High-end documentary “Life on Our Planet” resurrects dinosaurs
“Life on Our Planet” is no ordinary natural history program. This new docuseries captures extraordinary animal behavior in their natural habitat using all the production values and techniques of a blue-chip documentary -- but live-action footage filmed in the wild is augmented with photorealistic animations of creatures that roamed the earth hundreds of millions of years ago.
The eight-part Netflix series produced by Silverback Films and Amblin Television is executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and narrated by Morgan Freeman with Lucasfilm’s VFX studio Industrial Light & Magic providing creature CGI.
The production pedigree didn’t stop there. Bafta and Emmy award-winning cinematographer Jamie McPherson (Our Planet and Frozen Planet II) spent five years working on the show as visual effects director of photography.
“We wanted to create a high-end documentary with the very best cinematography that seamlessly blended VFX with the real world,” McPherson said. “To me, that meant choosing the best camera available and RED has been my first choice for years. RED is the gold standard for natural history.”
Across six years of planning and production, the series involved a crew of 440 people, visits to six continents, portrayals of 500 species (some still living and some extinct), 868 VFX shots, and 2,181 hours of filmed footage.
McPherson was involved from the start working on which “characters” they were going to film and then how to bring those characters to life. Key questions to answer in previz were how these creatures would interact with each other within the real environments that he would film.
“We had to learn how to create VFX that felt like a natural history doc filmed entirely in the real world as opposed to a blockbuster movie with CGI,” he said.
While each episode had a dedicated producer and director (some worked across several episodes) McPherson was the series’ consistent creative connection. He worked alongside the episode leads and with ILM to fuse VFX with traditional wildlife filming techniques.
“We were trying to shoot it like a high-end natural history series,” McPherson said, “often using tracking vehicle work and a long lens and taking multiple shots from different angles.”
The challenge was finding a way to translate this conventional approach to wildlife filmmaking while providing the clean plates needed by VFX.
“You can’t have lots of branches and leaves in front of the creature which we would normally do to give a sense of the creature’s habitat. With ILM we had to create a new way of shooting which allowed us to recreate the look of a dirty frame. In order to do that, we shot clean plates then added blue screen layers of different vegetation and landscape into the foreground to make it feel as if you were peering into their world.”
Before the team even got to the storyboard stage, they wanted to work out the “dance steps” for how the resurrected creatures would interact in the environment. McPherson began this process at home using a selection of his son’s plastic toys and dinosaurs.
“I made rough mock-ups of scenes on my phone using Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Scooby Doo and built little tracking vehicles out of Lego. We found this plastic pre-vis very useful for planning shots and working out how to make the creatures interact in a cinematic way. It was a very useful way for us to see them in a space together.”
Whole scenes were created in this process and then used to make storyboards and to show ILM, Netflix, and anyone else involved in the production.
McPherson was the main cinematographer across the whole series and the main camera operator for the top side (land based) shoots. He typically shot with the one RED camera taking advantage of the luxury of shooting a show for VFX.
“The beauty of VFX creatures is that they will always be where you want them to be,” he smiles. “That means you can set up lots of angles.
“I own a RED HELIUM 8K which I used principally inside a gyrostabilized system with a long 50-1000mm cine-servo Canon zoom lens to give that compressed depth of field feel to the VFX sequences.”
He often worked dual control with a drone pilot on aerial sequences shot with DJI Inspire. Doug Anderson and Hugh Miller led teams of underwater cinematographer specialists to shoot sequences in and under the ocean using RED cameras in a waterproof housing.
“Shooting REDRAW 7.5K is the best setting without having to introduce any cropping for the lenses we used. That amount of data per frame also gave us more than sufficient leeway for VFX.”
McPherson is renowned for adapting gyrostabilized systems originally designed for helicopters onto 4x4 vehicles in an operational mode that has now become de facto for the genre.
“If you want to film a cheetah or a lion in the wild you put a gimbal on a vehicle and drive alongside it,” he says. “We wanted to apply that same technique and same feeling for a t-rex. Most of the big land-based creatures were shot from a 4x4 on a gimbal or crane. To film plates for the terror birds sequence we were driving 40mph in an area of Morocco.”
McPherson even created a buggy specifically for the series which he described as “a rickshaw dolly.” He used it to film sequences in the jungle for arthropleura – a giant millipede the length of a car - and apex predator gorgonopsid and in the Atacama Desert for scenes of a small pig-like creature called lystrosaurus.
He explained, “It’s equipped with large, soft offroad tyres so you can push it on rough terrain. Using it with the RED HELIUM in a gimbal we can achieve rock-steady tracking shots. We can get low to the ground and make it feel as if we are with the creatures to further immerse the viewer in their world.”
He said he enjoys the challenge of filming behaviour with gyrostabilized systems. “You need a great understanding, not only of the animal, but of the capabilities of the camera platform. You have to be able to coordinate both vehicle and/or crane movement, whilst reading and predicting what the animal is about to do and operating a long lens via remote control.”
Using the same gimbal rig he also captured never-before-seen animal behavior of komodo dragons in the act of a kill in Indonesia. These reptiles by the way are very real.
“In the jungle we found some oxen hiding and managed to film the moment when a komodo dragon attacked a calf. That was doubly exciting because it was just as we went into Covid lockdown, and we’d only been there a week before we all had to ship out and come home. That was rare.”
Other outstanding personal moments for McPherson included camping out on a live volcano in Iceland. It was the first time he’d seen an active volcano close up.
“We were on a hill with the volcano erupting a few 100 meters away and we could look straight into the lava pool. We used the RED to film long lens details of the lava as it was spewing out of the volcano and combined that with drone footage to look right down into the caldera.”
Natural history shows of this scale necessitate a mammoth preproduction schedule. For McPherson the process was also non-stop during the main period of photography which took over two years.
Then, once the backplates were shot, ILM began its work to animate the creatures beginning another round of constant feedback. “We planned certain sequences and then while we were shooting those, we’d be planning others for filming later in the year. Scenes were running at various stages of completion through to the end.”
McPherson also worked with episode directors and ILM on the grade taking care to ensure the VFX creatures were embedded in the world.
“It was a very long process of getting the creatures in the right pace with the right lighting. The whole look had to be quite sympathetic to the VFX which is quite different to a conventional natural history grade where the colour and look is in the image already. Here we had to make sure that the VFX were in harmony with the plates.”
Pandemic travel restrictions in June 2021 also meant that some planned exotic locations were substituted for Surrey and the Lake District in the UK. Not that you would notice.
One such sequence, depicting t-rex hunting triceratops, had its plates shot from a tracking vehicle on a car park in southeast England. “We did some very big moves when the t-rex bursts out of the forest and follows Triceratops but being in a big open and flat space helped us create a very dynamic sequence,” he said, “even if the weather wasn’t quite the same as Utah.”
This shot is one of several in the series which deliberately recalls classic dinosaur movies like Jurassic Park. As executive producer Steven Spielberg himself was very involved in the whole process.
“Amblin was feeding back on every sequence and many of them went to Spielberg personally,” McPherson says. “For me it was pretty exhilarating knowing that he was seeing our rushes and stories and feeding back notes. Then to get positive feedback that he loved it – well, that was amazing.”
After living and breathing the show for five years the cinematographer was excited to finally reveal it to the world.
“Seeing it all come together with the music and the narration was a tremendous feeling,” he said.
Ever in demand, McPherson has already begun work on another production taking his RED and the modified tracking vehicle to North America and Scandinavia to film more CG creatures and “hugely exciting things that people have never done or seen before.”
You can see all the action of “Life on Our Planet” streaming on Netflix now.