The polar regions are truly other-worldly places - aside from their alien beauty, they are extreme and unforgiving, and some of the most challenging places on earth for a film crew to operate.

A female polar bear leads her two cubs across the sea ice.

If anyone ever asks what the key skill was for working on Frozen Planet, my answer is always the ability to work as a team.

Braving the elements, living on top of each other in out-of-the-way places, the most important skill is to be able to get on with those around you. Nobody can afford to be precious... or a princess.

Being a female director working in remote places can certainly pose challenges.

People often ask: what's it like not being able to shower for days, or what happens if you need to pee when you're out on the flat sea ice?

But really these are things you quickly get over (just ask the men to look the other way!).

The important thing is getting the shots you need, looking after the safety of your crew, and making sure everyone is happy.

I spent four years as part of the team for Frozen Planet, assistant-producing the episodes about people (The Last Frontier) and the environment (On Thin Ice), and for the bulk of the time, working as a field director on six of the seven episodes.

The role of an assistant producer is to take on specific sequences in the programme and look after the budget and logistics through to the edit.

In the BBC Natural History Unit, many producers are directors too which allows you to get out there and really take a hand in shaping the images as they are captured.

I did a total of 37 weeks directing in the field - two to six-week trips to the Arctic during the UK summer (it feels odd packing polar gear while the sun's shining and you're wearing flip-flops!), and then heading to the Antarctic Peninsula for 'summer' down there, in January and February.

A Frozen Planet camera operator dives under the ice to get the shot.

With a background in underwater filmmaking, many of the marine shoots came my way.

This meant getting to know large portions of the Arctic - home of bowhead whales, beluga, narwhal - and the many indigenous communities which were our access to the wildlife that lives there.

Some of the shoots involved diving under the sea ice - a chilly, and chilling, experience indeed when the water is almost -2C and you have little warmth above the ice ceiling to come back to.

In the Arctic, much of our accommodation was tent-based.

Camping under 24 hour daylight is hard to adjust to (I quickly found a sleep mask was an essential piece of polar equipment!) and there is always the risk of bears.

We were trained to use rifles and bear defences before going into the field - the reality of working in wild places where people are not in control.

But my favourite place, by far, was the Antarctic Peninsula. This is a place that is truly wild.

We worked from a yacht - the small but nimble Golden Fleece.

Waking up to extraordinary mountain ranges draped in ice, penguins and whales, icebergs and glaciers is like waking to a dream.

The air is different: cold and exquisitely clear, and there really is no other human for miles.

Here, one of the key characters we wanted to film were killer whales - the most awe-inspiring animals from the whole of Frozen Planet.

A minke whale is hunted by a team of killer whales.

For the summer episode, our mission was to capture a hunt on camera, when pods working as teams chase down much larger whales such as minkes.

This meant staying just close enough to the pod to follow it, but not so close to spook them.

On Valentine's Day we found the perfect pod: 30 massive killer whales who were comfortable around us, and almost on cue, began to hunt.

Watching nature in the raw is not always easy, and as we followed the chase - for two and a half hours over 45 nautical miles of water - my emotions were mixed.

Yet the knowledge of seeing wild animal behaviour unfolding before your eyes snaps you back to reality - you are there to film and witness a moment that few humans would ordinarily get to see and you have to capture everything you can.

Seeing something so dramatic unfold, in a place that feels wild, remote, untouched, so far from civilisation, is a humbling experience.

It reminds you that we are just one species on this planet.

Every day, in remote corners of the globe, these animals live their lives - dramatic struggles for survival.

It's something I try and remember when I get home from the field, and wander the supermarket, pondering what to have for dinner.

Elizabeth White is one of the directors of Frozen Planet.

Frozen Planet starts on BBC One on Wednesday, 26 October at 9pm.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

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  • Comment number 159. Posted by Elizabeth White

    on 9 Dec 2011 18:21

    Thank you once again for all the wonderful comments that you’ve posted here on the blog! We really do appreciate hearing peoples thoughts and feedback so thank you all so much for taking the time to write.

    For those missing the series already, there will be a Christmas special on the 28th December – Frozen Planet: the Epic Journey - showing highlights of the series through the story of a year in the Poles so do please tune in for that!

    Now that the series has finished, I thought I would update the blog to answer a few more questions that people have posed…

    Several people (155), both here and on twitter, have asked about the snowflake sequence that appeared in episode 1, and whether it is CGI>

    The snowflakes are actually real snowflakes filmed under a photomicroscope by a scientist in the US who studies their formation (what an amazing job!). He sent us the images of them forming, and we layered them together to create the sequence. If you would like to read more, he has a website here: http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/photos/photos.htm

    Many people were really moved by the wolf / wood buffalo sequence that appeared in Winter where the lone wolf takes on the much larger bison and loz9100 specifically asked what happened to the other wolf.

    I didn’t direct the shoot myself but asked Chadden Hunter what happened… this is his reply:

    The alpha female did the bulk of the fight and the male watched from the sidelines. We don't really know why! The male spent a long time (45 min) acting as matador to the bison, wearing it out while the female nipped at it from behind and waited for it to become exhausted before going in for the final (long!) kill. We just didn't have enough time in the edit to show the time the male put in. Having said that, what we realized is that the job of bringing down the bison is FAR from evenly shared out amongst the adult wolves! Some are just much more expert than others. She might have been older, more experienced, more desperate (with cubs) or more hungry. We don't really know why the male skulked off to the sidelines and let the female do all the work!

    Finally dukeofearl asked – with so many other frozen places on the planet, why did we restrict ourselves to just the Arctic and Antarctic? The answer is really that we always set out to make a series about the poles specifically and be able to contrast the seasonality at the top and bottom of the planet. I totally agree that there are other amazing places, like the Himalayas, which would warrant their own film, but the remit of this was always the polar parts of the Earth!


    Thanks again for watching from all the Frozen Planet team.

  • Comment number 114. Posted by Elizabeth White

    on 29 Oct 2011 10:19

    Firstly, thank you again for all the wonderful feedback on the first episode of Frozen Planet and for posting your comments here, which I’ve shared with the rest of the team. It’s a nerve-wracking process, seeing something you’ve worked on for 4 years finally transmit(!) but we are delighted that everyone has been so excited by seeing these remote and beautiful corners of our planet.

    I’ll try and address as many of the questions in this post as I can - do please keep posting your thoughts as the series continues!

    Many of you (LeClic, Trishy, Clive U, SharonBabe, Ellen, Julie, missproliberty, Christine) commented on the bravery of the camera teams in the field and how much you enjoyed the behind the scenes stories. It has certainly been an adventure for us all, and there are many, many Freeze Frame stories that we would like to tell! Obviously we can only really cover 1-2 stories in the last 10 minutes each week, so will be posting other pieces from the team, scientists, and local experts on our programme website, in the ‘On Location’ section of www.bbc.co.uk/frozenplanet

    ‘Armchair explorer’ questions the mentions of Scott’s expedition rather than any of the other amazing stories of early exploration in the Poles. The choice to reference Scott’s party in episode 1 was partly due to the significance of date (we knew this would broadcast at the 100-year anniversary of that expedition) and because our route did follow their journey up the Beardmore, across the plateau to the Pole. You are right that there are so many wonderful exploration stories to tell – we return to the early explorers in Episode 6 and 7, using Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting’s evocative imagery to explore ‘humans’ at the poles (‘The Last Frontier’) and the Polar Regions future (‘On Thin Ice’).

    Jakka & cbrab: I wanted to reply to your comments that there were too many predators hunting prey in this first episode. Our motivation behind the story for this episode was to illustrate the struggle for survival in the Polar Regions - predominantly finding a mate and finding food, which, in an environment like this, inevitably tends to be by carnivorous means! I am sorry if this was distressing. In future weeks we focus more on how the seasons influence the lives of the animals that live there – getting more to know key species in depth, and also seeing the seasonal transitions of the ice as a character itself. I hope that this will tick more boxes in terms of non-hunting behaviour and other emotions - we have some lovely stories of how penguins keep ‘cool’, albatross learning to fly and animals attracting mates. Spectacles like the caves of crystals and glaciers also return in more depth in the latter shows, which I hope you will enjoy.

    Music is always a tricky subject with natural history documentaries (Jayarbee, MikeW39) – some people find it enhances their experience and others find it obtrusive. I am sorry if this detracted from your enjoyment of the programme. It is something that is monitored and there is more information here on how you can feedback your feelings on its use
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2011/03/is-the-background-music-too-loud.shtml

    Finally, thank you to Smudge and Cyanfields for sharing your wonderful experiences of being in the polar regions –I’m so glad that watching Frozen Planet allowed you to re-live those fantastic memories!

    Episode 2 will be on Wednesday evening at 9pm in which meet some of the Pole’s more unusual animals such as narwhals and the remarkable woolly bear caterpillar, and see how seasonal chance effects everything that lives in these remote regions.


    Best wishes, Elizabeth and all the Frozen Planet team!

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