antarctica. You wait for the weather forecast, and they go, “Nope, the weather’s still bad today.” Eventually, we got the go-ahead to fly to the South Pole. As Chad’s saying, you’re already so emotionally charged that you finally got this opportunity to film something. And then we fly over the Transantarctic Mountains, which are absolutely spectacular. We cross a pass and revealed in front of us is this huge glacier called the Beardmore Glacier, which is known from Shackleton and Scott. The great explorers traversed this huge glacier — it’s about 100 miles long, one of the longest in the world — and I had this moment where I was completely choked. I saw it, and I just went Ohmygod, that is what these men crossed on foot 100 years ago. There are moments like that that really stay with you forever.
Was there an animal you wanted to film but never captured the behavior you wanted?
HUNTER: My bête noire was wolverines. I became obsessed with wolverines. The iconic animals you know — like polar bears and killer whales — we knew they’d be stars of the series. So I went on a few wild goose chases, or wild wolverine chases. They’re wonderful hairy beasts with a lot of character. They were roaming on the tundra and attacking snow geese, and it was a remarkable sight. We tried to film it, we got lovely snow geese scenes, but the wolverines would just outsmart us most of the time. They kept me up at night. We did manage to get a lovely little wolverine story in the “Winter” program, which made me feel a bit better about it. But they became my red baron, my nemesis.
BERLOWITZ: In the Southern Ocean, near Antarctica, you get these congregations of krill, which are like shrimp, and that attracts all of the marine wildlife. You can get thousands of whales — blue whales, minke whales, fin whales, humpback whales — seals, penguins, in this kind of huge feeding frenzy. We tried to time some of our penguin and orca shoots to be there at the right time and go through the areas that we thought it might happen. It never quite did. Although I think one of the most frustrating texts that I ever got was from a scientist friend of Alastair [Fothergill], our boss, who was on a fishing vessel doing science work. This fuzzy picture came through, I looked at it and said, “What is that?” I started to realize it was a picture of thousands of whales. You can see fins right to the horizon. The note underneath it was, “Is this what you were looking for?” [Laughs] Initially, we were just so crushed. You have to be quite philosophical about it, there’s always got to be one thing out there that you aspire to get. If it’s not this series, it will be the next series. I worked on Planet Earth, the mountain show, and we got the snow leopard sequence. And I’d been trying across two previous projects to film snow leopards, and finally we lucked out and we got it on Planet Earth. Eventually, you get your moment.
HUNTER: And if it made it easy, it wouldn’t be special.
Does that kind of playful taunting go on a lot in your field?
HUNTER: There’s a lot of friendly competitiveness. If one team doesn’t quite manage to get a certain behavior and the next team is headed out… We all know each other very well, and you wish each other luck, but yeah, it’s a quite competitive industry. People have the hunger to get the shots.
BERLOWITZ: The worst is tourism, of course, though. You see these things on YouTube that come back like that famous clip of the crocodile, and the lions, and the buffalo. I remember the first time I logged on, and I was going, “That’s not fair. You know how many months I spent in Africa trying to get sequences like that, and some tourist who doesn’t even know what they’re filming has just captured it?!” [Laughs]
HUNTER: But the research is a massive part of how we make the series. We would research most of the stories for about one year before we actually send the teams out, making as accurate and almost military-like plan as you can.
Next: 3 a.m. polar bear sightings
BERLOWITZ: We’ve talked about the competition, but you also share information. So you start to get an instinct that okay, if you’re gonna find a polar bear mother and cubs, how much time do you book to camp out in the Arctic to locate them? There’s a body of experience, and you go, “I think we’ll need two weeks.” I’d say 90 percent of the time we’re spot-on with the planning. For that polar bear shoot, I was pregnant at the time and a bit grumpy, as you would expect. Grumpier than normal.
HUNTER: [Laughs] I was gonna say…
BERLOWITZ: My back was aching. Polar bears have a massive territory. After about Day 8, I was thinking when are we ever gonna find a mother polar bear? You have 24-hour daylight in the Arctic summer, so you don’t have that convenient oh, thank goodness, we can sleep now nighttime. So it was about three in the morning, and I was being quite grumpy, and I was like, “Okay, should we go back, guys?” And literally at that moment, the pilot spotted something on the ice and said, “I think that’s a polar bear and I think it’s two cubs next to it.” So I was like [sighs] “Okay.” A little bit of me was like —
HUNTER: “Why did you have to spot that?”
BERLOWITZ: We flew over and it was actually what we were after, a mother and two tiny, tiny cubs. My tiredness went, my backache went, and suddenly, we were locked into this magical scenario. I stayed up in the air for three days — that was sections of four to five hours filming, land, refuel, sleep in the helicopter, and then go back up again. It was one of the most precious times in my life because you just got this kind of window into a mother polar bear’s life. It’s a really tender, cute side. I mean it’s quite serious for her, because she’s really, really having to try to get food for her cubs. And the little cubs are like, Mom, this is fun. I’ve never been out in the sea ice before. They’ve just come from their den, and they’re mucking about and biting her bottom, tagging behind, and spoiling her hunt. She’ll be in stealth mode, and then suddenly one jumps on her back, and she’s like, Ugh, get off. I was crying with laughter when she knocked the little one into the hole [for a time-out]. I had my baby in my tummy, I thought okay, that’s what polar bear moms have to do, it’s probably what I’m gonna have to do. [Laughs]
HUNTER: Scribbling notes. [Laughs]
BERLOWITZ: She was a great mum. My son had a three-hour time-out this weekend for spitting in his nanny’s face. [Laughs] Time-out is definitely an important part of parenting.
Who’s the best character you each encountered in the four years of production?
BERLOWITZ: The polar bear mother. Following one female for that time was such a privilege. You have to be careful not to anthropomorphize too much, but you cannot help but really identify with this personality. I do believe animals have personality, definitely.
HUNTER: When we were with the Emperor penguins, they’re a lot more chilled out and graceful than the little Adélie penguins that poop on all your equipment and steal each other’s rocks. They’re really feisty. They remind me of New Yorkers. They go [pretends to waddle and flap] Outta my way.
BERLOWITZ: They remind me of Danny DeVito. [Laughs]
HUNTER: We had one that accidentally turned up at the Emperor penguin colony, so he was hundreds of miles from where he should be. He rocketed up out of the water, and we laughed and laughed. We have 50,000 Emperor penguins, they’re like the supermodels of the penguin world, and then this little Adélie that comes up to their thigh going, What’s going on here?
BERLOWITZ: It’s like a New Yorker turning up on Malibu beach.
Next: Part II — Life on the ice
• Though penguins can drive a man mad — watch our exclusive clip below from “The Making of Frozen Planet” — they are still awesome.
CHADDEN HUNTER: The sun doesn’t set, but you’re trying to sleep on the sea ice. You put your head down, and you can hear the seal voices through the ice. The Weddell seals have this beautiful alien-like song. So you have them going off beneath your pillow while outside around your tent, all the Emperor penguins are coming up to be curious. You can see the shadows on your tent getting closer and closer. [Makes penguin noises.] And of course, they’ll trip over your tent wires. [Makes flustered penguin noises.] They’ll get all grumpy, and then they’ll circle the tent again and trip over the tent wires again.
VANESSA BERLOWITZ: I got harassed by Adélie penguins. We had David Attenborough there, trying to do a piece with him and record sound. I was trying to take some still photographs of David with the penguins, and I put my lens down next to me, and I hear this kind of rolling sound. I look, and a penguin is pushing my lens down the hill toward his nest. He was thinking, This is a really big rock. Clearly showing off for the females. Classic male behavior. The longer the lens. [Laughs] Then I smell this smell next to me, and a penguin has pooed in my still case. That happens all the time. Your gear is covered in poo. We put up a stand with a microphone on it, and in order to stop the wind’s effect, you put something fluffy over it. So I was listening, and I heard this scratching sound. There was a penguin on the microphone, seemingly trying to mate.
• Also, penguins are good when you need directions.
HUNTER: We really wanted that part of the story where the female Emperors are coming back from their months away. They’ve never seen their chick, which is born, and the husbands are near starvation. It’s such a magical part of linking their whole story together, but it’s very rare to see it because the edge of the sea ice is possibly the most dangerous habitat that we work on. Five of us were dropped off 300 miles from any help. The first thing the field safety expert did when he saw that we were going to have to be living on the sea ice and walking over all these cracks was throw his hands in the air and say, “There’s no rulebook here. We can talk about safety and make decisions, but I can’t guide you here, guys.” We had no idea where the open water was. We talk in the “Making Of” about how we had to start watching the female penguins, because we knew they’d made this journey through this labyrinth of ice. It’s like, “How the hell are you doing this?” You can’t use GPS or map it, because it all shifts. There’s no traditional navigation that can help you. I think we did three days of chiseling just to get blocks of ice out-of-the-way to try to get a path through to follow these female Emperors.
• If you have a choice, follow Orcas on the ground not in the air. (Watch Hunter’s close encounter in the “Making Of” clip below.)
HUNTER: The silence can almost ring in your ears. You’re just daydreaming. The water in that pool is almost inky black but clear, and the orca just starts breaking the water like a torpedo. It’s massive. It just explodes 10′ above you. They come up, and they have a black eye that is lifeless. They release this enormous breath, this oily spray all over you. Your face and all your lenses get covered. They would clock you, and all of the sudden their eye would wake up. You see this eye look you up and down. Because the hole is so small, they had to take turns breathing. They’re so gentle, you can see them line up. The water is so clear that you can see 100 meters down. The little ones would come up, and they’d want to play. They’d push little ice blocks around and then mum would start squeaking at them saying, Get out of the way, come back here. We don’t really have time to capture that in the story, but you get to sit there beside them and watch this whole family. To have those magical encounters where you’re feeling some kind of emotional connection to their lives, that’s the pinnacle of the job we do.
BERLOWITZ: I was in the helicopter getting the aerial perspective. If there was one experience that I would’ve liked to have had… That was the one thing I was so jealous of.
• You probably don’t want to sail the Southern Ocean…
HUNTER: The Southern Ocean is by far the roughest, most violent ocean in the world. On some of the trips to get to Antarctica, we’d take a little sailing boat, only 60′ long. These are incredibly skilled captains who’ve done it a lot of times, but your five days and five nights from any kind of help… When we got stuck in some of those storms, it was like the perfect storm — a tiny little boat riding up absolutely monstrous waves like the side of a building and rolling 90 degrees. I remember holding onto the door handle of the cabin and my feet were dangling in midair. I was hanging vertically, because the entire boat was sideways. And as I was doing that, the cameraman flew past me and landed on the wall in between these two big metal coat hooks, right behind his neck. It was so terrifying. The boat was out of control. It was one of the few moments where we’re looking at each other going “Is this it? This is it, isn’t it?” I don’t have many of those moments, certainly not encountering wildlife, because we generally know wildlife isn’t as dangerous as people make out.
BERLOWITZ: If you do may day, there’s one ship in the Southern Ocean that could come and get you, which is the Royal Navy ship HMS Endurance, which I’ve been on four or five times now because they allow us to use helicopters to fly around Antarctica. So I was there thinking fairly smugly I’ll be fine. I’m in the big icebreaker, when we got one of the biggest storms in 15 years. You have to strap yourself into bunk beds because you get chucked around so much. On a ship, there’s a critical angle that if you go beyond you capsize, and we hit it. The whole ship went bananas. These 6’5″ British sailors were being thrown out of their top bunks. You have to try to eat when you’re in such big seas because you just throw up so much. I’ll never forget trying to queue with all these sailors. They all had buckets next to them.
• Then again, flying can also be dangerous…
BERLOWITZ: I had other moments in helicopters. The weather changes on a dime. We had a forced landing on South Georgia, where we got a whiteout. You can’t see what’s land and what’s snow, because it’s the same color. That was pretty terrifying. And in Antarctica, we were trying to get a shot of these cold winds coming up the snow caps, and we hadn’t really put two and two together, that they were clearly going to blow us. We were practically upside down — at which point, the American cameraman who was from Hollywood was like, “I’m out of here.” Another time, there was this waterfall in the ice, and we were trying to get a really low shot skimming the edge of the water as it hit down, and on the fourth take, we actually started to get sucked into the abyss. And that was my moment where I just went, “This is it.”
• And walking may not be safe either…
HUNTER: By the time you’re right on the edge, the sea ice is spongey and wobbly. Once we went scuba diving underneath the ice, we looked up, and I could see the cameraman’s feet and shadow and his tripod and his arms. The ice was one-inch thick. I could see him walking around. It was like looking up at a bed sheet. I’m underneath scuba diving going, “Oh god, don’t step there. Don’t step there.”
• Penguins aren’t the only thing that could drive you mad. There’s sleep deprivation…
HUNTER: We got into this 36-12 rhythm. You would go and go and go for 36 hours. You would feel giddy, like you’re drunk in some way. And then, we’d collapse for 12 hours. It was the first time in my life I’ve fallen asleep standing up.
BERLOWITZ: It was the number one concern I had for series safety, knowing that people were working these ridiculous hours. I’d keep saying to the team, “You’ve got to enforce a night.” The danger is you wait and wait and wait for weather, and then suddenly it’s good, so you shoot for five days in a row. That’s where mistakes happen.
• And there’s the shot you might miss when you take a break for your sanity.
BERLOWITZ: Mark Smith, who was the cameraman on the Adélie penguins who went mad, was also going mad waiting to film snow leopards for Planet Earth. They’d been waiting for weeks and weeks to get a hunt sequence. I was on the phone from England talking to them everyday. “How much longer? You’re gonna have to get air lifted out.” And he was really close to the edge. He was exhausted from the mental strain of day in and day out watching rocks, looking for snow leopards. And I said to Mark, “Go to town and take a day off.” And I’m not kidding, he went into town, he came back, and this local Pakistani guy got out his phone and showed him something he’d filmed, which was a snow leopard pouncing on the back of a wild goat. “Is this what you were waiting to film?” He apparently broke down, he was so upset.
• And finally, everyone needs entertainment.
HUNTER: Every year, they watch The Thing at South Pole station on New Year’s Eve. That’s a tradition. The cameramen especially come with a little slim hard drive that’s got 500 gigs of movies on it. So in a blizzard, you would sit there in a tent and watch movies. There was one cameraman who had Family Guy on a memory card, and he’d worked out how to play back Family Guy on the camera. So you’d see him sitting on the ridge overlooking the ocean and [snickers]. He wouldn’t do it when he had to be filming, but we did catch him chuckling once. We’re like, “Give me that viewfinder.”
BERLOWITZ: Joking aside, it can be quite a struggle. It gets relentlessly boring at times. Nothing’s happening. Weather’s crap. You’ve seen the same faces for months on end. Comedies, often American comedies, kept us going. Parks and Recreation.
HUNTER: We had a joke at our Frozen Planet Christmas parties. One year, one of us got a little Arctic explorer Ken doll with skis. It was very cute. And then the next year, one of the other guys got one. We were forced to take them into the field. It was like Flat Stanley, take a picture with a penguin. Some of the guys started to take it to quite extreme storytelling. One made a whole film about it, where they’re kinda lost in the penguin colony, and these creatures were attacking him. At one stage, his fingers were blackened from frostbite. And he’s like, “I’ve gotta cut them off.” You’re watching a Ken doll cut off his own fingers. It’s fantastic.
BERLOWITZ: I was very happy because at one of the Planet Christmas parties, they made me a Helicopter Barbie [the nickname the Royal Navy gave her].