Icicles and Polar Bears Up Close in Frozen Planet Documentary Exclusive Interview with Producer Vanessa BerLowitz By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
At times it may seem to TV watchers as if all nature shows were one — breathtaking photography of forbidding environments, striking images of animals in survival and play mode, memorable shots of human beings challenged by extreme environments. It’s clear, however, from a new series that first aired in the UK in 2011 that “Frozen Planet,” produced by the BBC, the Discovery Channel and The Open University, has a special claim to fame as an exploration of areas of the earth in the Arctic and Antarctic that few have seen and fewer still have stayed in this extensively to study and film.
Although Alastair Fothergill (director and producer of The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, among others) is the executive producer of Frozen Planet, the series owes much of its extraordinary on-the-ground and from-up-in-the-air look to Vanessa Berlowitz, an award-winning producer and director at the BBC Natural History Unit. It was a “eureka moment,” she says while she was working on Planet Earth that set her technological course for Frozen Planet and that would set an industry standard world wide for nature documentaries. She had been watching a website that “showed a shot of a car that was filmed from one mile above but that was tracking perfectly.” The camera, a prototype Cineflex, sent her to thinking about how it could be used “to put wildlife in the context of their environment.” She was on her honeymoon, but she contacted the inventor, John Coyle, who lived in California, and with his encouragement began development and testing, and “the rest is history.” Among the camera’s unique properties is its ability to capture steady footage that does not disturb animals.
Vanessa Berlowitz’s four-year involvement with Frozen Planet was far and above discovering the Cineplex, however. It was a passion that at times was manifest in dangerous ways, such as flying to places in the Antarctic that “probably hadn’t been seen by anyone since Scott.” By the time she was making the episodes, she had a 10-month-old son and didn’t see him for several weeks. The project took four years but it was “the highlight” of her career, and sometimes the scariest moments in her life, she said. While flying over the Greenland ice sheets, the cold downdraft almost pulled the plane into an abyss. She also co-wrote the book that accompanies the series.
It was a career that could be said to have started early. She loved cameras as a kid and took them with her wherever she went. Though she was born in Syracuse, N.Y., during the time her father had a visiting faculty appointment at the university, she grew up on the south coast of England and was always heading out to tidal areas taking “abstract-like” shots of the sea. She was educated at Oxford where she was tutored “by some of the greatest academics in the biological and social sciences.” Her degree in human sciences embraced interdisciplinary study, including “visual anthropology,” which she found “invaluable” as a researcher and as a filmmaker, she said.
Her first student TV project called Human Animal was a televised version of Desmond Morris’ books on sociobiology. And of course, under mentors, she puts Sir David Attenborough in a starring role, praising him as “the best communicator of science in the world.” She, in turn, has become a mentor to kids, including an 11-year-old Iranian girl being schooled in the U.K. who wrote Berlowitz a polar bear poem and declared herself ready to follow in her footsteps. She was “very inspired to know that women could rise to the top in this kind of industry.”
Six of the seven episodes of Frozen Planet are narrated by Alec Baldwin, the last by the now 86-year old Attenborough. Critical reception has been laudatory, especially for the time-lapse sequences, such as underwater stalactites (“brine icicles”) spreading and freezing everything they touch in their descent to the ocean floor; killer whales in unison on the move; and the later episodes that show human beings at work. A couple of voices have pointed out an occasional inauthentic sequence, but the producers admitted as much up front, acknowledging that a polar bear birth, for example, was filmed at a Dutch animal park because it would have been impossible to get that close in the wild.
The series in the U.K. has had phenomenal success, especially as an educational tool, targeting “an incredibly wide range of ages … from 8 to 80,” says Berlowitz, though she suggests that it would be “most beneficial for kids who are young teenagers.” As for aspiring documentary filmmakers, she thinks that learning with a Canon 5D Mark II, which can also run video clips, for instance, is fine. She is a strong believer in the dark room as a way of learning basic principles.
For sure, no one seeing Frozen Planet, in particular the seventh episode, can deny that the planet is not as frozen as once it was. This past Earth Day a series-related educational webinar was broadcast online to schools around the country focusing on how the polar regions are changing. Climate change deniers beware: the evidence is beautifully, persuasively at hand in this series. #