Frozen Planet: Filming in the polar wilderness

Tuesday 25 October 2011, 13:17

Elizabeth White Elizabeth White Director and Producer

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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.

Female polar bear and two cubs walking across the ice

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 camera operator diving under the ice

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.

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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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