Blue Planet II

Take a deep breath

An interview with James Honeyborne, Executive Producer

The sea is a restless, ever changing environment; that’s part of its great appeal and mystery. But with that comes great challenges. Anyone who works with the ocean has to respect its capricious power.James Honeyborne
Date: 15.10.2017     Last updated: 15.10.2017 at 00.01

Why is now the right time for a new series on the oceans?

The ocean is the most exciting place for us to be right now because scientific discoveries and new technologies have given us a completely fresh perspective on life beneath the waves. This series reveals new stories, featuring spectacular new places and extraordinary new animal behaviours that help us to better appreciate the wonder, magic and importance of the seas.

How much harder is it to make blue-chip natural history films underwater compared to on land?

The sea is a restless, ever changing environment; that’s part of its great appeal and mystery. But with that comes great challenges. Anyone who works with the ocean has to respect its capricious power. Filming underwater means being at the mercy of its great forces - tides, currents, winds, waves, crushing depths, poor visibility… can all make life extremely challenging. Those unpredictable elements, combined with the fact that we know less about the oceans than any other environment on Earth, means that underwater wildlife films are incredibly difficult to make. So we have joined forces with scientists, explorers and marine experts at the frontier of the known ocean to achieve this, together.

How has new technology been used in Blue Planet II?

It is amazing how much filming technology has moved on since the original Blue Planet series. We have harnessed new technology to tell stories - some never seen before - in completely new ways. Our underwater teams can now dive for much longer than conventional scuba ever allowed. Rebreather diving gives our teams time to sit silently and watch, with no bubbles or disturbance underwater, and really get to know new creatures and their behaviours.

The original series would have shot aerials on 16mm film, from helicopters. Now we have ultra HD drones that can be deployed anywhere they’re permitted – and they have revolutionised the way we can immediately witness oceanic events from above, adding detail and insight events like the ‘cyclone’ feeding strategy of manta rays over the coral reef.

And submersibles carrying ultra HD and extreme low-light cameras have opened up the world of the deep ocean like never before, recording previously unseen events such as hunting packs of Humboldt squid, at 800m deep.

What sort of new digital technology have you employed?

A big challenge of filming underwater is giving a sense of place - all too often things can feel very big and very blue. To connect with any character and to fully understand them, it is really important to understand their world. We have teamed up with expert engineers to build an extraordinary split-screen lens called the ‘megadome’, which allows us to clearly contextualise the worlds above water, and below, at the same time. When we film a walrus sitting on an iceberg, for instance, you can see both what’s going on the huge iceberg that’s floating beneath.

We have also found new ways to transport the audience into the heart of coral reef environments - by developing a specialist probe lens that gives us the ability to get right into the nooks and crannies of the reef and explore the hidden worlds of its most charismatic critters. This close-up, wide-angle perspective is what a reef fish would experience itself, allowing us to empathise more easily with the challenges they face on the coral reef.

How much has changed in our understanding of the oceans since the original Blue Planet series?

In the four years of making this series, countless new scientific discoveries and papers have been published. With more people studying the oceans now than at any point in history, we understand both how the oceans work and our influence on them better than ever before. And that means we can portray a contemporary portrait of the world’s oceans - as they are today. What we reveal is sometimes shocking and even sad, creating a broader mix of emotions across the series.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of making this series has been that to best deliver new insights, we’ve not just been reporting the latest findings of marine biologists, we have joined forces with them, making discoveries together.

How is the series divided into episodes?

Five of the seven episodes take us to unique underwater worlds. There is an episode on Coral Reefs, one on the planet’s Green Seas, there’s an episode on the open ocean - the Big Blue. We also feature our Coasts, and we explore The Deep. Within each of those habitat-based programmes, we introduce the audience to the wonders of these extraordinary worlds and the entertaining characters you’ll find there. The final episode meets charismatic scientists and explores the future of the world’s oceans. And the opening episode takes the audience on a journey of astonishing discovery through the global ocean, from the tropics to the poles.

In spite of all these great advances, to what extent are the oceans still a new frontier; a mystery?

For centuries, the oceans have attracted explorers, sailors, fishermen and, more recently, marine scientists. And despite all their great advances, it is still the final frontier of exploration on the planet. I’ve been making underwater films for 20 years but only in making Blue Planet II have I come to appreciate how little we really know about the ocean. It’s estimated we’ve had human eyeballs on less than 1% of the ocean floor, so there is still so much to see and learn. And there are still new discoveries to be made on almost every dive. So yes, there is much further we still have to go in terms of ocean exploration, which is really exciting!

What has been your highlight of the whole shoot?

I’ve had some great experiences, working with The Deep team, filming brine pools and a methane volcano in the Gulf of Mexico, and on location in Antarctica. But for me, it’s been those unexpected moments when we review material coming in from all over the world that has really made my day. It’s one thing seeing a fish flying through the air, that’s unexpected enough, but then seeing a fish flying through the air and catching a bird in its mouth, wow…

...the fish catches the bird?

Yep - a bird-eating fish! The fish launches out of the water with phenomenal speed and acceleration and catches this bird in mid-air. And we filmed it in ultra-slow motion.

To me it’s an iconic image, because in a moment, it transforms our understanding of what fish are capable of. It’s was originally a fisherman’s tale - a story we had only heard rumours of - and the only way of finding out if it was true was to go into the Indian Ocean and film it ourselves. I think that image alone speaks of the awesomeness, the power, the drama and the surprise that the ocean still delivers.