Nothing could be more banal than the thought of another day, yet the miraculous presence of life on our planet depends on our 24-hour cycle around the sun. Earth: One Amazing Day reveals the beauty of the rare gift we have received. Now it is up to us to go forth and protect it. To see the trailer, click here. To visit the film’s website, click here. •Availability: Opens October 6. •Thanks to Lee Meltzer, pmkbnc, for arranging this interview.•
EO: I love the concept of life on earth responding to the 24-hour journey of the sun. How did you come up with the idea?
RD: I’m not a natural history filmmaker, I confess, so I didn’t come to the project from a great history of fascination with the natural world for its own sake. What I have, and what my film’s about, is a great fascination with us and how we live and how we see things. I’m really interested—and was from the beginning—in how something we see every day…even the way we use the word is an everyday thing… isn’t ordinary at all. I was fascinated with the idea that if you happened to come to earth and hadn’t seen it before, you’d think, ‘Man, that’s amazing. That giraffe, is that real?’ And if you could see things as they actually are, so intertwined and driven by the day, by the power of that daily change, light and dark, heat and cool, you couldn’t see things as everyday again.
If the film is done well, it should give you an idea that changes the way you look at every other thing in the world, every other part that isn’t in the film. A film can only contain so many things. It can contain an idea and a germ of something that can stay with you at its best and give you a different perspective on everything else in the world. I think the day is like that. If it wasn’t for that completely random alteration of temperature, of light and dark, of variation even over seasons, then we just wouldn’t be here. It’s a difficult one, isn’t it, because it becomes one of those extremely logical arguments where people say the earth is just right for life, well of course that’s going to be true because if it wasn’t you’re only going to get the life that’s right for it. It is really fascinating that something like a word for something normal is actually so extraordinary. Something’s that’s everyday is actually the opposite of mundane.
EO: Did scientists play a role in developing the story?
RD: The film is not intended to be scientifically revelatory in any way. We’re not saying anything unexpected, but the iguanas and the racer snakes in the Galapagos are an interesting example for me. They exhibit an amazing piece of behavior [neither iguanas nor racer snakes can move quickly before they are sufficiently warmed by the sun]. I think everyone appreciates that, but what the film does is place the iguana in the context of how this has to happen at a certain time, both of the year and of the day because it’s a cold-blooded creature so it can’t run until it’s hot. When you think of it that way, the iguana is juggling between, Do I wait til I’m nearly hot enough, or do I wait til I’m completely hot and full of energy but then my enemy is too? Just giving it a little bit of context about the science in that regard is all we’re really trying to do. I hate films that are just a list of facts. I’m not overlaying a sense; I’m trying to reveal it. These things happen at that time of day not because I think it fits in well with a noonday structure but because that’s when they happen and this is why that’s true. We aim to give a sense of the substructure underneath the natural world that is the real driving force of our lives, which we tend to skip by.
EO: The reason I ask about scientists is that some of the footage you got is mind-boggling, and I wondered how you ended up being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. How many people get that footage of giraffes, for instance? How did you know to be there? How did you know to be there when the bee was attacking the hummingbird or when the sloth set out to court a mate?
RD: The answer is it’s years of observation. To take the example you mentioned, the giraffe encounter was so bizarre that not even the cameraman who was filming expected it to happen. They’re giraffe experts, and it was something that they had never seen. It’s one roll of film, it happened in such a short time. It’s clearly not unique in that it happens in the world, but it had never been filmed, and the giraffe expert had never seen it, so it’s incredibly unusual. Likewise the racer snakes on the Galapagos: that was reported to the production team as something that someone knew happened at one particular beach on one particular island. We went back there three times over the course of a couple of years to witness it.
Perhaps that’s where the scientists come in. The observations of the behavior are absolutely driven by expertise on the ground in these unique locations, and the production teams are very lucky in that it’s possible to make three separate filming expeditions to a remote Galapagos island. The other one that was exceptional in that regard was the filming of the chinstrap penguins. No one had landed on that island before and filmed that. From a behavioral standpoint it’s not unique, but from an understanding of their environment and their habitat and just the sheer pressure of their lives, it’s absolutely unique because no one’s ever managed to land a crew on there and actually film it.
EO: You visited 22 countries, had a 100-person crew in the UK and China alone, 38 camera operators, and you filmed 38 species. Can you talk about the vastness of the undertaking?
RD: I’ve never been involved in something of this scope before. We’re very lucky, because the film is the result of projects and a budget spent not just to realize this film but to realize all the other aspects of television and film production that the BBC natural history unit has been involved in for the last five years. I think it’s unachievable in any other way. If you started off trying to make it from scratch, it would be very, very hard. We were able to pull together film crews that were already traveling to some of these exceptional places and get them to do things specifically for us. We could send off our own film units to search for certain creatures, but we could also coinvest on shoots that would take us to other places. We could multiply and double up our budget by pushing other people to do things they weren’t thinking of doing and using that footage. We were able to really punch above an already considerable weight, if you follow me.
EO: Were those BBC crews who were out in other places, or did you contact outside people?
RD: Everybody in this business is a specialist or an outside person in a way. In the natural history world of filmmaking, the units who get some of the most unique footage are almost animal specialists more than camera specialists. I mean, they are camera specialists, but they’re specialists in filming that animal. The guy who’s filming the giraffe has to be there for months and months and months, so he’s a giraffe photographer, a photographer based in that habitat. He’s unlikely to be the guy who also goes to Greenland or something. We work with what we think are the best people in the habitat or with the animal.
EO: Many of the sequences in the film depict a hunting situation, where our sympathy lies not with the hungry hunter who has to feed her family but with the terrified victim. Why and how do you do that? Through the script? Because we’re introduced to the victim before we’re introduced to the hunter? Why aren’t our sympathies with the hungry predator?
RD: You encounter this a lot, and I think sometimes the predator in these things is pretty short-served sometimes. You think, ‘Actually they should be getting our sympathy too.’ In our film, we say, “The penguins are predators, they are hunting too.” The reality is that one’s sympathy is with whoever is introduced as the character. You could probably make the argument you’re making the opposite way around for a number of those creatures, but your point’s a good one.
I think the ambition behind the film in a more general way might answer your question. I didn’t want a film that felt like this is a pristine world in which things happen in a grand manner overseen by the gods, where we’re looking at it through glass, as if it’s not a real place, it’s a place from textbooks or awe-filled ideas of what some natural history films can be, separate from us as people. I wanted to make a film about our home, the place we live, and to use language that makes that clear—that we live here too and this is about creatures who have understandings of their world perhaps not unlike our understanding of our world. They have families. They want to look after their children or do something for their partner. It’s a family film in that sense. It wants to be applicable and understandable, not just academic. One way of putting it is I didn’t want to make a film for people who are interested in animals. I wanted to make a film for people who live on earth.
EO: You’ve made a number of films about space travel. New discoveries have been made about Saturn that might suggest the possibility of life on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. After making this film, does that interest you as a subject?
RD: Personally I think it’s absolutely inevitable that we’re going to find life on another planet. What kind of complexities that life will have is the big question. It’s interesting that you would pick up on that other interest of mine. I suppose where it impacted most on this film was in the Apollo 8 story: the idea that the Apollo 8 astronauts go to the moon, orbit around the moon and are the first people to see the other side, and five or six revolutions later what they do is look up and they see the earth and take that famous picture, “Earthrise” [coincidentally, the banner image for this website]. I have to look this up, but I believe it’s the most reproduced picture of all time, the earth rising above the moon’s horizon.
That embodies what this film, and what my attitude to these films in general, is about: we live on the most extraordinary place, and sometimes it takes a different perspective to see it for what it is. You go to the moon and you discover the earth; in that same way if you can look at it afresh you can see how an everyday situation is far from everyday. There is something very much in the film that is embedded in the idea of space travel, of seeing the earth as a blue dot in an otherwise gray universe and thinking, ‘What an extraordinary place.’ At the very beginning, we made a little film for ourselves as a kind of mood piece, and it was based on this idea of the Apollo 8 astronauts and how they discovered the earth. It gave us the sense that if we made this film right, the Intergalactic Tourist Board would show it and say, “Want to spend your holiday somewhere great? Go to Earth, they’ve got everything there.” And we would say, “Aren’t we lucky? We already live here.”
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