Making A Perfect Planet on BBC Earth (DStv 184)

Highlights 22 February 2021

A Perfect Planet was not quite ready when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Here’s how the production team and Sir David Attenborough worked together to get it across the line.

6 months of pre-production.
4 years of filming in 31 countries and 6 continents.
3,000 hours of footage captured in camera-breaking conditions, caustic mud, sweltering desert and frozen wilderness.
The hard work and dedication of 200 people.
And then… the devastating COVID-19 pandemic happened.

The 6-episode BBC documentary series, A Perfect Planet, narrated by the great Sir David Attenborough, had the finish line in sight when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the world went into lockdown.

The crew members were lucky enough to have all their footage in the bag, but that didn’t mean they were out of the woods. A full year (and a month) of post-production work was needed. And there was one last barrier to break – sound.

Not only was Sir David Attenborough only part of the way through recording his narration, but the music for the series that provides such a beautiful, emotional tone to the episodes wasn’t completed.

Here’s how they beat the odds.

A Perfect Planet airs on BBC Earth (DStv 184) exclusively on DStv Premium

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Sir David makes a plan

In December 2020, series producer Huw Cordey revealed, “Our Production Manager told me a week or two ago when we finally delivered the whole series to the BBC that we'd had 60 weeks of post-production. I think that's a record in natural history. Partly it's because of the pandemic. Everything slowed down to a snail's pace. It was very difficult. We had to carry on and it was very difficult to move at the same speed over the last 8 or 9 months. But I don’t think we compromised on quality and that's the important thing.”

Of course, one of the production’s top priorities was to keep the high-risk, 94-year-old Sir David safe during the pandemic. That meant no travelling to a sound studio which was about 160km from his house.

“Sir David is as nice in person as he always comes across on television. He's easygoing, he's always helpful, engaged, chatty. He's also incredibly intelligent. You really do have to know your stuff when you talk to him about some subjects. You don’t want to get caught out and look like an idiot because he knows a lot,” says Huw.

“I'll give you an example of the kind of person Sir David is. He’s 94 now and for this series, he recorded the narration. We did 2 of the episodes in a professional studio, but the other 3 happened during lockdown when David was shielding in his house. And he just took the changes that we needed to do totally in his stride. We recorded the commentary for 3 out of 5 of the episodes from his dining room. He sat there with a professional microphone and the walls covered in sheets and duvet covers to stop the sound bouncing around, and we had a cable running from the microphone out through his dining room window into the garden where Graham Wild, our mixer, was recording sound (giving Sir David feedback via Zoom while Huw was also connected via Zoom, directing).

“The first one we did, it was in the middle of the summer, and it was baking hot. He [Graham] was sitting under an umbrella with a hat on. And then during the second one, it was raining. It was quite a challenge because it just carried on going. Now David has built a little shed in his garden for Graham to sit in, it's quite sweet. David just took it in his stride. It was completely different to how we normally did it, but he didn’t bat an eyelid. You won't notice the difference between the episodes recorded in the studio and the episodes recorded in his dining room. We're very adaptable as a species. David, even in his mid-90s, is no exception.”

Episode producer Ed Charles adds, “I did the first episode voiceover with David in the studio for The Sun, then the second one for Humans, COVID-19 had appeared and David was doing it from his house remotely as Huw has just described. David, with the help of his daughter, had brought in a big double-bed mattress which he laid up on the back of his living room wall to absorb the sound so it would have the studio dynamic, the audio dynamics. So it was quite Heath Robinson. It was an interesting experience but wonderful that David allowed us to carry on doing the voiceovers through the pandemic.”

PS. Sir David received the COVID-19 vaccine in January 2021.

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And cue the music

While Sir David and the team were making the narration happen, Huw and composer Ilan Eshkeri also had to figure out how to get an entire orchestra playing together during a pandemic.

“The music for the series had to be finished in Iceland, one of the few places where we could gather a string orchestra (of Icelandic musicians) and record them playing live. COVID-19 restrictions prevented us doing the same with brass and woodwind instruments, so they had to be recorded separately in each of the musicians’ living rooms,” reveals Huw.

Ilan adds, “At first we weren't allowed to form an orchestra in the UK, so recording became incredibly difficult. We have London Symphony Orchestra musicians who would normally record at Abbey Road studios. Instead, the brass and woodwind [musicians] were recording in their living rooms with microphones that had been sent to them and with help controlling their computers over Zoom. It was a mishmash of people from all over the world, but the musicians are so extraordinary that we got away with it.”

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Perfect timing

A Perfect Planet represents an extraordinary effort on the part of everyone involved. But an extraordinary effort is what is now needed globally to save the world.

The series is bringing the world’s attention to the state of the planet at a perfect time. Series executive producer Alistair Fothergill noted in 2020, “It's funny, when you start working on a series 4 years ago, you don’t quite know how timely it's going to be. But it has turned out to be extraordinarily timely. This year [2021], we are hosting the COP26 (The COP26 UN climate change conference, which will be held in November) meeting in Glasgow. It's probably the most important meeting for the planet for a generation and the themes that we address in A Perfect Planet series are exactly the things they will be discussing at that conference. Very timely.”

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.

For more behind-the-scenes details, you can see Pearl Modiadie’s discussion with the filmmakers here.

Watch A Perfect Planet S1 Sundays on BBC Earth (DStv 184). The series is available on Catch Up.

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