'Our Planet' Nature Documentary Addresses The 800-Pound Gorilla — Human Impact

Apr 15, 2019
Originally published on April 15, 2019 8:28 pm

Our Planet is the kind of nature show where every image could be a screen saver: sweeping, dramatic landscapes are full of colorful animals.

But among the high-definition scenes of lions on the hunt, there are some images you don't often see in these kinds of shows. Tropical reefs bleach into white bone-scapes; glaciers crumble into Arctic seas. In one particularly noteworthy sequence, confused walruses plummet off a cliff to their deaths — a phenomenon that the show links to climate change and the decline of the walrus' preferred habitat of sea ice.

Series producer Alastair Fothergill was responsible for some of the most high-profile nature documentaries of the last decade: Planet Earth, Blue Planet, Frozen Planet. In an interview, he says that it has previously been difficult to include environmental messaging in prime-time, mass-audience programming — and even so, that Our Planet is careful to show where earth is still very healthy, or has bounced back.

But while other nature programs might make passing reference to the impact of humans, that narrative is at the center of Our Planet.

"We decided way back, actually in 2012, that the time had come to try and do a series which would be as entertaining and as accessible as series like Planet Earth — but for the first time deal in depth with the challenges that our planet faces," Fothergill says. "There's no doubt that it is seriously under threat. And we felt that it was a story that urgently needed telling now."

The eight-part series, narrated by David Attenborough, is now streaming on Netflix.

Interview Highlights

On planning a project of this scale and rarity

Alastair Fothergill is the producer of Our Planet.

We spent a whole year planning: talking to scientists, talking to conservationists, deciding on our stories. And then we filmed over three years, and we spend a record 3,500 days in the field. To give you an idea, that means every final minute of the show you watch, we spent 10 days in the field. ...

But we were very specific. Although the animals don't read the script, we have a very, very organized and planned script and we knew exactly the narrative that we wanted to tell. ... What is very important to us is that each individual episode tell a bigger story about each individual habitat. Because what's very interesting is the challenges to the habitats, the threats to the habitats and the solutions to those habitats differ, depending on whether it's the open ocean, the tropical forest or the coniferous forest.

On capturing the Siberian tiger in the wild

I think the Siberian tiger is a wonderful achievement. It's the first intimate images of these amazing cats in the wild. And to give you a sense of how difficult it was, over two winters, three cameramen were literally locked away inside wooden hides. They didn't come out for six weeks. Everything you need to do to survive, they did inside the small box. And they worked for two winters. They got one single shot of a wild Siberian tiger. At the same time, we had in about 40 motion-control cameras — remote cameras that are set off by the moving animal. And again, the first winter we got nothing really. We got lynx going past, other animals of the forest. But over that period we began to see the movements of the tigers, how they were moving in that area. And the second season we got 36 precious, precious images. For me, it's a wonderfully emblematic sequence of a wonderfully rare, wild, iconic species of the boreal forest.

A Siberian tiger is caught on camera in the boreal forests of Russia's Pacific Coast.
Kieran O'Donovan / Netflix

On the images the show missed

You know, failure is my job, and we failed a lot. Often to get the sequence, we'd go one season — as I described the Siberian tiger — back and back and back. And yes, there are things that we still have to do and still have to film — which is great, because I've still got the life in me.

On the forest sequence in Madagascar

The patch of forest where we were filming was destroyed by the end of our filming period, yes. It was desperately, desperately sad. I mean, you know, Madagascar is a poor country. There's a lot of pressure; people need land. But the traditional forest — there's only 3 percent left. It's got so many precious, precious animals there. We really need to help those people to preserve the lemurs and all the wonderful forests that they live in.

On the forest sequence in Chernobyl

Thirty-three years ago, of course, famously the [nuclear] reactor at Chernobyl exploded. It was probably the greatest environmental disaster in living memory. And 30 years later, we ... go back and amazingly, the forest, the resilient forest, has overtaken Chernobyl. It's a green oasis now. And because people can't go there for very long because of the radiation — it's dangerous for us to stay there for a long period — it's been left alone.

And we found that an enormous variety of animals had returned, including the wolf. The wolf is an apex predator. The wolves are only there if beneath it, there's a very, very healthy community. And we now know that there are seven times more wolves in the Chernobyl exclusion zone than anywhere else in Eastern Europe. And the key point — and it's very important in our series to remind people — [is] that nature is resilient. And if we give it space, if we work together to preserve it, it can bounce back. And Chernobyl is a wonderful example of that.

Gustavo Contreras and Dave Blanchard produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon edited it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
At a fairground within Ukraine's Chernobyl exclusion zone, a birch forest has emerged decades after a nuclear reactor accident forced the abandonment of the area.
Jeff Wilson / Silverback/Netflix


At the Supreme Court today, the issue was bad language. Specifically, can the government refuse to grant trademark protection for brand names that include profanity? The immediate problem for the court was how to discuss the issue without using the actual words - how to discuss the F-word, for instance, without actually saying the F-word, which is a challenge that NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg faces in this report.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: At the center of the case is a casual clothing line marketed under the name F-U-C-T. You can pronounce it yourself. The line, designed by Erik Brunetti, is mainly hoodies, loose pants, shorts and T-shirts all with those letters prominently displayed. Brunetti opened his line in 1990 aimed at 20-somethings. He's been trying since then to get his brand, FUCT, trademarked so that he can go after copycats.

ERIK BRUNETTI: Go to eBay, and you'll see lots of counterfeits. Or go to Amazon. You'll see a lot - lots of counterfeits.

TOTENBERG: In short, he says, the knockoffs are costing him money.

BRUNETTI: If I win, I will pursue the counterfeiters to stop them from making my product.

TOTENBERG: The U.S. government Patent and Trademark Office, however, has consistently turned him down, contending that those letters violate the federal statute that bars trademark protection for immoral, shocking, offensive and scandalous words. Brunetti's case got a boost two years ago when the Supreme Court ruled that an Asian-American band calling itself The Slants could not be denied trademark protection because it used a disparaging term.

Dealing with the brand name FUCT proved a bit more daunting in the Supreme Court chamber today. Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart referred to it as, quote, "a profane past-participle form of a well-known word of profanity and perhaps the paradigmatic word of profanity in our language." The government, he maintained, can deny trademark protection for that word. The justices pointed to a chart showing which terms had been granted trademarks by the government and which had not. Most are not suitable for a general audience. Suffice to say that while FUCT did not win trademark approval, FCUK did, and so did the well-known brand FUBAR. The word crap was registered in a trademark name 70 times, but the S-word was consistently denied.

So, Justice Ginsburg asked, how does the Trademark Office define what is scandalous, shocking or offensive? Do 20-year-olds generally find FUCT to be shocking or scandalous? Probably not, conceded the government's Stewart. But he said the term would still be shocking or offensive to a substantial segment of the population. Justice Gorsuch pointed to the chart, declaring that it was hard to see why certain trademarks with dirty words were approved and others were denied.

Justice Alito asked what would happen when really dirty words were at issue. And how about racial slurs, asked Justice Breyer. Those are more like swear words. They're insults that sting and are remembered by those who were targeted. Stewart replied that because of the court's decision in The Slants' case, most racial slurs are now approved. But as for the most offensive slur, the N-word, for now, it's still out.

Representing FUCT designer Brunetti, lawyer John Sommer didn't have an easy time either. Justice Breyer - why doesn't the government have the right to say you can use this language in your brand name, but the government doesn't want to be associated with it by granting trademark protection? What I'm worried about, he said, is that if a racial slur is trademarked, it will appear as a product name on every bus where it's advertised. It'll be on newsstands where children and others will see it. That's not the audience Mr. Brunetti is appealing to, replied lawyer Sommer. Chief Justice Roberts - but that may not be the only audience he reaches.

Lawyer Sommer returned to the language of the statute, arguing that if offensiveness is the standard for turning down a trademark, Steak 'n Shake can't be registered either because, quote, "a substantial portion of Americans believe that eating beef is immoral." A decision in the case is expected by summer.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.