As the May issue of Popular Mechanics landed in subscribers’ mailboxes, cinemas around the country were admitting audiences to one of the most extraordinary wildlife films ever produced, the visually spectacular One Life. Produced by BBC Earth Films and narrated by British actor Daniel Craig, this groundbreaking natural history documentary uses specially developed equipment and filming techniques to show animals at critical moments in their lives. Here we introduce some of its leading characters.
For starters, One Life is unlike any other natural history documentary: it’s intimate, high on drama and unashamedly emotional, with beautiful sequences that celebrate animal behaviour and ingenuity. As its creators tell it: “There are moments to make you gasp in awe, stare in wonder, laugh and cry.”
In essence, the film celebrates the 3,8 billion-year-old story of life and survival on the third rock from the Sun Ã± and not every chapter has a happy ending. You’ll meet a frog no bigger than a human fingernail, watch a group of 40-ton humpback whales battling for supremacy and witness the epic journey of a tiny poison arrow frog as it scales an impossibly tall tree to feed its tadpoles in the canopy.
Meanwhile, tucked away in her shadowy cave, an octopus mother makes the ultimate sacrifice: she’s cared for her eggs over many weeks while she slowly starves. Her final glimpse is of her eggs hatching and hundreds of baby octopi swimming away. C’est la vie.
As the young grow, they confront the lifelong search for food, and the film shows different species that have come up with amazing solutions. Cheetahs have discovered the power of working as a team; Capuchin monkeys have worked out a series of steps – and included tools in their strategies – to gather and manipulate palm nuts. It’s a fascinating and amazingly time-consuming skill: they spend up to eight years teaching their young the essential skills – stripping off the outer shell, drying the nut in the sun and using a boulder ‘hammer’ carried from the river bed to crush the nut on an anvil-like rock.
Some creatures have a ‘killer’ advantage in the hunt for food, among them the venomous Komodo dragon: one bite, and even a large water buffalo is destined for a slow, painful death. In the hunt for food, some animals have developed near-miraculous means of escaping Ã± such as running on water, like the quaintly named Jesus Christ lizard, or making their bodies impact-proof, like the pebble toad. And in the struggle for supremacy, snow monkeys have created societies that uncomfortably mirror aspects of human society, shunning outsiders from their luxurious hot springs.
Say Michael Gunton and Martha Holmes, who co-wrote and directed the film: “With the filming technology available to us now, we can get our cameras into places that give new and high impact perspectives on the drama of animal survival. We wanted to fly, run, swim, hunt and fight alongside our animal stars, letting the audience feel they are right there with the animals, experiencing the drama of their everyday lives.”
It was the perfect time to make such a film, say the directors Ã± partly because the breakthrough in HD technology with new high-speed and time-lapse photography meant they could film the most extreme and extraordinary animal behaviour for the first time in the most exquisite detail.
“It was also because as we enter the third millennium and understand more and more about the way animals live and survive, we’re also understanding more and more clearly that many of the animals in this film are endangered and this may be one of the last opportunities we have left to show the world the complexities and wonders of their lives.”
More than four years in the making, and spanning habitats on every continent, One Life features a number of significant ‘firsts’. In fact, almost every story features an animal filmed for the first time, a new behaviour or a new filming technique applied to a familiar animal. The breakthroughs included:
– The use of super-high speed cameras, revealing hitherto unseen aspects of the animals’ behaviour. For example, this allowed them to film sailfish attacking a baitball. Sailfish swim so fast that it is virtually impossible to see how they catch fish; by slowing down the action 80 times, their technique is revealed.
– The development of a new piece of equipment dubbed the yogicam, whereby the stabilised camera normally used for filming aerial shots is mounted on a counterbalanced arm in an off-road vehicle and used for tracking alongside animals.
In this way, the crew were able to walk with elephants, and for the first time create the feeling that the audience was in amongst the herd.
– HD Macro cameras reveal intimate details that can’t be seen with the naked eye, allowing the audience to be up close and personal with the animals as they fight for survival.
– Gems include brown tufted capuchin cracking palm nuts in super slow motion, red foxes hunting Nubian ibex, gyro-stabilised aerial shots of lammergeyer and red-billed tropicbirds in flight, three cheetahs hunting co-operatively to bring down ostriches, tracking time-lapse of the Venus flytrap, Komodo dragons hunting buffalo, an elephant shrew running in super slow motion, pebble toads bouncing down a cliff to avoid tarantulas, Darwin’s beetles fighting in the tree-tops, and the first complete sequence (including aerials, underwater and topside) of a humpback whale mating contest.
Video: BBC Earth’s One Life trailer