Into the wild
As schoolchildren around the world stage mass walkouts to demand action on climate change, Netflix's stunning new exploration of earth's wildlife, Our Planet, is hitting screens at the perfect time, writes Meadhbh McGrath
When production began on Netflix's upcoming natural history series Our Planet four years ago, the filmmakers couldn't have asked for more perfect timing for its release. "To be honest, it could hardly be better," says co-producer Alastair Fothergill. "When you have thousands of schoolchildren all walking out [in protest over climate change], I think the awareness of the planet is greater than it ever was. What I'm seeing and hearing from people is that there's a real interest and passion. I also hope that, in a way, with Brexit and all that, it's quite nice to escape into the natural world."
Fothergill, who studied zoology at the University of Durham before moving into filmmaking, enjoyed a nearly 30-year career at the BBC's Natural History Unit before setting up his own company, Silverback Films, with co-producer Keith Scholey. Fothergill has been behind many of the BBC's landmark series, including Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Frozen Planet.
"Blue Planet launched in the UK the day after 9/11, and I remember very vividly, I was on a live TV show with Gloria Hunniford and suddenly the news came about the planes hitting the Twin Towers. I remember, in the week after that, a lot of people said, 'God, we love watching Blue Planet,' because in a time when the whole world seemed to have been turned upside down, to put our heads under water was really good to do."
The new eight-part series, which is narrated by David Attenborough, offers a comprehensive exploration of biodiversity, with each episode centring on a different habitat, from jungles to deserts to coastal seas. Over the course of 3,500 filming days, a crew of 600 captured footage in 50 countries, including several species never before seen on film. Our Planet will be released on Netflix in full on April 5, accompanied by a book of stunning wildlife photography, some of which is featured on our pages today.
The series, which Netflix expects to attract 1billion viewers, will also be supported by an online resource, ourplanet.com, in co-operation with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The site will be updated monthly with new information and advice on what individuals can do to reduce their carbon footprint. "Keith and I felt that the time was absolutely right to deal in depth with the environmental challenges our planet faces - still entertaining, still accessible, still a global series. That is challenging, because getting the balance between entertainment and messaging is a crucial one. If millions of people don't want to sit down after a hard day at work and watch this series, we've failed," says Fothergill.
But, he believes, natural history programmes are uniquely positioned to help change public attitudes about the environment. He points to the BBC's Blue Planet II, noting that he was "absolutely delighted" to see the effect the 2017 series had on cutting down plastic waste.
"In a world where so many people live in an urban existence, I think there's a need to show people the natural world, and with every generation of children, they need to see it as well. I'm very confident that just showing these beautiful places that remain is very valuable. But I think what's important is to tell them a bigger narrative as well, and we really do explain to people why the habitats are valuable," says Fothergill. "When I first started, conservation was about looking after the pandas and protecting the Serengeti. The way it's changed is that those are nice to have, but we are now talking about must-haves: if we're going to have a healthy planet for future generations, we absolutely have to preserve, and that's the change in our message."
Fothergill and Scholey are careful, however, to avoid turning Our Planet into a lecture. In the foreword to the book, David Attenborough writes of feeling "great hope"; that it's not too late "to choose the future we want if we act now - and act together".
"I think, in a sense, to get out of the bed in the morning, you have to be optimistic," Fothergill affirms. "There is absolutely no doubt that we have reached a critical point: what we do in the next 20 years is going to have a greater effect on future generations than any time in human history. We are the first generation to understand the problem. I do think we have the power to energise people, and I also think the human species is a very clever species. None of the environmental problems are unsolvable. Of course, it needs political will, but I think the voice of many people is much more powerful than it was even 10 years ago. I am optimistic."
In a bid to motivate viewers, Fothergill has made sure each episode includes "good news stories", such as the episode on forests, which concludes with a sequence in Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster.
"What's extraordinary is that the forests have retaken Chernobyl: it's a very green place now. We used a lot of remote cameras, called camera traps - when the animals move past them, the cameras work - and we left them for three years. We managed to film wolves and other wildlife, and actually there's a greater density of wolves there than in any other place in Eastern Europe. We've tried to give the good news stories as well, because we need to empower people - people need solutions."
To ensure their message hit home with viewers, Fothergill and Scholey needed a trusted guide, and David Attenborough was top of the list. The beloved broadcaster hadn't been part of the original package presented to Netflix, but he was drawn by the streaming platform's ability to provide a global audience. "To be honest, Keith and I always knew it would be our dream for David to do it. We go back a long way together - I worked on his original series, The Trials of Life, and he's narrated all my major series - and he absolutely bought into the vision," Fothergill explains. "He talks about the fact that when he started in the 1950s, their audience was 5,000 people in the south of England who had black and white TVs. He's now going to be broadcasting to 139million subscribers."
Fothergill adds: "For us as individuals, he is an inspiration. His voice is amazing and his narration is beautiful, but he brings with him authority. We're saying some pretty powerful things - one of the reasons we're working with WWF is that we need it to be absolutely bomb-proof accurate scientifically - but people need to believe it, and they believe David Attenborough. It wouldn't be the show it is without David's voice."
Next up for Fothergill is a Disney nature film called Penguins, as well as a BBC series scheduled for autumn 2020, which aims to show the forces of nature, from storms to volcanoes, in a positive light. Silverback Films is also working on The Mating Game, a follow-up to 2015 series The Hunt, focusing on animal courtship and featuring a pop music soundtrack. But Fothergill sees Our Planet as an ongoing project, with the UN's 2020 climate change conference its ultimate goal.
"On April 5, all eight episodes will be available in 190 countries and, really importantly, it'll be there for months and years. With many other broadcasters, they make a big noise around the original transmission - it might be on iPlayer for a month, and then it disappears," says Fothergill.
"The vision for this project is to make a difference in 2020. We're hoping that we will move the dial in global understanding of biodiversity."
'Our Planet' by Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey with Fred Pearce, published by Bantam on April 2 at €30