The BBC’s South Pacific – 1000 Islands, 1000 Challenges
(as printed in the July 2009
edition of TVBEurope)
“South Pacific” (2009) is the latest attempt by the BBC documentary team to break all previous records. The six-part series is the first to present a thorough study of a part of the world that is still relatively unexplored.
TVBEurope spoke with veteran BBC producer Huw Cordey about the production of the series. Cordey has been involved in many of the BBC’s landmark wildlife shows. He was a segment producer on “Planet Earth” (2006) and “The Life of Mammals” (2002), but “South Pacific” is his first time as producer of an entire series.
The remit of the series, narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, was potentially as wide-reaching as the location itself. Even as broad in scope as “Planet Earth” is, it is still a definable location, but before beginning production on the series, the very definition of “South Pacific” was open to debate. “The most obvious definition,” Cordey says, “is everything in the Pacific that’s south of the equator. But that was too narrow for the series because we wanted to look at it in terms of the cultural and natural history aspects, and these things don’t always respect invisible lines like the boundary of the equator. Covering Hawaii, which is well above the equator, was entirely appropriate. It was colonized by Polynesians from the south and the animal and plant species that arrived there were carried by the same natural forces that populated the rest of the islands.”
With so many locations to choose from, literally tens of thousands of islands, over such a vast area – all the seven continents could be put inside the Pacific Ocean with room to spare – production planning had to be meticulous. Islands large enough and flat enough to feature a grass airstrip were reached by plane, but a lot of crew and equipment travel was exclusively by boat.
The series also had the challenge that very little scientific work has been done on most of the islands. Scientists simply have not gotten around to fully exploring the Solomon Islands or the island of Vanuatu.
Huw Cordey is extraordinarily well travelled. His father worked for Shell and Cordey had been all over the world long before he began his career with the BBC documentary team, yet even he was stunned by how remote the locations were. “A great portion of our locations I had never even heard of.”
The first episode of the series features the idyllic island community of Anuta. Half a square mile in area, with no harbour, and surrounded by reefs and fast current, Anuta Island is accessible only by a carefully piloted boat. From a remote port in the Solomon Islands, it took the production’s yacht – owned and piloted by the team’s cameraman – five days to get to Anuta. Cordey and his crew were dropped off, and with no place at Anuta to anchor, the yacht had to sail away to a nearby port – 75 miles away. The “South Pacific” crew were the first visitors to Anuta in two years. The previous visitors were the crew of the BBC programme “Tribe”. Cordey and his crew had an experience usually thought of as belonging to another century: “The Anutans had gotten wind of our coming only a day before our arrival because they have a VHF radio on the island which they use to communicate with a few Anutans living on the Solomon Islands.”
Surprising television audiences is never easy today, especially when the BBC has set such consistently high bars for itself. “When you’re talking about landmark television, you generally have to do two things. You either have to improve upon sequences that have been done before – either with technology or by showing better animal behaviour. Or you surprise people with something completely new. In some ways it was easy to surprise the audience because so much of it was unfamiliar.”
Varicams were used throughout the series – including the underwater sequences – with four kits shared between the crews of the six episodes. A relatively small number of cameramen were employed to cover the entire series. Having a smaller pool of photographers was more cost effective, and simplified production in not having to reinvent the wheel every time a new cameraman was introduced to the production.
“South Pacific” features all the technical sophistication of its BBC antecedents – and more. The Cineflex camera stabilization mount was used on helicopter shots, the same technology famously employed on “Planet Earth”. Cineflex mounts were rigged onto the helicopters of the obliging Chilean navy, for flights over Easter Island, a Chilean protectorate. The series features the first ever HD aerial shots of Easter Island and its foreboding statues.
Of course, the series features technical innovations used for the first time on nature TV shoots. Even before the series premiere, much buzz had been generated by online video of surfing legend Dylan Longbottom riding waves in super slow motion off the island of Pohnpei. The shots also feature the first slow motion footage showing the details and vortices of massive waves as they form and break. The images are both hypnotising and breathtaking.
This super slow motion footage was captured by the TyphoonHD4 camera. Like the Photron camera used on “Planet Earth” to shoot South Africa’s breaching great white sharks, the TyphoonHD4 records continuously to a hard drive cache, at extreme shutter speeds. The TyphoonHD4 is able to retain full HD resolution up to 1000fps. Its light sensitivity – essential for underwater shooting – was what made it Cordey’s choice.
Dr. Rudolf Diesel, the German mind behind the system, was asked to designed a waterproof housing for the camera’s first foray under the sea. The unit would be making its debut in big surf, with a reef two meters below, and would need to be manageable by a single, swimming operator. Diesel, both an engineer and an expert in marine biology, was literally adjusting the camera housing until minutes before shooting.
Bali Strickland, a 29 year old Australian who has shot some of the world’s greatest surfers and greatest surfing footage, operated the TyphoonHD4. In partnership with Dylan Longbottom, he wrestled twelve foot waves and the massive camera housing, and managed to capture some of the series’ signature shots.
Even Strickland, however, was apprehensive about the job. “There was very little room for maneuver,” Cordey explains. “Bali Strickland had to use all his skill to keep himself safe, and the camera too. He said to us right from the start, ‘Look, if I get in danger, I’m sorry, but I’m letting the camera go.’” To confirm just how treacherous the shoot was, Longbottom, who some call the best surfer in the world, moments after getting one of the shots, was pushed into the reef by a wave. He managed to get the surface, almost knocked out, with blood pouring out of one ear.
Rudy Diesel has developed a second generation housing for the TyphoonHD which weighs in at 11kg – as opposed to the series’ 20kg prototype. The “South Pacific” camera was also only able to capture two 2.5-second shots at 500 fps before it had to be returned to the boat, opened, and the footage downloaded. The latest iteration of the system allows almost as much recording time as batteries will allow.
One of the great messages of the series is that life is determined and will always find a way to flourish. Cordey points out “Every single one of those thousands of islands. has been colonized by something. In the South Pacific there is no such thing as a deserted island.”