How the BBC films the night side of Planet Earth

This is a black sicklebill bird of paradise
at dawn in the forests of New Guinea. It’s one of 39 birds of paradise, a family
of birds known for the males’ extraordinary courtship dances and ornate feathers. They’ve been called the holy grail for wildlife
filmmakers, in part because for decades, they were really hard to film. GUNTON: One of the one of the really challenging
things about animals is that they do a lot of stuff at dawn and at dusk, just when the
lights are going. The black sicklebill only performs its courtship
ritual at the first light of day. When the BBC aired this footage in 1996, it
was the first ever captured of this behavior. Two decades later, the black sicklebill is
still dancing at dawn in New Guinea, but this time the humans have sharpened their tools. Light-sensitive digital cameras can now pull
back the curtain of darkness around sunset and sunrise. But what about behaviors that happen at night? Like the animals that they pursue, nocturnal
filmmakers have had to find ways of seeing in the dark. Film cameras struggled in low light because
film stocks with higher light sensitivity produced a grainier image. The film emulsion literally had coarser grains
of silver salts. So for decades, when they did try to do nighttime
stories, BBC producers resorted to using artificial lights. That’s not ideal for the animal, but it’s
not great for the filmmaker either, since they’re trying to capture natural behaviors. GUNTON: Animals that are out at night, they’re
out a night for a reason, which is they don’t want to be out in the light so as soon as
you start flashing lights around they don’t like it, they don’t behave properly or they
disappear. It took several months to habituate these
bulldog bats to artificial light so that the producers could show in slow motion how they
fish. So for the past couple of decades, the BBC
has often turned to infrared cameras. That requires setting up lights too, but they’re
lights that emit wavelengths outside the range that humans and many animals can see. That infrared light bounces off the scene
and into the lens to form a monochrome image, but as far as the animal is concerned, they’re
just going about their business in the dark. ATTENBOROUGH: Mantises defend themselves in
two ways, either by camouflage or with an aggressive display like this. By 2002, the quality of infrared cameras was
high enough that the BBC could use it extensively for the Life of Mammals series. It allowed them to film the rare water opossum
in the wild for the first time. And it was the technology the BBC used to
capture the iconic scene in Planet Earth of lions hunting an elephant in the dead of night. They installed infrared lights on a truck
and powered them with car batteries. For Planet Earth 2, the producers used infrared
lights in the Deserts episode to capture a showdown between a long-eared bat and a scorpion. But this time, it’s infrared with
high resolution and slow motion, combined. CHARLES: So the cameras we were shooting on
were Red Dragons and they’ve taken out the part of the filter, which means that it’s
now sensitive to infrared light. So you’ve got this incredibly crisp 5K image
— you can use your zoom lenses and shoot at your higher frame rates all in infrared,
which is fantastic. When it’s not possible to set up infrared
lights near the animal, there’s another option: Thermal cameras. NIGHTINGALE: Originally there sort of multicolored
cameras, the reds and oranges and so on were rather artificial. Whereas now, there’s a camera, which gives
you a really nice and very fine detailed view of animal of heat gradients. Thermal cameras detect infrared radiation
too, but longer wavelengths, or what we experience as heat. Instead of collecting infrared light that’s
reflecting off of the subject, it senses the heat that’s being emitted by the subject
itself. This technology was developed for military
use and it’s become so advanced that in Planet Earth 2, we can see every whisker of
the leopards that stalk the streets of Mumbai. NIGHTINGALE: There’s a scene where these leopards
are hunting the pigs. Pitch blackness. And what was strange is in the sequence, you
also see people walking through the park at night. Of course, they can’t see a thing. They can’t see the leopards. The leopards can see them, the leopards aren’t
interested in them, the leopards are interested in the pigs. So you get this incredible observed view on
a pitch black night, you need no ambient light, not even starlight. The thermal camera is really the only way
they could have filmed this hunt. But it can’t capture color, which is essential
for some stories, like this bioluminescent railroad worm, filmed for the first time for
the Jungles episode of Planet Earth 2. GUNTON: On it’s side it’s got these bright
yellow dots and those are warnings to other creatures that don’t eat me because I’m
poisonous. And it also has on its head little red lights. They’re little search lights. When it gets close to its prey and switches
to hunting mode, it turns the yellow lights off so the prey cant see them, but the red
lights, which the prey can’t see because it’s infrared, it keeps them on so it spots
them. This was filmed at night with a Sony A7s,
a small, relatively affordable camera that came out in 2014 and blew people away with
it’s abilities in low-light. You can see how it compares with some of the
other cameras we have here at Vox, with the same settings. Digital camera sensors are bigger than ever. The Sony A7s has a full frame 35mm sensor,
but it actually has fewer megapixels than most comparable cameras. That means each pixel is bigger and can take
in more light. They’ve also engineered two steps of noise
reduction to keep the image cleaner. Sensor technology is changing so fast that
the Sony a7s didn’t exist when the BBC first started working on Planet Earth 2. Now, it’s opening up new opportunities for
filmmakers. NAPPER: We can now put it on drones. We can take it underwater. Suddenly there’s a lot of animal behavior
which we’ll be able to reveal using that camera. It’s hard to imagine what wildlife films
will look like 10 or 20 years from now, especially as so many species face existential threats,
but as long as engineers keep innovating, filmmakers will keep finding new ways of revealing
the beauty and diversity of Planet Earth. Thank you for watching! You can find Planet Earth 2 on BBC America. It will be airing Saturdays through March
25th. You can also find tons of clips from their
archive on BBC Earth’s mobile app. It’s called Story of Life and it’s actually
where I found a lot of the clips that I used in this video. And it’s free! So check it out.


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