A Perfect Planet producer Ed Charles talks about the weather and cuttlefish
08 March 2021
A great story needs gripping characters – this is how A Perfect Planet’s producer Ed Charles found his for the Weather and Oceans episodes
One of the things that the documentary series, A Perfect Planet, does… well, perfectly, is to take the vast interconnected systems whose balance of forces makes life on our planet possible and bring them down to the level of a stubby little frog, then making us fall in love with that frog. As the director and producer of two of the series’ episodes, Weather (Episode 3, on Sunday, 28 February) and Oceans (Episode 4, on Sunday, 7 March), it was up to Ed Charles to figure out how to tell that kind of story.
A Perfect Planet airs on BBC Earth (DStv channel 184) exclusively on DStv Premium.
Talking about the weather has been a sort of shorthand for boring conversation in passing with a neighbour or a colleague. But in A Perfect Planet, Ed and his team use living animals we care about to show us the effects of not only the clearly destabilising and changing weather patterns, but the dangers of weather becoming more extreme. A 1-degree rise in global temperatures might not sound like much, but the effects, as seen in A Perfect Planet, are enough to give serious pause for thought.
In the Weather episode, A Perfect Planet takes us to the coastal sands of Port Nolloth where the Desert Rain Frog, described by Sir David Attenborough as being “the same size and shape as a marshmallow” ‒ and tell us that doesn’t go straight to the heart – emerges from her shelter under the sand to go hunting termites in the dunes by night. If she looks familiar, that might be thanks to a viral video of a furiously squeaking desert rain frog that made the rounds several years back. So small. So an-ger-y.
This humorous sequence shows the little frog being so round that she can barely reach a nearby termite and even has her food wandering over her face. And she moves her face like a sock puppet when she eats. It’s a minute slice of life that all comes across onscreen in exquisite detail, down to being able to see blood moving through the vessels in the frog’s eyes despite being filmed at night.
But how does it all tie in with weather? That’s the trick. Aside from getting moisture from her termite dinner, the frog relies on coastal fog, which she can absorb through her skin. Sir David explains that she needs at least 100 days of fog a year to survive. It’s obviously a delicate life on the very edge of possibility and one that’s obviously vulnerable to climate change. No fog, no frog. By giving us this fascinating little animal to watch, Ed and the Perfect Planet team aim to personalise the effects of weather and climate as something more than hot and cold, wet or sunny.
The Weather episode then takes us into neighbouring Zimbabwe to the Zambezi River to show us, through time-lapse photography, how Victoria Falls slowly runs dry – from the abundance in May to a trickle in December at the end of the rainy season. As Sir David says, though, in recent years the volume of water over the falls has dropped by half. Weather links to water, dry seasons to animals congregating at the few remaining pools, and with the concentration of wildlife, the Perfect Planet team was able to capture unexpected scenes of Nile crocodiles and fish eagles hunting colourful carmine bee-eaters while they were building their nests in the exposed river banks. It’s a scene so rich and strange that it would be a tragedy to lose it.
It also gives us sobering footage of hippos crowded in mud pools looking like they’re about to become fossilised in the dirt as continuing drought and spiking temperatures globally push areas of Africa into the worst drought conditions recorded in the past 100 years. Drone footage of the hippos perfectly captures how many of them there are and how few resources they have left to share as the drought closes in on them. It’s a short step from seeing that to making the connection to ourselves, even if you don’t feel for the hippos for their own sake.
A change in the weather
Even Ed’s job was being made harder by recent climate change. “For the weather episode especially, I found that just predicting weather events is becoming harder and harder. You'd go out for the rainy season or the dry season, or whatever behaviour was linked to a certain time of the year, and suddenly those rainy seasons don't happen like clockwork anymore. They might be 2 weeks later, 3 weeks later. A month earlier. So when you're making a weather show where every single behaviour is tied to a specific aspect of the weather, which generally happens at a specific time of year, that certainly did make things quite challenging,” he says.
Ed’s other episode, Oceans, required a different sort of approach, but again, animals were the key. “Weather is a visceral force, you can see it, you can film lightning storms, but I also did the Oceans film. And one of the main forces, or rather the main force, at play in the oceans is ocean currents, which are largely invisible,” says Ed. “What we were keen to do in this series is we didn’t just want to pick a cool story that happened in the oceans, it had to very much speak to the narrative of the force, which is ocean currents. That's not always easy when you can’t see the force. We had to work hard on our stories, making sure we found the right one. We found some great stories which we would have loved to have told, but they weren’t relevant to our actual narrative, so we had to search a bit harder and work a bit harder.”
The Oceans episode opens off the coast of South Africa where a massive pod of dolphins are hunting. Footage shot underwater by South African cinematographer Roger Horrocks reveals how the dolphins co-operate to herd mackerel into a tight formation – known as a bait ball – and drive them up to the surface where they can feast. There really is no escape for the mackerel as gannets that have been following the dolphin pod attack from the air too. Roger got a mackerel’s eye view from below the diving birds while drone footage from above reveals the seething white water from the feeding frenzy below, which is soon joined by sharks, too.
After the frenzy has us gripped and invested in the action, the scraps drift down to the ocean floor. But that’s not where the story ends because, thanks to the currents, those nutritious little bits and pieces get swept right back up again and pulled along to feed plankton. So from this massive scene of action, Ed cuts into the peaceful, fascinating microscopic world of the plankton and phytoplankton that produce half the world’s oxygen (a fact that was only uncovered in 1988). It’s real circle of life stuff.
In this episode, Ed brings us another charming little creature whose babies depend on those current-delivered scraps – a flamboyant cuttlefish who’s in his brightest colours because he’s out courting a lady cuttle. The lady he’s set his sights on is four times bigger than him, but the dauntless cuttle scuttles on, and A Perfect Planet takes the time to tell his story.
“We filmed a tiny, tiny cuttlefish in Indonesia. We knew we wanted to go out to film the cuttlefish. We wanted to film the mating behaviour and the egg-laying. But what we couldn’t plan for was what we saw. We saw this tiny male, which is about a quarter of the size of the female rebuffing him, but he kept on going, and he kept on going. So of course, in the edit, well, most men can relate to that to some degree. So we did have fun in the edit playing around with that and drawing out that character and to a certain extent anthropomorphising it,” says Ed.
Out in the field throughout the series, Ed, his fellow episode producers and the cinematographers were already thinking about how their stories could come together, earmarking those quirky little characters who caught their attention.
“One of the most important things that we do on a shoot, certainly I try to get everyone on my team to do this, is after every day's filming, although you may be tired, it's really worth just sitting down and watching what you've shot,” says Ed. “Then you know what's working, you know what's not working, it will give you ideas. I find that most evenings when I'm watching the footage that's been shot that day, I might see glimpses of something that makes me think, ‘That's a nice little avenue here,’ little glimpses of character come out and make me think, ‘Aha, we can build on that.’”
For more behind-the-scenes details, you can see Pearl Modiadie’s discussion with the filmmakers here.
Watch and Win!
DStv, in association with BBC Earth, will be hosting a Watch & Win Competition offering viewers the chance to win A Perfect Planet book. To be eligible to enter, participants must watch BBC Earth (DStv Channel 184) on Sundays at 16:00 or on Catch Up, then answer the questions posted weekly on this webpage.
BBC Earth is also giving one lucky couple the opportunity to experience the beauty of Tanzania! Simply sign up for DStv Rewards via the MyDStv app or the DStv website and enter the BBC Earth competition. Click here for more information.
Watch A Perfect Planet S1 on Sundays on BBC Earth (DStv channel 184) at 16:00. The series is available on Catch Up, and it will be available to binge as a complete series from Sunday, 14 March, to Sunday, 11 April.
Sign up for DStv – it’s an online streaming service for all DStv subscribers. Watch the channels you watch on your decoder at home, on the Internet! Go to now.dstv.com on your laptop and Catch Up on the episodes you missed.