Interview with Rupert Barrington (Series Producer) on The Green Planet

Series starts on BBC One: Sunday, 9 January, 2022



Why did you think it was the right time to make a series about the plant world?

Our executive producer Mike Gunton is always looking for something which would be the zeitgeist at the time a series airs on TV, and with the growing awareness of plants and the value they have, he felt that it was the right time to make a series. It’s done so rarely - The Private Life Of Plants was the last dedicated series, 25 years ago.

If you look at how plants operate, and how they interact with animals, plants are usually the ones leading those interactions, and yet we always see things from the animals’ point of view, so this was a completely different perspective to take. But it needed technological development for us to be able to make that feel fresh. The technology and cameras for animal documentaries is always on the move, so that was the biggest thing we had to tackle.

Why do you think there is more awareness of plants at the moment?

Everybody is talking about climate change, and that they understand that plants aren’t merely static bystanders - they play a huge role. I also heard on the radio that three million people got seriously into gardening over lockdown, so that has clearly made a huge difference to how people connect to the plant world around them.

How long was the series in development?

From beginning to end, it was about four years. There was a feeling that because plants don’t move, they’re probably easy to film. But making the series has shown that plants are much, much harder to film than animals. This is partly because they don’t move on our timescale, so they’re much more complicated. Any piece of behaviour which might last five minutes for an animal could last three months with plants.

Can you talk about the planning of the series?

It was decided we would have episodes focus on the different worlds plants live in: tropical forests, deserts, freshwater, the seasons, and the human world. We also decided to focus on finding situations where a plant could demonstrate that it has a strategy, or it’s in control of a relationship. For example showing the audience how a plant entices animals into doing something for them, or how a plant can protect itself against being eaten.

What challenges did you face during filming?

Obviously, lockdown meant many locations weren’t possible, and we didn’t go to some of the really far-flung places because of the amount of tech and the size of the team we would have needed. We went to 27 countries in total, fairly well-distributed around the world, according to the environments the episodes are broken down into. We also ensured we used a mix of a UK and local crews where possible.

How much kit did you need to film plants?

For the first couple of shoots we found the big challenge of filming plants was that we needed a much bigger team than we initially thought. We needed a time-lapse expert, a standard camera, a drone operator, someone who can operate a crane, and someone who can put cables and tracks through the forest. Because of all those different elements, you often had several different cameras, and a whole suite of lenses. We had lenses which could film the surface of a single leaf hair in a wide angle so you see the landscape of the leaf, giving a very intimate but massive perspective. On some shoots we had more than 50 cases of kit, compared to 15-20 cases for filming animals.

Tell us a little more about the technology you used?

One of our producers, Paul Williams, found a former military engineer, Chris Field, who had been inspired by seeing the time lapses on Planet Earth into making his own kit that would incorporate movement into time lapses. We got him to build some of these rigs for us to use in a studio run by Tim Shepherd, who is the world’s best at plant time-lapse. He also worked on The Private Life Of Plants 25 years ago.

Chris also designed a much smaller field-based system which would allow us to move the camera anywhere in an area in real time, or in time lapse. He then built another miniature version so you can do the same on the scale of a leaf. It’s interesting that animals don’t really work in detail; the closer you get to an animal, the less attractive it looks. With a plant, it’s the opposite. There’s so much fine detail on a plant, the stem, a leaf or a flower, that there’s a whole world of micro detail which is stunning.

We wanted to 'fly' the camera through the plant world. Those pieces of kit allowed us to do that, and really let the camera explore the world in time lapse.

How do you balance the micro elements with the sweeping drama that is so associated with the Planets series? Did you have a vision in mind beforehand of what you wanted that balance to be, or did it develop a bit more organically?

A bit of both, inevitably. It was really clear to me right from the start that we had to go big on macro, but also go right down into the microscopic world, because there’s so much beauty there. What we’ve done is dip down to look at things like stomata, the ‘pores’ in the leaf which allow gases to pass in and out of the plant, which means we can talk about photosynthesis but also allows us to see some of those tiny defensive structures on leaves.

Do these stories pull at the heartstrings in the same way that the animals do?

I think they pull at the heartstrings in a somewhat different way, as you might expect. Plants face all of the challenges that animals do - from the environment to predators to the challenges of safeguarding their offspring. But where the stories are most emotional is when plants do things you don’t expect, that are surprisingly animal-like. For example one of the great discoveries in ecology, and this is quite recent, is that in a temperate forest the trees are all connected underground by fungal filaments.

The trees use this network, sometimes called the woodwide web, to send nutrients to other trees that need them (often not even the same species of tree). A parent tree will channel nutrients to its own offspring, and a dying tree will rush its stored nutrients to its neighbours to help them before it dies. All of these trees are also talking to each other, warning each other of danger (for example an attack by leaf-eating insects). So when you realise that when you walk through a forest you are actually amongst a community of plants that are helping each other and communicating with each other, I think that is quite a profound thing to experience.

Will it be a challenge to entice people to watch a series about plants?

We’ve done many programmes about animals, and there’s no doubt that with every series it gets harder to find new stories. But when you get into the insect world and the plant world, it’s almost untouched, so there’s a huge amount of new subject matter there. People will definitely feel they’re seeing things they haven’t ever seen before.

People are used to thinking of animals as dynamic and dramatic, and plants like a static hedge at the back of the garden. Having Sir David so involved has been amazing. He talks about plants with this real sense of warmth and wonder, and I think that’s going to really help.

What is the environmental message that you want audiences to take away?

If there is one critical thing that we want audiences to take away, it is that intact, fully-functioning communities of plants are vital for the health of the planet and therefore vital to our own future. A lot of the series shows how plants are connected to each other and to animals in a complex web. These webs of life are resilient to change, they create oxygen, they store water and so on. But when these webs are weakened because species are lost, they become increasingly fragile. So we’d like to people to understand that we rely on plants for everything and if we allow plants to thrive, it is a benefit to all life on earth, including ourselves.

What would you like audiences to take away from The Green Planet?

Two things. One is that plants are much more like animals than most of us ever realised. They are complex and dynamic, they do amazing things, they just do it all on a timescale that is different to our own. But when you pull back the curtain on that world, as we have done on this series, then you see how extraordinary plants are. And the other is that plants, living in rich, dense, complicated communities, are essential for our own future.


Series starts on BBC One: Sunday, 9 January, 2022

Source BBC One

January 4, 2022 6:00am ET by BBC One  


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