In March, Discovery debuted Frozen Planet, a breathtaking polar exploration series from the makers of Planet Earth and Life. During four years of production, the temperatures went as low as -58°F and the winds as high as 148 miles per hour. In total, the crew spent 2,356 days in the field, 840 hours trapped in blizzards, and 134 hours filming under the ice to capture jaw-dropping footage like the killer whale “wave wash” behavior in which orcas swim in a line to make waves that knock a seal off an ice floe, and a pack of 25 patient wolves working together to separate a bison from its herd. Below is our interview with series producer Vanessa Berlowitz and director Chadden Hunter, originally published in two parts. For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012: Behind the Scenes coverage.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you’re putting together a series like this, how do you balance “happy endings” – like a gentoo penguin escaping a southern sea lion multiple times on land – and sad ones, like the Weddell seal being targeted by the orcas, which is both absolutely fascinating and excruciating to watch.
CHADDEN HUNTER: To me, that’s the most emotionally-draining sequence of the whole series. But then the power of it – it is nature and it is what happens. So part of conveying it is capturing that drama that these animals have to deal with day in and day out.
VANESSA BERLOWITZ: We do think quite carefully about how we pace those sequences and in what order. We really wanted to have a light moment – it’s very uplifting when the penguin gets away – because we knew the ending of the orca sequence. We had lots of debates about whether to show that shot.
The final shot of the exhausted seal being slowly pulled off the ice floe.
BERLOWITZ: To be honest, compared to be what we filmed subsequently, that was absolutely tame. We captured the whole amazing behavior. Once that seal’s dragged in, there was underwater shots of the way that they butcher the animal, which is really precise. The reason they spend so long trying to tire this animal out is that these are feisty seals. They’re huge. They’re about 10 feet long, and they’ve got teeth. So it’s partly a game, it’s partly training, but it’s also for [the whales’] own protection. Once they’ve got it down, they kill it very quickly, and then they take the skin off. Literally, the seal comes out, almost intact. So we didn’t show you any of that. [Laughs]
HUNTER: The one thing I find fascinating when you’ve got friends with families who watch it is that it’s all the parents who have the emotional baggage. “Ohmygod, I can’t watch this. It’s harrowing, it’s too emotional.” We keep thinking of it as Frozen Planet is quite adult viewing. This is real drama, a classic wildlife series not that appropriate for kids. Most of my friends’ kids, say, “No, no, come on, mum, dad. I want to watch this. How am I ever gonna learn if I don’t see a seal chasing a penguin?”
BERLOWITZ: My 3-year-old was being cool about it. I said, “It’s a bit like Tom and Jerry, isn’t it?” He’s fine. As Chad says, the adults bring to it the horror of what you don’t see. Which is the way horror movies work – it’s all about what you don’t see that scares you. In some ways, it may have been actually less disturbing if you saw the kill. But by not showing that, we actually made it acceptable for kids to watch, and they just don’t have that problem. They just read it differently.
Are there other examples of that, where you had to debate how much to show?
BERLOWITZ: [To Hunter] Well, it was very handy with your wolf hunt. I have to say, we were grateful for the knock. [An adult bison running from behind through a pack of wolves accidentally plows into the juvenile bison the wolves are chasing, knocking him down and ending the long battle. Watch the sequence here.]
HUNTER: What’s remarkable about wolves versus bison, because they’re so big and evenly matched, it’s like a real chess game that goes on for hours and hours and hours. We’d follow groups where the pack of wolves would sleep right beside the bison, and the adult bison don’t worry too much. As long as they can keep wolves in front of them, they know that if one comes near them, they can just toss them with their horns. So the wolves would test them, and the adult bison are like, Don’t even think about it, and the wolves go and sit down again. For us, it’s harrowing. Imagine if you were face to face with a predator, you wouldn’t be calm. But these bison know as long as they don’t run and expose their rump, then the wolves can’t get them. To them it’s just a game of nerves. In the opening episode, that circling and chess game is what’s going on. The wolves are trying to disorient the bison, trying to surround them. As the bison spin, eventually some of them are like, I’m in the middle. Are we running? Let’s just run. Then the group splits up, some of the older ones stay back like, What are you doing? Don’t be stupid. That’s when the advantage changes to the wolves. We had to really pace ourselves, especially with the helicopter. You’d get up and watch the chess game. Is anything going to happen? You’d land again. You’re always making those hairline decisions about whether to film now….
The ”Winter” program has got a solo wolf and bison battle where just the alpha female takes on the bison. That is absolutely emotionally exhausting. And one reason we decided to do a making-of section about that [in “The Making of Frozen Planet” episode] is that we wanted to basically take the viewer’s hand and say, “Okay, this was emotional to watch, but we go through the same emotions when we film it.” So as opposed to revisiting the hunt because it’s gratuitous or dramatic, we actually wanted to revisit the hunt in the making-of almost as a therapy session. We wanted to say, “Okay, let’s go through this together and explain that we’re not heartless lenses on cameras. It can be upsetting to see all this drama in the wild.” When you’re back in the edit, it’s quite interesting. Vanessa might come and see it for the first time, and she’ll be like –
BERLOWITZ: “Holy s—.”
Next: Don’t get misty, your eyes will freeze shut