Attenborough's new film: A Life On Our Planet

David Attenborough calls it his "witness statement". We speak to the executive producer...
13 October 2020

Interview with 

Colin Butfield, WWF


Sir David Attenborough pictured in Chernobyl.


David Attenborough calls his new film, A Life On Our Planet, "my witness statement and my vision of the future - the story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake; and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right." Chris Smith was joined by the films executive producer, WWF conservationist Colin Butfield...

Colin - When making the film we realised very, very early on that David has had this extraordinary life. Because of the time he was born and the job he had, we figured that he's probably seen more of the natural world than any other human being who has ever lived or will ever live; because before him there was obviously no air travel, and now so much of the natural world has been lost. The unique life he's had means he's seen something that nobody else has seen, and in the process of doing so, of course, he's witnessed this enormous scale of change on our planet; probably a bigger change to the natural world than any other time in the last 10,000 years. So he has a unique witness, a unique perspective, as a result of that. And that was a very appealing storytelling lens because I think when we talk about these massive global changes, it's quite hard for people to understand, to grasp. It feels huge. Putting it in the context of one human's lifetime makes that somehow easier to understand.

Chris - What will the viewer actually see? How have you done this? Because obviously, Sir David is now in his 10th decade, he can't travel in the way that he once did. So how have you managed to capture the spirit of an Attenborough doco, and do it in a way that brings people the action and has very much his fingerprint on it?

Colin - Well it's interesting! Even though you're quite right, David is 94 - he was 92, 93, when we were making this - he still did travel out to Kenya, to Maasai Mara, somewhere he had been to many times in the past, to show what's changed; and also out to Chernobyl, which obviously is a very different landscape and environment for him. But we start and end the film in Chernobyl and show the change that's happened there, from obviously the human civilisation effectively being evacuated and left destroyed, to nature reclaiming the territory. And we intersperse those location shots with some archive going back to his famous sequences in his career, and also footage from today that shows some of those changes. Some examples being: he's one of the first people to film and present from coral reefs, and then we've shown the modern footage of the same coral reefs bleaching. We've got footage of him in Borneo 40 years ago finding orangutans, and then footage of Borneo today and showing what's changed there. So you get that juxtaposition of what he saw then and what he saw now; but also of course, being David Attenborough, obviously his great expertise is in the natural world, so when describing even changes that are very human-centric he often uses examples of nature to illustrate that. One example would be that when talking about the impact of meat consumption on the natural world, he chose to explain it from the Serengeti and explain in the context of the ratio of predator to prey animals, and how much space prey animals need. There's a hundred prey animals on the Serengeti for every predator. And therefore the space that's needed effectively to produce meat protein, and using that to illustrate the changes that are happening in the human world. So we're able to have the gorgeous wildlife sequences and place lots of them in a very human context.

Chris - There is this phenomenon dubbed the "Attenborough effect": when David Attenborough highlights something, it usually galvanises attention and hopefully also translates into action. The best example being plastics, for example. Are there any things that you have purposefully picked for this one which you're thinking, "we want to provoke people, we want to highlight very important issues, or make people change"? Because it was obvious with the plastic doco that if you show that cause and effect, you immediately show people what they need to do to try to help. Have you done anything similar with this one?

Colin - Yeah. The two things we really, really wanted to get across in this were probably the biggest tipping point issues facing our planet; the biggest places where things will go into free fall, the changes are happening so fast. Those two examples are: the change in the Arctic sea ice and how fast the world's warming, very visually showing the change that's happened during David's filming career, actually not even just his lifetime; going to visit locations where you would expect to be surrounded by ice, and obviously the wildlife that is on the ice and uses the ice for hunting, and the ice not being there. And the second one was tropical forests; in particular, how fast tropical forests have been declining shows that the Amazon in particular, as an example, is approaching a tipping point where the amount of rain that's needed to self-sustain that that rainforest is being lost through lack of rainfall, and also deforestation and fires. And it faces a moment where it might tip into a dry savannah. And then placing those issues back to ourselves, in particular highlighting levels of meat consumption and investment in things like fossil fuels. Although each of those things are a bit more complex than purely a plastic bottle or a plastic carrier bag, which has obviously had a big effect because it's extremely tangible what each one of us can do and what that impact is, I think here we wanted to get a sense of the whole scale of the destabilisation of our planet and what we need to do to stabilise it again. And that's a bigger, more complex thing, but I hope and feel - and certainly the reaction in the first few days seems to suggest - we've got something across.

Chris - Lee, you've made quite a few films, in your case with National Geographic, about your work. It really does work to galvanise attention around an issue, doesn't it? I mean, have you found that interest in paleoanthropology, interest in our human story and therefore people's sort of sense of guardianship of the planet, has improved through what you've done making telly programs that bring the science to people?

Lee - Oh it absolutely does. There's probably no more effective way to reach millions and millions of people with messaging. But just to follow on what was being talked about that Sir David's done here: we're living in a world that's seen the cost of 8 billion human beings. COVID, the destruction of natural habitats, the cost to all other living things. And we need messages like this now, because this is going to be the new norm. It isn't going to be waiting around for viruses when we reach 9 billion and 10 billion and 12 billion consuming humans; we have to make choices, and we have to do it right now.

Chris - Theo?

Theo - Yes, I find this particularly poignant because I was a teenager when David Attenborough's Life on Earth came out, and it was the thing, when I was asked at university interviews "what made you want to study science?" that was my answer. I think he changes a lot of people's lives, and he's really determined now, even in this 10th decade, to keep changing our attitudes to the natural world. And it's really very inspiring.

Chris - And Colin, are you able to sort of capitalise on the program in other ways beyond just sort of making a program and educating people, are there other ways in which you can then take the momentum that's created and then build on that to get more change or to get more activity off the back of it?

Colin - Yes, I think there is. One of the things that's happened already in only a couple of days since we've released it is various big companies, as well as members of the government, getting in touch with us and asking us to host screenings and to share it with employees or with politicians. And I think you find, and hopefully we're going to find with this one, but you certainly find with documentaries, that it can be an interesting moment to provoke a conversation within companies and governments where change can be made. So it ‘lightning rods’ an issue that perhaps many people have been talking about for quite some time, and gives a focal point, a moment where it feels we must respond to this. And that's a sort of sense that we're getting at the moment. It's early days, but it feels like there's a moment where employees are asking their bosses, "what we can do about this, surely we've got to address these issues". And it's not just from one documentary, but it's from a building of this drumbeat over time. And then a documentary like this, particularly if fronted by David, tends to have a flashpoint that draws a lot of attention and forces people to make a statement one way or the other towards it.

Chris - And Lee, is there anything we can learn from what happened to our ancestors that might help to focus minds today? We think that obviously every experience we're having is unique. Is there evidence that actually our ancestors went through times when the planet was under stress, obviously not of their making like the present situation is in our case, but the outcome could nevertheless be the same?

Lee - I think that the thing that humans should take away from the idea of studying the human historic past is that we should lose our arrogance. Extinction is the norm. There have been dozens and dozens of our closest relatives with brains like ours, with adaptations like ours, that have existed through the last millions of years, and they are all gone. And we can go that way too.

Chris - Theo, any passing thoughts from you? It's a pretty poignant and sobering note from Lee to finish on.

Theo - I'm more of an optimist, and I hope that the human ingenuity that has got us into this terrible pickle will help get us out again.


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