How technology and Sabah played significant roles in ‘Blue Planet II’

Fresh perspectives


By Su Fen Tan

How technology and Sabah played significant roles in ‘Blue Planet II’

Blue Planet II just aired its finale on Sunday, rounding up an incredible series that has opened our eyes to the wonders of the oceans, as well as the perils it faces. If you have seen it, you would have caught all the stunning sequences that took us on a breathtaking dive and discovery into the largest habitat on earth; if you haven’t seen it, well, here is a peek at what you’re missing out on:

Here, producer Jonathan Smith gives us a first-hand insight into the making of the series.

Tell us about your role as a producer on Blue Planet II – what was involved, and how long did it take to the shoot the series?

“As a producer, I’m one of a handful of other producers that essentially heads up the teams that make each film. So I was in charge of the One Ocean film, which is the opening’programme, as well as the Coral Reef film, which I filmed a lot in Malaysia. We have been in production for the last four years, of which two and a half years involved very intensive filming time, as you can imagine. To start with, we have to try and find the stories, which can be a massive challenge in itself. It’s a massive team effort. If I’m producing an hour long film, I can only use a certain amount of stories. But when you’re looking at the world’s ocean—whether it’s like in One Ocean where the whole programme is about the world’s ocean, or in Coral Reef where it’s all about the world’s shallow tropical coral reefs—there are so many stories that you can pick from, so it’s a matter of trying to find those stories.


First of all, the research team had to spend a lot of time getting the word out there to the world, that we’re looking to try and film the most amazing, unique and spectacular wildlife stories on the planet. And then, our team becomes a whole lot bigger, including the people that start feeding back these stories; it could be scientists that have spent their whole lives working on one animal, or it might be dive guys who just know an area so well. One of my favourite stories came from an underwater camera mount based in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. It was a story about clownfish. You think you know clownfish, you think you know what Nemo does, but you’ll discover that it does a whole lot more than you ever realise, and that was the story pitched by a cameraman called Roger Munn—it’s just a classic case of how big our team then becomes when the whole world starts getting involve and feeding back. That gives you an idea of first stage of finding the story, as well as the scale of the production.”

In a way, the locals at your shoot locations then play a big part of the production?

“Absolutely. It’s completely integral, really. We’ve got our team here in Bristol, England, but then we also depend on the people that are out there, whether it is for giving us the story, or talking to people; it could be scientists, dive centres, or naturalists—it could come from a variety of sources, often where people might have known about the story for a very long time, but then the world has no idea that it is happening. So that local knowledge is integral.”


We understand that this isn’t your first time filming in Malaysia. Has it changed much since the last time you’ve been here?

“Yes, I did some work in Malaysia with DiveMaster in the late ’90s and I was obsessed with the islands. So I knew how incredible the underwater life is in and around Malaysia, and it was something I wanted to target. My main experiences with Malaysia involves Sipadan and Semporna islands, and it certainly seems like there are a lot more divers there now, compared to 20 years ago. It’s still a beautiful country though.”


Having watched One Ocean, the scene with the mobula rays and glowing plankton was really quite stunning. How was that filmed?

“That is actually a classic case of local knowledge. We filmed that in the Sea of Cortez, where a local cameraman Alfredo Barraso was at, and he being on location, he could just be there and ready to go. This particular story kind of started with a scene from Life of Pi, where the humpback whale is jumping out of the water at night and there was bioluminescence everywhere. We thought, if that is really happening in the natural world, could we possibly film it? So we looked and found a few places where a lot of bioluminescence happen, where the plankton comes up to the surface in enough abundance, but also where there’ll be animals regularly swimming through it.”

“From our talks with Alfredo, we thought that the Sea of Cortez could be an incredible place to film, but the fact is, we just didn’t have the technology. At the beginning of this series, we tried it with the best low-light cameras, but they just couldn’t capture the behaviour. Then near the end of production, a new camera came out that was actually sensitive enough. So Alfredo had to be stationed there, in order to get this sequence on film at the right time. He had to film in complete darkness with cameras that operate like night vision goggles, to pick up the bioluminescent light. This is also a classic example of how far technology has come along not only since the original Blue Planet, but even in the time of our production for this series, to enable us to unlock the magic of the underwater world.”


Speaking of technology, tell us more about the crucial role it has had on the series.

“Absolutely. In one case, we developed a probe camera with a tiny front element that we could take underwater. What it does is enable us to get right into the reef and film inside the reef looking out and really be one with the animal. It really changes not just the perspective, but the way we see marine life and how we can move with them.


Another example would be where we worked with scientists from Norwegian Orca Survey for a sequence in the opening programme with the killer whales and humpbacks. We came up with a way to deploy cameras onto the back of the killer whales, so it then feels like you’re swimming along with the killer whale as it’s hunting and everything—that kind of angle is so fresh and again we owe it to the latest technology.”


Working with the ocean can be very unpredictable I’d imagine. What were some of the greatest challenges you encountered during filming?

“Some of the greatest challenges involved trying to actually find the wildlife and get the behaviour itself, because the thing is, wildlife doesn’t work to a script. It comes down to just being able to spend enough time underwater, having the patience and the perseverance to stay with your subject in order to film a unique behaviour. This is also possible thanks to technology—our accessibility nows to rebreathers means we can spend many hours making no bubbles and noise underwater, allowing us to get closer and closer to our subjects.”


Working on a series like Blue Planet, I’m sure you come to learn a lot of new things and new discoveries. What has been your highlight of the whole shoot?

“There’s a lot to pick from, but my favourite new discovery is most definitely the clownfish sequence that we shot off Sabah. It’s a very new discovery, it’s new science, and scientists are now investigating and researching the behaviour on the back of our filming. We got to work with so many lovely people there, and also the behaviour was just so wonderful. Just the fact that you think you know a clownfish, and then you realise that it does so much more. That’s my big highlight.”


Watch the entireBlue Planet II’ series now on BBC Player.