Groundbreaking nature show
For more than half a century, the Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) has been bringing the world into our living rooms – always standing proudly at the foot of the Beeb's long-standing mission to "inform, educate and entertain".
But a new series is about to take the NHU's work to another level.
Using state of the art filming technology, Nature's Great Events captures the Earth's most dramatic and epic wildlife spectacles and the intimate stories of the animals caught up in them.
For the first time in High Definition (HD), and using ground-breaking slow motion technology, we will see everything from the trials and tribulations of salmon as they make their laborious way upstream to return to their Canadian spawning grounds, to the hunting techniques of a pride of lions as they struggle to survive a spartan migration season.
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From the flooding of the Okavango Delta, in Africa, to the great summer melt of ice in the Arctic and the massive annual bloom of plankton in the northern Pacific Ocean, each of the six programmes features a different event set in one of the world's most iconic wildernesses.
The series, which is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, begins on Wednesday (February 11), at 9pm, on BBC One.
The characters include tiny grizzly bear cubs emerging from their den in snow-covered mountains; baby elephants struggling to survive during a drought in Africa; humpback whales hunting as a team; the world's largest concentration of dolphins and sharks gathering off the coast of South Africa; and polar bear families navigating their precarious way on ever-thinning ice.
"It's been a fascinating series to film, and I'm sure audiences will become engrossed in these amazing natural spectacles," says series producer Karen Bass.
"Each episode shows us a very different world, and offered very different challenges for our crews. But the theme that runs throughout the series is the great events, which we reference in the title.
"We wanted to create programmes that offer the epic scale of a natural event, but also focus in enough to be able to follow the intimate lives of the individual creatures."
The world-renowned NHU used sophisticated HD cameras, cutting-edge aerial, underwater and ultra slow-motion filming techniques, to capture in great detail some of the audience's best-loved wildlife, as their lives become entwined with these dramatic events.
"As the Earth is rapidly changing, we can no longer take these great natural events for granted," she says. "By filming the events and their fluctuations, this series takes the pulse of the planet.
"When we sat down to start planning the series, we said: 'If a Martian came down to Earth and asked to be shown the planet's greatest natural spectacles, what would we show him?' We wanted the best of the best. I think that's exactly what we've produced.
"We had a very tight schedule of just two years to film the series, from start to finish, so I think the result is really quite an achievement."
The series is packed with wildlife film "firsts". For the first time on screen we see aerial footage of the migration of the mysterious Arctic narwhal whale, with its unicorn-like tusk.
And we're treated to the first HD footage of polar bears feeding on seals, struggling to survive as they hunt in broken ice.
"The sardine run was another real first," Karen says. "We filmed it with three crews in full high definition – underwater, aerial and on the surface.
"Our guys spent two years trying to film the spectacle of a shoal of sardines 15 miles long surrounded by thousands of sharks, 10,000 gannets raining down on the shoal, and a super-pod of 5,000 common dolphins hunting among the frenzy.
"The first year the sardine run didn't happen at all, and it was only in the final week of filming at the end of the second year that the world's biggest feeding frenzy finally hotted up right before their eyes.
"They did a tremendous job, capturing this amazing scene for the first time ever on film, using a revolutionary combination of a high definition helicopter mount and a boat stabilising mount – which was able to counter the movement of the waves, which has always impeded filming at sea.
"This is a technique that had previously only been used in Hollywood feature films.
Other "firsts" in the series include the sight of Cape fur seals coming ashore to snatch gannet chicks from their colony; the epic scale of the wildebeest migration from the air; grizzly bear families emerging from their dens, in snowy Alaska, filmed with gyro-stabilised cameras mounted on helicopters, and a pack of wolves attacking an adult grizzly bear in North America.
High speed cameras also film grizzly bears chasing down salmon in shallow water, showing their power and grace.
Never before seen underwater footage of bears catching salmon using their feet was garnered by producer Jeff Turner, who was brave enough to actually swim among them while they were hunting.
Jeff's heart-in-mouth paddle with grizzlies is just one of the remarkable behind-the-scenes sequences to which we are treated in a series of 10-minute "making of" shorts, which will be broadcast after each episode.
Things didn't always go according to plan, but sometimes the unexpected offered a very different natural spectacle to the one that had been planned.
"We had no idea that as we were filming in the Serengeti, the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano would erupt for the first time since 1967.
"We were lucky enough to be there, armed with HD cameras, and were able to capture some incredible eruption scenes."
High speed cameras, which capture up to 2,000 frames per second, were also used for the first time to reveal how salmon leap more than three metres through the air to clear waterfalls – and dodge the clutches of the waiting bears.
"I think viewers will be impressed by the great spectacles that we've hunted out for them," says Karen.
"It's the sort of landmark series for which the NHU has become so well-known around the world."