Elizabeth White on filming Frozen Planet, focusing on hope and optimism within the environmental movement

Elizabeth White on filming Frozen Planet, focusing on hope and optimism within the environmental movement

Elizabeth White on filming Frozen Planet, focusing on hope and optimism within the environmental movement

Over one-third of our planet is frozen. The ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctica regions contain 80 percent of the planet’s drinking water, its seasonal changes, and general health affecting the whole world. Narrated by David Attenborough, the BBC docuseries Frozen Planet explores these polar regions, capturing its wonders before global warming changes it forever.

Among the spectacles are the frozen forests where it can take seedlings hundreds of years to grow into a stunted shrub, coated as they are with ice most of the year. These and other northern forests together constitute the Taiga, a belt of forest stretching around much of the planet and consisting a third of all our planet’s trees. These trees thrive because of snowflakes, essentially moisture that has crystallised around dust particles, which thaw in the spring and provide water to the trees. There are also the seasonal melts that shrink Antarctica to half its size, and Greenland’s melt water which causes massive shifts in icebergs, affecting ocean currents which in turn impacts weather around the world.

Playing out against this majestic, eerily beautiful landscape is a wildlife that includes penguins, polar bears, killer whales, wolves, bisons, and more. In one sequence of the show, a male polar bear rolls around in the snow upon sniffing a female, following in her footsteps until he is caught up with her, and fending off other suitors. Bloody and battered from deadly fights with rivals, he protects her throughout the mating season, the two then parting ways since the female goes through pregnancy alone. In contrast to these solitary animals are killer whales who group together to hunt prey and penguins who crowd around in large numbers, building nests and awaiting females.

In an exclusive interview, series director Elizabeth White discusses her experience of filming Frozen Planet, the peculiarities of its wildlife, the impact of climate change, and more.

Edited excerpts below:

Before filming, you spent time engaged doing research about marine life and biology. Can you please talk about where your interest in wildlife began and how it developed?

I’ve always been interested in animals since I was a child. My mom was very interested in animals, in wildlife. And then when I was growing up, I loved going to the sea and finding animals on the coast along Britain, and that made me want to study biology. So I ended up doing a degree in Geology, and stayed in science for another few years and did a PhD. As part of that, I was working on fish and was given some funding to go to Antarctica, and to help do some studies on fish in Georgia. And that’s when I first ended up going to the polar regions and falling in love with the place.

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The series talks about how, in a way, the polar regions are the last real wildernesses on the planet. What was it like being there?

Amazing! The first time I went was actually as a scientist to Antarctica. And I totally fell in love with the place. It’s got its own atmosphere. The ice and the cold make it feel very different from anywhere else I’ve been. Very fresh and wild. And seeing things like whales and penguins, and some of my favourite wildlife in the flesh was super exciting. And I came back, desperate to go again. And for Frozen Planet, I ended up actually working in the Arctic more than the Antarctica. And that was very different because obviously it’s inhabited. So we were working with local Inuit guides and people who live in these places year-round. In some ways, it’s less wild and remote, and in some ways, it’s just as wild and remote, but you’ve got people. And they are places that can really capture your imagination. I think different people find different environments get under their skin. I’ve got friends who just love mountains and other friends who love the ocean, and for me, the cold places just really tick the box.

What was it like filming with the Inuits? Can you please talk about their daily life and culture, as you observed it?

We filmed with them quite a few times. There’s a sequence where we went with a dog sledge, and that was an amazing experience because we were filming them in May when it was already 24-hour daylight up there. And these people had come through winter where it’s just 24 hours of darkness, and in the summertime, the light comes back and they spend six months hunting on the sea ice with their dog sledge. And that was itself such a romantic way to travel. The people we were working with were doing science, they were actually studying sea ice. And it’s incredible, we filmed most of the piece at night because the light was prettier. It’s like being out in the middle of the day and yet it’s three in the morning. But really lovely people. I liked the Inuit culture; they were very nice people.

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The series covers a lot of ground, from Barrow in the Northern tip of Alaska to the White sea in Russia. What was the filming process like?

I’ve worked on wildlife series for nearly 20 years, and it was the most away I’ve ever been. Partly because the shoots are very long because it takes a long time to get to some of the places. And once you’re there, you try and film several stories so that it reduces the amount of travel. So I worked away from home quite a lot. And you miss home. But it’s lovely being in many different places and seeing different things. Sometimes it’s quite tough, because it’s cold or sometimes the journeys are quite difficult. Travelling by yacht to Antarctica was very rough. Everyone was seasick. It’s all really scary because you have to trust the people you’re working with. We only employ people we really think are amazing, people who’ve got expertise and knowledge of the region. But it’s still quite a challenge, being in massive seas, not something I’m used to doing when I’m normally home in Bristol. But I really enjoyed the process for Frozen Planet, I think they were particularly special and interesting because they were such unusual places to go.

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Was there anything in particular you were looking to capture when you set out to film?

I think one thing that’s quite interesting about this region is that there are stories that are still quite elusive. I guess the big one we really wanted was to capture the killer whales hunting cooperatively. We’d heard about it, and there was this tentative little video on YouTube that somebody had snapped from a home camera, but nobody had ever really set out to try and film that properly. And we managed to film it.

The other amazing story is about this icicle that forms under the ice in Antarctica. It forms when the sea water is frozen and all the salt squeezes out of it and becomes super cold but doesn’t freeze so it sinks to the bottom of the sea, and creates like an underwater chimney that goes down from the ice. And that’s something that scientists knew about but it took our cameramen to set up time lapse cameras, and leave them down there for a couple hours, like nine hours to the actual formation. And they captured over that time this incredible finger of ice descending down to the seabed. So that was probably my favourite sequence of the whole series. It’s like something in fantasy. But yes, it’s completely real. So that’s lovely.

And then one of my favourites shoots we went on was quite a challenging shoot but we filmed killer whales hunting minke whales. So that’s like a battle of the giants. And we were lucky enough to film the whole take, the killer whale hunting, and it took down the enormous whale. We’ve also got some really cute stories like the penguins stealing each other stones (from nests). So all the films are slightly different. Because it’s seasonal, the behaviour you get is quite different because the environment is quite different. And I think that provides quite a lot of variety.

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There’s a tenderness and ruthlessness that coexist in nature. For instance, the sequence of the killer whales group hunting the Weddell seal that becomes tired of trying to escape and finally sinks into the water. While it is a beautiful sequence, one is also witnessing a life being lost. How does being around this duality affect you?

It’s always difficult. Those stories where you’re filming animals hunting other animals, they’re always particularly emotional. Because on the one side you want to film the reality of what’s happening but on the other hand, you know one of the animals is prey. And that’s quite a hard thing to watch. And I remember watching the killer whales hunting the minke whales and feeling this real tug on your heartstrings, this real mix emotions. I want the killer whales to kill so they can eat but I don’t want to see this (minke) whale die. And luckily, especially with animals that big, you can’t influence behaviour. You can only observe. We were filming it from a distance and there’s nothing you can do. All you can do is capture a piece of behaviour and portray it so people can see. But it is difficult. In many ways, I prefer filming sweet, happy stories. Those are the nicer stories. You want to see an animal doing its behaviour but it’s really nice for me when the prey gets away.

The series sets out to capture the polar regions before global warming changes them forever. What effects of climate change are you already noticing?

The freshwater that’s locked up in the ice in Greenland is already contributing to global sea level rise because Greenland is melting quite fast. And we do quite an amazing piece in Greenland about how that ice is melting and washing away. So that’s a very powerful sequence. There’s also a sequence in the last film about Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The scientists fly across it in an aeroplane and the whole piece was just shattered. This massive area of ice has broken up, and he’s seeing it for the first time. And so he talks about the consequences of that. And then obviously, we’re talking about what that might mean for the animals.

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Personally, how do you cope with the enormity of climate change and find the hope to keep on working?

That partly makes you say ‘we need to tell more of these stories’ to get that sense of urgency out there. But I also feel a huge amount of hope and optimism when I work with some of these scientists and communicators. Because everybody does believe passionately that we can make a difference. If enough people understand the changes that are going on, and if all things on earth decide that we’re going to make a change, and we’re going to try and reduce the carbon in the environment, and all those things that we need to do, we can change things.

The world has changed and it will continue to change but we do have a choice in how much it changes.

And a lot of scientists we work with are super optimistic. They have real faith in humanity. If people understand what’s going on, they can and will work together to make a difference. The scientific community, they’re very factual. They can say, we are not in a good way. There’s still a big movement of optimism. The worst possible thing we can do is say it’s too late. Because then nobody has any will to do anything. Whereas if we all believe that people can make a difference through our choices then there’s still that reason to be optimistic.

Frozen Planet airs on 21 January, 9 pm, on Sony BBC Earth