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How PEII’s Snake and Iguana Chase became a winner

Planet Earth’s II’s gripping sequence of the snakes and the iguana chase is one of the best ever produced for a very long time, recently winning the BAFTA’s The Virgin TV’s Must-See Moment, an award voted by the general public at the recent TV BAFTAs. So how was this masterpiece achieved? What makes a nature sequence beat other popular television moments?

The first thing to say is that there is no formula for success. If there was, as is often said, we would all be winning multiple awards for everything we did. The second is that such moments, although both rare and hard to capture, must have a vision and a plan, with the right talent to make it, the producer, scientists, camera person, editor, music composer and, of course, narrator. The third and most critical is that this “never before seen” behaviour is pure drama from beginning to end and so fits beautifully into the Hollywood genre of an outstanding high-action must-see movie.

Let’s break that down. Although it is claimed that this behaviour was never before filmed, in fact, it was, but never in such detail and with such dramatic effect, nor was it shown to such a large audience. So for most of us, it’s indeed “never before seen”. One of the cameramen, Richard Wollocombe, was key to alerting the producer Elizabeth White to the behaviour, which he knew and filmed on Fernandina Island, part of the Galapagos archipelago. Elizabeth’s instinct to film it was critical in its success. She effectively took a gamble and it paid off. Why not? These weird Godzilla-like lizards are being attacked by our most feared predators - swift moving snakes - the stuff of nightmares. “I’d never seen anything like it… it was like something from a horror film,” says White.

Here, in cinematic terms, we have the perfect movie script, with the protagonists – the innocent baby marine iguanas ready to venture out from their sandy burrows to the safer rocky seashore, and their archenemy, the ambushing killer racer snakes, fuelled with hunger, poised and ready to attack them. The narrative here echoes beautifully in our own lives when we too have to get over some horrifying obstacles. This strong story line meant we are emotionally engaged in the outcome. Emotion is the hypnotic glue that keeps us watching the screen to the end.

However, there was one important ingredient to make this even better – luck. The crew never expected to see as many snakes, so adding a greater, more frightening tension to the scene, especially as these high-octane racers all attacked together in unison like sneaky spiralling torpedoes speeding onto the battlefield.

But let’s not be in any doubt, the sequence was very difficult to film. First, they needed a lot of time to film the hunt as the behaviour was unpredictable and fast – much faster than we see – as everything is shot at high-speed, making it look slower than reality. Second, both subjects were small, which isn’t so obvious when you see the film for first time. Have a look at the size of the sand grains next time! Third, these isolated island animals rarely see people and were not put off by the camera getting close to them and so were not distracted or disturbed by the crew. So three essential things were needed: lots of time, having the right gear to shoot it, in this case Ultra High Definition, and animals that are unafraid.

The overall plan for the series was to have moving or travelling shots, which is the hallmark of many action movies. It makes the images more engaging, especially when it takes you into the action. One of the recent developments in cinematography is reduction in size of Ultra High Definition cameras that can be attached to gimbals that allow the camera operator to get fast, smooth-moving, low-level shots, so capturing the whole drama from the iguana’s point of view. As a result we are now submerged in the action. Such techniques were essential in making this a visually cinematic winning sequence. With several weeks over two years to shoot this and lots of patience, they hoped they had enough shots to put together a remarkable sequence.

Back in the cutting room the combination of all the hard work was realised by the talent in post-production. The editor, Matthew Meech, cleverly pieces the scene into a high-action chase sequence, with the right beat, pacing and tension, giving it the quality of a fast action car chase on the streets of San Francisco or LA, the stuff worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster. It is no wonder as Matthew admits: "I'm a bit of a movie fanatic so I kind of pick things up from all over the place - big Hitchcock fan, Christopher Nolan, Scorsese Spielberg etc.. With the iguanas and snakes sequence we really wanted to set up the feeling that something wasn't quite right when the first iguana pops out, so as to make the first wide shot, when the snakes start creeping up on him, really stand out.” With the combination of a brilliant sound design and a score by Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer and, of course, the superb authoritative voice of Sir David Attenborough, the whole sequence is transformed into a masterpiece.

There is one last footnote to the success of this winner. The sequence was part of the first programme “Islands” but originally that programme wasn’t going to be the first in the series. Only when the Controller of BBC ONE, Charlotte Moore, saw the episode, and the Iguana and Racer Snake Chase, did she move the programme so it was first, recognising the fact that you must always start your series with your best. Of course, it has now been recognised as a clever move, as it set the look and feel for the rest of the series and what has become BBC’s proudest nature documentary series in decades.

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