Behind the scenes of new BBC series “Dynasties”

Tiger protagonist Raj Bhera's adult daughter fighting a rival in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, India. Photography Theo Webb Copyright BBC NHU
21 May 2019

Every living thing on this planet has a family, but some species will fight to protect their lineage and its power more than others. Like Game of Thrones for the natural world (love and war included), BBC Earth’s latest series Dynasties follows ruling families of five different species – lions in Kenya, tigers in India, painted wolves in Zimbabwe, penguins in Antarctica and chimpanzees in Senegal – in a level of unparalleled proximity. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the series goes deep into the physical and metaphorical battles these endangered animals face for their survival against humans, climate change, other predatory animals and even their own kin.

The series’ producer Rupert Barrington has had a career in creating similar documentary for for nearly three decades yet says that Dynasties has opened his eyes to the challenges facing animals more than any other. In honor of International Day for Biological Diversity, 22 May, Landscape News spoke with Barrington on the making and meaning of this groundbreaking new series.

Series Producer Rupert Barrington. BBC Studios

You have been drawn to animals since age of 2 and then went on to study zoology. What sparked your passion for animals from such an early stage?

I was brought up in the countryside, so that was a start, and I had a grandad who was very interested in nature. When I was young, I liked bugs because I could pick them up and look at them closer. I got frustrated watching birds and mammals because you could never get that close.

Although, I think a deep interest is partly genetic. I’ve got two young kids now, and my son is obsessed by insects because he’s grown up in an environment where I’ve shown him things, and while I’ve raised my daughter with the same upbringing, she’s not as interested. So I think there must be something in your genes that makes you inclined. But it was something I was interested in as far back as I can remember.

How did you find and choose the families to follow in Dynasties?

It started with a list of animals we thought any of which might be the right one, in terms of being a large animal and relatively popular. We knew that if we were going to follow these animals in the detail we wanted, catching them in the rare moments of their lives, they needed to be well studied and well followed by scientists over many years, so they’re used to having people around. That was key – to jump into their lives, be physically close to them and know all about them. And it’s also about their environment, that they lived in beautiful places and had lots of other animals around them.

And it was also important to understand those individuals and know their backstories. So if we follow chimpanzees, we know who David the chimp is related to, who his friends are, his enemies, the young contenders for his crown. That background information was vital and having teams from day-one who could interpret what any particular specie behavior meant. So that meant linking up with scientific groups, which immediately honed the list right down, because there are not many of these big animals studied and followed that intensely.

The Southern Lights (aurora australis) over the Emperor penguin colony in spring. Atka Bay, Antarctica. Photograph copyright Stefan Christmann

Each family was filmed over the course of two years. How did this affect the filmmaking team, in terms of getting attached to the animals?

My team was out in the field more than I was. There’s no doubt that in following those animals closely and for so long, they got more attached than anybody I’ve ever seen making a wildlife film before. They saw them day after day after day, watching the trials and tribulations the animals went through.

Aside from penguins, which were in a colony, the team was following individual animals, and you can’t help but make a connection. Certainly when you had something like the lion being poisoned or David being injured, that was a really emotional moment for the team. The poisoning came out of the blue. David being attacked didn’t come out of the blue, but it was a more severe attack than might have been expected. For all the films, there was a very strong attachment. There were times when there were some quite upset people on the team.

And yourself?

I went on a shoot for the U.K. version of the series where Sir David Attenborough introduces each program and introduces the series. We went to Mana Pools national park in Zimbabwe, the location for the episode on the family of painted wolves. The film was pretty much edited by then, and it’s an amazing story, so it was quite a big moment to see them, knowing that those were the wolves that have been through this extraordinary story, the survivors. That was quite an emotional moment.

The pack of painted wolves cross into lion pridelands where they will live in exile for almost a year after being banished from their own lands by a different pack. Photography copyright Nick Lyon 2018

Through this series and other series on which you’ve worked, you’ve spent a lot of your career in some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the world. What does time in nature mean to you?

I have a very deep feeling for nature. It’s where I’m most relaxed and at home, away from the crowds and out in the wild. I can’t really describe this. Going out to these places is an extraordinary experience, and we tend to go off the beaten path even when we go to well-visited countries and see places people normally don’t see. It’s always quite a deep experience to get away from humanity and see nature as it really is.

Is there a readjustment period when you go back to everyday life?

It’s interesting, and I think many of my colleagues would say the same thing. When you go on one of these shoots, because they’re so demanding and intense, all you think about is filming. You have two parallel lives. You shut down your home life – that stops when you go away. But I find it’s easy when you go back as well; you shut down the filming part of your life, and that’s finished, and you pick up where you left off with your own life. I find I compartmentalize in quite an extreme way to make that work. They don’t bleed into one another very much.

As you mentioned, the series focuses on species of animals that people tend to really like. Why was specie popularity important?

One element people watch this for is to be entertained, and part of that is an emotional connection with the animal. So the thinking there was that if we’re going to ask the audience to stick with an animal for 50 minutes, they need to like the animal, and that limits things.

But what came out of the filming to us, and what we hope came out of the series as well, is that these big animals are running out of space. They need big amounts of space, and when their territories are reduced and humans start crossing those boundaries, it makes the animals’ lives so much more challenging. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg, because if they’re limited in space, then any other animal in that area is also being limited. So in a sense, the animals we captured are a metaphor for everything they’re just so clear and on the surface and big that you really see the impacts of habitats being reduced. They are fully symbolic animals.

Sienna, one of the lions featured in the series, suffered serious injuries and couldn’t keep up with the rest of the pride. Photograph Simon Blakeney copyright BBC NHU 2018

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) recently released a report saying that 1 million species are at risk of extinction. What was your reaction to the report’s findings?

In a way, it’s not a surprise at all. I made a series in 1999 with David (Attenborough) called State of the Planet where we interviewed a lot of the world’s leading biodiversity scientists, like E.O. Wilson, about the scale of the species at risk of extinction. It was very clear even then. But it’s a sharper tool, I think, to put a well-researched figure of 1 million on this problem – the sixth extinction – and I hope that it will cut through more than it ever has before.

What can humans learn from watching these animals?

What really struck me, and what I hope comes through even at a subconscious level, is that even in a perfect natural environment, people see just how hard life is for these animals. Being at the top of the food chain doesn’t make animals’ lives easy. Tigers, lions, chimps – they have really, really difficult lives, and when they start losing territory and interacting with humans, those lives are made all the harder.

An understanding and fresh take on what life is like for these animals – I hope people will take that from the series. Compared to our lives, these animals are very far apart, because we’ve removed most of the difficulties – at least in the Western world – that these animals we filmed face. We don’t have predators anymore. Our lives are so separated from the challenges that confront animals in nature, and perhaps that’s a useful perspective to have.

What did you learn in making the series?

I think more than anything, making this series has honed my perception of the challenges these animals face, which are a metaphor for everything. You really see there are boundaries on their worlds, and the walls are closing in. I think my focus on the problems all biodiversity are facing has been really sharpened while making Dynasties.

A young male chimp, soon to enter the local hierarchy in which he will have to compete with all the other adult males. Senegal, West Africa. Photography Rosie Thomas copyright BBC NHU


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