Frozen Planet II: Inside the epic new BBC series
Executive producer Mark Brownlow chats to BBC Wildlife about the wild stars and making-of adventures of this landmark new series.
Four years in the making and filmed in ultra-high definition, this spectacular series tells the stories of our frozen realms at a time when they are on the brink of major change, and the incredible creatures that call them home.
In this interview with BBC Wildlife, executive producer Mark Brownlow shares the star species, the unmissable sequences, the never-before-filmed behaviour and his own behind-the scenes-adventures.
Frozen Planet (2011) looked at the passing of the seasons at the poles. How does Frozen Planet II move on from that?
I was a huge fan of the original series, but a decade has passed since it aired and we now have a far greater understanding of our frozen habitats. Ten years ago we were still debating whether climate change was man-made or not! This series tells the bigger story of all of our frozen worlds - which, incredibly, cover one fifth of our planet – at a time when they're changing faster than ever before.
So, we go to the Arctic and Antarctic, but we also climb the world's highest peaks, dive into icy lakes and enter snowbound deserts. We celebrate the wondrous life in these fragile ice worlds, but also land the message that they are changing rapidly on our watch, with potentially profound consequences for humanity. We focus on a singular narrative around climate change. It's the story of our time.
What animal characters will we meet?
A greater diversity of locations and habitats means a very broad palate of characters. We still feature the classic ice species, such as killer whales, narwhals and polar bears, but alongside those we also include snow monkeys, pandas, Siberian tigers, Pallas's cat and Amur leopards. There are also wondrous stories of little animals, such as the Lapland bumblebee, the high-casqued chameleon that lives atop Mount Kenya and terrapins that freeze before coming back to life.
What approach do you take in terms of storytelling?
Environmental storytelling is much more engrained in this series. We get the audience invested in our characters, which we then use to communicate the message. Our harp seal sequence in Greenland is a good example. Females abandon their pups at just 12 days old, having introduced them to swimming, so they can breed again.
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At the point in the sequence that our female leaves her youngster - alone on a small ice floe in the middle of freezing nowhere - you're emotionally engaged. Then we reveal the difficult truth: due to climate change, storms are more frequent and the ice is thinning, which means many pups are being blown into the water before they are properly able to cope. It's heartbreaking.
Can you share some examples of how climate change is affecting animal behaviour?
Bowhead whales in the Arctic Ocean were once protected from killer whales in summer by a barrier of sea ice, so they could go about luxuriating in their spas - they rub against boulders to remove dead skin and parasites - and having a jolly old time. But now the summer sea ice is breaking up, the killers have a free ride to the whales.
There's also wandering albatrosses on the Antipodes Islands. The population is already shrinking due to a warming ocean, and the sex ratio is skewed due to the females' tendency to travel further to feed than males, and getting hooked out by longlines. Without enough females to go round, the males are pairing up with other males - it seems they prefer the company of a member of the same sex to life alone. It's quite moving.
What's a standout filming first?
The sequence I'm most proud of is golden eagles hunting chamois in the Alps. We teamed up with a French crew and secured an epic sequence. Young in the nest need a lot of meat, and a chamois calf is a substantial prey item. The birds hunt as a pair: one flushes the herd and scatters the animals; the second locates and targets a calf that's become lost in the panic. To kill it, it flies out over the precipice, clutching the prey in its talons, then lets it drop. It's incredible drama. But the finale comes in autumn, when the calves have dispersed and the eagles have no choice but to hunt the adults. An extraordinary drama unfolds where an eagle tackles a fully grown chamois and attempt to haul it over the cliff edge.
Light relief is important in a series like this. How do you create that?
There is plenty of comedy. In the breeding season, male hooded seals expand their left nasal passages into bright red balloons and wave them around to win mates. It's a bizarre adaptation and we have some fun with that. We also have the roly-poly walruses on Svalbard – another filming first. Walruses haul out in the summer in a big huddle, and we capture a particularly large male pushing his way into the centre of the throng, with childish burps and farts. When he inevitably gets too hot – and summer temperatures on Svalbard can now reach 22˚C – he needs to get back to the sea, which he does by rolling down the slope. It's very comical.
Do you use comedy to drive an environmental message?
Absolutely - the chinstrap penguin sequence is a good example. These are loveable characters that offer all the fun of stone-stealing (to build high-rise nests) and poo-squirting (to keep faeces off the nests). Stone-stealing featured in Frozen Planet, but the series didn't explain why the birds do it: the chicks need to stay off the sodden ground to avoid their downy fur getting saturated by meltwater, which can lead to hypothermia. With the Antarctic warming so quickly, there is now so much meltwater that the chicks can't avoid it. The sequence encapsulates both comedy and tragedy and for me, defines the series.
How did technology offer new perspectives?
Drones were key - we used them throughout the series to capture events in a whole new way. We used specialist ‘racer drones’ to overtake an avalanche, for instance, then fly at 150kmph beside it, and we reveal the coordinated hunting strategy of killer whales from the air. Even a sequence of 'dancing' polar bears is captured in its full glory by using a drone.
Did you have any exciting filming experiences?
I went to Antarctica to direct the killer whale shoot. We'd been on location only 15 days when one of the crew developed an infection. We steamed to a base several days away to get her urgent medical attention, then headed even further north to drop her off on a cruise ship.
En route back to our location, the skipper pushed the boat so hard that it blew a gasket, leaving us completely on our own with no workable engine. You can't break through sea ice on sail power alone, and any sudden change in wind direction could result in the surrounding water becoming clogged in ice. We had no choice but to spend the next three weeks sailing back to the Falklands, sometimes tacking to South Africa, sometimes tacking to Hawaii, beating against the headwind. All for two short sequences...
Just how challenging was the series in terms of access?
What makes this series different is that we're going to such remote regions. To film hooded and harp seals in Greenland for instance, the crew had to cross from Norway to eastern Greenland, then locate the animals. As climate change had pushed things out of synch, they had to go further north than anyone had gone before. It's really exploratory stuff – and they had just one shot at it.
Did the pandemic throw a few curveballs?
Unfortunately, yes. Particularly for the crew filming the opening sequence - emperor penguin chicks in Antarctica crossing the sea ice for the first time. The team were going to be based at Atka Bay, but it was three years before they even got there. The first year, covid hit; the second, travel restrictions were in place. In the third year, they finally flew to South Africa to get their connecting flight. But the base then requested that they quarantine in South Africa - where they subsequently contracted covid. They had to spend a total of 42 days isolating, which was pretty hellish. We thought they'd miss the narrow window of the chicks setting out, but they made it in time to tell this lovely story. The ice is always shape-shifting, so the chicks have to climb little ice hills and navigate newly opened chasms. It's a heroic tale of battling the odds.
What was your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Seeing wave-washing killer whales. There are only 100 of them on the planet that do this - about 50 adults and 50 juveniles - and it takes them 12 years to perfect the strategy. It's an extraordinary thing to witness - there's all this noise and squeaking as they coordinate the attack. They are huge, inquisitive creatures, and there was this one incredible moment when they came to check us out in our tiny rib. They command a healthy respect.
What do you want viewers to take away from the series?
How fast the frozen world is changing is a real wake-up call. Because it's out-of-sight out-of-mind, you sort of assume things are ticking along OK, with just a few shock stories about polar bears struggling. But out in the field you can see the changes happening extremely fast, and that's the shocking truth. Almost every location we visited was experiencing new temperature records. It could be the last time we witness these frozen worlds as they are.
Main Image: polar bear © BBC Studios/Screengrab