Natural history storytelling

Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, Africa. Exotic locations, ground breaking camera technology and endlessly fascinating subject matter - natural history television is some of the most awe inspiring to watch, let alone work on.

Getting the shots themselves may be the first thing we think about with wildlife documentary making, but getting the story right is equally important. Without a good narrative to guide your audience, they won’t understand what they are seeing or, even worse, won’t be captivated enough to stay with you and watch your content. But how can you plan a story when you have no guarantees of capturing the wildlife you set out to film? How in effect do you plan the unplannable? And how do you construct those emotional highpoints that will draw in your audience?

In the first of two podcasts on storytelling for natural history programmes, Ben Toone talks to producers James Honeyborne, Verity White and Rupert Barrington of the BBC's Natural History Unit in Bristol, who all worked on one of the unit’s most celebrated landmark series, Africa.

"Providing you're telling new and dramatic stories with a broad emotional palette, so it's not just awe and wonder, then you're ready to drill into what makes a series successful." – James Honeyborne

James Honeyborne was series producer for Africa. He gives his insights into how they structured the series as well as each individual episode and film sequence, including memorable sequences such as the famous giraffe fight and lizards feeding off sleeping lions. He talks about the importance of having a narrative arc and storyboarding what you want to capture in the field.

Verity White talks about how having a good plan before you set off will give you more options in the field, even if you can't capture exactly what you envisioned. She also talks about how to plan in the emotional highpoints to a story (such as the death of the baby elephant) and how music can help enhance the story.

And Rupert Barrington, producer of the Sahara episode, gives his advice on where to find stories. Finally James, Verity and Rupert give their tips to anyone aspiring work to work on natural history programmes.

James Honeyborne is an executive producer at the BBC's Natural History Unit.  He looks after the unit’s landmark series including the Sir David Attenborough narrated Africa and Planet Earth and smaller series such as Galapagos, Yellowstone and Madagascar. Currently he is working on three new series for BBC Two based on Alaska, New Zealand and Patagonia.

Verity White is a wildlife documentary producer. Her credits include the Congo episode of Africa, The Great Rift: Africa's Wild Heart and Queen of the Savannah and Chimps of the Lost Gorge from the Natural World series. She is currently working on Hidden Kingdoms,BBC Worldwide, RTL and CCTV9 co-production, which she describes as “Life meets Pixar”.

Rupert Barrington also works for the BBC's Natural History Unit.  As well as producing the Sahara episode for Africa, he also produced Reptiles and Amphibians for the series Life. He is currently working on the next BBC One wildlife series called Survival.