“The most dramatic event is what is happening now in nature.” Hans Zimmer on scoring the natural world

On the eve of the upcoming BBC Earth Prom, the Oscar-winning composer’s work reflects the relationship between humans and nature – and the ever-evolving, century-old medium of the natural history documentary.

By Simon Ingram
Published 24 Aug 2022, 07:04 BST
“The climate goes hand in hand with how we coexist with nature, with the creatures of ...

“The climate goes hand in hand with how we coexist with nature, with the creatures of this world, and how we coexist with each other as human beings.” Hans Zimmer at London's Natural History Museum in front of Luke Jerram's 'Earth' artwork. 

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

TENTATIVELY, a baby iguana emerges from the black grit of a beach. From the rocks around, a small army of snake heads snap to attention in unison. There is an agonising motionless moment. Then the chase begins. The iguana races, legs like propellors. The snakes cascade towards it like meltwater as the lizard makes for the safety of the rocks. 

The scene, from the BBC’s Planet Earth II, has been watched over 26 million times on YouTube, and is natural history filmmaking at its most beadily, brutally riveting. The cameras capture, the voiceover describes, and the editing shapes what we see – but there is another element which holds the viewer’s attention just as raptly. It is invisible yet intense, and the only thing in the sequence created entirely from scratch: the music.

Pick a scene from the canon of natural history film-making from the last 30 years – the killer whales tossing sea lions around the breakwater in Trials of Life, the moments when the barnacle goose chick totters on a cliff edge – or that snow leopard tumbles catastrophically over one – in National Geographic’s Hostile Planet. All wield their sonic landscapes to skilful effect, whether strings, rumbling bass drums, mischievous flutes – or torturous, breath-holding silence.  

On 27 August 2022, the year the BBC turns 100, composers Hans Zimmer and George Fenton are conducting the Earth Prom, a musical celebration of iconic moments filmed by the BBC’s Natural History Unit, set to music performed live at the Royal Albert Hall.

’Incredibly emotional’

“You remember the scene with the iguanas and the snakes?” Zimmer tells National Geographic UK over Zoom. ”Imagine you’re a Hollywood composer, and so you know a lot of Hollywood directors who are all doing their car chases and whatever. Nobody ever had as exciting a chase, as exciting footage, as that. It’s incredibly emotional stuff. All the music is trying to do is shine an additional light onto things. Make it something that gets under your skin.”

Zimmer has won two Oscars for his work on Hollywood scores including Dune, Gladiator, The Lion King and The Dark Knight trilogy. In addition to scoring National Geographic’s touring live show Symphony for Our World and the Genius series, the German composer has scored nature documentaries for the BBC such as Seven Worlds One Planet, and Blue Planet II.

“Part of what’s attractive about this whole thing is, it’s another wide world of musical opportunity,” he says with a smile. “There is an inherent mystery and element of extraordinary chance in the world of nature. The music mercilessly seduces you into paying attention to what is going on onscreen… We make everything look beautiful, absolutely wonderful, and for a moment you love it all. When really, we should be saying, wake up – we’re destroying it all. And when we destroy it, we will destroy ourselves.”  

A scene from Planet Earth 2, a series scored by Hans Zimmer for the BBC. Scenes from series such as this will be set to live music for the BBC's Earth Prom on 27 August.

Photograph by BBC Natural History Unit

Zimmer, who was born in Frankfurt in 1957, has close ties to the United Kingdom, and following the recent heatwaves is expresses dismay at its “green and pleasant land [becoming] orange and brown unpleasant stubble.” Reflecting on the impact of natural history programming on public awareness of climate change, Zimmer says he was raised in an environment that foresaw the brewing crisis.

“My uncle was a biologist, a south polar explorer, first to map some of the more obscure islands in the South Seas. My dad was an inventor who worked in biodegradable washing up powders,” he says. “I grew up in a family that was very aware of what was coming and very aware that nobody was listening. And I suppose between the BBC [Natural History] Unit and the people I work with in music, and myself, we found a way to make millions of people suddenly take notice.”

“Because,” he adds, ”we’re not approaching it in a dry scientific way, but in a more dramatic way. And the most dramatic event happening at the moment is what is happening now in nature.”

Natural creativity

Whatever the subject, creativity in the documentary space is a fine balance – with music only one way narratives are crafted to produce a reaction in the audience without compromising authenticity.

“We’re storytellers fundamentally,” says Mike Gunton, Creative Director of Factual Programming in the BBC’s Natural History Unit, whose team has worked with Zimmer’s musical collective Bleeding Fingers on several major productions – including the upcoming prom. ”It’s about finding what’s the most engaging, the most relatable, the most dramatic way you can tell a story that needs to be told. It draws on many, many threads of stimuli.”

Natural history documentaries have undergone their own evolution. The first nature documentary is often considered to have been Nanook of the North, a silent Arctic epic from 1922 documenting the ‘Barren Lands…which top the world‘ – though in reality it was more cultural study of Inuit life than nature documentary.

“This music, it’s not written to make you realise how beautiful nature is. Nature is beautiful. Why gild the lily? I’m writing the music because I’m angry.”

Hans Zimmer

Disney’s True-Life Adventures, which began in 1948 and spanned 12 years, were a high-profile success in the United States at a time when cinema and television were hitting their stride. A collection of shorts and feature-length documentaries on the natural world, journeying from deep sea to American prairies to African jungle, mixing graphics and footage “photographed in their natural settings… completely authentic, unstaged and unrehearsed.” Footage was set to jaunty, dramatic score that seemed to react to the narrative onscreen, with a voiceover providing commentary.

National Geographic began producing documentaries in 1965, with early titles documenting the work of Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau and Dian Fossey, and titles like the Oscar-nominated The Hidden World (1966) pushing the boundaries of close-up photography in the field. National Geographic documentaries became ubiquitous in the United States with the advent of home video in the early 1980s.

Changing the narrative

In the UK, the BBC had entered the nature space in 1954, introducing an icon who remains the face – and voice – of its natural history programming. David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest, put the naturalist at the centre of a series of adventures to jungly corners of the world in search of new exhibits for London Zoo. Outdated acquisition practices aside, it introduced the public both to Attenborough and parts of the natural world never before seen on British television screens. After a spell as BBC Controller, Attenborough would return with the series that affirmed both his and the corporation’s status as leading commentators on the natural world.

A famous scene, from 1979’s Life on Earth, placed him in the midst of a group of mountain gorillas – a potentially tense moment the presenter turned into a moment of striking empathy. “That was quite the turning point. In that one scene, we realised that we’re very connected to wildlife,” says Jonny Keeling, head of the BBC Natural History Unit. “It’s not something separate to us, and people therefore want to learn about the natural world, and understand and love the natural world – and therefore want to protect it.”

Left: Top:

A scene from the Best of Walt Disney's True-life adventures – one of the first long-form nature documentaries. 

Photograph by United Archives Gmbh / Alamy
Right: Bottom:

David Attenborough is surrounded by Christmas Island crabs during filming for BBC's The Trials of Life. The trilogy of BBC series were at the time, according to producer Mike Gunton, the three volumes of Attenborough's life's work. "I remember when he finished the last one, he said, ‘that’s it – I’m done. I’m retiring,’ remembers Gunton. “And that was 31 years ago.”

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

Mike Gunton’s work with Attenborough on series such as the Trials of Life, Planet Earth II and Life developed an approach which evolved the nature documentary into something that gripped as well as amazed.

“Those original programmes were very much tableau,” Gunton says. “The camera pointing at a scene and stuff would happen in the scene. But then people started using the grammar of documentary to show different perspective and different angles, both conceptually and literally.” This, he says, remains the ultimate ambition of the documentary: “What can we use the camera to do?”  

Life (2009) was the first time we had this mantra that every sequence you would know ‘who is your hero, what’s the challenge and what’s the outcome?’ That was the DNA of it,” Gunton says. “Within each sequence there was a storytelling arc – and an engaging arc, because you cared. Executives used to say, ‘people want to know how big it is, how heavy it is.’ And my feeling was, if they want to know [that], we’ve failed. That’s not a gripping story.”

This crafting of an immersive narrative from the footage didn’t appeal to everyone. “[Some thought] it too anthropomorphic. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to take that approach,” says Gunton. “You spend any time watching animals, you can see the parallels between us and them. Very often, you don’t even need to say anything, you just show – and people make those connections themselves.”

A score for nature

“It’s really exciting to marry music and natural history,” says Jonny Keeling. “They’re both things that resonate wherever you are in the world. As humans we feel emotions, we’re part of families, we have friendships, alliances – and this is reflected in the natural world.”

“Music is such an important part of the viewer experience now,” adds Mike Gunton. “If you are bringing an experience to a viewer, audio is a very powerful. If you want to scare people you scare them with sound, you don’t scare them by showing them things. It’s much more impactful.”

Hans Zimmer compares his work on natural history programs to feature films bluntly: “One is really important, and is about ‘are we going to survive this?’ The other… sometimes it’s a piece of art, sometimes it’s just entertainment.”

But when it comes to scoring the worlds he finds, nature itself can provide the inspiration – with the right ears on the job. “It’s a sonic world for me, of course it is. I’m forever in my head, forever trying to write music, and really bad at taking breaks.” He says. “If you sit me down on a beach to relax, all I’m listening to is the rhythm of the waves, and thinking, yeah – that would make a really good bass run, or a good something or other.”

“If you want to scare people you scare them with sound, you don’t scare them by showing them things. It’s much more impactful.”

Mike Gunton

For Zimmer, the resulting music brings humans into the frame – but not always unnaturally, given they are inevitably now part of the narrative.

“We constantly feel the encroachment of the Industrial Revolution. And I’m angry,” he says. “This music, it’s not written to make you realise how beautiful nature is. Nature is beautiful. Why gild the lily? I’m writing the music because I’m angry and I want to draw people’s attention to what there is [to be lost]. They’re supposed to be caretakers of this world, and they’re not.”

“The climate goes hand in hand with how we coexist with nature, with the creatures of this world, and how we coexist with each other as human beings.” Says Zimmer. “And our track record is really poor.”

Hans Zimmer (centre) performing in Prague, Czech Republic in 2017. “Humanity is actually very capable of doing things together. You get an orchestra sitting there, they have those little black dots in front of them, and then, off they go – in total harmony.”

Photograph by Michal Krumphanzl/CTK Photo/Alamy Live News

When Zimmer takes the stage at the Earth Prom, it will be alongside composers such as George Fenton, Nitin Sawhney, Sarah Class and Murray Gold, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ben Palmer. Aside from the images onscreen and the stirring accompaniment, Zimmer says there is something to learn from the whole collaboration.  

“Humanity is actually very capable of doing things together. You get an orchestra sitting there, they have those little black dots in front of them, and then, off they go – in total harmony. If you just took that idea and applied it to a few other things, it could actually work out for the whole human race.”

The composer is clearly passionate about the planet – and critical of humanity's response to its own actions upon it. But, Zimmer adds, “I don’t mean to preach, or teach, or be pretentious about it. I live in hope, you see.”

Hans Zimmer will be performing at the BBC Earth Prom on 27 August.


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