How 'Planet Earth' Works

The Dangers of Filming

A polar bear faces off with a walrus.
A polar bear faces off with a walrus.

Filming wildlife and nature can be dangerous business. Poisonous plants, predatory animals and harsh weather were just a few of the dangers the "Planet Earth" production faced. Getting the shot is important, but keeping everyone safe from harm is paramount.

Walruses may look like the teddy bears of the deep, but they can actually be pretty ferocious. Walruses feed on seals, and their method of killing them is to squeeze the seal and gorge it with their tusks. Cameraman Doug Anderson ignored the fears of his local guide and hopped into the water with the walruses. His mistake was not checking behind him. A mother walrus struck him on the head from behind and swam away before coming back for more. Doug hit back this time, jamming his camera into her side. This must have scared her, as she left again for good with one lucky and dazed cameraman in her wake.

Researcher Jeff Wilson accompanied a camera crew to Borneo to film the flying lemur, or colugo. When they stopped to shoot, Wilson put his hand on a light stand and was bitten by a pit viper, one of the most poisonous snakes on the planet. Locals rushed him by boat and car to the nearest hospital -- nearly 25 miles away. The fact that he was bitten on the hand and was able to remain calm may have saved his life.

The crew filming wild pumas in Chile got quite a scare when they realized they were being approached by a protective mother. The puma crept slowly on her belly toward them, a sign that an attack may be forthcoming. The two-man team stuck close together to appear larger and more intimidating. There was also pepper spray on hand just in case. They were able to wait out the puma by staying calm and allowing her to check them out from a safe distance.

The high-altitude team shooting Mount Everest had a close call when a Nepali engineer's oxygen supply failed. At that altitude, a lack of oxygen can bring on a potentially fatal form of altitude sickness called hypoxia. The engineer's hands and fingers trembled and his eyes rolled back in his head -- not a good sign. When he became unresponsive, the co-pilot leapt into action and tried to share his oxygen before realizing his tank had failed as well. The pilot then dropped 10,000 feet in 10 seconds in an emergency descent that one producer described as "unbelievably painful and frightening." The engineer was shaken up, but lucky not to suffer any permanent injury.

In southern India, a crew filming smooth-coated river otters got caught up in some human danger. The "bandit king" Veerappan was notorious in the area and said to be responsible for more than 120 murders. For 30 years he stole, kidnapped, poached and smuggled his way into becoming one of the most wanted men in the country. As it turned out, two of his captured men had just been condemned to death, and it was rumored that Veerappan was looking to kidnap the BBC team as hostages. The crew worked during daylight with armed guards for a period, and then were told that it would be best if they left altogether -- which they did. Their camp was attacked a few days later and in 2004, Veerappan was captured and killed.

In the next section, we'll look at some of the shots the crew got just in the nick of time.