A Chat With the Brains Behind the Jaw-Dropping 'Life'
By Mike Hess Posted Mar 20th 2010 11:51AM
This weekend, your understanding of nature and the animals that coexist alongside us in this vast, wondrous world is about to be blown to bits, as the new series 'Life' is set to debut (two back-to-back episodes premiere starting at 8 pm on Sunday) on the Discovery Channel. Much like the past smash hit nature series 'Planet Earth,' 'Life' -- narrated by Oprah Winfrey -- scours the earth looking for the most compelling images and storylines that mother nature has to provide, shot almost entirely in vivid high-definition. PopEater was able to chat with the series' executive producer, Mike Gunton, about how the vast undertaking began nearly five years ago, how it all happened and which moments are the most compelling to him (Hint: One involves flies that blow up their heads with air and have eye-fights. Seriously.). Our chat (plus fly eye-fight video!) after the jump!
What was the entire time frame of the development and production of 'Life'?
It started originally in July or August of 2005. That was when I got the commission from the BBC and started to put the project together. But it actually started in production of January of 2006. We had a year of research, because the bar is so high now. We spent a year pulling these stories together, though to be honest, that was ongoing. We started shooting in October 2006 and finished shooting in July 2009. We were still shooting right up to the wire.
The vision we had, which was to take people into the animal's worlds in a way that hadn't really been done before, meant we really had to find the right stories. You can't really find these things on books and the Internet. The network of people we had to look into and investigate was quite large and weird. The cheetah story with the ostriches -- that came from one of the director's sisters, who is married to someone who runs a game reserve in Kenya. One of the people who works with him had seen that behavior... that's the kind of tentacle we go out on to find these stories.
How many people involved in shooting, editing, etc?
The core production team was between 20 and 25 people. Then we had 70 or so cameramen and women. Countless numbers of people helping us in the field. When we had kind of a rap party for everyone who had been involved, the invitation list got up to 380 people. When you think of all the post-production, there's a team of 5 or 6 people doing sound, 6 or 8 people doing the editing. It's massive.
What would you say are the main things that separate 'Life' from 'Planet Earth'?
I think the way to think about it is they're complementary... two sides of a coin. The main difference is 'PE' was the planet itself should be the star. It's about this amazing entity, the earth, and the wonderful habitats that are on the planet. Whereas 'Life' is about the animals being the stars. One way to think about it is 'PE' is the stage, and 'Life' is the play and the actors. For that reason, I think it's more intimate and it's about survival and individual struggles to survive. It's not about species, actually; it's about individual characters struggling. When we see those cheetahs, we're not talking about cheetahs universally, just those three cheetahs, those brothers on that particular day and that particular challenge they were facing. Tonally, I think it's different as well. 'Planet Earth' was more of a sit-back, awe-inspiring experience, and 'Life' is more of a sit-forward, involving experience. That's the sense I get from people who have watched it and described it.
It's probably the most encompassing nature series ever. It's 11 hours -- that's the staggering part. I don't think since 'Life on Earth' 30 years ago have we covered this range of animals.
Is there a single-most compelling image for you?
It's hard to make up my mind, but the sequence I was most amazed at when I saw it was the dolphin muddling behavior shot from the sky. When we shot that aerial view looking directly down on the dolphins circling that ring of mud to trap the fish in a noose, and the way the other four helped him get them into position and then joined him just as the loop closes and the fish panic and leap into the air. Then they open their mouths just at the last second and the fish fall into their mouths... I thought that was so in my head what I wanted to see. I thought "Oh my goodness, that is unbelievable." It was so precise, and so beautifully orchestrated.
Then on the other end of the spectrum, I love that image of the stalk-eyed fly. That image of the stalks pumping out and growing out. The species of fly, the males battle females, but instead of fighting, their eyes grow out on stalks. They pump air into their heads and blow them up like balloons. It's as if you and I had our eyes on 12-foot poles. They walk up to each other and the one with the eye stalks further apart, they are the winners. Sometimes there's a draw and that have this sort of effete fight, but you see that and you think it's something like an alien.
There are just so many moments. Some things the eye could never see, but because we shot them in high-speed, we can. There's one scene of a chameleon sticking his tongue out and picking and insect off of a spider's web. It's amazing slow motion, it pulls the web and you see the web bending, and when the insect is plucked off, the web rebounds and you get these magnificent bubbles of dew cascading and bouncing off. It's amazing.
What's it like knowing your series will be the go-to TV store demo video playing to show off their best televisions?
I suppose the yardstick is the visuals you just cannot imagine, but the trouble of that is the expectations is that they will be. It's a self-defeating process. The more beautiful they are, the more expectation there is they'll be even more. And if you're not careful, there's a chance people won't realize how beautiful they are. So that's why the storytelling is very important, and the dramatic twists and turns. That's why 'Life' is different from 'Planet Earth,' because the individual stories are more dramatic.
Also, since 'Planet Earth,' the technology has improved. The amount of high-definition on 'Planet Earth' wasn't that big, whereas 'Life' is shot almost entirely in HD.
I hope this time next year, if you're buying a television, it'll be 'Life' on the television and not 'Planet Earth.'
In a sense, this is the ultimate reality show. When you see things like 'Big Brother' and 'Jon & Kate' on television, do you ever wish more people did things like 'Life' instead of trashy reality TV?
In pure self interest, no, because then they'd be competing with me and I want to make them. (Laughs) I think some of these things need to be a treat. The danger is if you have too much of things like 'Life,' the specialness of these huge global last-word pieces is part of their attraction. People think: "This is the one I'll watch because this is going to give me the 10 out of 10 sequences."
On that note... do you have any guilty TV pleasures you're willing to confess to?
If I'm watching television, the two things I tend to watch are comedy and drama. The 'Big Brother' shows of the world, they are compelling if you get hooked into them, but I can almost resist it because I think to myself, "I just don't have the time." I get it, and for homework I'll watch them, but it's not my pleasure. I prefer the more scripted drama and smart comedy.
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