Hello Reddit, I am Michael Gunton, and I am the Creative Director of Factual and the Natural History Unit at BBC Studios.
I have overseen over 200 wildlife films including critically acclaimed series from Yellowstone to Life, Africa, Life Story, and the BAFTA and Emmy winning Planet Earth II, working closely with Sir David Attenborough on many productions. You may know my projects such as Shark, Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur, Planet Earth II, Big Cats and most recently Dynasties, which premieres on BBC America Saturday January 19 at 9pm ET. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbCiSheAF5M
I'm here to answer your questions, Reddit!
EDIT: Thank you so much for all your questions. Great, insightful, made me think hard. Thanks for following all our work, please keep doing it and if you haven’t seen Dynasties, standby. I think it's the best thing I've ever done.
Huge fan here. Planet Earth II (and the first) is one the the greatest series I've ever seen. I've worked in video journalism for ten years and have built small studios and I'm in constant awe of the shots and sound your team is able to pull off. If I wasn't tied down, my dream job would be to travel the world shooting this kind of awe-inspiring footage.
Can you touch on the equipment you use? What is the go-to gear, must haves, and what are some out-of-the-box things your team has had to implement to "get the shot"?
Amazing work, thanks for doing this.
The equipment we use evolves all the time. It’s quite hard to be specific. It’s more the application of the equipment that’s important.
One of the things that we did on Planet Earth II was to try and immerse the audience by getting in the animals’ lives by getting “on their shoulders”. This is all evolution. Every series we make, we evolve into the next one - so miniaturized moving cameras was the thing that stood out and defined Planet Earth II. We also started to work with drones in Planet Earth II, so the moving camera and use of drones was a big part of Dynasties. Rather than observing them, you felt like you were close to them, within their world. Keep the camera low, in their eye-line, keep it moving and fluid - a lot of this is reflecting what you see in drama. You don’t see static cameras.
Less observation, more involvement. You pick the kit that enables you to do that. Of course every shot we try to take is a beautiful shot, but I remember being told at the beginning of my career, always go for performance. If the action is extraordinary, that should be your priority, rather than the beautiful shot.
Where do you feel the balance lies between authenticity and manufactured narrative in nature docs?
It seems that it has become common practice to use editing to tell a story that is different from what actually occurred, or editorialize the events via voiceover in a way that might be considered dishonest.
How do you find compelling drama, without completely misleading the audience?
I think this is why Dynasties is a very good vehicle to answer that question. Of course, a series like Dynasties is filmed over 2-3 years and is edited but we, I think uniquely for this series, kind of make a bargain to show the audience what happened, warts and all, so that story would be told by the animals. We wouldn’t editorialize.
We can’t show every single moment but the events you see that happened are the events that happened and the animals are who we say they are. It’s a very honest series, both in terms of accurately reporting what happened and showing the realities of the natural world. These are not fairy stories, we don’t dodge the difficult moments because that is nature. Nature is a tough place to survive.
Out of that has come a sense of intensity, being a compelling story, better than anything I could have ever written because it is true. Because of that, I think people have been willing to and have embraced the tough parts of nature - the natural challenges these animals have faced as well as the challenges from coming into contact with humanity.
Can you tell us about the career path you took to arrive in the position you occupy now?
Thanks for your incredible work and time taken to answer.
Even as a child, I was always interested in television. Not necessarily in wildlife filmmaking but the ability of television and films to tell stories in such an impactful way.
I actually started off making films as a teenager and as a student for myself, and my ambition was to become an observation, social-documentary filmmaker. I started doing more traditional documentaries, but then I had the opportunity to work on what was supposed to be David Attenborough’s final series called 'Trials of Life' back in the late 80s. I’d always wanted to work with him and I managed to persuade them to give me that opportunity, and having done that, I thought 'why would I ever want to do anything else?' And for the last 30 years, that’s what I’ve done.
When we see the making of segments at the end of these shows, you really get a sense of how it is often just down to blind luck that the camera crew capture the moments that go on to make these episodes so iconic. Sometimes they are out on location for months and only stumble across the animal or behaviour they are looking for by chance, or at the last minute.
Are there many filming expeditions that the viewer never gets to see because the crew were just unable to find the animal or get the footage they wanted? Do you have any stories about any of these failed attempts to capture an animal on camera?
It’s not really blind luck. If you’re trying to capture the extraordinary, it stands to reason that those things are rare and it takes time to capture them. Less about blind luck and more about perseverance.
Because we do a huge amount of research before we go out on these filming trips. I’d say 9/10 times, we get pretty much what we went for. And we keep quiet about the ones we don’t!
How has streaming/iPlayer and the need to appeal to both US and UK audiences (at least with huge shows like Planet Earth) changed the way you're approaching and creating programming?
I think in reverse order, what’s been really interesting particularly since working on Planet Earth II, there’s been a strong convergence between what makes an American audience and a British audience engaged. I think it always has been the case, but I don’t think people have been willing to accept that. I think people think there’s a difference that just isn’t there.
What it [streaming] has done, surprisingly, it hasn’t stopped making these programs an appointment to view. They may time shift it slightly, but the premieres, certainly in the UK, still mean something because these programs seem to attract co-viewing. People want to watch them together because they want to share the water cooler moments and talk about them the next day.
What has changed dramatically is the amount of cats watching our shows on iPlayer on loop!
Do you have a Sir David Attenborough story to tell? Thank you for your work. I've watched Planet Earth II at least six times, and I very much look forward to Dynasties.
The story I often tell because it’s a long time ago, so the statute of limitations is over. One of the craziest things I ever did with him was ask him to crawl under a termite mound in Nigeria. It’s the biggest termite mound building species in the world, called Macrotermes Bellicosus, and that means giant warlike termite. And basically, they bite like hell.
This was a termite mound - it has this absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful air-conditioning system. And there’s a whole chamber underneath this termite mound which is how it operates. The farmers would be clearing the land so the mound was going to be destroyed. We were able to dig a hole underneath and David to get in and the first time, the termites all attacked him. He’s having to crawl through this tiny little gap, we had a little hole on the other side for the camera and the lights, but being the true professional he is, he tried his best to deliver the piece to camera, which he did, and then I had to tell him "sorry David, you didn’t come far enough into shot, we have to do it all again. We have to do a take two."
In your opinion, what is the most brilliant piece of nature filming you've seen?
I’m biased, but two scenes from Dynasties, I’d say. The scene where David the chimp is cared for after his horrific injuries by the females and Red, the male lion, surrounded by a pack of hyenas in the Lions film.
And of course I couldn’t not include the Snakes and Iguanas sequence from my last series, Planet Earth II!
Do you have any advice for someone trying to break into nature documentaries? How do you select camera crews/DPs for each segment of a documentary?
The advice I always give people is advice that I was given, but to be honest it’s easier to do now - to go and make films. Whatever level. Most people can get their hands on an iPhone, just shoot some stuff, and get a very simple editing program. Editing stuff that you’ve filmed together is the fastest way to learn.
In terms of selecting people - these are highly skilled people with incredible resilience and incredible photographic skills, but almost always they have a natural history sense that well exceeds mine - they can see and predict what animals will do and what their next move will be.
How the f**k do you take those ultra-macro videos? like, small tiny ants and spiders or any kind of tiny insects IN THE FREAKIN NATURAL HABITAT.....
Well, actually, 80% of the time I watch PE2, I'm like "how the hell do they take these shots???"
You have hit on one of my absolute favourite parts of these shows. Most people obsess about the big box office furry animals but I am determined to let these extraordinary small creatures have their day in the sun because their lives are just as extraordinary and in many ways more fascinating than these other creatures. Their adaptions to survive often almost… they sometimes defy belief.
We have camera photographers who have extraordinary expertise in filming these particular types of creatures because it does require a different skill, a different type of optics - it’s a combination of all sorts of techniques. Some of them are trade secrets!
How have you seen the portrayal of animals change over your career?
I think there’s been an interest and a move to realizing that animals have character and are individuals. In my own programs, I have moved toward looking about them as individuals rather than a general animal - a lion, rather than lions. The individual character has an impact on their survival, as you’ll see in Dynasties.
Hi Michael! Nature documentaries are my favourite - thank you for the amazing work. Have you been in any particularly scary situations whilst filming animals? A tiger or 2 get too close? Thank you!
Of course, all of us have got stories to tell where we’ve had some hairy moments, but generally that’s because we made a mistake. If you get yourself into a dangerous situation, you’ve done something wrong, but inevitably...
The one situation that I can remember is finding myself and a cameraman colleague stranded out in the desert on foot when we’d been trying to film a sleeping rhino which unfortunately woke up at the wrong time. Luckily, couldn’t work out where we were because their eyesight is so bad but they could hear us and smell us and we just had to keep as absolutely still as we possibly could. I remember the guide for this had told us if we get into any difficultly, climb a tree. But there weren’t any trees. The nearest tree was about a mile away. It was just a very nerve-wracking moment because you are sort of just frozen. Luckily in the end, the rhino decided had other things to do and turn around ran off. It’s the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.
Is there a creature that you think is fascinating, but most people might not even know exists? Thanks!
The answer to that is a tricky one because there are many, many animals that I don’t know exist that I know will be fascinating, particularly in the ocean. The oceans are the last great, unexplored world. You only have to see some of the creatures that popped up in Blue Planet II to know what a great, unexplored world that is. It’s my great regret that I’m not a diver.
My one ambition would be to go down in a deep sub and see what goes on in those super abyssal depths. That and go to the South Pole.
Obviously, you guys are creating some of the most amazing and valuable content there is. My question is who else out there is doing work that you are really impressed by?
Funny enough, I think that in terms of factual programming, there’s an observational documentary on the BBC at the moment called Hospital - it’s ambulance crews. I thought that was beautifully made, just utterly gripping.
Hi Michael, I’m currently travelling south east Asia - any place that really sticks out you have been here in terms of wildlife?
I think going to see orangutan in Sabah would be an amazing thing to do - they’re truly extraordinary creatures, and making sure that you do it ethically and trying to support their rehabilitation and protection would be a very valuable thing to do. Climb Mt Kinabalu!
For more hardcore, if you could ever get to see birds of paradise in the wild, they have got to be one of the most - I’ve never seen a bird of paradise in the wild. In terms of a reflection of the wonders of evolution, I think it takes some beating.
How excited were you guys when you saw that snake/iguana chase footage?
Beyond excited. We cut together a rough edit of that, which didn’t have the whole... Effectively, it’s got 5 beats to it, that story, because it’s got 4 or 5 individuals.
I showed some of it at BBC Showcase, which is a huge event where all the clients from around the world come and we show them what we’re doing. They’re quite a hard to impress bunch. It’s not just natural history, they’re seeing everything from drama to news, all genre. I showed it in this forum and people were shouting at the screen - run iguana, run! - and when it got away, they cheered and I thought to myself I’ve never seen a reaction like that ever. And that was replicated millions of times around the planet with that sequence. It’s a once in a generation.
Is David Attenborough as wonderful a person in real life like he is in on Television?
Yes, I’m pleased to say pretty much that what you see is what he is like.
I think the integrity and enthusiasm and obsession with telling people about the wonders of the natural world are simply transparent and authentic. It’s still a privilege and a pleasure and without sounding too cheesy, it’s an inspiration to be working with him after 30 years.
Next time you go observe some Rhinos can I tag along?
Yes, as long as you can’t run as fast as me.
I think the intention to the environment has been cyclical in the sense that when I first started in my career there was quite a lot of interest in environmental conservation programs. I think the approach they took wore thin quite quickly. We try to be a bit more varied in our approach today and the message about the fragility of the planet is now, in these big shows, is throughout them but perhaps not so overt as it might have been in the past.
I would argue that that is a more effective way of engaging audiences in the challenges that the natural world faces. I am particularly pleased in the way Dynasties has very naturally drawn attention to the challenges that these extraordinary animals face in the modern world. It’s almost impossible for them to live their live without impacting on humanity in a way that is detrimental to their lives.
What is the rarest animal your team has caught on film?
That doesn’t really apply to Dynasties, we deliberately chose popular animals. But when you’re making a Planet Earth or Blue Planet, part of your remit is to show people the rarest and oddest creatures they’ve never seen before. Often those are the little creatures, the railroad worm that had these little bioluminescent antennas. In Blue Planet II, as soon as you go to the abyssal depths, almost everything you see is weird and previously unseen.
Does David Attenborough have any creative say in the narration, or is he reading a script prepared by writers? My four year old has watched a LOT of planet earth and wants to know.
Of course, absolutely. It’s a collaborative process. He has less involvement in the programs than he used to, inevitably.
In terms of his approach, it pervades everything we do. I’m always thinking how would David tell this story.
What is one animal that truly amazes you?
I think it’s impossible - it’s like choosing your favourite child. I’m fascinated by the box office creatures - the big cats, the whales, and the like, but actually I’ve always been drawn to some of the smaller, stranger creatures because of the bizarre nature of their lives. The frogs, the lizards, the weird birds of paradise that have these unbelievable courtship rituals. I think that is unbelievably jaw-dropping.
Have you been all around the world, if not whats one place you would want visit and make a doku about?
Also any crazy food you have had on some of your adventures?
I had to eat fried iguana. That was probably the most gross thing I’ve ever had to eat. It gave me the worst food poisoning I’ve ever had in my life.
How important is the use of Foley and sound design in Natural History filmmaking?
What would you say your favourite sequence is that you've been involve in producing?
I think it very much depends on the project. On the Dynasties series, because we were able to spend so much time with the same characters, we were able to develop a very rich, authentic soundscape which I think is essential, a really undervalued element of bringing the atmosphere, drama and reality to the film.
Sharks was an insane piece of filming. It really kick started my passion for marine life. As creative director, did you ever go into the field to be part of filming? Did the documentary change your view of sharks?
Yes, I did go into the field. I went to Palau.
I think that inevitably when you’re involved in a series, you learn a huge amount and add to your knowledge enormously and sometimes your views are turned on their heads. I was pretty aware of the parlour state of sharks going into it, and it just confirmed that these are misunderstood animals, tragically being persecuted.
I think interestingly, one of the most remarkable things about doing the Dynasties series was that I had no idea how endangered the decline in Lion numbers is in Africa. Truly shocking.
Admit it, it's all CGI isn't it?
Yup. Damn! I’ve got my own laptop at home and I do it all myself.
Really enjoyed Dynasties, especially the Painted Wolves episode as it's an "unusual" species that we rarely see in wildlife documentaries!
How do you go about deciding which animals/stories to focus on in a nature documentary as broad-ranging as something like Dynasties?
We wanted to pick, broadly, animals that were social mammals. The penguins were the exception - the joker in the pack. I picked them because one, they needed to be box office animals, ones people want to watch, and secondly, we had enough background information on them that we knew something significant was going to happen to that particular family. Because these are not just about a lion.
I wanted them to have a vulnerability to them in terms of their endangered status, to add this sort of extra ‘why now’ moment. The painted wolves are a good example, some people questioned that. People have a misconception about them as animals and think they have a malevolence about them, but we were keen to show the reality of their lives. They’re wonderful creatures. In some ways, it’s the film I’m the most proud we pulled off as a production because it shows people their strengths and their predicament. That’s re-enforced rather beautifully by Sir David in his final piece to camera where he talks about their lot.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I think it’s when we’re in the cutting room. To be absolutely honest, the most joyful bit is when we sit in the commentary booth and Sir David does his narration. It’s like a performance. It’s a one take performance.
Obviously we do some pickups, but that’s a great moment. The final thing is when you’re in the dubbing theatre and you do the final mix and the music and the sound and David's narration and you see all the pieces come together, and you see it as a finished film.
Thank you for doing this AMA. As someone who has worked on so many films about the natural world what would you say is the most astounding natural phenomenon you have come across in your time?
I think actually the glaciers in Antarctica, just for the size of them, and the fact that they have been there for such an extraordinary length of time, slowing gauging... They’re weird because they seem utterly permanent but they are actually moving. They are a canary in a coal mine, an indicator of how the world is changing,so they’re a very interesting thing. They’re almost cosmic in their impact. Otherworldly.
Actually, there’s two places. That, and I think also flying over the Skeleton Coast. We flew from the south where there were penguins to the north where there were rhinos, all in effectively two days. Flying up the coast and seeing those ancient sand dunes was incredible.
Did you encounter any unexpected difficulties filming?
A project like Dynasties is one continuous difficulty because you’re making such a risky investment in just 5 locations, 5 animals, 5 locations, any one of which could all go wrong in terms of the story. Nothing could happen, the animals could die, we could be banned from the location or some logistical nightmare could occur. It was quite a tense three years or so and a huge relief when we got through the time not only safely and satisfactorily, but with stories we could’ve never imagined. They exceeded my greatest wishes or wildest dreams.
What was your favorite location to shoot at?
I think in my own career, I think Namibia was an amazing place to film, the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, the Namib Desert. I think Mana Pools in Dynasties is quite a remarkable place, you know, along the banks of the Zambezi in Zimbabwe. The jungles of Costa Rica are wonderful. There’s so many to choose.
Antarctica, actually going to the Dry Valleys in Argentina... That, when you go somewhere where you know that no human being has been before, the scale, you feel so utterly insignificant. I know it sounds a bit of a cliché but you do. This is genuinely awe-inspiring, just the scale of the place.
Patagonia is another amazing place as well. The Okavango… They’re all incredible places.