Nature documentaries are stunning highlight reels—"greatest hits" compilations of Earth's beauty. And beauty is easy to take for granted in a documentary series like Planet Earth II, which will debut on BBC America on February 18. Filmed in 4K resolution and featuring lightweight stabilization technology (MoVI and DJI Ronin), Planet Earth II will provide a luxurious look at some of the most difficult-to-explore, wild areas of the planet. But the camerawork and editing—so seamless, drifting from spectacular visual to spectacular visual—belie the effort it took to film this series.
Take, for example, the Komodo dragons sequence, which cameraman Mark MacEwen shot for the premiere "Islands" episode. The footage lasts five minutes of a 60-minute episode, and it features two male dragons fighting a vicious battle over a female.
"That was one of those things that probably took three and a half weeks of pure dedication," said MacEwen in an interview with Motherboard. "You need to get that perfect storm of things coinciding at the same time."
MacEwen and his team visited the island of Komodo during the dragons' mating season in hopes of capturing a fight on film. The island's scientists guided this search effort; there are a little under 2,000 dragons roaming the island, but the scientists, some of whom have been working on the island for years, know the creatures by name.
"Without these amazing scientists, the whole thing would have been impossible," said MacEwen. "Just trying to identify male or female dragons with an untrained eye is incredibly hard."
Females are on the smaller side, whereas males tend to be larger. A male's size can vary; on average, a male dragon is 8-9 feet long and 154 pounds, although the largest dragon on record was over 10 feet long and weighed over 350 pounds. And because of that variance, there was no guarantee of a showdown, even if two males did meet up while MacEwen's camera was running. A smaller dragon knew his limits; he wouldn't pick a fight with a larger male that he could not win.
For me to open the bathroom door and see a six-foot dragon? It scared my pants off.
And so, the search continued for days, from sunrise to sunset. At 5:00AM, the boat would drop MacEwen and his crew off on Komodo's shore, and at 7:30PM, the boat would pick them up. That's over 14 hours in an environment that could get as hot as 105°F.
There were a couple of rooms on the island where MacEwen and his crew could stay overnight if need be. And it was in one of these rooms that MacEwen got a nasty surprise from a Komodo dragon, who snuck into the bathroom and lounged on the cool, tiled floor while the crew was out filming. The BBC later uploaded the clip online, where it went viral.
"During the heat of the day, that room was our refuge," laughed MacEwen. "For me to open the bathroom door and see a six-foot dragon? It scared my pants off."
Filming the dragons was cautious work. Although Komodo dragons do not actively seek out humans, there have been attacks in the past. In 2007, a Komodo dragon attacked an eight-year-old boy who was going to the bathroom behind a bush. He died from massive bleeding—the first fatal attack on a human in 33 years. In 2009, a 31-year-old man fell out of a tree while picking apples, and he was fatally attacked by two dragons. So, as a precaution, up to six rangers accompanied MacEwen at any given time, armed with forked sticks to prod the dragon away.
"They were times when the dragons would take an interest in me," recalled MacEwen. "And there were times when the dragons would be logs, and they wouldn't even acknowledge my movement or presence."
"Komodo dragons are ambush predators, and it's easy to get lulled into a false sense of security," continued MacEwen. "And then suddenly, one of them moves explosively. Huge claws, armor-plated skin—I mean, it's pretty much the ultimate predator. It's an absolutely amazing creature."
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Mark MacEwen's surname.