From Ants to Elephants
And it's left Oprah nearly speechless.
"I've been in television all of my life, and I have never seen anything this good on television—ever," she says. "I just run out of words trying to describe it. I'm absolutely in love with this series and in love with our planet Earth. And that's what will happen to you and your family when you start watching it."
The creators had some special equipment at their disposal that let them go where no one has filmed before. To capture the long distance drama in extraordinary detail, the helicopter crew used a camera called a Cineflex heligimble. It allowed them to be nearly a mile above their target and still get amazing close-ups.
As summer goes on and the ice is long gone, polar bears leave the sea and go on land to hunt walruses—the largest seals in the world. Weighing more than a ton with nearly three-foot-long tusks, a walrus is no easy prey for a tired and hungry polar bear. As this bear misses several chances for a kill and suffers stab wounds from tusks, his first meal in months slips away. Sadly, since the polar bear is unable to feed, he will not survive.
Vanessa, who was on the polar bear shoot, says the global warming effect on the polar bears was never far from her mind. "I went to see [An Inconvenient Truth]—and I was really moved by it." she says. "And then when we got those images, it was like this is exactly what we saw in the movie. It's happening for real."
At first, Doug says, having no snowmobiles seemed like it was going to be dangerous—especially since humans can't outrun an aggressive polar bear. In the end, though, living without a vehicle gave them a newfound appreciation for their surroundings. "Spending all that time walking around rather than with machinery, we really got right into the polar bears' world. We felt the difference in the snow textures, the difference in the temperatures," he says. "We were really living in polar bear time, in polar bear land."
Without snowmobiles, the crew was constantly vulnerable, even in their cabin. One time a hungry polar bear smelled their food and wouldn't leave, even after the crew tried to scare it away with blanks and flares. Eventually, the polar bear left…but on his schedule.
Doug says the bear probably could have gotten into the cabin if he'd wanted to, but he had a Plan B in case that happened. "We had frying pans ready," he says.
With the heligimble camera, Planet Earth offers a complete view of the dogs' strategy as they hunt impala. The lead dog drives the impala toward hidden flankers. Then, the leader takes a shortcut to head off the prey.
As the dogs close in, one impala makes a mad dash for water. But impala can barely swim, so the dogs wait for it to either return to land or drown. It's this impala's lucky day, though. Another dog has made a kill and summons his mates away from the water's edge. As they leave for their daily feast, the swimming impala comes ashore and runs away.
Jonny, who was there for this sequence, says it's hard to choose sides in a hunt. "Sometimes you don't know who to kind of root for," he says. "The dogs have got their pups to feed and they need to catch something. But you want the impala to get away, as well. It's really difficult. You get really torn."
As they were shooting at 29,000 feet, summit-level with Mount Everest, Vanessa says they suddenly faced a deadly crisis. First, the Nepalese engineer started showing symptoms of oxygen shortage. When the pilot went to share his oxygen with the engineer, he also started experiencing oxygen shortage. Both of their lives were in serious danger.
"We plummeted through the air and got down to a safe altitude, and everyone was okay," she says. "But I just kind of went from elation of, 'My God, I'm seeing Everest at summit level,' to thinking we almost lost two people's lives. It was pretty stressful."
Vanessa says that achieving this first-time footage was far from simple. "A Chinese cameraman spent many months trying to get close to that mother and she just tolerated him," she says. "It takes a lot of field craft to be able to get the trust of an animal like that."
Once the geese touch down inside the Arctic Circle, the females get busy building nests. They must incubate their eggs for three weeks…which leaves them vulnerable to predators.
All winter long, the Arctic fox awaits the arrival of these geese. There are more eggs than the fox could possibly eat, so this crafty canine stashes the surplus. The fox will depend on the extra eggs during the winter months when food is scarce.
Within a day or two of each other, more than a million goslings emerge from their eggs—talk about a baby boom!
The geese aren't the only ones with babies to care for. The fox preys on the vulnerable chicks to feed her seven cubs. She works constantly to feed her family because only fat, healthy cubs will survive the brutal Arctic winter.
During this shoot, Jonny says he developed a special bond with the female fox. "You just feel a connection with them because they're canines," he says. "Eventually, she brought those tiny little cubs out right in front of us and suckled them there in front of us. It feels very special when you have that relationship with an animal."
Another grove of redwoods contains three of the tallest trees in the world. One is more than 300 feet tall…the height of a 30-story building. These majestic forests have been around for thousands of years, before the Swiss Alps or the Rocky Mountains were in existence.
Higher up in the mountains, the oldest organisms on planet Earth grow on a rocky cliff. Some of these bristlecone pine trees have been alive for 5,000 years, which means they were already 3,000 years old when Christ was born.
"Who knew that the oldest and tallest living things on Earth are really right in our own backyard," Oprah says. "That's so amazing."
For weeks, Huw and his crew search the jungle floor for a distressed bullet ant. Finally, they find their guy.
The ant is near death. Spores from a parasitic fungus have infiltrated its body and mind…driving it insane. As cameras roll, a parasite begins to grow from the insect's head. After three weeks, deadly spores will burst from the alien growth. "That was a sequence that I'm probably most proud of," Huw says.
When sick ants like this one are discovered in a colony, worker ants carry them far away and leave them to die. If they don't, thousands could suffer the same fate. Huw says he saw whole colonies destroyed by this fungus.
During the dry season in southern Africa's Kalahari Desert, there are up to eight months with no rain. Thousands of elephants, buffalo and baboons must migrate to the swamps of the Okavango, a vast inland delta that's at the end of Africa's fourth-largest river.
The long trek is risky. Elephant calves are blinded by the sand and must follow their mothers by sound alone.
As the animals reach the Okavango, so does water. Rain that fell a thousand miles away funnels into the swampy delta. The birds are the first to arrive at the watering hole, but the elephants aren't far behind.
Underwater cameras capture an amazing scene that most people have never seen before. The elephants trod out into the water for a refreshing swim! "I didn't know elephants could swim underwater," Oprah says. "I've never seen that before. It's just incredible."
How did they get the incredible shot? Jonny says he was very fortunate to work with a lot of brave camera operators. During the five-year shoot, these men and women swam alongside many dangerous mammals, including elephants, hippos, polar bears and whales.
This rare Himalayan mountain cat is seldom seen, even by locals who live nearby. In this remote part of the world, this animal is almost mythical.
By chance, Planet Earth crews locate a snow leopard. Then, they get what's been called "the Holy Grail of filmmaking."
As the cameras roll, the female snow leopard begins hunting a mountain goat along the treacherous slopes. Large paws give her a firm grip, and a long tail helps her balance. When snow begins to fall, her chances improve. Snow offers camouflage and dampens the sound of her approach.
After an unsuccessful attempt, she finally makes a kill far from her den of cubs. Thankfully, an adult snow leopard can drag prey three times its own size up the steep slopes.
For six weeks, Mark says they searched the mountains in northwest Pakistan for the ever-elusive snow leopard. Then, they decided to sit and wait in a place where locals said leopards had been spotted before.
On the last day of the shoot, hours before they were due to be airlifted out of the country by the Pakistan Air Force, their luck changed. They spotted a sleeping snow leopard and a mountain goat. "We thought if any time you were ever going to get the shot, this was the time," Mark says.
They waited patiently while their subject napped. Then, during the last hour of the last day, the leopard woke up and gave them the shot of a lifetime.
"You will fall in love with our planet," she says. "You won't drop another piece of trash. You will start turning out your lights. It will give you such respect for the home that we call planet Earth."
Oprah says the documentary gave her the same feeling that she's had only a few times in her life. "When you're out on the Great Plains and just as far as the eye can see there's nothing but sky and land … you have a sense that, yes, you are human," she says. "And, yes, you are on the Earth, but the Earth doesn't just belong to you. You really recognize that we share this planet with others."