Documenting Animals on the Edge

Hostile Planet cinematographer Matteo Willis talks high-speed drones, the ethics of interfering... and that shot of a snow leopard.

By Simon Ingram
Published 13 May 2019, 11:50 BST
"An animal so rare and hard to see they have become the holy grail of wildlife ...
"An animal so rare and hard to see they have become the holy grail of wildlife filming." The snow leopard – the subject of one of the most remarkable sequences in Hostile Planet's Mountains episode.
Photograph by National Geographic

There are many emotions viewers could take away from Hostile Planet, currently airing on National Geographic. This six part, landscape-by-landscape is an immersion in the challenges faced by animals in their daily battle with conditions, predators and the simple business of getting by in a world that challenges them at every step, swish or flap.

Watching the resulting footage, compiled over 82 shoots, with 1300 days of filming by a 245-strong crew – and crafted by a team including veterans of Planet Earth, Blue Planet and the Oscar-winning visual feast Pan's Labyrinth – you may feel sympathy, wonder, the rush of adrenaline. You may find yourself holding your breath as the everything from killer whales to polar bears, to wolves, orangutans and snow leopards face the brutality of life before your eyes. But whatever your emotion, one aspect of Hostile Planet is inarguable: never before has a wildlife series been so unblinking in its view of the visceral and occasionally heartbreaking trials of the natural world.  

Here Matteo Willis, cinematographer and director for Hostile Planet, talked to National Geographic UK about creating the series that, according to The Guardian, ‘leaves you on the edge of your sofa.’     

On location in Greenland for Hostile Planet. The crew numbered 245 and the shoot spanned all seven continents.
Photograph by National Geographic

What is different about Hostile Planet? 

Hostile Planet is an honest, raw look at the natural world, through the eyes of its animal inhabitants. With global climate change this is a world that is shifting rapidly. But rather than view these stories from a distant, human perspective we have tried to place the audience as close to the animals’ experiences as possible. When a golden eagle soars over mountain ridges we are riding on its wingtip. As a baby turtle flaps its way across the beach towards the safety of the ocean we inch alongside. By sharing their experiences we not only understand the challenges they face, we feel them too.

What experience was the most affecting for you?

The first two days in the life of a barnacle goose chick was a key story for the Mountains film. These birds nest on cliff tops in Greenland. Within days of hatching the flightless chicks must jump to the valley below, a straight drop of 400 ft. Many do not make it but incredibly some do. Filming this story was a nerve-wracking, emotional roller-coaster ride; a sense of anguish when a chick was lost in the rocks countered with a huge surge of triumph when one survived.

Barnacle Goose, Greenland. Barnacle geese nest on 400 foot-high cliffs as protection from predators. However, these birds and their young eat grass, which does not grow on these rocks and the parents are unable to bring back food to the nest. The chicks must jump within 48 hours of hatching and then walk the mile to river where they are safe from predators. Barnacle geese parents are monogamous and will return to the same nest site year after year. The female will incubate the eggs for around 25 days while the male guards nearby.
Photograph by National Geographic/Miguel Willis

There has been much written about the quandary of staying impartial when filming animals in distress. What's that like?

These geese chicks were a true test of the mantra of wildlife filming: “don’t become involved”. Our job is to film these events, not influence them. And that is hard when a cute, struggling chick is in front of the camera. My heart tells me to help such an innocent, defenceless creature but my head puts on the brakes. It is a difficult dilemma, and one wildlife filmmakers are confronted with all the time.

“These geese chicks were a true test of the mantra of wildlife filming: “don’t become involved”. Our job is to film these events, not influence them. ”

Matteo Willis

The show pushes the aesthetic possibilities of the documentary. Which technique was the most revolutionary for you?

We had a world-class racing drone pilot fly his craft and camera through various environments at up to 120mph. It gave us a sense of what a golden eagle experiences as it soars over mountain ridges or a humming bird as it races from flower to flower through dense jungle. By mimicking their flight we captured their perspective, built a sense of what their world looks and feels like. But this and other technical choices were always dictated by the story we wanted to tell. Through this came the beauty of experience.

Hostile Planet's eye is close, and unblinking. Matteo Willis: "as a baby turtle flaps its way across the beach towards the safety of the ocean we inch alongside."
Photograph by National Geographic

Do you think the challenges faced by the animals in Hostile Planet have been exacerbated by human activity on Earth?

Without a doubt the lives of animals are harder, and more unpredictable, than they have every been. And that is due to human activity. As wildlife filmmakers we travel to many different parts of the world every year and spend short, but intense periods of time with scientists and local people filming animals they know well. Time and again I hear firsthand stories of how things have changed over the last decade - a lack of ice in the Arctic, forests decimated by palm oil plantations, roads ploughed through pristine landscapes. And the finger of blame invariably points to the most destructive animal on the planet: us.

See how jelly fish grow, mutate and multiply into an army of clones

Describe the most challenging subject you managed to nail in a sequence...

The Mountains film opens with a story of hunting snow leopard, an animal so rare and hard to see it's become the holy grail of wildlife filming. Our sequence concludes with this leopard plunging hundred of feet off a cliff, with a wild sheep in his jaws. I have never seen anything like it. Even though I have seen the shot hundreds of times it still takes my breath away. Does it survive? You’ll have to watch the film to find out!

Hostile Planet is on Sunday nights at 9pm on National Geographic, with repeats on Wednesdays. Catch up now on Sky, Virgin Media, BT, TalkTalk and TV Player.


Gallery: striking Hostile Planet images show the cost of survival 


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