An interview with Mark Brownlow, Series Producer

Introduce us to Blue Planet II…

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to introduce a new generation to the wonders of our ocean world. Blue Planet did an incredible job back in 2001, but with so many scientific discoveries in the oceans since then, along with advances in technology, we now possess a whole new understanding of life beneath the waves.

How is the series divided into episodes?

The introductory episode called One Ocean is going to introduce the audience to the central premise of the series, which is that you’re going to see things you’ve never seen before. Through a series of new discoveries in the programme you’ll realise that everything within the ocean has a relationship with everything else. We’ll see that the oceans are all inter-connected and ultimately, we all connect to the oceans.

Then we follow with five habitat-based programmes, each giving the audience a distinctive experience. None more so than The Deep – this is our sci-fi film. We’ve spent more time in subs on our first shoot than in the entire original Blue Planet episode. We are the first people to get a manned sub to the deep sea (1000m) in Antarctica.

Then in contrast there’s the Coral Reefs film, full of fun, vibrancy and colour. It showcases the incredible concentration of life crammed into these overcrowded undersea cities.

We then journey offshore into the Big Blue, one of the largest habitats on the planet, filled with incredible stories of animals that go through exceptional feats of endurance to survive. In this vast marine desert we showcase a family of deep diving sperm whales, even taking a ride on a mother’s back, as she dives into the abyss.

We may think of our ocean’s as blue but there is another surprising world of the Green Seas. From towering undersea forests of giant kelp to vast prairies of sea grass, this is an almost Brothers Grimm fairy tale of all the strange and magical creatures that live within these secret worlds. Here sea dragons lurk, bizarre giant cuttlefish breed, and an ingenious octopus outwits a forest full of sharks.

In the last of our habitat-based episodes we visit our Coasts. They may be our window to the oceans, where we go for rest and relaxation, but the creatures that live here have to go through incredible hardships to survive in this divide between land and sea. From sea lions that drive massive tuna onto dry land to heroic puffins struggling to feed their young. This episode is going to be extraordinary because we’ve got so many new, incredible stories.

In each of the above habitat-based episodes, while we stick to a clear narrative, we also try to give a snapshot of the context of the modern ocean. But in our final episode, Our Blue Planet – the future, we really get into the substance of the major issues impacting the world’s oceans today.

Is it hopeful or pessimistic?

Well there’s no two ways about it, there are big problems out there. There are scientific heroes (in my eyes) and dedicated experts who are trying to document it and find solutions.

What are the challenges of telling stories about the oceans compared to making natural history films on land?

Our challenge is to make people fall in love with less familiar animals and find personality in them. For instance, on the Great Barrier Reef we discovered that there is marine life like the tuskfish, octopus and coral grouper that are capable of behaviours so sophisticated, so smart, that scientists compare their behaviours to those of chimpanzees. Suddenly we’re realising there isn’t this vast difference between us and them.

How important are technological advances in telling these new stories?

The two go hand in hand. On one level technology opens doors to new behaviours and new possibilities in terms of capture. If you can sit in a submarine a kilometre down in the abyss for 1000 hours, as we’ve done, or stake out a coral reef with diving rebreathers; or with low light cameras reveal mobula rays in a surreal dance, illuminating worlds of bioluminescence and plankton, then you can tell certain stories that were off limits until now.

Give some examples of how you’ve utilised new technologies on Blue Planet II?

Rebreather technology, which is ex-US military diving tech, has enabled us to reveal so much more. For the first time, we can be under water, staking out and just sitting and observing. Before you’d have had only 45-minute dives. Now we’ve got 3 hour dives which is just revolutionary.

We also have infrared underwater cameras. We have a horror sequence with the ‘bobbit worm’, for example, where if we’d shone a white light on this nocturnal ambush predator , it would have just stayed in its hole. But it can’t detect infrared light. It means that even though we’re filming in complete darkness, and can only see what’s going on through the viewfinder, we can capture behaviour that’s never been seen before.

Low light technology is moving on so fast that we have scenes we have only just filmed because the technology just the year before didn’t exist. We’re building tow cameras to fly alongside tuna, sailfish and racing spinner dolphins. We have built the first ‘Megadome lens’- a 60-centimetre dome allowing us to shoot split screen shots at the water surface, keeping the world both above and below in clear focus. That’s never been done with a video camera and it gives us our own distinct look.

We also built underwater probe cameras consisting of a barrel of lenses with a tiny front element that allows you to film small reef fish right inside the coral cracks.

What’s the relationship between scientist and film-maker on a project like Blue Planet II?

In the past, with other terrestrial wildlife series, the camera crew may have followed the studies of a particular scientist. They would have followed a scientist to a given location, set their tripod down with a long lens and sat and filmed the subject from afar.

However, because of the practicalities of underwater filming, the cost of boats and the complexity of launching these really ambitious shoots to the far-and-beyond, a lot of scientists simply just don’t have that access. So, on this series, there’s been this wonderful synergy where we’ve been able to work with the scientists and contribute to their science through our filming.

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