BBC Studios’ Michael Gunton Talks Wildlife Innovations


Dr. Michael Gunton, creative director of the Natural History Unit and factual at BBC Studios, talked about working with David Attenborough and immersive wildlife filmmaking with World Screen‘s Anna Carugati at MIPDoc today before being presented with the World Screen Factual Trendsetter Award.

Gunton’s impressive list of credits includes Planet Earth II and Dynasties, among many other landmark natural-history series.

Gunton said he had initially aspired to be an observational documentary filmmaker in the early days of his career. “Some of that approach has permeated what I do now,” he said. He had seen many David Attenborough docs and knew that if the opportunity ever arose to work with the natural-history documentary icon, he would take it. Such a chance did occur with Trials of Life. After three years working with Attenborough on that show, Gunton never looked back and has worked in the nature docs space for the past three decades.

Back then, technology was far more cumbersome, with Gunton having to tote filmstock out into the wild—about 30 rolls for Trials of Life, which would capture about 300 minutes. “The good thing about that is it forced you to be very decisive about what you do. The myth of wildlife filmmaking is you go out and sit around and wait for stuff to happen. To do good stuff, you have to be very clear about what you’re trying to achieve, what story you’re trying to tell.”

Gunton delighted the MIPDoc audience with wonderful stories of working with Attenborough, including an experience on Trials of Life when he sent the host into a hole below a very large termite mound. “He did it brilliantly!”

On his approach to storytelling, Gunton noted, “A lot of it is research. Natural-history audiences love to see new things. When the camera can draw the veil back and show things that are remarkable, that’s the approach. Trying to find surprising stories. Some of the best surprises come from when you think you know an animal and you show something that completely turns [that belief] on its head.”

He continued, “One of the things I’ve been obsessive about is trying to tell stories, not about animals but about a particular animal—that rhino on that day.”

On landmark series like Planet Earth, Gunton noted, “Every time you make one of these, people say, you’ve done it all! Mother Nature is so extraordinary and so fascinating, if you dig deep, you do find new stories. Of course, you want to bring in new technology that allows you to show things you might have seen before in one way but can now be shown in another way.”

Gunton said that ahead of embarking on production for Planet Earth II, he found himself thinking, “Is anyone going to buy the idea that there’s a sequel? It was a challenging thing to do. But there was new technology that did allow us to bring the camera closer to the animals, which is something I always wanted to do.”

“Season one was about seeing the world from almost a God-eye view. I wanted to reflect that and also say, we’ve moved on, there’s new technology, and we look at the world in a slightly different way now. We’re much more aware of the fragility of the planet. I also wanted to do something [Attenborough] hadn’t done before. I said, let’s take him up in a balloon. It was two weeks before his 90th birthday! He agreed to do it.”

Planet Earth II let audiences “savor the wonders of the world,” Gunton said. “It came at the right moment. The idea was to get close to the animals. Get down there and use the camera and the storytelling to make you feel you were experiencing their lives.”

He showed as an example the much-watched video of baby iguana versus snakes footage shot in the Galapagos. “People all around the world were shouting, ‘Run iguana, run!’ It’s immersion, engagement and empathy with the animals. The camera is super close. We wouldn’t have been able to do that five years ago.”

With the more recent Dynasties, Gunton said he wanted to “change the rhythm of these films. A lot of the Planet Earth-type shows are shot in multiple locations with multiple stories. They have a particular approach. There’s a frustration as filmmakers that…there’s so much more story to tell. I thought there was an opportunity to tell stories about a life. It was risky. I had to pick five animals and tell the story of the challenges individuals face when they are fighting against their own kind, their own family and rivals.” When he conceived of the project, he envisioned it as a “Game of Thrones for animals.”

Natural-history docs have “many roles,” Gunton added. “We had 2 million years of evolution that connected us with the natural world and the last 250, 300 years we’ve stepped away from that. People want to make a connection with the natural world. And there’s endless fascination about our fellow creators on the planet. They’re a reminder of the wonder and value and fragility [of the natural world].”

Carugati was then joined on stage by Laurine Garaude, director of the television division at Reed MIDEM, to present the World Screen Factual Trendsetter Award to Gunton.