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A look back at Frozen Planet

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Heather Taylor | 14:50 UK time, Monday, 19 December 2011

A photo of Polar Bears from Frozen Planet

Editor's Note: Alastair Fothergill, Frozen Planet Executive Producer, writes for the About the BBC blog about his experience on working on Frozen Planet.

Frozen Planet has just finished broadcasting on BBC One, and although we have only had the final figures for the first four episodes, we know they have attracted an average weekly audience of 12 million viewers. These viewing figures even surpassed those for Planet Earth that broadcast back in 2006 in a very different broadcasting market. The audience appreciation index of 94 out of a 100 broke all previous records for any series on the BBC. So many people of all ages have told us how much they have really enjoyed the series. For the whole team that worked on Frozen Planet, it has been a very satisfying end to a long production journey.

I have been fortunate to work on a number of landmark natural history series for the BBC Natural History Unit including The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, but Frozen Planet was definitely the most challenging so far. It took four years to make and we spent a record of 2356 days in the field. We were at sea for a year and a half, spent over six months filming out on the sea ice and a record 134 hours diving beneath the ice. The amazing camera teams we were fortunate enough to work with struggled for months against some of the most demanding conditions our planet can throw at you. They, and the directors that worked with them, managed to capture much new behavior that has never been filmed before.

I find it very difficult to pick a particular favorite but who can forget the extraordinary way a pod of killer whales cooperated to wash seals of ice flows; or the epic battle between wolves and buffalo in the depths of the arctic winter. We were particularly pleased that the audience really seems to have engaged with the two key stars of the series, the polar bears in the north and the Adelie penguins in the south.

A vital part of the polar bear story is how they are born in the depths of winter in a den beneath the snow. To film this is the wild would have been completely impossible without causing the mother to desert and the cubs to die. Even filming this sequence in controlled conditions was a real challenge, as we explained on the extremely popular Frozen Planet website.

We were also careful to ensure the narration didn't mislead the audience and talked in general about polar bears in the wild rather than the specific cubs shown. Unfortunately, most of the recent reports in the press misquoted the commentary reporting that David Attenborough had said "But on these side slopes beneath the snow new lives were beginning." In fact what David said was "But on lee-side slopes, beneath the snow, new lives are beginning". The difference is crucial. The narration was explicitly and deliberately generic and spoke about polar bears in the Arctic in general rather than one specific den. We are pleased that the vast majority of our viewers have totally understood and agreed with the approach we took to this special sequence.

It is an underlying principle of natural history filming that we only ever use controlled conditions in extreme circumstances - for example when it is too dangerous to the animals or crew or physically impossible to film in the wild. We don't change the narrative of natural events but sometimes controlled filming is the only way that we can show our audiences specific animal behaviour.

One of the key aims of the series was to take the audience on a journey to a place most would never be fortunate to go to. The scenery in the Polar Regions is unmatched anywhere on our planet, but capturing its true beauty was an incredible challenge as well.

More than anything else we hope people would come away from the series realizing the Frozen Planet really is a world beyond imagination. From what we have heard from everyone who was enjoyed the series, I think we can be happy we may just have achieved that goal.


  • Comment number 1.

    I found the press reaction to the bear cubs completely over the top.

    Documentaries have always had to construct certain things. This is fine as long as the events depicted are presented as they really would have been if "genuine".

    From the beginnings of documentary film Robert Flaherty and John Grierson both understood that the limitations of budget and technology forced the adoption of reconstruction.

    The very act of editing influences the story that is being told. There is never any absolute truth depicted in a film but there must be a responsible portrayal that gives the impression of truth.

    Studio based sections in documentaries are also inevitable. How else does the filmaker show what cannot be filmed otherwise. Examples are the many popular stopframe growing plant shots. Were many of the growing / melting icicle shots in Frozen Planet also created for the camera?

  • Comment number 2.

    Why were the other bits of our Frozen Planet not covered - for example, life in the Himalayas ??


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