“When we were in Russia filming the walrus we lived in a shed. I was the only female and there were seven of us…stacked on shelves,” she recalls. “That’s where we ate, slept, watched telly, downloaded rushes and everything.”
The living conditions may have been rough, but there were rewards—like capturing some unprecedented images.
“The orca killing the penguin predation sequence had never been filmed before,” she tells Deadline. Her team also filmed leopard seals in a novel grouping.
“They’ve always been documented as solitary animals that aren’t very sociable. And it’s never been recorded in any observations anywhere of 36 in one place at one time,” Lanfear notes. “When you’re finding stuff that’s new to science it’s really exciting.”
The series is drawing praise from many viewers. “Best documentary I’ve ever seen,” raved one fan via YouTube. “The quality of shots is amazing.”
Emmy voters have proven similarly enthusiastic. The debut season of Our Planet earned 10 nominations—more than any other documentary series or film this year. The recognition included nods for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, as well as the show’s cinematography, writing, score, sound mixing and editing, among other categories. The episode Netflix submitted for Emmy consideration was “Frozen Worlds”—the one Lanfear produced and directed.
“I was pretty shocked that it got 10,” Lanfear reveals. “I was super chuffed because it’s my first film. So yeah, just very happy.”
The series not only explores the beauty and wonder of nature, but threats to life on Earth posed by climate change.
“We have a social responsibility to show the impact humans are having on the planet,” Lanfear insists. “And each episode, the aim was to take each habitat and to explain how it works and the value of that habitat to the planet and to the animals living there, but also then show some of the problems that are facing those habitats.”
A loss of sea ice and habitat factors into one heartbreaking portion of the “Frozen Worlds” episode—Pacific walruses falling to their deaths from atop cliffs. The animals would be laying on sea ice if they could, Lanfear has noted.
“It’s a pretty disturbing sequence,” she observed at a documentary panel discussion in Los Angeles this week. “Everyone that’s contacted [us] has been overwhelming in that they’re like, ‘Yeah it was a hard watch. Yeah, it was awful, but I’m so glad you showed it. And what can we do to help?’ If there’s anything in my career I could have ever achieved, it was that—to get people to write and say, ‘You’ve kickstarted me into thinking about sustainability in my own life.’ And that’s why I do what I do.”
The focus on conservation is one the reasons Sir David Attenborough wanted to participate in the series, Lanfear says. The 93-year-old naturalist narrates the series with a verve that earned him another Emmy nomination this year for Outstanding Narrator. He won the award last year for his work on Blue Planet II.
“When you’re with him in the [recording sessions], it’s a performance, and you just realize how incredible he is at what he does,” Lanfear marvels. “He reads through the script once, and yeah, there will be a few tiny pickups to do, but the intonation, the emotion, the heart, the delivery is pretty much spot-on the first time he reads it. He’s just so passionate about the natural world, and he just gets it. He just lives and breathes and understands it, and that comes across in his narration.”
Attenborough “helps polish the script,” Lanfear notes, as do the seasoned executives at Silverback Films, the production company behind Our Planet. But the writing mostly comes down to producer/directors responsible for each individual episode.
“We have a slight competition between producers, like the word count. You want it to be minimal. The smaller the word count, the more happy you are with it,” Lanfear comments. “You just get rid of any kind of superfluous commentary and anything that isn’t adding value to the picture.”
Our Planet being a scientific series, the vetting process for the scripts is daunting.
“We’d have at least three sources per fact—three independent sources saying roughly the same thing, or in agreement. Those have to all come from peer-reviewed science, so it wouldn’t just be personal opinion, or blog, or Wikipedia, or anything like that,” Lanfear states. “Once we were happy with the script, we sent it to WWF [World Wildlife Fund, partners on the series]. They then do the same process at their end.”
The end result has been a series that’s contending for awards, and changing how many viewers see nature and a rapidly changing environment, Lanfear believes.
“I’m really pleased that conservation has found a voice and that we can hopefully make a difference through these programs,” she tells Deadline. “We need the natural world. It gives us the oxygen we breathe, it gives us so many natural resources for free that we use…I guess, because it is for free, we don’t pay a price for it, but nature’s paying the price for it.”