'The Green Planet' Filming Secrets

We uproot the behind-the-scenes features of the new David Attenborough show 'The Green Planet'
07 January 2022

Interview with 

Mike Gunton, BBC


Film camera



Chris Smith delves into the behind-the-scenes features of the new David Attenborough show 'The Green Planet' with producer Mike Gunton... 

Chris - Would you call yourself green fingered? While many of us dabble with a bit of gardening, or tend to the odd house plant, we often don't consider how plants behave. Well, the new BBC documentary, 'The Green Planet', presented by Sir David Attenborough, is looking at just that. I can tell already it's going to be a hit. Mike Gunton is the executive producer of "The Green Planet." He's here to give us an insight into the fascinating plant species that we live alongside and, also, the fascinating stories behind the filming of this new series. Mike, how do you go about putting all this together because, presumably, before you put a camera in front of a plant or even a script in front of Sir David Attenborough, there must be massive amounts of work that go on behind the scenes to work out what you are actually going to document.

Mike - Absolutely right. It's a combination of two things: one is the research to find the stories. In this particular case, with trying to take an audience into the world of plants which, of course, live in this kind of parallel universe in a different timeframe, we also had to spend an enormous amount of time thinking about how we're going to do that technically. Time lapse is a way of doing that - seeing plants in their timeframe. We've done time lapse for many years to try and get something that feels more like a 'Planet Earth'. That's what we were trying to do: a 'Planet Earth' for plants, if you like. It meant we had to think of some new technology to allow us to do that, to immerse the audience in this extraordinary world. So, yes, probably about a year of scientific research to find the stories and about the same amount of time going alongside, trying to find and develop new pieces of tech to allow the audience to come on this extraordinary journey.

Chris - There's about 400,000 plant species on earth - I learned that from a plant scientist who's actually trying to document every cell in every plant species on earth, and she said, "it's a big project" and now I understand why. But how did you choose the plants you were going to look at? Did you have some kind of insight into what sort of stories you were going to tell and what was the new technology that you had to invent.

Mike - Funnily enough, in the same way as you go about choosing stories for 'Planet Earth', where it's all about the animals, you are looking for stories that the audience can connect with; that are dramatic, that tell you something remarkable about the lives of these living things. So it was trying to find stories where there was an intrinsic drama and often that comes with conflict. Conflict in the animal world is paralleled in the plant world; plants competing with each other for light, for nutrients, for mates, or for sex, and we look for those kind of stories and also stories where the plants themselves were very active. When we put our time lapse cameras on them and speed up time and enter their world, you start to see this dynamism in action and what the technology was trying to do was, rather than just reveal this in a kind of tableau, just as locked off shot, the idea was the camera would move through the world as if you were following animals and taking different perspectives. If you had, for example, two plants competing with each other or fighting with each other or one attacking the other, rather than just seeing it in one shot, the camera can take the perspective of the attacker, it can take the perspective of the attackee, the one that's being subjected to the attack, and then also see it from a wider perspective and sometimes even see it from effectively an onlooker's perspective: some of the other plants. The way you do that - and it's all a bit secret the technology - but it's using robotic motion control cameras. Effectively, the cameras remember where they were throughout the playing out of the story so they can take time lapse image 1 of plant A and then they move round to a different position to take a shot of plant B, but then they go back to where they were to position plant A to take the next shot. As you can imagine, the engineering challenge of that to be so precise was immense. Anyway, we've done it, and when you see it, it almost feels like an unreal, almost a magical perspective because you, the viewer, and the camera, are moving in our time, but what's going on inside the frame, which is the plant world, is going on in their time, in time lapse. It's quite the interesting mind game when you watch it.

Chris - Well, you mentioned time. There's a clip of a plant that you documented that took a very long time to open. The rafflesia - did you really spend five years on that?

Mike - No. The backstory of that is five years. We filmed the bud growing over a considerable length of time but the bit that we spent most of our time on was watching the flower open and this remarkable seduction that goes on where the flower attracts Carrion flies effectively.

Chris - Because it smells like death, doesn't it? It smells gross. Apparently it's one of the worst smells you can encounter.

Mike - And you can tell David's enjoying himself with the relish with which he tells all that because there is a sort of theatre about this because they're unseeable other than through the camera and our technology. When you do see it, it is like going to the theatre and seeing some magic show being performed, but the difference being it's real and it's true. And it's all the more remarkable for that. That's one of my favourite stories: it's the biggest fly in the world. It's a remarkable thing. 

Chris - You were commenting on a brush with cacti as well. Because that's one of the things you cover in the series?

Mike - One of the things about this series that has been fun for me as a filmmaker (I've been doing this for about 30 years and started way back in the late eighties with my first film with David Attenborough when I was in my twenties) and the fun of that was taking David all over the world and doing these remarkable demos where he'd climb into this and climb up that and, of course, you know, he's now in his nineties and it's harder to do that. But he and we were very keen to try and redo that, revisit that in this series. And so we have taken him not all over the world, but to much of the world and he's got out there and done stuff and, as ever, game for all sorts of remarkable things, including: there's this extraordinary cactus called a Teddy-bear cholla - in back light it looks a bit like a Teddy bear's ears, it slightly looks like it's fur, but those are really nasty spines, very powerful defensive spines. David being David said, "well, I can demonstrate that by shoving my hand into one of these things and showing how vicious they are," but of course he has to do it with a welding glove, with a Kevlar lining to it, which we thought nothing could get through. And so he gamely shoves his hand into this thing to show you, and then, "Ah!" pulls his hand back because these spikes are so vicious they even managed to go through this glove. Being the tropper he is he carries on and delivers his story about how effective it is.

Chris - One of the things which has increasingly come up in recent years has been the conflict between us as humans, our use of the planet, our use of the world, and the animal species that you've been documenting. Are you also showing those conflicts here in 'The Green Planet?'

Mike - Absolutely. There's two things that I think we want to get out of this: one is that it is a wonderful, extraordinary, magical world full of fascinating science, fascinating biology. But, also, how important plants are and how we are all a bit plant blind: we take them for granted. They will do a lot of the heavy lifting for us in trying to recover, both in terms of biodiversity, but also in terms of carbon capture and all those kinds of things. And they'll do it without us having to do much! Leave them alone and they'll do it. Part of the story really is to say: not only be amazed and wonder in these things but treasure them and realise that, just because they don't run around, doesn't mean they're not important and, also, that they're not vulnerable. Lose them at our peril. If we don't look after them, that will be a fundamental problem for us in the future. So that message, I tell it in stories, but that message, hopefully will come over loud and clear.

Chris - And before you go: stand out moment for the viewers to look out for?

Mike - It's like trying to choose your favourite child, isn't it? I've done this for 30 years and I don't think I've ever been more astounded by the stories that we've discovered and told. I think in the the opening program, when you see that moment when the tree falls and suddenly the forest floor, which has been quiet for tens of tens of years, bursts into life and all these plants start doing their thing to try and race to the light using different technologies. And you see it in this... it's almost godlike, looking down on a battlefield, seeing all these different things fighting and trying to win. I think that's pretty remarkable and that sort of dynamism is, I think, throughout the series and I think you get a sense that these are extraordinary living things that are doing stuff just out of our sensory world but, nevertheless, still utterly remarkable.

Chris - Thank you very much to Mike Gunton who makes a very powerful case for why we should all tune in and watch 'The Green Planet', which is the David Attenborough's new BBC documentary series that starts on Sunday 7:00 PM on BBC one. You can also find that on BBC Iplayer.




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