Seven Worlds, One Planet producer Jonny Keeling has been involved with nature documentaries since 2002’s The Life of Mammals and has been working with animals for even longer.
Several decades in, however, some creatures still have the capacity to surprise him…creatures like the voice of Seven Worlds, Sir David Attenborough. The 93-year-old Attenborough is a natural historian, frequent nature documentary narrator, and one of mankind’s most precious resources. Prior to a recording session for the series’ Asia episode, Keeling approached the legend with a photo of an obscure species of monkey they were about to cover and Attenborough immediately responded with the Latin name, “Ah, Rhinopithecus Roxellana!”
“He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of animals,” Keeling says. “If you’ve written a script and it’s not quite right, of course he’ll call you out on that.”
An encyclopedic knowledge of animals comes in handy for Keeling, Attenborough, and everyone else involved in the seven-part series. Seven Worlds is perhaps the most ambitious nature documentary since…well, since the last time this crew got together with Planet Earth and Planet Earth II.
Once again, this BBC America series is set to catalogue that majesty of the natural world. Only this time it’s doing so in a more methodical fashion, devoting an hour to each of the world’s seven continents, starting with Australia on Saturday, January 18.
We sat down with Keeling to discuss the the wisdom of Attenborough, the beauty of the world, and what we can do to appreciate and and protect both.
DEN OF GEEK What kind of thinking and consideration goes into how you order the episodes of Seven Worlds, One Planet in terms of televised appearance?
JONNY KEELING: Well, it depends on which country you’re in, really. In different countries and different continents, people can start with any order they want. In the U.K. we decided to go with Antarctica to begin because it’s a really strong show. The episode also has a really strong conservation message and Antarctica is a continent that people in the U.K. are really fascinated about. This time we started with Australia because obviously there’s a lot of news about Australia and the fires right now. It was a kind of mark of respect and a sort of homage to the animals and the people there. In some respects, it was the last chance to see, possibly, some of those animals.
In producing this, was there one of the seven continents that blew you away in particular – a continent that delivered something that you had not seen before or was just particularly awe-inspiring?
All of them have stuff we’ve not seen before. I’ve worked in television for 25 years, I’ve worked with animals for 30 to 40 years, and there are still stories out there and animals that I had no idea existed. That’s in every single continent. But as for one continent, the Europe episode is interesting for me because I’m from Europe, and I just thought “this is going to be tough. There’s nothing here that I don’t know.” But actually, there are stories I didn’t know yet there.
There’s a story of wild hamsters! This is ridiculous, but I didn’t even know that hamsters really lived in the wild, I thought they were just pets. These hamsters live in a graveyard in Vienna. They’re not escaped hamsters, they just live wild there, and they feed on the flowers on the graveside bouquets and on the candle wax that people put out. It’s an extraordinary little story and it got a really good Twitter response in the U.K. It sounds macabre because it’s in a graveyard, but it isn’t. It’s actually really comical. It’s like a Pixar film in itself.
There’s a story in Asia as well. The Asia episode is extraordinary. There’s a story there of blue face monkeys living in the snow, in the mountains of China – really rarely seen. They walk on two legs, walk on their hind legs quite often. So they are the inspiration for the Yeti myth. In North America, there’s a story of polar bears and you think, “well, we’ve seen polar bears.” I’ve filmed polar bears before. Is there anything new to see? There’s an amazing sequence of polar bears standing on rocks in a river mouth. And as the tide comes in, the polar bears leap off the rocks and catch beluga whales. Even with the sort of familiar animals, we’ve got unfamiliar stories.
How long have we known that polar bears are being forced to adapt that way (eating Beluga whales) in reaction climate change? How did you find out about it? And why was that important to close the episode out with that?
That story has only come to light in the last few years. There have been reports of polar bears catching belugas before, jumping off of ice into little ice holes and, and catching where belugas are coming up to breathe. But the strategy of standing on a rock and waiting for the tide to come in and waiting for these thousands of belugas to come in is a new story. We heard it from, I think there’s a lodge up there, where they’re watching polar bears. But it’s difficult for them to see them all the time. People, often if they’re on vacation or if they’re doing research, they’re not sitting and watching all day, every day. They told us that they thought this was happening and they had some sort of stories of it.
So we went up and we took a drone and were able to film from about a mile away, and look down and see the whole strategy. To be able to be up in the air, it’s really changed the perspective for us. In terms of climate change, those polar bears are actually doing really well and we were quite careful to say that they’re not starving. The summers are longer and hotter in the Arctic now and summer is generally a time of starvation and fasting for polar bears. So it’s a slightly difficult story because they’re meant to be starving, but actually they’re doing very, very well. We decided to close out that episode just because it made sense to have that big, meaty sequence right at the end.
How do you go about innovating in this nature documentary genre? How do you make sure that the newest one is different from the last one?
I think it’s really, really important to tell new stories. I would say the first thing is to make sure that the structure feels new. So this is new. We haven’t broken down the world by continent before, which I think is remarkable. In the Planet Earth series, we broke the planet down by habitats, by jungles and mountains and so on. That gives a uniformity to an episode. It’s very green, say the jungle one. Whereas I quite like this because you’ve got North America. In that one episode we have deserts, we have rivers, we have mountains, snow, forest. There’s everything in that show. I love the variety that it gives. I love the fact that, as a human, you’re connected to it. We all come from a continent, we all belong to a continent, which should resonate with us all. It’s important to break the series down in a new way if you can. Then new stories, new species, and new locations are important.
How do you even begin to prepare to go to Antarctica? It seems like preparing for a moon landing.
It is exactly that. It’s like another planet really. We got a lot of support from scientists and different countries with bases down in the Antarctica. We sailed down a few times and it’s pretty dramatic sometimes, sailing with 30, 40 foot waves in a small boat. It’s not a lot of fun. The journey there is often as hard as the filming. The good thing is that when you’re there, the animals are so unafraid. You have penguins come right up to you. Actually, I did a trip there and it was in the summer. It was a little bit cold but not that bad.I love it because there are just animals everywhere and no people. It’s really perfect.
What are you most excited for North American audiences to see once this premieres?
I would love for people who watch it to feel surprised about their own continent and to feel, like I say, fascinated and astonished by other ones. And just to fall in love. It sounds ridiculous, but to fall in love with the natural world and reconnect with it, and really feel inspired by it, and realize the beauty that is there along with the complexity. Be inspired to do something to help protect it because it’s under extraordinary threat at the moment. It’s never been under such threat, and we really can do something about it. There are stories of amazing hope in this series. There are some stories of sadness and despair, which I think are important to highlight. But there are stories of great hope too, of animals making brilliant comebacks when they’ve been given a little bit of space and time.
Is there an animal that’s critically endangered right now, that you think we can save?
There’s one that we feature in this series for which it is too late sadly. At the end, David Attenborough goes to meet the last two Northern white rhinos on earth and they’re both female, so they don’t really have a chance to breed. There are some efforts being made for artificial insemination, but most likely when they die, they will take with them the last of their kind. And they’ve been here for millions of years. That is down to us and it’s our responsibility. When you look at rhinos like that, you just think, this is what we’ve done and it’s heartbreaking. They have no idea, of course, they’re so innocent and noble and beautiful animals, but they have no idea that they’re the last two. That’s a big animal, a rhino, and we’ve made them extinct. It’s heartbreaking.
How much of an asset is David Attenborough in shows like this?
He is a real asset. He’s 93 years old! When you go and show him footage beforehand he shows you what he’s interested in and what he likes. I took along some shots of that blue faced monkey I was talking about, and he straight away said, “Ah, Rhinopithecus Roxellana”, and just gives the Latin name. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of animals. If you’ve written a script and it’s not quite right, of course he’ll call you out on that. We’re scientists, most of us who work on it. I’ve got a PhD in biology, but you know, David has a really good knowledge.
Then when he comes to narrate as well, the vocal range that he has, I just think is unparalleled. The fact that he can be poignant, sad, or he can give you some humor and some playfulness or convey awe and wonder or gravitas. It’s an hour-long show and he pretty much narrates it on the go and you go back and do a few pickups of the odd line that maybe he stumbled on. He is an extraordinary individual.