Tom Hugh-Jones Talks Planet Earth II

Tom Hugh-Jones, series producer on Planet Earth II, gives TV Real insight on making high-end natural-history content today.

Released in 2006, Planet Earth marked a new high for blue-chip natural-history filmmaking. The big-budget production from the BBC’s Natural History Unit, using innovative filmmaking techniques to capture the wonders of the world, was a commercial and critical success for the British public broadcaster, with BBC Worldwide selling it to more than 200 markets across the globe. Ten years later the BBC is doing it again, making Planet Earth II in 4K UHD. David Attenborough is returning to narrate the ambitious six-part series.

***Image***TV REAL: What makes Planet Earth II different from the first one?
HUGH-JONES: I worked on the first Planet Earth and ten years on it’s time to make something totally fresh and new. The way we can film animals has developed with new camera technology and our understanding of the natural world and animal behavior has also developed. That’s what we want to show—a new perspective on the world. So this time, you’re going to feel like you’re actually exploring these worlds for real rather than seeing them from afar. We want to take you deeper in terms of your understanding by actually showing you some surprising things about how the different environments on Earth work.

TV REAL: How much preproduction time does such a series usually take?
HUGH-JONES: To make a series like Planet Earth, it probably takes three and a half years, and we spend almost the first year trying to work out what we’re going to use to film, what stories we’re going to film, where we’re going to go, who’s going to make the team. So it’s probably almost a year before we even begin our first filming, and then we spend two years filming out in the wild all over the world and then probably about another half a year editing and putting the programs together.

TV REAL: What is the appeal of these productions for an international audience?
HUGH-JONES: I think what’s so great about wildlife and natural-history programming is that it’s a universal language. Of course, we normally use David Attenborough or someone like that to voice it in England, but essentially, everybody has an innate fascination with nature and the natural world. And so I think no matter if you’re from South America or Asia, and especially children and families, there’s a real desire for people to stay in contact with nature. As we live more modern, urban lives, I think these programs are really important in reminding people how precious the natural world is.

TV REAL: You produced and directed the first two episodes of Sir David Attenborough’s series Life Story. How was your experience working with him?
HUGH-JONES: The first time I met him was literally on the second day of [my] work experience at the BBC. That day I was told that I had to go and meet David Attenborough and take him through Kew Gardens to where we were filming. I got to walk with him for about five minutes and as you can imagine, meeting your childhood hero is very exciting. But I had no time to prepare, so I was very nervous. I didn’t know what to say to him, but he was a lovely guy, very kind to me.

TV REAL: You have produced and directed numerous productions for the BBC’s Natural History Unit, including Human PlanetPlanet EarthGangesThe Natural World and Wild. What were the biggest challenges you faced in making these series?
HUGH-JONES: I think the biggest challenge making a big landmark like Planet Earth or Human Planet is coming up with exciting new stories. The Natural History Unit has been making amazing wildlife films for 60 years and coming up with new stories that the audience is going to be excited by is very hard. We spent a lot of time trying to speak to scientists and researching to find those little pieces of information that might lead us to an animal you’ve not seen before, or capturing behavior you haven’t seen before. But [with] every new series that gets more difficult, so you have to spend more time in the field or be even more rigorous, and it’s challenging.

Out in the field, probably the biggest challenge I’ve had was when we were filming in Angola and we stupidly didn’t take enough equipment when we traveled to an island. We got stuck on a boat—the petrol ran out in the middle of the sea—with no way of contacting anyone. It was a tiny little dinghy, and we spent about 12 hours desperately trying to sail back to shore with a piece of tarpaulin that we’d had to keep the camera dry. Probably for a good eight hours I was sure we were just going to drift down the Atlantic Ocean with nobody knowing where we were, and we were going to die of starvation or sunburn. That was quite scary.

TV REAL: After all your travels, do you have a favorite place to film in?
HUGH-JONES: I have a real passion for the Amazon jungle. I have become known as one of the producers in the Natural History Unit who’s happy to go and film in jungles. There’s something rewarding about getting exciting animal behavior or working with tribes in the jungle. It’s such a challenging environment; it’s so humid and wet, and there are so many diseases. You feel like you’re battling nature the whole time. But now and then you see something beautiful or amazing, and it makes it feel all the more precious.

TV REAL: I understand that you lived in the Colombian Amazon when you were a child.
HUGH-JONES: That’s right, when I was 4 years old my parents took me to the Amazon in a part of Colombia called the Vaupés and we stayed with a tribe called the Barasana. I was young enough that for me, I just thought that was normal. I pretty quickly adopted an Amazon lifestyle. I suppose that was a major influence in me getting interested in making wildlife films and my passion for nature. I got to play with all sorts of animals, and eat them, actually, so I had a very hands-on experience, and I think from then on I had a real thirst for travel and adventure.