Planet Earth

Creating in lockdown

By Annie Backhouse, Producer for Planet Earth: A Celebration

Producing Planet Earth: A Celebration in Covid conditions, proved less than straightforward.

A pianist sits at the piano in a studio with an orchestra in the background
Sound engineers had to spend hours re-designing the recording studio to make it suitable under Covid conditions.
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A music record for a 60 minute BBC natural history programme, with an entire orchestra, would take around nine hours. However, social distancing meant that all the different sections of an entire orchestra could no longer be recorded together. There is simply no studio large enough.

However, it was possible to invite 21 string musicians, from the BBC Concert Orchestra, to join Brit Award and Mercury Prize winner Dave on the grand piano and Hans Zimmer, via a screen, in the Great Hall, at Air Studios, London.

Before anyone could even enter the studio, sound engineers spent hours re-designing the layout to facilitate recording, re-laying cabling and re-positioning microphones to allow everyone a safe 2.5m distance.

Safety was paramount in the USA too, Hans Zimmer was filmed at home on two cameras, which were left recording whilst the producer vacated the room. Thankfully he judged the headroom just right, and was rewarded with great shots of Hans, as he added his synthesised instrumentation.

In pre-pandemic times, it would have been possible to film the two music tracks featured in the programme in about an hour. However, with everyone positioned so far apart, the camera operators had to work especially hard, constantly repositioning, whilst the music was played over and over again to allow the director to get all the necessary shots. No doubt, both the orchestra and Dave had a classical sounding ear worm, long after the director announced, ‘That’s a wrap’.

Sir David Attenborough
Sir David Attenborough recorded his narration for Planet Earth: A Celebration from his dining room.

Recording the new narration for Planet Earth: A Celebration wasn’t without its challenges either. With Sir David Attenborough isolating at home, his dining room had to double up as a studio. Professional recording studios are covered in sound proofing to remove unwanted echo, but some winter tog duvets hung from the walls had to suffice in the circumstances!

Having sterilised and quarantined the microphone for 72 hours, the sound operator left it to be collected from outside a back door while he set up his equipment at a table outside the dining room window. With the video link established, the commentary was recorded to pictures sent up from Bristol, where the executive producer was directing.

Filming crew in front of an orchestra in a studio
Crew had to adapt very quickly with editing being done in the editors home garage.

The entire production team had to adapt quickly to this strange Covid-19 landscape, from the editor working remotely from his garage, video linked to the producer’s dining room, now office, to the composers in Los Angeles all working from home. But then, animals have always adapted to their changing environment.

As Sir David tells us in the programme, in times like this, wildlife can be an inspiration to all of us. With eight of the most spectacular scenes from Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, set to a thrilling new score, hopefully Planet Earth: A Celebration, will be as uplifting for the audience as it was for everybody involved in the making of it.