In late 2018, BBC Earth aired their newest David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary series, Dynasties. BBC America shall soon (on Saturday, Jan. 16) bring this incredible viewing experience across the pond, and you’ve never seen anything quite like this natural history production. That’s because the folks behind Planet Earth II, including executive producer Mike Gunton, went all in to top themselves with a truly immersive experience. For years, Gunton’s crews followed specific families from five endangered species — lions, chimpanzees, tigers, painted wolves (African wild dogs), and emperor penguins — during pivotal periods in which their survival was at stake.
The cameras eventually emerged to tell these animals’ stories in extraordinarily vivid detail while saluting leaders and heroes through tragedy and triumph. Viewers will watch a pride of lions confront an unyielding series of threats, including a white-knuckle attack (on one lion by 20 hyenas), which is heartbreaking to witness but arrives with an ultimately life-affirming ending. Additionally, an alpha chimpanzee struggles to maintain his power against rivals, both a tigress and a painted wolf navigate potentially deadly family feuds, and a massive dynasty of penguins endure the cruelest winter on Earth. Gunton was gracious enough to speak with us at length about the rewarding experiences of making and watching Dynasties.
This is definitely a more intense viewing experience than Planet Earth II. It’s more intimate, and you really get to know these families. What are your hopes for how an American audience will respond?
Well, I hope they’ll feel like you do. It’s a very intense, very truthful, very revealing experience, and a different experience because by adopting this approach, apart from I think appealing to that kind of dramatic structure that we have — documentaries do have a dramatic form to them — that they’ll see the natural world in a different way and probably a more realistic way because by doing it like this, you show the real warts and all the triumphs and the tragedy that actually happen in the natural world. But you couldn’t have written a script that had more twists and turns, and that just goes to the old adage that the truth is stranger than fiction. I think that people are going to have to work and invest in it, but the rewards will be enormous, I think. And unique.
You previously said that you pitched this series as possible Shakespearean drama. How do you feel about how that worked out?
I pitched it that way because it was about families, and the inevitable power struggles that happen in families are in so many of Shakespeare’s plays. I hoped that given time, and the right casting and the right research, we knew that we were going to join these families when they were about to face some kind of turmoil. If we followed them carefully enough, and in enough detail, you would get a sense that this is what Shakespeare would have written.
Well, there are plenty of tragic moments to discuss, but you also noted that there would be comedic moments and uplifting moments. I loved when the painted wolves looked after their injured family member. Did you have any favorite uplifting moments of your own?
This is why these are such roller coasters. There are moments of trials, but at the end of each [episode], some kind of equilibrium is reached, and peace returns to the world they live in. Of course, every one finishes with the phrase, “For now.” Because at any one moment, they might be in some kind of peaceful spaces, but always the next day might kick off a whole new drama. It’s a challenge, and the series reflects that. But in terms of moments, obviously the birth of the cubs at the end of the lions’ film is a great moment. When David [the chimp] regains his kingship, and K.L. and he come together, and they almost hold hands, and then they groom each other — it’s a very tender, uplifting moment. When the female penguin won’t give up, she makes it over the edge of the valley. She’s using her feet to haul herself up, and she’s still got her chick on her feet, that’s a great moment. That’s almost like the snakes-and-iguana moment [in Planet Earth II] where the iguana escapes, you cheer at that moment. And when Raj Bhera comes back in the tiger film. You realize she’s still there, and she’s still got her chance to bring her cubs to adulthood, and she has that strength and determination. That’s one of the things that comes out of this — despite all these challenges and all these setbacks, the sort-of fire inside these animals. The fight to survive and to prevail is unquestionable. They will not give up. That in itself is very life-affirming.
You mentioned the penguin episode, so I want to touch on this. When it aired in the U.K., as you know, viewers grew very emotional after crew members gave the birds a chance to save themselves. Were you surprised by that reaction?
I wasn’t, actually. We talked to the U.K. press about it before they’d seen it. There were some comments about restrictive interference. I didn’t think we had interfered. We had intervened, there’s a slight difference. Imagine having a conversation where I was telling you that we’d witnessed this, and we could have intervened, and we just stood by and callously watched these creatures as they perished. By intervening, we weren’t changing the world, and we weren’t depriving an animal from its food. We weren’t upsetting the balance of nature in any way. That would have would have been a much harder conversation for me to defend. The great British public, and the global public so far, 99.9999 percent, absolutely, supported it and said they would have done the same thing. I talked to David about it, and he said, “Yeah, I would have done the same thing.” The idea that this is a rule, the “thou shalt not interfere,” is constructed by a purist approach. Every situation is different, and you have to assess every situation on its merits. [The reaction] reinforced how invested people were in these stories, and how they imagined themselves witnessing these stories. In some ways, it actually verified the success of this series to get people to understand the plight of these creatures. They weren’t [simply] observing it, they were feeling it, and they were understanding it better for that.
Your crews followed these animals for years, and I imagine they could have roughly anticipated when to film seasonal events like the wildebeest migration.
But how on earth did they capture the hyena scene? Was that simply by chance?
Oh, one of the benefits of spending this amount of time is that those sort-of serendipitous moments do occur, but again, how you reduce your odds there is that what happens with the lions, for example, is that those males were at a point in their lives where they’re like teenage boys. They’re going out and taking risks and beginning to stretch their wings, so we knew that when they were out and about that interesting stuff would happen because they’d be exploring the world and getting themselves into scrapes. They got into scrapes with hippos and with each other and it was fortuit- well, fortuitous isn’t quite the right word.
[Laughs] Nooo, it probably isn’t!
Well, that’s what happened. That male, Red, thought he was stronger and tougher and braver and bigger than he was. And he made the fateful mistake of getting himself into the wrong place at the wrong time and got surrounded by those hyenas. If Tattoo hadn’t come to his rescue, I think he would have been killed. And that’s one of the things about the series. We sort of made a pact with the audience that we would tell them the realities even if it’s not always a happy story, and if he had died, we would have shown that, but as it turned out, we were lucky, and Tattoo appeared. It’s interesting, the second there were two lions, the odds completely changed because, poor old Red, the reason that he was in trouble is that before he could bite one hyena then another hyena could come up, and what they were trying to do is bite him in his tender underparts, so that he would bleed. That’s why he spent the whole time sort-of crouched down, to try and protect his rear. But as soon as another male comes, you’ve got basically two heads facing out, so they hyenas knew they weren’t going to get much done, so they left him.
The structure of each episode gives the crew time to react. Especially with the lions, you could see how visibly affected they were by the events that transpired. How important was it to you to include that aspect?
It was essential because often we do these “making ofs,” the behind-the-scenes segments at the end of all our programs, and it tends to follow a format, where we show how we make these programs (what cameras we use, how tricky it was to do that). And it would have been tempting to do a “making of” like that for this series because of course there were technical challenges and environmental challenges, particularly in Antarctica. But because of the nature of the show and because we invested such a long time being with these animals, so that we could understand them and therefore could explain and show the audience their lives in a bigger context so that they could understand. It was really important to show the audience that it’s okay to be affected, to be caught up in this drama, because we, the observers first hand, actually got caught up in it. And that’s human nature. I think the crew actually acted as a little bit of a conduit, to allow people to feel intense emotion about what had happened. That’s unusual, and I’m very glad that we did. It made a huge impact, and it allowed us to deal with how animals come face to face with humanity, and [this method] allowed us to confront that head-on. Some of the reasons for what you see happen is because of the world these animals live in today, they can’t escape interaction with humanity, and not to their benefit.
These animals are so well-known in the series that the crew knows them by name. Did you envision that as part of the necessary process, or did it unfold organically?
It’s very important [to note] that the crew did not name the animals because that would have been a step too far. I think it was very clear that the animals were all named by the people who studied them. I think that if we had named them, I would have been very uncomfortable about that. I believe that’s stepping over a line of over-involvement and start to feel like the hand of the filmmaker is starting to impose or control how the story unfolds. The fact that these animals were named and identified and studied by scientists or field guides — they named them, for very practical reasons. It’s much easier to say a specific name rather than Male Alpha 442. So we just adopted those names because it’s a very easy way to identify them but also because to anyone who knows these animals in the flesh, that’s how they’re referred to.
Going forward, what effect do you hope that Dynasties will have on how humans coexist with endangered species?
I think it’s always tricky to know that because these programs have a particular place in culture — the transmission of information. Part of our job is to reveal the realities of the natural world. One of the things that I’m very pleased about is that it has shown how the competition for space is a tricky thing, a very dry thing to get over to people, yet how vivid it is when you actually see it through the eyes of an animal. How it’s going to effectively mean the difference between success and failure, between life and death. [Yet] we didn’t set out to tell those stories. We set out to tell a lion story, a chimp story. And by spending so much time with them telling the truth about the modern world, it was inevitable that we’d eventually bump into an environmental story, and so it proved to be. It feels so natural, not like we’re being polemic and trying to sell a story. It feels true and real, and it’s powerful, and the reaction back home has been very intense, and people got very excited about it on social media. And who knows what impact it could have long term because you couldn’t possibly argue about how we didn’t raise it as an issue through a very clear, connectable context — through the eyes of an individual animal whose life will be affected by this.
‘Dynasties’ premieres Saturday, January 19 at 9 pm EST on BBC America. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.