Have You Been Watching…Earthflight?

"Here come the gulls" (C) John Downer Productions - Photographer: Michael W. Richards

We’ve been spoilt for choice by nature documentaries in recent years: Life, Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, Wet Planet: the list goes on. And they’re all fantastic, whatever the haters might say.

But how do other BBC nature documentaries hold their own against these stunning Attenborough heavyweights? Well, by inventing imaginative and experimental ways to get better footage, of course.

As cameras have become smaller and tougher, the potential for wildlife film-makers has vastly increased: they can now get excellent footage without having to send the work-experience kid into a tiger’s lair. “Sorry Brian- you’ve drawn the short straw again”.

The trend for hidden cameras started with Lions: Spy in the Den in 2000. LSITD (as its affectionately known. By me) introduced us to bouldercam: a mobile camera hidden inside a moving rock that could sneak into the heart of a pride.

Apparently the lion isn’t a naturally suspicious creature, as evidenced by their habit of replying to phishing emails from the King of Nigeria.

Lions aren’t terribly hard to get close to anyway, as anyone who’s ever been on safari knows, but nevertheless it was a big hit and got some great footage of lion cubs attempting to destroy an expensive hidden camera. It spawned a series of similar documentaries, more recently the wonderful Tiger: Spy in the Jungle where elephants were trained to carry cameras close to the elusive animals (proving that species isn’t a barrier when it comes to unpaid BBC internships) and, of course, Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice narrated by Lovely David Tennant™.

That was even more of a hit, so it comes as no surprise that Lovely David Tennant™ has been chosen to narrate Earthflight, a documentary that mixes standard nature documentary footage with shots taken with cameras mounted on the backs of wild birds. Bouldercam eat your heart out.

Unfortunately, the angle of the cameras and the nature of birds means a lot of this footage is made up of shaky shots of the not-too-distant ground with a big, wobbly bird head in the middle. Although the camera can also be panned to get a shot of the wing tilting up and down, that kind of thing.

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be some kind of hamster-pilot riding a pet condor, wonder no more.

However, for all the wobbles its still exhilarating: flight has always been a dream of mankind. A nice dream, that is, not the kind where you suddenly find yourself naked in the school canteen seconds before an exam that you haven’t revised for.

Slightly more inspiring is the ‘flying alongside’ footage, although POLAR BEAR CUB ALERT this is filmed with trained, hand-reared birds rather than wild ones. However, this soon starts to resemble a travel documentary with a set of avian hosts: snow geese take us on a tour of New York, brown pelicans show us round San Francisco, some common cranes fly over Venice (‘By ‘eck, it’s a bit hot, innit?’  ‘I wonder if they do chips anywhere?’). At times, you feel you should be giving them a tip.

For all that those scenes make for truly breathtaking cinematography- it’s as if nature itself was specially designed for people with HD TVs- the series is probably at its best when it ditches the gimmicks in favour of traditional storytelling. In last night’s episode, we watched as a Patagonian condor tried to teach its ungainly child to fly…by shoving it off a 200ft drop. Tough love, etc.

Luckily it doesn’t die (that would have been a bit awkward) and the multiple shots of it soaring away as it learnt how to ride the thermals were truly wonderful.

It had better get better at flying pretty soon though, if only to learn to escape roving BBC television crews intent on strapping a webcam to its back.

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Earthflight is on Thursdays, 8pm, BBC1. You can catch up on iPlayer here

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About Hilary Wardle
Hilary is a freelance journalist and copywriter who writes for a wide range of websites, magazines and newspapers, including Buzzfeed, MSN, The Poke, Chortle, the Guardian and the Independent. She specialises in arts and entertainment, comedy, video games and viral content. Contact her at Hilary3@gmail.com.

13 Responses to Have You Been Watching…Earthflight?

  1. biondino says:

    It has become obligatory in documentaries to sacrifice sea lions to killer whales. Even ones about birds, it seems. I’m not sure I approve of this but if the gods of convincing wildlife footage require blood, so be it.

    • Grumpy Old Man says:

      I think that a lot of killing happens in nature. Wildlife can’t nip down to the local supermarket to get their meat in a vacuum packed, ready to cook format. The carnivores and omnivores have to find a digestible, easy to catch, preferably smaller and often herbivorous (therefore cuddly and cute)animal, then catch it and rip it to shreds before eating it. I think they tried to use a quorn substitute sea lion, but it didn’t work as the killer whales knew it wasn’t good for them.

  2. Grumpy Old Man says:

    I thoroughly enjoy the programmes, but my blood boiled when David Tennant described the aerial abilities of the budgerigar being so good that they could ‘turn on a dime’ – I have never heard this expression before, is the BBC now made for Americans only? Perhaps they need to be reminded that the first B in BBC means British, not American. Other than that, it is a very good series.

    • Hilary Wardle says:

      A dime!? A DIME?! I didn’t hear that bit. Disgraceful. Next they’ll be rebranding the Queen Vic the ‘Victoria Bar and Grill’, serving Coors, calling the Caf a ‘Diner’ and filming saucy Levi ads in the laundrette. IS NOTHING SACRED?

    • mrsfondle says:

      Surely you must have heard the expression ‘turn on a sixpence’ – same idea just British. How old a ‘grumpy OLD man’ are you?

      My REAL gripe, and possibly other’s as well, is the broadcasting of the final episode today (Sunday) at 4pm instead of next Thursday as advertised. It was purely by chance that I found out about it. If I’d missed it I wouldn’t have been just Grumpy, I’d have been INCANDESCENT!

      • Grumpy Old Man (aged 53¼) says:

        My point is that the narrator is British, the recording is British and it is being presented to a British audience, so why use the utterly alien phrase ‘turn on a dime’, when the British phrase ‘turn on a sixpence’ would have more appropriate?
        It is just another, albeit small, example of how the BBC is turning into an American orientated organisation (or, as they would say in America ‘oriented organization’). Rant over, peace and light resume !;o)

  3. Ha Tikvah says:

    Personally I’ve held a long admiration for the fleet of wildlife camera operators and photographers who manage to truly provide some of the most stunning shots of our wildlife imaginable & who seem to get very little credence for much of their work. I’d written to the Daily Mail to commend them heartily yet my letter wasn’t deemed worthy of printing, so hopefully maybe some of them will read this, & know one viewer at least holds them in high regard!

    For me, in these programmes, those close-ups of the various eagles and other birds of prey have blown me away – the sheer beauty in their form & superb agility in their function just continually remind me that the animal world is an awesome creation of which we are fortunate to have a grandstand view, & IMHO should never be tampered with in the dire ways science is now undertaking.

    However, one thing I found provocative and which I’d no knowledge of beforehand, was the Indian belief/faith that allows for rats to populate their dwellings in such horrendous numbers – one can only imagine the health hazards at work there. :(.

  4. V V Dhokia says:

    Very beautiful series. i would love to see it in 3d and buy the dvds if avalable. Please inform me.

  5. Barigo says:

    Man, some of the shots were the best I’ve ever seen on the topic of birds. Ultimate picture was the meeting of the white horses and flamingos for me, looked almost unreal. Brillant docu.

  6. I haven’t seen any wildlife documentary series to match ‘Earthflight’. I found each programme totally absorbing; so much so that it was hard to take my eyes away from the screen.
    I want to thank all the cameramen and all the trainers, technical wizards, everybody for such a wonderful visual treat.

  7. iReckon says:

    Australians get to watch this on the Nine Network. Unfortunately I missed an episode but it isn’ton the equivalent of your iPlayer. I can’t watch it on your iPlayer because I am overseas. And you wonder why I have to resort to shady methods of downloading the episode.

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