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Life: The making of Life: Life's rich tapestry

Updated Tuesday 23rd June 2009

Mike Gunton, Executive Producer of the BBC/OU series Life, shares his experiences of filming in the Antarctic

This final instalment of my reports on the progress of Life comes from about as far from the office as it is possible to be. 8,000 miles from the South Pole sitting in a hut on the edge of the Ross Sea ice shelf.

There are seven of us here on the team. After arriving with 800kg of gear on a US Air Force C-17 transport plane, we spent the first week learning how to survive everything from a 60mph white-out to a helicopter crash landing; from falling through the ice to building an emergency camp from snow blocks. Now Neil Lucas is preparing all the elements of his unique underwater tracking timelapse gear, ready to take it 20 metres under the ice. There it will work away for six solid weeks filming the activities of the weird creatures that live in the eerie ice-blue world.

Meanwhile Doug Allan and his assistant are assembling their mobile diving hut, which will be dragged out onto the ice to provide them with shelter and access to their diving hole. This 2.5m-long tube is bored through the ice by a giant corkscrew and will give them access to film Weddell seals’ under-ice behaviour. I’ve seen the first images from the under-ice timelapses and they are extraordinary, with thousands of candyfloss-pink starfish marching across what looks like a vast steel-blue stage. The Weddell seals look equally stunning as they dance a ballet in a spotlit shaft of light breaking through the ice above.

This expedition to Antarctica is the culmination of two years’ planning and negotiation with America’s National Science Program to get permission to work at their amazing Antarctic base at McMurdo. We are the first NHU crew at the base for more than 20 years.

An equally tricky logistical expedition is underway in the rather warmer climes of the seas off Tonga; the courtship grounds of humpback whales. A humpback whale female choosing her mate is both extraordinarily spectacular and extraordinarily hard to film – we now know why it has not been done before! To get the full picture you need a camera on a fast boat beside the whales, a camera underwater in front of them and a camera in the air on a helicopter overhead, all operating in heavy seas in a very remote part of the Pacific. The female gathers dozens of males around her, and then sets them the challenge of chasing her while at the same time fighting with each other. The violence of their clashes challenges the perception of whales as gentle giants. But the problem for the crew was not so much the risk of being too close to the fighting as simply being able to keep up – you’ve never seen whales move so fast.

On the theme of amazing aquatic firsts, we are collaborating with a special scientific project in an attempt to film deeper into the ocean that has ever been done before, at almost 12km. The reports are of strange, almost translucent fish and giant shrimps like trilobites down there, but who knows what could turn up. Whatever it is will certainly be weird.

With very few sequences left to complete, this four-year project is coming to its final phase; the editing is beginning; and all the amazing stories and adventures are beginning to distil into what we hope will be a memorable series.

I mentioned last time that we had a prize for the most bizarre behaviour, and back then, the Hawaiian waterfall-climbing goby was the front-runner. Well it’s close, but I think it has just been beaten by the Vogel Kopf bowerbird.

One of the males we filmed decided to decorate his bower with, amongst other things, a precisely and artfully arranged pile of deer dung. As he waited for it to work its magic and attract him a mate, he was infuriated to discover that it had sprouted mushrooms. This not only affronted his creative sensibilities, but clearly put off the visiting female – who took one look at it and fled. Unfortunately for him she went straight to the bower of his rival, who had gone more mainstream, with pretty orange, pink and red flowers and berries.

The animals and plants we have filmed on Life have never ceased to amaze and surprise us with their beauty, heroism, determination, dexterity, athleticism, intelligence, tenderness, and occasionally violence. When we started I wrote that I thought this was going to be the most exciting series I have ever worked on. Now that we’re coming to the end, I know it is.


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