Snub Nosed Snow Monkeys in Shennongjia, China in SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET | ©2019 BBC America

Snub Nosed Snow Monkeys in Shennongjia, China in SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET | ©2019 BBC America

SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET is the new nature documentary series airing Saturday nights on multiple channels across the AMC Networks: AMC, BBC America, IFC, and National Geographic. Each episode is devoted to a different one of Earth’s continents, including surrounding islands and oceans.

Executive producer Jonny Keeling, a nature documentarian from Britain with two-and-a-half decades of programs to his credit, has been in charge of overseeing SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET. He sits down for a discussion of his work on the expansive, globe-trotting project.

ASSIGNMENT X: You’ve done an awful lot of wildlife and nature documentaries. What makes SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET different?

JONNY KEELING: I’ve worked on PLANET EARTH I, PLANET EARTH II, worked on nature documentaries for twenty-three, twenty-four years or something. What’s different about this one are a number of things. First of all, we’ve never broken down the world by continent before. And the reason that’s different, I think, is because we all belong to a continent. We all come from a continent. And the audience, that should resonate for them. PLANET EARTH, the original one, the episodes were [broken up into, for example] mountains, deserts. We don’t all necessarily come from a desert. The other thing is, it gives you scope to do this incredible variety of animals and colors and landscapes within an episode, which you wouldn’t normally be able to do. And I think the stories that we have are new and exciting. Some of the species have only just been discovered, the behavior is new. So that’s the second thing. We also cover stories of conservation a lot more, both the stories of despair and sadness, and the challenges faced by animals, but also some hopeful stories, too, where animals made a really good comeback. So these are all things which are new and different about this series, which we haven’t done before.

AX: The Australia episode, which was the premiere for SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET, aired Saturday, January 18, and is now available on demand. I would imagine between the time you finished shooting the Australia episode and the present, things have changed drastically because of the fires devastating that continent. Did you have to add a voiceover or some kind of explanation for that?

KEELING: Sadly, yes. I shot some of the Australia episode. Yeah, in the last few months, it’s changed dramatically. Robert Redford does a kind of introduction to the opening episode. And we decided to switch – we were originally going to start with North America, and then we decided as a mark of respect and homage to those animals there, and the people, too, that we would start with the Australia episode, and have a little piece from Robert Redford.

AX: Did you get seven different teams of filmmakers to each do one of the seven different continents, or were there some people who finished up on one continent and then went to the next?

KEELING: The way we divided it up, we had three producers, each making two episodes, and then one guy did the Antarctic one, because that was quite a challenge, Antarctica, and also, he’s making an IMAX film for Antarctica. And then there were separate teams all working across two episodes each.

Snub Nosed Snow Monkeys in Shennongjia, China in SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET | ©2019 BBC America

Snub Nosed Snow Monkeys in Shennongjia, China in SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET | ©2019 BBC America

AX: So were you in charge of the whole project, making sure everybody had what they needed, but you also went into the field and did some of the filming?

KEELING: Yes, exactly. I pitched the idea, won the money, went and got all the coproduction money from all around the world, and then put the team together. Obviously, it’s then a team effort as we pull the sequenced together, and start shooting it, but I was fortunate enough to get into the field on maybe half a dozen occasions, maybe six or so, to go and shoot and direct sequences.

AX: Were you going in as needed, or were those things that particularly excited or moved you?

KEELING: It’s generally as needed, so in Australia, I went to film dingoes, which is the Australian wolf, hunting kangaroos, which has never been seen before, never been filmed. The person who was making that show recently had a child, so it was harder for her to be away. Normally, she’d be able to go and direct, so I went and directed that for her. So sometimes it was when I was needed. I directed the sequence in Africa of these extraordinary fish who take their young into their mouth and protect them; that’s how they keep their brood. It’s like a little creche in their mouth. And then there’s another fish, called a cuckoo catfish, that comes along and lays an egg, which comes along and lays an egg, which the [first fish] suck up by mistake. [The cuckoo catfish egg hatches] and it kills all the others in the mouth. That was an amazing sequence. I’m a diver, so I was able to go and assist the cameraman on that shoot.

In Antarctica, one of the crew got tuberculosis – not in Antarctica, I don’t know where he got it from, but he was out for three months, so I went and directed a sequence of penguins being hunted by leopard seals through the ice, which is extraordinary. It rivals any car chase scene from a movie. It’s just real edge-of-the-seat stuff.

AX: How much narration do you use, and how much do you let the footage speak for itself?

KEELING: We try where possible to let it speak for itself, we try to use minimal narration. I think that’s the key to a good sequence. When I’m watching it, I know if it’s a really good sequence if you’re hardly having to say anything, because the pictures do all the work. We filmed with drones, and we filmed on the ground, too. So we filmed simultaneously. So you’re able to cut nicely between those moments.

AX: SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET is also conservation-oriented. Do you simply say, “These creatures are endangered,” or do you say, “These creatures are endangered, and this is what you as a human, where you are, can do about it”?

KEELING: What we do is, we don’t just say, “These creatures are endangered.” We’re telling stories about it. In Antarctica, there’s a heartbreaking story of an albatross chick. These albatross species are heading for extinction, partly due to climate change. So we weave the story in together. So it may be a story of animal behavior, or an animal and the challenges that it faces, and then you weave in the conservation story into that. But we don’t ever tell people what to do. We’re here to document, and not to preach to people. We’re just here to say, “Here are the images, and here are the facts, and here are the words, here’s David Attenborough’s voice.” You make a decision about what you think, whether it’s right or wrong. We’re not here to wag a finger, or tell anyone off, or tell anyone what to do. I mean, they can then hopefully go online somewhere and be able to decide whether they want to help, or what they want to do.

AX: David Attenborough has quite a long history with nature documentaries of his own. What is his level of involvement with SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET?

KEELING: He is involved [as the narrator] from an early stage. We start talking to him and saying, “Are you interested in narrating this?” I show him some footage, he makes comments, and says, “Oh, that’s exciting, that’s new,” or, “I don’t know what that animal is, I’ve never seen that before.” It’s good, it’s nice feedback there. And then when it comes to the narration, we write that in the edit suites, we write a rough narration for it as best we can. We send it to him and then he changes it to his own words, and there’s a little bit of to-ing and fro-ing about whether the meaning’s changed, or what we can say, but then we go into the voice record suite and we record his voice. He’s mainly involved towards the latter end of the project.

AX: Have you found any completely new species, besides the fish that you mentioned?

KEELING: We didn’t find those. We worked closely with scientists – we are scientists ourselves, there are a number of us on the team, all of us who have a PhD in zoology – but we work with scientists, so we’re not discovering stuff. We sometimes discover new behavior ourselves, because we’re out in the field all day, every day, but generally, we’re working with scientists. We have filmed new species – there’s a spider in the Australia episode, which is a brand-new species, discovered in 2014. The male has a little paddle on two of his feet, and he waves them behind the leaf and plays peek-a-boo with the female, and that’s the courtship behavior, to try to get her to mate with him. So there are some really extraordinary new animals, which, that’s what I want the audience to take away when they look at it, to realize, this is such a varied world, still, and to love it, and protect it.

AX: Do governments typically welcome you in, or do you have difficulties with them?

KEELING: [laughs] Yeah, sometimes that is the biggest challenge – it’s not the animals, it’s getting the permissions. Sometimes people find it hard to trust you. There was a team who filmed for us on the Iran/Iraq border. And there are certain places, China – it takes a long time to get permissions, but people do eventually let you come in. All we want to do is film the wildlife. We’re not making a political statement. So we rarely get refused, but sometimes it takes a couple of years to get the permissions.

AX: You think an angry rhino is dangerous, have you ever dealt with a charging councilperson?

KEELING: Yes, that’s true. I mean, here in the U.S. as well, we have to get it through all the bureaucracy, and the same if we film in the U.K. That’s just the way of the world, and it’s part of our jobs, and we get on with it, and do it with a smile.

AX: Do you do much off-continent shooting? That is, the U.K. is not actually a continent. Do you film in the U.K. and Tasmania and places like that?

KEELING: Tasmania is featured in the Australia episode, the Tasmanian Devil, which again, people will think, “Oh, it’s just from LOONEY TOONS, it’s a cartoon.” It’s not, it’s a real animal. [The species is threatened by a contagious disease with] facial tumors. A continent is actually defined more by the plate, the continental plate that it sits on, as opposed to just the chunk of land.

We’ve got an extraordinary sequence in Australia, which is of hundreds and hundreds of sharks coming in, filmed from a drone, so you see the whole process, pushing millions of fish against the edge of the coastline, and it looks like a big black oil slick. That’s amazing. That’s obviously on the Australian continent, but it isn’t on land, so we do some ocean stories.

We went to Antarctica and we filmed leopard seals hunting penguins there, and from the drone we filmed them. It’s been rarely seen, it’s filming in a sort of brash ice, which is very difficult to film, but they’re quite curious animals, and they’re not afraid of people at all, so you have to be a bit careful with them.

AX: Obviously, you don’t want to scare them and have them run away, but are there any other animals that you have to take particular care with?

KEELING: Yeah. I think polar bears is one of the key ones. Some of them are afraid, but there are a lot that are very, very curious, and I think probably view you as an easy meal. Most animals don’t, but I’d say polar bears are the ones that I would be cautious about. We filmed polar bears in the North American episode, standing on rocks in a river mouth. And as the tide comes in, the tide brings with it beluga whales. And the bears are leaping off the rocks onto the back of beluga whales and killing them. So the team who filmed that obviously had to be very, very cautious and careful about the polar bears. But they got a remarkable sequence for the North America episode.

AX: Are there any things that are just too potentially depressing for the viewer?

KEELING: No, I don’t think so. In this series, we tell conservation stories, some of despair, that are really heartbreaking. But we also tell stories of hope, too. And I think as long as you’re balancing that out, then there’s no story that is off-limits for the audience, really. You can’t patronize them, you have to show them the things that are really going on. People want to see that. But you can tell them hopeful stories, too. And the whales making a comeback in Antarctica – commercial whaling was banned in 1986, and in those thirty years since, whales have made a real comeback, and we filmed a sequence of a sort of mythical gathering of big whales that no one had been able to see and film. We went out with a German scientific team and filmed hundreds and hundreds of whales. It’s a remarkable scene.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET?

KEELING: Oh, my goodness. That it’s a celebration of every continent. And I want them to just be surprised and astonished by the unexpected. And I want them to fall in love with and feel the emotional range of – there are some joyful scenes, there are some sad sequences, but just to feel the full emotion, and then at the end of it, think about what they might do to help protect the natural world.

This interview was conducted during AMC/BBC America’s portion of the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

Related: EMERGENCE executive producer Juan Alfonso gives the scoop on Season 1

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Article: SEVEN WORLDS, ONE PLANET executive producer Jonny Keeling on the new BBC America documentary series


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