Getting To Know The Animal Families Of 'Earth' Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield are the directors behind the hit nature-documentary series Planet Earth. Their new movie, Earth, uses some of the same footage — but it's "character-based" rather than "habitat based."
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Getting To Know The Animal Families Of 'Earth'

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Getting To Know The Animal Families Of 'Earth'

Getting To Know The Animal Families Of 'Earth'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our Animal Week series continues with the stories of a polar bear stranded at sea because of global warming and an elephant lost in a sandstorm. They are two scenes of animals in the wild from the movie "Earth."

It was shot in 200 different locations in 64 countries, from the tops of mountains to the bottom of the ocean. Technological innovations in aviation and camera equipment made it possible for the filmmakers to capture scenes of animal life we have not witnessed before.

Earlier this year, I spoke with the two directors of "Earth," Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. They also collaborated on the TV series "Planet Earth."

They've both directed nature programs for the BBC. Fothergill is the former head of the BCC's Natural History Unit.

Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the movie. You have cameras in amazing places. For example, in the beginning of the film we see the polar bears just at the end of their hibernation, just as the sun has returned to the North Pole, and the polar bears are emerging from underneath the ice to see the sun again.

How did you know when and where to have the cameras so you could actually see that moment when the polar bears come out of hibernation?

Mr. MARK LINFIELD (Director, "Earth"): Well, if you really know your polar bears, then there are certain telltale signs that give away the presence of a den, and in the case of these polar bears that were filmed in Kong Karls Land in Northern Norway, part of an archipelago off Northern Norway, there's a tiny little dimple, tiny little dimple in the snow, on a slope, with the slope having exactly the right degree of slope-iness, and if you know what you're looking for, that is an absolute telltale sign.

Now, what the crew had to do was stake out that likely den site and wait and wait and wait and hope that they were correct, and of course after a couple of weeks of waiting in extremely cold temperatures, the mother finally poked her nose out of the den. So you know, great field craft, really.

GROSS: You not only have to wait, you have to wait there with a camera rolling on a piece of ice.

I mean, you know, the camera's focused just on this ice waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for the bears to come out, hoping that it's focused on the right piece of ice at the right moment with the camera on when the bear emerges.

Mr. LINFIELD: Well, what's lucky is that the mother polar bear will stick her nose out, sniff around, put her nose back down and then stick it out again.

GROSS: A-ha, like a dress rehearsal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LINFIELD: So you've got a couple of moments in which to switch the camera off because you're right, of course. If you were literally running the camera for two weeks, you'd run out of tapes and batteries.

GROSS: It's a magnificent sight to see the polar bears emerge, like, you know, the adults and the little children, the little cubs. Can you just describe what it looks like?

Mr. ALASTAIR FOTHERGILL (Director, "Earth"): It's a very special moment, really, because - and the reason we spent so much time waiting for that very special moment is that they've been born underneath the ice.

The mother makes her den in October, November, at the end of the autumn, gives birth in this den, and you know, when they emerge in March, the cubs are about two months old, and they literally - they come out, and their eyes are blinking with the first bright sunlight of the Arctic spring, and they're very nervous.

You know, it's nice and warm and snug inside that den, and you know, it's minus-35. It's very, very cold in March, and the mother is desperately hungry. She hasn't eaten for five months, since she went into that den, and she's very keen to get out onto the sea ice, to hunt for seals.

She's lost half her body weight, but the cubs, they don't want to go anywhere. You know, they've got mum's milk. They liked staying in the den, and they play around on the slope, and it's a wonderfully intimate time. But eventually mother says, come on, come on, you're not going to get any milk if you follow me, and after about 10 days of hanging around the den entrance, she persuades her two cubs out onto the sea ice, which is a dangerous and frightening world for her but also for her cubs.

GROSS: You follow the father bear, the father polar bear of this family, as he sets out on the ice to find food, which means seals. The problem is, and we've been hearing a lot about this, that with global warming the ice is melting. The ice sheet is melting, and we see that illustrated before our eyes with this polar bear, who - well, why don't you describe, Alistair, what happens to the polar bear.

Mr. FOTHERGILL: Well, what's interesting about the polar bears is they get about 90 percent of their food in a very, very limited window of time, and this is the time in the spring when the sea ice is still not melted away, and the seals are all giving birth to their pups.

Now, seals, because they're air-breathing mammals, have to come to holes in the ice, breathing holes, and that is where, for a very short period, the polar bears can grab the seals.

As soon as the sea ice breaks up, as soon as the seal pups have the strength and the age to swim away, it's very hard for the polar bears to catch their food.

And increasingly what's happening with global warming is that that winter sea ice is breaking up earlier and earlier, and that window of opportunity, that limited time when they can hunt for their food, is getting shorter and shorter, and you know, literally the world that they live in, the ice that they walk on, is melting beneath their feet.

And you know, we would think that if sea ice in the Arctic reduces at its present rate, it's quite likely that the polar bear may be pretty well extinct in the wild by 2030, 2040.

This is an animal that isn't really hunted by anybody, that lives in a wilderness area which is, you know, undisturbed by human populations. It should be an animal that should be really thriving, and in many ways until recently it was, but now because of global warming it's in real danger.

GROSS: And it's such a magnificent animal. Why don't you describe the peril that this father polar bear runs into in its quest to find seals, to find food for its family.

Mr. FOTHERGILL: Well, the last thing it does in the summer, it - I mean, one of the magic moments for me, and I was filming this, actually, was I was in a helicopter, high up, filming the male polar bear swimming out in the open ocean.

And this is a world where traditionally we'd never been able to film before because, you know, you can't walk out there. There's no ice to walk on. You can't bring in an ice-breaker because you'd disturb the polar bear. But I was up there in a helicopter, looking down, and this beautiful bear, you know, the world's largest land carnivore, was swimming, diving down.

The water was crystal clear. You could see it swimming underwater. It looked beautiful, but you know, it's a problem. You know, polar bears are not designed for long periods of swimming, and finally our male polar bear had to resort to attacking a colony of walrus.

When the ice melts, walrus haul out in large groups, and it's a desperate technique for polar bears because adult walrus are very big, much bigger than their normal prey, and of course they're armed with those very impressive tusks, and our actual male was stabbed by a walrus in its attempt to try and steal one of its pups and actually died, and it's a very strong and powerful moment in the film, I think.

GROSS: You know, you were filming something that I'm not sure people have seen before, which is a polar bear swimming in the ocean, looking for food, and you have this incredible view of it. So exactly where are you poised in this helicopter? How far are you, and what kind of equipment do you have that enables you to see in adequate detail what the polar bear is doing?

Mr. FOTHERGILL: What's amazing is we were basically a mile away from that bear, and this was a remarkable new camera system called the Cineflex, and what it effectively does is it carries a camera beneath the helicopter, but very importantly and very sort of in breakthrough, really, the lens on that camera is far more powerful than any lens that we have been able to stabilize on a helicopter before.

And that means you can be a mile away from the animal you're trying to film and yet still get the close-ups you want without in any way disturbing the animal. So the male polar bear had no idea that we were there.

And we used it many times. We used it to film a wolf hunt from the air. Again, wolves are very shy animals, but we were able to film for the first time a complete wolf hunt in that way. We used it to follow our humpback whale mother and her calf through rough ocean waters. You'd never be able to keep up in a boat.

And it was a - you know, it was one of the most important breakthroughs for this movie, both in filming behavior but also in delivering wonderful cinemagraphic, wide-angle images of the scenery of our planet.

GROSS: You know, I'm thinking when the polar bear was swimming, looking for land and for food, you had a much more expansive view than the polar bear did, and you could see basically what he was in store for, that there wasn't - he wasn't going to find land, and he wasn't going to find a place where he could get at seals.

What did it feel like knowing the kind - knowing basically that the polar bear was doomed, which the polar bear didn't know?

Mr. FOTHERGILL: Many people ask us that question. You know, why don't you get involved? Why don't you - you know, some people say: Why don't you shoot a walrus to feed the polar bear? You know, when you get into these situations where you see animals having a really hard time, can't you intervene?

And of course for us the first rule of wildlife filmmaking really is never disturb, never intervene. It's not our role. I mean, it's impractical, to be honest. I mean, you can't go on shooting walruses for polar bears, even if you'd want to. And you know, it's a moral issue. We just need to observe and show people nature as it is, both, you know, the gentle side of nature and also the more tough and rough side of nature as well.

GROSS: Well, also, say you were doing the film on the walruses, you know, then you'd be really upset that the polar bear was coming to kill the walrus.

Mr. FOTHERGILL: I think the thing is to put everything in the context, you know. I mean, you know, a walrus has its pups. You know, the polar bear is starving. We have a very powerful sequence of a cheetah catching a gazelle, and you have to remember that, of course, that cheetah has cubs to feed, and that's the whole point about nature.

You need to - I think we were very, very keen to show it in its trueness, true nature, and there are some harder scenes. There need to be to give a true picture of the natural world.

GROSS: My guests are Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, directors of the film "Earth." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about filming animals in the wild. My guests, Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, directed the movie "Earth," which followed animal families in 64 countries in search of food.

Mark Linfield, you worked very closely on this sequence about the elephant migration to get, during the dry season, to water. Describe a little bit what the elephants are up against in this migration.

Mr. LINFIELD: Yes, well, the elephants migrating across the Kalahari in southern Africa, which is where we filmed them, have to undertake really quite an epic migration, as you say, driven by - ultimately by thirst but also hunger, and it's a journey that takes them through extremely inhospitable lands, and I think that's best illustrated in the movie by an occasion where they're crossing a particularly barren stretch of ground - effectively desert, really sand.

And we were filming them from a helicopter. I recall the day when we looked on the horizon, and there was just this wall of dust heading towards them, and basically out of nowhere a sandstorm had blown up, and the elephants had no idea what was coming.

From our high vantage point in the sky, we could see what they were about to face, and these elephants just disappeared into the sandstorm, and from way above it was just an incredible view unfolding beneath us, of these mother elephants trying to nurse their calves, trying to push them through the worst of the storm, trying to keep motivating, trying to keep them going, and the whole herd, which is sort of hunkering down and pulling together.

And despite this, despite the fact that all the elephants were pulling together and the mothers were trying to take good care of their calves, I remember when the storm cleared there was an incredibly sad scene of this one little elephant walking off into the distance, and it thought that it was just falling slightly behind, and it was trying to walk faster and faster to catch up with its mother.

And from where we were in the sky, we could see that it was actually heading in exactly the wrong direction, and we could see right out into the open that basically it was heading off into the middle of nowhere. And I think that that was one of the moments for me where you really sense this idea of the animals battling the elements on our planet and just a great sense of wilderness.

And it was something that really we've only been able to capture recently because of advances in technology and the ability to film animal behavior from the air. I mean, these sorts of scenes just a few years ago would have been impossible to film.

GROSS: There's a lot of animal showdowns in the film, and one of them is during the elephant migration sequence when, you know, the elephants -they're hungry, they're thirsty, you can see they've lost a lot of their body weight because you're starting to see, like, bones sticking out, and then they're attacked by some lions. And could you describe where you and the film crew were while shooting this confrontation?

Mr. LINFIELD: Yes, the film crew led by a great camerawoman called Justine Evans had staked out a water hole, and of course that's exactly what the lions were doing too. The lions knew the elephants were going to come to this water hole, and very unusually for lions, this extremely large group of specialist elephant hunters - and of course it takes a large group to bring down even a medium size elephant - so this is one of the biggest groups of lions in Africa, one of the biggest prides in Africa.

And to see them waiting there for nightfall, because of course the lions attack by night - and there's a simple reason for that, which is lions have excellent night vision and elephants really have no better vision at night than we do -in order to see them, the camera team had an infrared camera and infrared lights.

Now, when these lights are switched on, no one can see them, not the crew, not the elephants and not the lions, but by looking down the eyepiece of the infrared camera, the camerawoman, Justine, could see absolutely everything.

So we have this extraordinary scene where lions are particularly actually trying to get the calves but in doing so absolutely terrifying the adult elephants and chasing the elephants around the water hole.

And actually it's one of the most dangerous things that we filmed for "Earth" because whilst many people might think that these lions could leap into the back of the vehicle and take the camera crew, in fact they just don't register a vehicle as being prey. You could say that they're not particularly bright, but they just, they don't recognize the opportunity that's in front of them. The real danger lies in the fact that they are terrifying elephants.

And a terrified elephant is quite a formidable thing, and many Land Rovers in the past in Africa have been flattened by rampaging elephants, and that's in the daytime. So of course, you've got a crew sitting around a water hole with elephants rampaging past them, terrified, being chased by lions, and the elephants don't even know where the vehicle is. So there's a large element of luck required just in order not to get crushed.

GROSS: So did any of the camera crew get hurt by the elephants?

Mr. LINFIED: No, none of them. I'm pleased to say that they were all absolutely fine but quite shaken by, you know, what they saw, and this was quite an interesting challenge for Alastair and I.

We had to think very carefully about what things to include in "Earth" because, you know, we didn't want to shy away from the fact that animals eat and are eaten, but at the same time we didn't want to show any what we felt was gratuitous blood and violence, because A) we didn't feel it's particularly interesting. You know, the interesting part is the strategy of the hunt, it's not seeing an animal torn apart in detail.

So we didn't really see that that stuff was interesting, and furthermore, it was very important to us that we made a movie that we felt children could see and that parents felt safe taking their children to, because there's so much in "Earth" that the young children - and we felt so passionately that we wanted young people to be able to see the movie, that we discussed, you know, at great length where the line should be drawn on these predation sequences.

And you know, generally the strategy is interesting, the strategy of the predator is interesting, the strategy of the prey to escape is interesting, but once you get to the moment where the outcome is really self-evident, we felt it was right to cut the camera at that point.

GROSS: Well, for example, in the sequence where the lions are attacking the elephants, you see a lion basically jump up and bite an elephant a couple of times. So you don't see the final kill, but you see elements of the attack.

Mr. LINFIED: That's precisely it. I mean, the lions mount the elephant, and very conveniently the elephant runs behind a bush where the lions dispatch it, and you might say that's a slightly Disney ending. You know, you don't, you don't get to see the meat of it.

You know, we would say that was exactly the right point to cut because the interesting part, the rare piece of behavior had been seen by that point, and really we have plenty of material of what followed - and I have to tell you the rushes were - or the dailies, as you call them - were quite hard to stomach, some of them, and we just saw really no, no benefit in showing that to people.

GROSS: Since you spend so much time in the wild shooting animals, do you have pets to go home to?

Mr. LINFIELD: Yeah. I have a cat. I've to say Alas is not very happy about that because my cat eats birds, and Alas is extremely keen on birds.

Mr. FOTHERGILL: I love birds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LINFIELD: But no, I like as many animals in my life as possible, and I'm very fond of my cat.

GROSS: Do you see your cat differently because you see so many like lions and cheetahs and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LINFIELD: No, I see my cat for the awful little predator that it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LINFIELD: But I must say, I probably - I'm in complete denial. I mistakenly think that - think that he recognizes me and loves me. I'm absolutely - I'm sure he doesn't. But no, he is part of the natural world just like all of us, and he is a ruthless little predator.

Mr. FOTHERGILL: And I have a couple Jack Russell dogs, and my boys have hamsters, Siberian hamsters, which they love, and they're good pets. They're good fun.

GROSS: Alright. Well, thank you both so much. And congratulations on the film.

Mr. LINFIELD: Thank you very much. Very nice to have such a nice chat.

GROSS: Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield directed the movie "Earth." We spoke in April when the film was released. Our Animal Week series continues in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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