Innovation

Blue Planet II: New technologies give a completely fresh perspective on life beneath the waves

Four years in the making, with footage drawn from 6,000 hours on 125 expeditions from 39 countries, Blue Planet finally returned to our screens this month. 16 years since the original Blue Planet, the sequel goes deeper still, using innovative technology to reveal more marine worlds and aquatic habits from the depths of Antarctica to the vibrancy of the Coral Reef.

November 6, 2017

Hack & Craft News caught up with Series Producers, James Honeyborne and Mark Brownlow to find out more.

Please introduce us to Blue Planet II

The ocean is by turn tempestuous and serene, exquisitely beautiful and bleakly forbidding. It covers 70% of Earth’s surface, and yet remains the least known part of our planet.  At first glance, it may seem as alien a world to us, as we are to it, but with the latest diving and submarine technologies, it’s possible to explore the oceans today like never before.  We can stay submerged deeper, for longer, and in doing so, we discover that we have more in common with, and are more connected to the ocean than we ever imagined.

Our seas are home to some of the most spectacular events and compelling animal characters in nature. Sea creatures that reveal their surprising intelligence, leading complex lives which, in some cases, even begin to mirror our own. If we didn’t already feel that deep connection to the ocean and its inhabitants, then perhaps now we will.

It all started some twenty years ago, when a team of wildlife film makers from the BBC’s Natural History Unit set out to make a series on the world’s oceans, the breadth and scale of which had never been seen before. Broadcast in 2001, the multi-award winning ‘The Blue Planet’, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, cemented the Unit’s peerless reputation for underwater filming.

Now, a generation on, the NHU has returned to these underwater worlds for Blue Planet II.  And in recent years, our knowledge of what goes on beneath the waves has been transformed.  Revolutionary technology allows us to enter new worlds, and film new behaviours in ways that were impossible just a generation ago: tow-cams to film predatory fish and dolphins head – on, as they charge through the ocean at top speed; suction- cams which enable the viewer to ride on the back of large creatures such as whale sharks and orcas; and Ultra High Definition probe cameras that allow us/them to get eye-to-eye with the smallest of creatures.

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What exciting new stories can we expect to see in Blue Planet II?

Over the course of more than four years in production, our teams mounted 125 expeditions, visited 39 countries, and filmed on every continent and across every ocean. Our crews spent over 6,000 hours diving underwater, filming everywhere from our familiar shores to the deepest seas. Such endeavor, passion and commitment has resulted in a series that brings us closer than ever before to the captivating lives of some of the most extraordinary sea creatures, transporting us into their magical worlds.

On remote island shores, we found leaping blennies –fish that live almost exclusively on land – and giant trevally that snatch seabirds out of mid-air. In vibrant coral wonderlands, we filmed the ingenious coral grouper – a fish that enlists the help of an octopus to hunt little fish hiding amongst coral branches – and, perhaps most charming of all, the ingenious and industrious tusk fish, who uses an anvil to crack open his clams.

In cooler seas we explored mysterious underwater forests. Amongst meadows of seagrass, we  encountered an enormous army of giant spider crabson the march. And we witnessed vast plankton blooms that spark a feeding extravaganza for thousands of dolphins, sea lions and whales.

Journeying into the giant void of the open ocean, we found Portuguese man-o-war sailing the ocean’s trade winds in search of food and happened upon super – pods of false killer whales that team up with families of bottlenose dolphins to hunt.

The ocean’s final frontier is the deep – Earth’s ‘inner space’. Here, after 1,000 hours in submersibles, Blue Planet II turns the spotlight on creatures so alien they could have come from outer space. It’s said we know less about the depths of our own planet than we do the surface of Mars.

Our great ocean holds countless previously – untold stories. But the seas are also essential to all life on Earth. Not only do they moderate our climate and create our weather, they also generate about half our planet’s oxygen.  But while filming Blue Planet II we have also witnessed great changes: the health of our ocean is under threat. Never has there been a more crucial time to explore our remotest seas, and to examine what the future might hold for our blue planet.

Blue Planet II uses cutting-edge technology to get closer to the action underwater than ever before, please tell us more?

It is amazing how much filming technology has moved on since the original Blue Planet series. We have harnessed new technology to tell stories – some never seen before -in completely new ways. Our underwater teams can now dive for much longer than conventional scuba ever allowed.

Rebreather diving gives our teams time to sit silently and watch, with no bubbles or disturbance underwater, and really get to know new creatures and their behaviours.  The original series would have shot aerials on 16mm film, from helicopters.  Now we have ultra HD drones that can be deployed anywhere they’re permitted – and they have revolutionised the way we can immediately witness oceanic events from above, adding detail and insight events like the ‘cyclone’ feeding strategy of manta rays over the coral reef. And submersibles carrying ultra HD and extreme low-light cameras have opened up the world of the deep ocean like never before, recording previously unseen events such as hunting packs of  Humboldt squid, at 800m deep.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 15/10/2017 - Programme Name: Blue Planet II - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY EMBARGOED FOR USE UNTIL 15TH OCTOBER 2017* The Blue Planet II team worked with several submarines to film the Deep episode, spending a thousand hours underwater across the world’s deep oceans to capture landscapes and behaviours never seen before FROM EPISODE 2 - THE DEEP - (C) BBC NHU - Photographer: Luis Lamar

What sort of new digital technology have you employed?

A big challenge of filming underwater is giving a sense of place – all too often things can feel very big and very blue. To connect with any character and to fully understand them, it is really important to understand their world.

Rebreather technology, which is ex-US military diving tech, has enabled us to reveal so much more. For the first time, we can be under water, staking out and just sitting and observing. Before you’d have had only 45-minute dives. Now we’ve got 3 hour dives which is just revolutionary. We also have infrared underwater cameras. We have a horror sequence with the ‘bobbit worm’, for example, where if we’d shone a white light on this nocturnal ambush predator , it would have just stayed in its hole. But it can’t detect infrared light. It means that even though we’re filming in complete darkness, and can only see what’s going on through the viewfinder, we can capture behaviour that’s never been seen before.

Low light technology is moving on so fast that we have scenes we have only just filmed because the technology just the year before didn’t exist. We’re building tow cameras to fly alongside tuna, sailfish and racing spinner dolphins. We have teamed up with expert engineers to build the first ‘Megadome lens’ – a 60-centimetre dome allowing us  to shoot split screen shots at the water surface, keeping the world both above and below in clear focus. That’s never been done with a video camera and it gives us our own distinct look.

We have also found new ways to transport the audience into the heart of coral reef environments – by developing a specialist probe lens that gives us the ability to get right into the nooks and crannies of the reef and explore the hidden worlds of its most charismatic critters.  This close-up, wide-angle perspective is what a reef fish would experience itself, allowing us to empathise more easily with the challenges they face on the coral reef.

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How important are technological advances in telling these new stories?

The two go hand in hand. On one level technology opens doors to new behaviours and new possibilities in terms of capture. If you can sit in a submarine a kilometre down in the abyss for 1000 hours, as we’ve done, or stake out a coral reef with diving rebreathers; or with low light cameras reveal mobula rays in a surreal dance, illuminating worlds of bioluminescence and plankton, then you can tell certain stories that were off limits until now.

What are the challenges of telling stories about the oceans compared to making natural history programmes on land?

Our challenge is to make people fall in love with less familiar animals and find personality in them. For instance, on the Great Barrier Reef we discovered that there is marine life like the tuskfish, octopus and coral grouper that are capable of behaviours so sophisticated, so smart, that scientists compare their behaviours to those of chimpanzees. Suddenly we’re realising there isn’t this vast difference between us and them.

We’ve been promised a “real life Pixar” movie.  What technology is used to grade the footage and squeeze as much colour out of the images as possible?

Blue Planet II Colourist, Adam Inglis explains:   Grading underwater footage is one of the hardest things a colourist can do.  Colour, contrast and brightness are all highly variable depending on how much water you’re shooting through and its clarity and depth. And the deeper you go the less coloured light there is to work with: the first to go is red, then green and finally blue.  You can remix the colour channels, adjusting specific colour hues, mixing between different grades within shots and so forth. You’d never really want to be working to match the worst quality shot in the sequence; ideally you’d get them to match the best ones.

I used Filmlight’s Baselight for the grade and was able to take my time, which really helped.  I’d often grade a shot multiple different ways and compare the end results to see which approach was best. With the footage matched, and as much colour and light extracted as possible, the final task was to ensure that resulting pictures could comfortably tell the Blue Planet story.  The amount of information that modern cameras can capture even in such tough conditions is remarkable, but most importantly the footage itself was simply stunning.

The quality of the camerawork and the beautiful and sometimes beautifully ugly animals themselves deserved the best treatment I could give them. While it may be difficult to work with images from such a strange world it is also hugely rewarding.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 15/10/2017 - Programme Name: Blue Planet II - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY EMBARGOED FOR USE UNTIL 15TH OCTOBER 2017* A bustling reef in Fiji. Tropical reefs are some of the busiest places in our ocean and shoals of Sea FROM EPISODE 3 - CORAL REEF Sea Goldie, Reef - (C) Alex Mustard 2017 - Photographer: Alex Mustard

In the first episode, the highlight for me was the bird-eating giant trevally fish.  Please can you tell us how filming that came about?

Yep – a bird-eating fish! The fish launches out of the water with phenomenal speed and acceleration and catches this bird in mid-air. And we filmed it in ultra-slow motion. To me it’s an iconic image, because in a moment, it transforms our understanding of what fish are capable of. It’s was originally a fisherman’s tale – a story we had only heard rumours of – and the only way of finding out if it was true was to go into the Indian Ocean and film it ourselves. I think that image alone speaks of the awesomeness, the power, the drama and the surprise that the ocean still delivers.   It’s one thing seeing a fish flying through the air, that’s unexpected enough, but then seeing a fish flying through the air and catching a bird in its mouth, wow…

Miles Barton was the Producer of the episode ‘Coast’ explains the filming involved:  

Giant Trevally are a big, 40kg bulldog-like fish, solid and aggressive. A rumour had come to us in Bristol from some South African fishermen that they’d seen Giant Trevally jumping out of the water and catching sea birds in mid-air. There wasn’t a single picture or video clip of this happening. I haven’t been out on a shoot in 20 years where I haven’t had at least a still picture of the behaviour to go on. So I was sceptical, to say the least.

But our researcher Sophie Morgan talked to these fishermen, and they convinced us, so we decided to do the shoot. Four of us went all the way to the Seychelles, including an underwater cameraman, a topside cameraman and a Cineflex gyro-stabilised camera to go on the boat. You only take on one or two of these types of risky shoots on a show. This was our biggest gamble.

We arrived and got very excited because yes, there were splashes everywhere: the fish were leaping out of the water and they did seem to be grabbing birds. But it happened randomly and very fast so we didn’t know how we were ever going to get a camera on the action!  We started out using the stabilised camera fixed to the boat. Our local boatman Peter King, was able to predict an area where the fish would attack but it was still very difficult to frame up on.

After a week of intense frustration with just a few shots filmed Peter suggested we go to the beach and where at certain stages of the tide, the giant trevallies came close to the beach. The beauty of this high point was that you could see the fish stalking below. Peter would tell us to ignore one, and aim for another one. Somehow he knew which one was hunting, too. So we ended up going from a very high tech approach, to the simple use of a camera on a tripod with the best local advice and we got it – they’re amazing shots! The Giant Trevallies leap out of the water and they really do take the bird out of the sky. A genuine bird-eating fish.

We will be showing the footage to bird researchers on the island so they can study the behaviour in detail for the first time, as it has never been filmed before.

In spite of all these great advances, to what extent are the oceans still a new frontier; a mystery?

For centuries, the oceans have attracted explorers, sailors, fishermen and, more recently, marine scientists. And despite all their great advances, it is still the final frontier of exploration on the planet. I’ve been making underwater films for 20 years but only in making Blue Planet II have I come to appreciate how little we really know about the ocean. It’s estimated we’ve had human eyeballs on less than 1% of the ocean floor, so there is still so much to see and learn. And there are still new discoveries to be made on almost every dive.

So yes, there is much further we still have to go in terms of ocean exploration, which is really exciting!

Programme Name: Blue Planet II - TX: n/a - Episode: Blue Planet II - early release (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: - (C) BBC/Lisa Labinjoh/Joe Platko - Photographer: screengrab/Lisa Labinjoh/Joe Platko

Blue Planet II will air on BBC1 from Sunday 29th October, for 7 weeks.