Planet Earth II and fundamental dramatic principles

The opening shot of Sunday night‘s Planet Earth II was truly breathtaking.

We saw a majestic creature soar through the stratosphere, its gorgeous silver plumage gently buffeted by the currents of the wind, kissed by Zephyrus, as it circled with dignity above the snow-tipped mountains, iridescently glistening in the early sun below the venerated beast steadily ascending to the vault of heaven.

It wasn’t a condor, nor was it an eagle. It was Sir David Attenborough. In a hot air balloon.

Sir David, with a frankly phenomenal head of hair for a 90 year old, quietly re-introduced us to Planet Earth and outlined the collective idea behind the first new episode: life on islands and how they function as a “microcosm of life on our planet”. What followed was not just a visually arresting glimpse at the wonder of the natural world, nor just an informative insight into the lives and social structures of the world’s animals, but a reminder that some of the best film-making today – in any genre or medium – is found in the BBC’s wildlife documentaries.

The BBC production teams manage to consistently craft some of the emotionally affecting, character-driven stories found on television in vignettes that are entirely self-contained, and entertaining in their own right, yet manage to illustrate some larger thematic or informative point as part of the overarching narrative of the episode… all from completely unscripted footage and with characters that can’t verbally communicate. It’s astonishing.

A quick glance at three of the sections from the first episode showcases this nicely.

First we get a bit of comedy. After hearing a mating call a pygmy three-toed sloth goes in search of a lover and we follow our intrepid hero on his journey to go and get laid. As he bumbles his way through the trees, the humour is derived from the hilarious and slightly cruel contrast between the urgency of his mission and the glacial pace at which he moves. The mind is willing but the body is weak. A problem soon arises: he has to cross a body of water to follow the sound of the mating call. The sloth drops down into the water and, with the camera fixed on his gormless, paradoxically totally blank and yet charmingly expressive, face he starts to swim. His gawky limbs awkwardly flail beneath the surface (captured by an underwater camera) and propel him towards his destination with surprisingly efficiency.  Once there he climbs upwards, pulling himself into the canopy to woo his potential mate… only to find that she already has a child. This wasn’t the sloth who called out. It’s an anti-climactic punchline after the slapstick build-up of our man’s odyssey. Better luck next time, pal.

The next segment also features the attempted courtship of a mate, but in somewhat different circumstances. The Komodo dragon gets the Godzilla treatment; the introduction of the lizard employs classic horror/monster movie techniques to make it seem gargantaun – these boys are made to look prehistoric. The Komodo is never seen in a wide shot to reveal its full size, instead we get close-ups that allow it to fill the frame and allow your imagination to speculate on how big these reptiles truly are. After a brief encounter with a desired mate, things soon descend into a turf war as we learn that, due to the circumscribed nature of an island, the territories of the males overlaps. The resultant fight between the two lads is a brutal affair, with a heavy sense of physicality and better choreography than the majority of action blockbusters, which culminates in a sickening final blow to the defeated contender.

The undoubted peak though was the sequence featuring the baby marine iguanas. Just watch:

It’s a stunning bit of cinema and a wonderfully put together set piece – it has a brilliant sense of geography; clearly-defined stakes; an engaging hero who earns our empathy by demonstrating resilience and resolve; the horrible tension as we wait to see if standing motionless will stop the snakes from detecting him; an obvious ‘villain’ with a clear, logical plan (we’ve seen how terrifying they are, what they’re capable of, and, more importantly, seen the consequences of their actions); the despair as he gets caught and the elation when he escapes; and superbly structured build to cathartic climax. All in the space of five minutes. We experience almost the whole spectrum of human emotions: hope, fear, anxiety,  jubilation, terror, horror, exasperation, desperation, relief. Most scripted fiction struggles to achieve that.

It should go without saying that a lot of that hinges on the the quality of the cinematography as the ability to sculpt a good narrative is contrained by the quality of the raw material captured on camera. In the more recent iterations of Attenborough’s docs, the camera crews have started to get acclaim and due credit in the little ‘Diaries’ sections at the end. These additions can’t be helping to recruit the next generation of wildlife photographers, as they inevitably focus on the horrible conditions and sanity-eroding tedium these people endure to get their footage. Their otherworldly levels of patience are commendable.

But even with all that outstanding material, you have to have the right people with the right ideas to shape it into something entertaining and a lot of what makes these documentaries special is reliant on post-production work. Everything they do is rooted in the fundamentals of dramatic storytelling and it’s worth reflecting on what it is that makes these programmes so appealing and how they achieve that:

 Silence is golden

Animals can’t speak. That’s a statement so obvious that it borders on the moronic but, even so, you have to acknowledge that as a non-negotiable reality of the genre.The animals have no dialogue so the filmmakers are forced to utilise different elements of film-making to convey emotion and character and therefore must rely on Henry James’ golden rule of showing not telling. The actions of the creatures are what creates the sense of drama and provide the main narrative  propulsion. Attenborough’s narration is supplementary, ensuring the viewer understands what they’re seeing while helping to outline what’s at stake (creature A wants to do x because y. Creature B (or some other obstacle) is going to hinder their progress because z. Away you go).The occasional sardonic quip or deflating understatement might add a bit of flavour to the tone, but rarely more than that. But even without the narration, you could watch a vignette and understand what’s happening which gives these stories the ability to transcend language and hints at something more universal.

Not having the luxury of having their ‘characters’ standing around explaining themselves and their personalities means that the show must rely on the action to demonstrate these things, which contributes to having stronger, more memorable ‘characters’. The inherent limitation of their work is their biggest strength.

Motivation 

Here’s another blindingly obvious statement: the creatures on Planet Earth II aren’t acting. Everything shown is reality, which provides a clarity of motivation – there’s a reason and a purpose for every action the animals take that, in turn, is a step towards achieving whatever their ultimate aim is. It’s readily apparent exactly what the driving interests are of the opposing forces within a scene (essential biological interests (the four Fs: fighting, fleeing, feeding and fucking) are what makes the animals act the way they do) which establishes conflict(the heart of any good drama).This is key as it strips away complexity from the narrative but makes the dramatic logic airtight – actions and character behaviour are rooted in identifiable motivation and it’s easy to understand the drama as the conflicting interests of antagonist(s) and protagonist(s) are easily discernible. Again, that sounds obvious but it’s the absolute cornerstone of creating engaging, rounded characters and it’s staggering how frequently fiction failures to adhere to this principle. .

The sloth wants to find a mate and must overcome the limitations of his own body and difficult terrain. The Komodo dragon has to overcome the physical challenge of a bigger rival (who wants to protect his territory/ exert his dominance) in a fight for the right to mate. The baby iguana has to make it to the beach by evading the snakes (who are trying to get a meal so they can survive). It’s logical A to B to C storytelling linked by ‘therefore’ rather than ‘and then’.

Crystal clear. Dramatically sound. Fabulously watchable.

Music to my ears

In most films, dialogue is not only used to impart information, but also to convey personality. That’s the dual function of language: what you say and how you say it both communicate something about you. Stripped of that, the Planet Earth II team have to use music and sound design to manufacture and portray the tone and personality of these scenes and ‘characters’. Their appreciation of the power of music to create and influence emotion is vitally important for the success of these documentaries.

As the sloth trudges across the tree branches, the quiet background string music slowly simmers along. It then swells to an faux-inspirational climax as he comes swimming into shot, creating a silly dissonance between the image and the soundtrack. The score then shifts into slow, repetitive drum beats to create momentum and builds to another crescendo as he reaches the summit of the tree to see his potential mate. The music then fades away and dissipates like the sloth’s hopes.

Sharp, jagged frets of strings followed by slow, powerful sounds to create a sense of foreboding as the Komodo dragon plods towards the camera. His steps are given an exaggerated thud as he pounds forwards, accompanied by a close-up on his leg impacting the sand. The sound of two Komodo dragons ripping apart the ribcage of a deer is made to sound like a crack of thunder. Throughout, the pace and tone of the music imitates his style of movement: the tempo increases during the duel to create a feeling of urgency and peril and then drops to silence when one dragon whips his tail with a piercing cracking sound to highlight the power of the move. A similar effect is used for the crushing blow of a knee and tail to the side. It’s verging on those ridiculous comic book sounds and I was half expecting a “KAPOW!” speech bubble to pop up. Seriously admirable restraint.

With the baby marine iguanas they used similar techniques – matching music to movement, as well as dropping the soundtrack completely and allowing the silence to relieve tension in the eye of the storm.

The musical cues and the score are vital in establishing tone as well as providing these blank, unthinking canvases with a sense of personality. Yes, it’s  over the top and occasionally a bit garish, but it’s broad storytelling and turning things into caricature is useful and efficient shorthand. It’s a testament to how effective music can be as these stories have lasting emotional resonance despite the fact that a single word hasn’t been uttered.

The first cut is the deepest/ a stitch in time saves nine

Having excellent raw footage is important but it doesn’t tell a story by itself. It’s in the editing room where your story is made as shots are stitched to one another, linking things together to create logical sequences and establishing the space and the shape of the narrative, with enough propulsion to make it exciting.

A close-up on the sloth has the background music swelling to its climax, before it cuts to a wide shot of the water. There’s a beat and then he bobs into picture. That slight delay  deflates the moment and then punctuates it with the fundamentally silly image of the swimming sloth contrasted with the inspirational music. It subverts expectation which is basically the root of all good comedy.

The Komodo dragon part is all about building him up as a monster. The first shot of the Komodo is him slowly dragging his tail through the mud. There are no other objects in shot to give perspective so we have no way of placing his size in context – which makes him seem huge. The shot of his reflection in the puddle further obscures his size but shows enough to stimulate your imagination and a shot of his underside as he walks forward makes him appear so big that the frame can’t contain him entirely. During the fight scene, quick cuts between different angles make it seem frantic and exhilarating, while the use of sound design (the hyperbolic whips and cracks and thumps of lizard-on-lizard contact) underlines the brutal physicality of the fight.

The scene of the iguana that was most widely shared and lauded on Twitter was great in isolation but even better when contrasted with the part that immediately preceded it. We’re introduced to the desolation of the island the marine iguanas live on which instantly establishes a tone of hostility that the lizards have to overcome. Watching the adult iguanas provide food for, and put up with, the parasitic crabs and lizards crawling over them endears them to the audience and contrasts with the snake-lizard/hunter-prey dynamic we’re about to witness.

In the first chase, we see the iguana to the left of centre of the screen and the vast expanse of empty frame to the right creates a feeling of unease as we know that something is going to fill that space. The shock of the first racer snake slithering into shot turns to horror as two more follow behind it which turns to revulsion as they seem to suddenly pour out from the rocks as the baby iguana desperately scuttles away. Seeing the first one surviving introduces the route the lizards have to take to get to safety and we feel relief. It soon fades as we are shown more babies hatching, interspersed with a few shots showing the overwhelming number of snakes there are waiting for a meal.

So, by the time it comes to the final iguana we follow, we’ve already had relief and the joy of survival undercut by a montage of the snakes eating loads of baby lizards. There’s a close-up of the final hatchling, still submerged in the sand, intercut with images of snakes strangling and eating another iguana which offers a glance at the potential fate awaiting him. This is particularly significant as it establishes the snakes as a credible threat and we see the consequences of getting caught. That means that when our hero gets entangled in the coils of the snakes later on, there’s a real sense of peril and we assume that he’s done for – we’ve seen what has befallen others who have found themselves in that trap. The editorial decision to include this footage is part of what makes this last chase so compelling.

*

You might not necessarily agree with all of that, but it’s difficult to argue that the BBC wildlife docs don’t display a talent for imposing identifiable, relatable human scenarios and emotions onto distinctly unhuman occurrences. Part of that is surely the innate human habit of projecting ourselves and our emotions onto almost anything, but it’s also a testament to the ability of visual art to generate and trigger empathy – it can stir us to relate to and feel compassion towards beings of an entirely different species.

Their work is grounded in fundamental dramatic principles that result in some of the most sophisticated, economical and enjoyable storytelling around.

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