Megan McLachlan speaks with Our Planet “Frozen Worlds” director Sophie Lanfear about why her Emmy nomination includes the worst thing she’s ever filmed.
This past year, Our Planet’s “Frozen World” episode made headlines for its disturbing scene involving walruses falling to their deaths.
This never-before-seen animal behavior joins many other interesting behaviors documented in the film, which is nominated for 10 Primetime Emmy awards, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series.
I got a chance to chat with “Frozen Worlds” director Sophie Lanfear about how she chose which episode to direct, some of the hardest scenes to film, and what she hopes audiences take away from the important Netflix series.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your first Emmy nomination for Our Planet. You directed the episode “Frozen Worlds.” Did you choose this particular topic, since each episode in the series covers different terrain? How did you become assigned to “Frozen Worlds”?
Sophie Lanfear: I was working for [series producer] Alastair Fothergill’s company, in the series before that he had for the BBC. He had a new series coming out and he wanted me to work on it. It was my first producing job, and I was the youngest, the last at the table. I had already built up a bit of a CV for polar regions. I’m sure I was lowest ranking in the pecking order, but no one else wanted “Frozen Worlds,” even though it was my first choice.
AD: How long did the episode take to come together? I know that it took four years for the entire series.
SL: I started at the beginning of 2015, I think. So four years. What you do first is that you’re given the show, and it was going to be about the polar region plus mountains. So with any show you get handed and you start work on it, you basically have to decide what your narrative is going to be and how that narrative works across the hour. I didn’t want it to be a collection of sequences that culminated and cool animals—you want to make it feel like an actual journey from start to finish. Then you’re also trying to work out what can we afford for the money in the time we’ve got? It’s a puzzle. We’re always trying to find fresh angles and stories and ways to elevate and raise the bar in cinematography. Those problems come as you get further into filming and you start costing things up and you realize you can’t afford that and you can’t do that story. The problem with all of that is logistics. If you don’t have a boat, then you can’t film it. The boats for polar expeditions, there aren’t many of them in the world. There are a lot of people that want to use these boats, so it takes years and years of planning and prep work to work out the finances.
AD: I thought you handled the penguin and the killer whales very tastefully, where the pod of killer whales hunt the penguin for food. That had to be a hard scene to film. What was it like for you?
SL: It was definitely an emotional moment, but it had never been filmed before, even though it gets eclipsed a bit by the walrus sequence. Generally that was new behavior that had never been filmed by anyone before. Whilst you’re sad, that a penguin gets caught by these killer whales, you also appreciate that there are a lot more penguins than there are killer whales, and so seeing them work and hunt and the intelligence that’s going on in these social mammals was extraordinary from a scientist’s point of view. To me it’s fascinating to watch it.
AD: Another hard scene to film had to be the one where the walruses fall of the cliff. I literally gasped. What was it like filming that scene? I read that one of your camerapeople said it was the worst thing he’d ever filmed.
SL: It was hands-down the worst thing. It was certainly an unexpected story, that one. We went to film at these mass haul-out events that had been happening more and more regularly and getting bigger and bigger, as the climate warmed and the ice disappeared. It took two and a half years to set that shoot up. And I’d been talking with Russian biologist Anatoly Kochnev, who studied the walruses for 36 years. He hadn’t really described it to us. He’d seen it happen, animals falling off of high cliffs, but he hadn’t described what went on there. I just thought maybe it was tumbling down and they’d get to the bottom and survive. Then when we got there, and we saw the height of the cliff, and what they did to get up there—that was a shock—and then watching what happens. Again, I think we were in disbelief. It didn’t make sense to us. That was the hardest thing I ever had to film as well.
Warning: This scene is graphic.
AD: For as many images that are sad, you also have some images that are beautiful without making you an emotional wreck. The image of the penguins storming the beach is amazing and then the penguins walking past the sleeping seals. Was all of that sequential? How long did you usually follow these animals?
SL: It’s filmed over a period of a couple of weeks, so obviously things like the penguins walking through the sleeping seals was happening day in and day out, all day. For about a month, you get this obstacle course. We wanted to be there at that time of year, so we targeted that beach in South Georgia so we arrived at the right time. And then we filmed the leopard seal—scientific papers have been published actually—because that was the first time it’s ever been witnessed, that that many leopard seals had been together. Everybody thought the leopard seals were solitary. We saw 36 leopard seals in the bay. We didn’t anticipate getting that, but it drummed home what the penguins have to go through. The penguins would be terrified. It was an amazing obstacle course. You can’t quite believe what penguins go through.
AD: When you’d follow certain animals, did your attention turn to other animals you encountered? How did you set which animals to follow?
SL: I’ve never been anywhere where there was such identity of life. You see many dramas, lots of amazing stories, playing out in front of you that we couldn’t capture. There are these big birds called giant petrels that are a bit like seagulls. If the penguins don’t get caught by leopard seals and they make it onto the beach, the giant petrel will follow them and try to kill them. This is all quite morbid and horrible! (Laughs.) There are so many more dramas on that beach to tell. You just have to be quite targeted and focused on what story it is you’re trying to tell.
AD: It seems like the penguins are at the center of all the drama. Everyone wants to eat them!
SL: But they’re after the krill and fish as well.
AD: What do you hope audiences get from this series and your episode?
SL: We’ve spent so much time in the field bringing people some of the best moments of nature that we can find in the search and the best stories to tell, and I hope that through the visuals and through the storytelling people fall in love with the natural world, and first and foremost that they have a new respect and awe of nature. I think that comes across quite strongly in the series. But it’s important to point out the human encroachment on these wild places is a threat to them, and they are impacting them. I think it would be irresponsible not to report on that side. We try to get the balance right. The series educates people about how these ecosystems work and what the threats are, facing them. Some of it is global warming and climate change, some of it is deforestation, some of it is over-fishing. We try to take a different kind of facet of the problems and challenges that we face on our planet and educate people about how these systems work and how they’re being affected by humans. If you can grasp the basic knowledge of that and care enough to want to do something about it, I think that’s exactly what we hoped for with this series.
Our Planet is streaming on Netflix.