The Struggles of 'Life' Unfold On Screen

An 11-part television documentary series highlights the tactics plants and animals use to survive in nature. Mike Gunton, executive producer for the Life series describes how his team got the shots — from cheetahs taking down an ostrich, to the mating run of humpback whales.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

If you're like me, you know, when you watch any of these nature TV shows on television, and you sit there, don't you wonder to yourself: How do they do that? How do they get that shot? That's amazing. Just as the humpback whale is jumping out of the water, they got it. Or, you know, the lion chasing down some sort of prey, they got it. Or how do they get high up in the canopy, where those monarch butterflies are and actually get a camera up there to show the butterflies?

Well, this hour I hope to get you some answers from someone who knows. Mike Gunton is the executive producer of the gorgeous 11-part "Life" series that aired on the BBC and on the Discovery Channel here in the States.

All sorts of creatures, or insects and plants, included have the - they have their 15 minutes of fame, so speak, on screen in the series that documents the struggle for survival. The series is now out on DVD, and Mike Gunton joins us from our NPR West studios. Thanks for talking with us today.

Mr. MIKE GUNTON (Executive Producer, "Life"): Pleasure, nice to be here.

FLATOW: I know that your specialty are the butterflies, right?

Mr. GUNTON: Well, I went on - because I'm the executive producer, I usually end up spending far too much time in the office, but I did say on this - though sometimes, right, I'm going on that shoot. And I did go on that one, which was great fun.

FLATOW: And we have actually a clip of the making of the monarch segment on our website, at sciencefriday.com, if you want to see, go behind the scenes and see the - I didn't realize, and this answers the question, how did they get that shot. You have pulleys and ropes and all kinds of stuff to get a camera up and out of the trees on sort of remote control.

Mr. GUNTON: It was a pretty ramshackle thing. A lot of the equipment we have is incredibly sophisticated, incredibly expensive, but this was actually, yeah, pretty ramshackle. It was effectively a cable tied at one end of a tree and tied right up at the top of the other, and a camera hung on a carriage, which was - had two big bicycle wheels with lead in the rims to act as gyroscopes and a rope goes up to the top of the tree. A big bag of rocks is attached to that, and you just kind of drop the bag of rocks and hope that the weight of it is roughly the same as the camera, and up goes the camera, and it flies through the air and flies amongst butterflies and gives you that kind of amazing view of what it's like to be a butterfly.

FLATOW: And you did it on the first take, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GUNTON: You've seen the making. Okay, 17th take it was, actually. We didn't get the number of rocks right.

FLATOW: Is that typical in a nature...

Mr. GUNTON: It can be. It depends. I mean, of course in nature some things just happen the once, and that's - you don't - you know, you can't ask an animal to go and do a retake. But when you're doing stuff with kit, with weird equipment, that is often when it does tend to go wrong, because you know, you're, you're taking stuff out into the middle of nowhere and the humidity and the bumpy ride and the dust, you know, and often this stuff is stuff, as we say, we kind of make, put together ourselves with bits of gaffer tape and string.

FLATOW: If you're waiting for, like, a bug to run by, and you don't quite get the shot, do you pick the bug up and put him back in that spot?

Mr. GUNTON: I couldn't possibly say. No, I mean, it depends what's happening. I mean, I'm sure that does happen, but, you know, the thing about behavior, this series is very much about trying to get extraordinary animal behavior, things that you see animals doing that you don't normally see them doing.

And one of the reasons why we don't do that is because if you interfere with them, they'll just sit there and go, I'm not going to do that. So you have to let nature kind of - let animals get on with their own lives. Otherwise they won't do stuff.

So we have this kind of rule of - a line over which we will tend not to treat. We like to get close because we like to get the cameras in that kind of world, but if you step over that line, then they either run away, fly off or sulk.

FLATOW: And of course I'm sure you've been asked: What was the most difficult thing to film in this series?

Mr. GUNTON: Well, it depends. I think you mentioned humpback whales. We did do a sequence with humpback whales, which I think was probably logistically one of the toughest because anything to do with the sea, anything to do with working in the ocean, is always - adds an extra -doing things at night, doing things in caves and doing things in the ocean kind of treble the amount of agro, the difficulty.

And this was tough because for a start the animals had one thing on their - those male humpbacks had just one thing on their mind, and that was that female that they were chasing. And they - you know, you think of whales as being gentle giants, but these males were completely crazed, sex-crazed, and they were - you know, they go - they were swimming five or six times faster than they would normally swim, absolutely going hell for leather after this female.

And we wanted to film it from the water level, from a boat. We also wanted to film it from above because there's a kind of a battle going on. It's basically the biggest bar brawl in nature because - and these males are crashing into each other and hitting each other with their fins and trying to push each under and blowing bubbles at each other.

And to get a sense of the craziness and the mayhem, we wanted to be right above them in a helicopter, shooting down. But we also wanted to get in the water with them and get the sense of what was going on in the undersea world, and that was probably the trickiest and I would say the most challenging bit for the crew, even though that's normally the least challenging because, you know, we do that quite a lot.

But it was because the speed they were swimming at and because of their craziness, and the cinematographer, he couldn't use scuba tanks. He could only do it by free-diving, holding his breath.

FLATOW: Oh, no kidding.

Mr. GUNTON: No, because, well, because the bubbles that he produces -because they're so sensitive to the sound of bubbles because they're using them to threaten each other, the sound of the bubbles coming out of his scuba would have put them off. So that's a good example of what I was saying.

And so he had to swim - basically he'd zip up in a boat, drop him in the water, takes a deep breath, swims down, takes his shot, pops up to the surface again, we grab him, drop him - you know, so it was a kind of a leapfrogging ahead of him as he was going.

And he said it was like standing on a freeway with 10 trucks coming towards him at full speed, and the drivers had their eyes shut whilst he was having to hold his breath.

FLATOW: Wow, playing chicken with humpback whales.

Mr. GUNTON: It was exactly that.

FLATOW: Wow, and if you want to see a clip, we have actually on our website at sciencefriday.com, we have a behind-the-scenes clip of the making of that whale segment. So sciencefriday.com if you want to see it.

Did you ever use tiny little cameras? You're in so small spots sometimes, filming those insects. Are they tiny cameras, or do they just look like you can get in a tiny space with them?

Mr. GUNTON: No, they are tiny cameras, actually, and one of the things that - the big advances in high definition have really allowed us to step into that miniature world because, you know, traditionally naturalistic programs tend to concentrate on big, the bigger animals.

And we were very keen to kind of say, well, hold on, if you can actually film the smaller creatures like we would film the big creatures, maybe there's a whole dramatic new world to show people. And that was one of our aims on the series.

And you're right, little, tiny lenses, sometimes those lenses, we've even filed the bottom off them so we can actually get them - Rod Clark(ph), who's one of the cameramen on it, was talking about this yesterday, and saying, you know, he tries to get the camera at the eye level of bug or sometimes below its knees so you get that sense you're in its world.

And they are - they're tiny, little, very sensitive cameras, and so it gives you a nice depth of field, and you really feel that creature is in its environment.

FLATOW: Yeah, those little insects, the sequence where the frog, his tongue is flashing out to capture the insects.

Mr. GUNTON: Yeah...

FLATOW: Yeah, amazing. And I love the one where he misses it.

Mr. GUNTON: Exactly. I mean, that's - we love that shot because it just shows, you know, animals don't get it right. And he's so hopeful. He jumps up, and he throws his tongue out, and he grabs what he thinks is the mayfly, and then he grabs at thin air because he thinks he's caught it, and of course, the damselfly has flown off and said ha-ha...

FLATOW: For we geeks in the audience, how many feet - how many frames per second, how fast is that running to get that kind of incredible slow motion on it?

Mr. GUNTON: The fastest - one of the big advantages of this new high-definition technology is that we can - in the old days, it was a real struggle to get to these very high frame rates with film, but we can now go up to 2,000 frames a second.

Now, theoretically, we can go higher than that, but it starts to get quite tricky in terms of actually downloading the data from it because these cameras are not really cameras. They're taking files. They're almost like computers, just - like taking zillions of stills and then dumping them onto a big hard drive.

So it's - it's not very - it's not kind of very user-friendly. You have to have lots of wires and stuff when we're doing this, these kind of shots, but the results are amazing.

FLATOW: And all this is out on DVD now, correct?

Mr. GUNTON: Yup, there's two DVD - two versions of the DVD coming out on this Tuesday coming, June 1st - a standard DVD, and there's also a Blu-ray, which I must say is - I personally think is incredible. I saw the Blu-ray back home, and there was stuff on there that I hadn't - I've seen every frame of this series hundreds of times, and, you know, I was seeing stuff on that Blu-ray, and I thought I haven't seen that before, that's amazing.

FLATOW: Well, there are actually two versions of it. There's the - your side of the pond version and our side of the pond version.

Mr. GUNTON: Oh yeah, but there is. So effectively there's four versions.

FLATOW: Oh, there are four versions.

Mr. GUNTON: Because there's a standard H - there's a standard DVD, and then there's high there's a Blu-ray DVD.

FLATOW: Well, my point being that you have different narrators. Oprah Winfrey is the American version.

Mr. GUNTON: Yeah, and then there's also - for each of those, there's also a David Attenborough version, which is the version that the - we did for the airing in the U.K., and then there's Oprah's version, which we did for the airing on Discovery.

FLATOW: Now, one thing - two things that I picked out that I wanted to ask you about. One is in all this "Nature," 11 different programs, we don't hear the word evolution hardly mentioned anywhere. Was that just for the American audience that you left that out?

Mr. GUNTON: No, I don't think so. No, I mean, this series actually is all about evolution, but I suppose it's sort of with a small E rather than a big E. We - I mean, what you're seeing is kind of evolution in action because a lot of this behavior is right at the cutting edge of animal - of these animals pushing their boundaries, and for example, there's a sequence with dolphins where you're - I think you would describe that as cultural evolution.

They're inventing a piece of behavior, which if it is successful and seems to - and raises their fitness, then they will - and improves their chances, then that behavior will probably get passed on to the next generation and will become part of their behavioral repertoire.

If it doesn't, or if those particular dolphins kind of forget it, then it'll disappear. So evolution - you know, we felt that we were looking at a snapshot of evolution happening at these little, at sort of the - I guess the root - not the root tips, the shoot tips of the tree of life.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, and one other little bone to pick, and maybe you'll explain this to me. As a fish myself, when I'm underwater, I never hear any of those watery sounds splashing and gurgling that seem to be going on. Your people are - when your fish are underwater - that's got to be put in later...

Mr. GUNTON: Well, we do - but we do record underwater. Of course, you can't record these things synchronized, in other words at the same time, but we do use - we have amazing hydrophones and stuff, and we do record sounds underwater, including - in fact, somebody wrote into us and was rather snootily saying something about we just stuck some sonar sounds, some submarine sonar sounds, over this a seal called (unintelligible) seal under the water.

And it gave me great pleasure to be able to write back to him to say, actually, these are the sounds, the first time anybody's recorded these sounds, we recorded them on a hydrophone. We took these hydrophones all the way to Antarctica. We dug a hole in the ice. We stuck it under the ice, and we recorded these sounds. So there.

FLATOW: I've got to tell you, I did that in 1979.

Mr. GUNTON: What, you went to Antarctica?

FLATOW: Yes, I recorded those amazing (unintelligible) seals.

Mr. GUNTON: Oh, you didn't?

FLATOW: Yes, I did.

Mr. GUNTON: Oh, okay, well, maybe it wasn't the first time.

FLATOW: At McMurdough(ph).

Mr. GUNTON: That's where we were.

FLATOW: I know, and they were amazing sounds. I couldn't believe seals were making them. Thank you very much, and good luck to you.

Mr. GUNTON: Thank you very much. Good to talk to you.

FLATOW: Mike Gunton is the executive producer of this gorgeous 11-part series, "Life." It's out there in DVD and also on Blu-ray. I'm going to get my Blu-ray copy because I want to buy one of those and see what's so pretty to look at. We'll see what Blu-ray looks like.

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