'Frozen Planet' makers on near-death experiences, passing time at the poles, and being driven mad by penguins -- EXCLUSIVE VIDEO

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Image Credit: Discovery Channel/BBC/Chadden Hunter

This Sunday, Discovery premieres what could be the most fascinating hour of its seven-part polar exploration series Frozen Planet — the making-of. We already talked with series producer Vanessa Berlowitz and director Chadden Hunter about how this installment is for them — especially in the case of revisiting the solo bison-wolf battle captured in last week’s “Winter” episode — a therapy session. (“We wanted to basically take the viewer’s hand and say, ‘Okay, this was emotional to watch, but we go through the same emotions when we film it,'” Hunter said.) Now, we probe deeper into what life was like for the crew during the four-year production. Here’s what we learned:

• Though penguins can drive a man mad — watch our exclusive clip below from “The Making of Frozen Planet” — they are still awesome

CHADDEN HUNTER: The sun doesn’t set, but you’re trying to sleep on the sea ice. You put your head down, and you can hear the seal voices through the ice. The Weddell seals have this beautiful alien-like song. So you have them going off beneath your pillow while outside around your tent, all the Emperor penguins are coming up to be curious. You can see the shadows on your tent getting closer and closer. [Makes penguin noises.] And of course, they’ll trip over your tent wires. [Makes flustered penguin noises.] They’ll get all grumpy, and then they’ll circle the tent again and trip over the tent wires again.

VANESSA BERLOWITZ: I got harassed by Adélie penguins. We had David Attenborough there, trying to do a piece with him and record sound. I was trying to take some still photographs of David with the penguins, and I put my lens down next to me, and I hear this kind of rolling sound. I look, and a penguin is pushing my lens down the hill toward his nest. He was thinking, This is a really big rock. Clearly showing off for the females. Classic male behavior. The longer the lens. [Laughs] Then I smell this smell next to me, and a penguin has pooed in my still case. That happens all the time. Your gear is covered in poo. We put up a stand with a microphone on it, and in order to stop the wind’s effect, you put something fluffy over it. So I was listening, and I heard this scratching sound. There was a penguin on the microphone, seemingly trying to mate. 

• Also, penguins are good when you need directions.

HUNTER: We really wanted that part of the story where the female Emperors are coming back from their months away. They’ve never seen their chick, which is born, and the husbands are near starvation. It’s such a magical part of linking their whole story together, but it’s very rare to see it because the edge of the sea ice is possibly the most dangerous habitat that we work on. Five of us were dropped off 300 miles from any help. The first thing the field safety expert did when he saw that we were going to have to be living on the sea ice and walking over all these cracks was throw his hands in the air and say, “There’s no rulebook here. We can talk about safety and make decisions, but I can’t guide you here, guys.” We had no idea where the open water was. We talk in the “Making Of” about how we had to start watching the female penguins, because we knew they’d made this journey through this labyrinth of ice. It’s like, “How the hell are you doing this?” You can’t use GPS or map it, because it all shifts. There’s no traditional navigation that can help you. I think we did three days of chiseling just to get blocks of ice out-of-the-way to try to get a path through to follow these female Emperors.

• If you have a choice, follow Orcas on the ground not in the air. (Watch Hunter’s close encounter in the “Making Of” clip below.)

HUNTER: The silence can almost ring in your ears. You’re just daydreaming. The water in that pool is almost inky black but clear, and the orca just starts breaking the water like a torpedo. It’s massive. It just explodes 10′ above you. They come up, and they have a black eye that is lifeless. They release this enormous breath, this oily spray all over you. Your face and all your lenses get covered. They would clock you, and all of the sudden their eye would wake up. You see this eye look you up and down. Because the hole is so small, they had to take turns breathing. They’re so gentle, you can see them line up. The water is so clear that you can see 100 meters down. The little ones would come up, and they’d want to play. They’d push little ice blocks around and then mum would start squeaking at them saying, Get out of the way, come back here. We don’t really have time to capture that in the story, but you get to sit there beside them and watch this whole family. To have those magical encounters where you’re feeling some kind of emotional connection to their lives, that’s the pinnacle of the job we do.

BERLOWITZ: I was in the helicopter getting the aerial perspective. If there was one experience that I would’ve liked to have had… That was the one thing I was so jealous of.

• You probably don’t want to sail the Southern Ocean…

HUNTER: The Southern Ocean is by far the roughest, most violent ocean in the world. On some of the trips to get to Antarctica, we’d take a little sailing boat, only 60′ long. These are incredibly skilled captains who’ve done it a lot of times, but your five days and five nights from any kind of help… When we got stuck in some of those storms, it was like the perfect storm — a tiny little boat riding up absolutely monstrous waves like the side of a building and rolling 90 degrees. I remember holding onto the door handle of the cabin and my feet were dangling in midair. I was hanging vertically, because the entire boat was sideways. And as I was doing that, the cameraman flew past me and landed on the wall in between these two big metal coat hooks, right behind his neck. It was so terrifying. The boat was out of control. It was one of the few moments where we’re looking at each other going “Is this it? This is it, isn’t it?” I don’t have many of those moments, certainly not encountering wildlife, because we generally know wildlife isn’t as dangerous as people make out.

BERLOWITZ: If you do may day, there’s one ship in the Southern Ocean that could come and get you, which is the Royal Navy ship HMS Endurance, which I’ve been on four or five times now because they allow us to use helicopters to fly around Antarctica. So I was there thinking fairly smugly I’ll be fine. I’m in the big icebreaker, when we got one of the biggest storms in 15 years. You have to strap yourself into bunk beds because you get chucked around so much. On a ship, there’s a critical angle that if you go beyond you capsize, and we hit it. The whole ship went bananas. These 6’5″ British sailors were being thrown out of their top bunks. You have to try to eat when you’re in such big seas because you just throw up so much. I’ll never forget trying to queue with all these sailors. They all had buckets next to them.

• Then again, flying can also be dangerous…

BERLOWITZ: I had other moments in helicopters. The weather changes on a dime. We had a forced landing on South Georgia, where we got a whiteout. You can’t see what’s land and what’s snow, because it’s the same color. That was pretty terrifying. And in Antarctica, we were trying to get a shot of these cold winds coming up the snow caps, and we hadn’t really put two and two together, that they were clearly going to blow us. We were practically upside down — at which point, the American cameraman who was from Hollywood was like, “I’m out of here.” Another time, there was this waterfall in the ice, and we were trying to get a really low shot skimming the edge of the water as it hit down, and on the fourth take, we actually started to get sucked into the abyss. And that was my moment where I just went, “This is it.”

• And walking may not be safe either… 

HUNTER: By the time you’re right on the edge, the sea ice is spongey and wobbly. Once we went scuba diving underneath the ice, we looked up, and I could see the cameraman’s feet and shadow and his tripod and his arms. The ice was one-inch thick. I could see him walking around. It was like looking up at a bed sheet. I’m underneath scuba diving going, “Oh god, don’t step there. Don’t step there.”

• Penguins aren’t the only thing that could drive you mad. There’s sleep deprivation…

HUNTER: We got into this 36-12 rhythm. You would go and go and go for 36 hours. You would feel giddy, like you’re drunk in some way. And then, we’d collapse for 12 hours. It was the first time in my life I’ve fallen asleep standing up.

BERLOWITZ: It was the number one concern I had for series safety, knowing that people were working these ridiculous hours. I’d keep saying to the team, “You’ve got to enforce a night.” The danger is you wait and wait and wait for weather, and then suddenly it’s good, so you shoot for five days in a row. That’s where mistakes happen.

• And there’s the shot you might miss when you take a break for your sanity.

BERLOWITZ: Mark Smith, who was the cameraman on the Adélie penguins who went mad, was also going mad waiting to film snow leopards for Planet Earth. They’d been waiting for weeks and weeks to get a hunt sequence. I was on the phone from England talking to them everyday. “How much longer? You’re gonna have to get air lifted out.” And he was really close to the edge. He was exhausted from the mental strain of day in and day out watching rocks, looking for snow leopards. And I said to Mark, “Go to town and take a day off.” And I’m not kidding, he went into town, he came back, and this local Pakistani guy got out his phone and showed him something he’d filmed, which was a snow leopard pouncing on the back of a wild goat. “Is this what you were waiting to film?” He apparently broke down, he was so upset.

• And finally, everyone needs entertainment.

HUNTER: Every year, they watch The Thing at South Pole station on New Year’s Eve. That’s a tradition. The cameramen especially come with a little slim hard drive that’s got 500 gigs of movies on it. So in a blizzard, you would sit there in a tent and watch movies. There was one cameraman who had Family Guy on a memory card, and he’d worked out how to play back Family Guy on the camera. So you’d see him sitting on the ridge overlooking the ocean and [snickers]. He wouldn’t do it when he had to be filming, but we did catch him chuckling once. We’re like, “Give me that viewfinder.”

BERLOWITZ: Joking aside, it can be quite a struggle. It gets relentlessly boring at times. Nothing’s happening. Weather’s crap. You’ve seen the same faces for months on end. Comedies, often American comedies, kept us going. Parks and Recreation.

HUNTER: We had a joke at our Frozen Planet Christmas parties. One year, one of us got a little Arctic explorer Ken doll with skis. It was very cute. And then the next year, one of the other guys got one. We were forced to take them into the field. It was like Flat Stanley, take a picture with a penguin. Some of the guys started to take it to quite extreme storytelling. One made a whole film about it, where they’re kinda lost in the penguin colony, and these creatures were attacking him. At one stage, his fingers were blackened from frostbite. And he’s like, “I’ve gotta cut them off.” You’re watching a Ken doll cut off his own fingers. It’s fantastic.

BERLOWITZ: I was very happy because at one of the Planet Christmas parties, they made me a Helicopter Barbie [the nickname the Royal Navy gave her].

Read more:
‘Frozen Planet’ Q&A: The balance of happy and sad endings, the missed shots, and the best characters
‘Frozen Planet’ preview: Emperor penguins launch like rockets — VIDEO
‘Frozen Planet’ preview: A seal pup reunites with its mother, Alec Baldwin narrates crazy caribou foreplay — VIDEO
‘Frozen Planet': Polar bear time out — VIDEO


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