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Cameraman films king penguins on subantarctic island.
Photo Credit: Chadden Hunter
A BBC cameraman films king penguins on sub-Antarctic South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. The shoot is part of a new documentary series called Frozen Planet, which will cover the polar regions, with filming moving to USAP research stations and field camps this year.

Frozen Planet

New BBC/Discovery documentary turns its focus to polar regions

How do you top what many have called the most popular natural history television program in history?

Set the sequel at the literal ends of the Earth — the Antarctic and Arctic.

BBC External Non-U.S. government site and the Discovery Channel External Non-U.S. government site have teamed once again on a new documentary series, following closely on the heels of “Planet Earth,” an 11-episode extravaganza shot almost entirely in high-definition (HD) video. Filming on “Frozen Planet” began last year, and a team of filmmakers will head to McMurdo Station External U.S. government site and beyond this summer field season with the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site.

The BBC natural history External Non-U.S. government site team chose the polar regions because the original “Planet Earth” episode called “Ice Worlds” seemed to possess the most potential for a series of its own, according to Chadden Hunter External Non-U.S. government site, a director who has worked on both wildlife series and has been coordinating the field plan on the Ice.

“The feeling was the polar regions are landscapes so vast and relatively unexplored and uninhabited that these new technologies that we had [used on “Planet Earth”] lent themselves to showcasing the polar regions like never before,” Hunter said.

Cineflex camera attached to a boat.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth White
A Cineflex camera attached to a boat that was used to film wildlife in the Antarctic Peninsula.
Film crew pauses from shooting walrus hunt.
Photo Credit: Adam Scott
A film crew pauses from shooting traditional walrus hunts in Siberia.

That technology included a camera system called the Cineflex, which fits a HD camera with a telephoto lens inside a gyro-stabilized bubble. Attached to a helicopter, the camera system allowed filmmakers to get tight, close-up shots of wildlife from hundreds of meters away in the air, including an epic hunt by African wild dogs for “Planet Earth.”

Antarctica has been the subject of numerous film projects in the last few years. Most recently, Hollywood director Werner Herzog turned his unique looking glass on the continent in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “Encounters at the End of the World,” another project supported by the NSF. And, of course, “March of the Penguins,” about the triumphs and travails of an emperor penguin colony, became one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time.

Hunter said the BBC-Discovery project hopes to create the “ultimate portrait” of the polar regions. The 17-member film crew heading to Antarctica next month actually consists of several teams, which will dive under the sea ice, buzz around the mouth of an active volcano in a helicopter and spend an entire season with an Adélie penguin colony at Cape Crozier.

“It’s a lot of people coming and going. A lot of stories we’re trying to cover,” said Hunter, himself a PhD who studied primates in Ethiopia.

The large team has offered some challenges to the people charged with equipping and moving the filmmakers to various field camps and locations, including South Pole Station External U.S. government site and sites on the sea ice for underwater diving.

“It is complicated and it is all over the place just because it is a lot of people,” said Rob Edwards, Science Planning Support manager for Raytheon Polar Services External Non-U.S. government site , the prime contractor to the NSF for the U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site. “This is pretty big. It’s so many people over so long a time.”

The first filmmakers will arrive shortly after the summer field season begins on Sept. 29. The diving team wants to get in the water as soon as possible to take advantage of the excellent visibility during that time of the year, Hunter said.

“The one thing we’re really trying to capture is that alien world under the ice,” he added. “Above the ice, the conditions are horrific and it feels like a desolate wasteland, but once you get under the sea ice, there’s this whole rich and colorful world of life going on down there.”

Divers will also film emperor penguins at the Cape Washington colony along the Victoria Land coast using super slow-motion cameras that can record 1,000 frames per second, according to Hunter.

“I think with the penguins rocketing around, the bubble streams come off them like comet trails; putting this high-speed camera underwater will be a completely new look — a very stylized sequence, quite balletic,” he said.

Most of the episodes in the seven-part “Frozen Planet” series will feature the stunning wildlife cinematography that marked “Planet Earth,” but will also focus on people and conservation in the final two episodes, a departure from the previous project.

Helicopter outfitted with Cineflex camera.
Photo Credit: Jason Roberts
A helicopter outfitted with Cineflex camera in the Arctic.

Hunter said filming in the Antarctic and Arctic, in some ways, has been harder than the globetrotting of “Planet Earth” given the distances and extremes in climate.

“I don’t think any of us have worked as hard logistically,” he said. “Sometimes just to get a film crew to one of the locations that you want to be in requires so much support and infrastructure and money, really, that it’s out of the scope of many documentary budgets.”

Among the field team will be Sir David Attenborough External Non-U.S. government site, the 83-year-old naturalist who narrated the “Planet Earth” series. The plan is for Attenborough to spend about two weeks on the Ice, including a possible trip to South Pole to complement a similar sequence at the North Pole.

Edwards said Attenborough, like all the documentary crew, would be a part of the McMurdo community like any other science or media event. That means living in dorm buildings while at the research station and eating in a communal dining hall. Still, he said he expects there to be some buzz around the film team even by a group of people who hobnob with artists and filmmakers nearly every year.

“We’re used to pretty exciting stuff every year,” Edwards said. “However, at least for some people, the idea of working with the BBC — these guys are the top pros in the natural history business — I’m sure some people are very excited to meet [them].”

NSF-funded research in this project: Carlos Gutierrez, Discovery Communications, Inc., Award No. 0848627 External U.S. government site. NSF's Informal Science Education program under the Education and Human Resources Directorate funded the grant in cooperation with the Office of Polar Programs. 

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs