Planet Earth III makes its debut on BBC Earth in Asia this year, almost two decades since the original Planet Earth series first redefined natural history filmmaking. Presented by Sir David Attenborough, Planet Earth III is the upcoming instalment of the ground-breaking and award-winning Planet Earth trilogy.
Filmed over the course of over five years, the series travels to spectacular unseen landscapes including Gomantong and Sukau in Borneo to spend time with the Oriental Pied Hornbill, Dauin in The Philippines to see the Frogfish and even visit one of the world’s largest natural cave Hang Son Doong in Vietnam.
Watch new episodes of Planet Earth III every Sunday at 8:00pm on BBC Earth available on UnifiTV channel 501, Astro channel 554 and BBC Player. As we head towards ‘Forests’ featuring Malaysia, producer Sarah Whalley reveals more on what audiences can expect.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the Planet Earth series and Planet Earth III in particular?
The first series was about witnessing the wonderful spectacle and awe-inspiring beauty of our planet and taking the viewer to the last remaining areas of wilderness that were still untouched by humanity. Planet Earth II was about connecting the viewer intimately with the animals, to be alongside them, experiencing their triumphs and their struggles- who could forget the snakes and iguanas sequence!
Planet Earth III is all about the resilience and adaptability of nature, and the remarkable animals that are changing their lives to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world dominated more than ever by a powerful force: us. It’s full of surprise and wonder but seen from a new perspective. It has been 5 years in the making and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with our audience.
At the Natural History Unit what do you feel your role is in conservation and the environment?
The natural world is still a place of wonder and this still deserves to be documented. I feel our first purpose is to make viewers fall in love with our planet’s wildlife. As Sir David Attenborough himself once said “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” This series is a way for people to experience wildlife around the globe and be motivated to help protect it, but our awareness of environmental destruction has increased. The natural world has never faced more challenges and within each episode of the series there are hard hitting environmental truths with one of the key themes of the series being behavioural adaptation in a world dominated by human activity.
What impact are you hoping this series will have?
I hope PE3 gives weight to the impact of human activity on the natural world. In each of the different habitats we address the issues they face. I couldn’t make a forests film without talking about deforestation but made sure to pick stories that tell a thought-provoking environmental story. There is a sequence in the episode that starts with chimps in their forest home but its dreamy quality ends with a wakeup call as the chimps have to venture out into surrounding farmland to look for food, crossing roads and coming into contact with people. It’s quite a powerful way of giving the magic and beauty that these series usually have but with an extra edge of contemporary resonance.
It underlines new ways of making series. Gone are the days when we can ignore the harm that is being done to the planet. Instead, issues including the climate crisis, overpopulation and deforestation must sit alongside the wondrous footage of nature- as it does in the real world. The forests episode isn’t a doom and gloom show but hopefully thought provoking. It says they are special but fragile. I hope we have sowed a seed that makes people look at forests differently and feel connected to them and therefore empowered to do something. I think people often overlook forests, but I hope this film gives a new perspective of how connected they are and generates a new appreciation for them.
This episode features Gomantong & Sukau, Borneo, could you tell us a little about your experience filming at this location?
We featured the incredible breeding behaviour of oriental pied hornbills where each breeding season, a female hornbill imprisons herself in a tree cavity to raise her young. In the days leading up to her ‘nest arrest’ the female starts blocking the entrance to the nest with mud leaving a small slot for ventilation and food which the male brings. She stays in there for months, incubating her eggs and raising their chicks. One of my favourite moments of filming from the series was getting our first glimpse of oriental pied hornbill eggs.
Putting a camera inside a nest to film this behaviour hadn’t been done before. It was a massive crew endeavour both from the UK and the local team in Borneo. We had to get the timings right, pick the right trees- we rigged quite a few often at heights of around 30m and all this in a way that wouldn’t disturb the birds. In the end it took 6 shoots to get the sequence, but it was so precious to see this intimate view. It really resonated with me as I became a mother on this series and after living through all the covid lockdowns, I really related to the female trapped inside.
And why did you choose this location in particular to film this species?
We wouldn’t have been able to film this incredible nesting behaviour without the help of local experts who had studied the birds here for years so knew which old growth trees had historically been used by the birds. We worked closely with them to make sure the birds were not disturbed.
Could you share more with us about why you chose the Oriental Pied Hornbill to feature in Planet Earth III?
I wanted to tell the story of hornbills nesting to show the lengths a pair go to in protecting their young. The theme of the forests episode explores connections and dependence and this story seemed to fit perfectly- the birds pair for life and the female is entirely reliant on the male when in the nest. We researched many of the different hornbill species that lived in forests and nested in trees but settled on oriental pied hornbills as there was already experts working in Borneo who had a wealth of experience in their nesting behaviour and knew which trees birds would likely return to which massively contributed to the success of the filming, we couldn’t have done it without them.
Could you tell us a little bit about the process (tech if relevant?) you used to film this particular species/location
To capture the intimate images of the hornbills nesting behaviour we set up camera boxes next to the nest trees. Small holes in the tree were used to insert a special probe lens with tiny adjustable lights which we gradually turned up to give just enough light to film the female inside without disturbing her. Often all of this was all done dangling from ropes at 30m! The camera was connected to a controller by an incredibly long cable so the cameraman could work at a distance from the tree in a hide but still have full control over the shots. It was a massive team effort but incredible to get those first images back.
(Images: BBC Earth)