Vetstreet Exclusive: The Making of Discovery's New Documentary Series, "Frozen Planet"

Discovery Channel/BBC
A pod of orcas break through Antarctric sea ice in a Frozen Planet scene.

Amid the warm breezes of early spring, it's easy to forget that a good portion of our world exists in a perpetual deep chill.

A four-years-in-the-making coproduction from the BBC and the Discovery Channel, Frozen Planet, which debuts on Sunday, will showcase never-before-seen footage of such stunning Arctic and Antarctic landscapes — and the cute animals who inhabit them.

The filmmakers took to land, air and sea (we're talking under ice) to capture such rare scenes as a team of killer whales creating waves to wash a seal off an ice floe.

Penguins and Whales and Reindeer Herders . . . Oh, My!

“For me, the killer whales were by far the most amazing animals we filmed,” Frozen Planet director Elizabeth White tells Vetstreet. “Their cooperative hunting is absolutely remarkable, whether hunting minke whales as a pack or the astonishing wave-washing behavior we filmed in Antarctica.”

Of course, the series also portrays the lighter side of the circle of life. White, who has a Ph.D. in marine zoology, says that her favorite funny moment involved shooting Adélie penguin chicks attempting to take that first plunge into the frigid ocean.

“It could take up to two days for the chicks to build up the courage to get in,” says White, who discovered that, once the leap was made, more skills needed mastering. “Baby Adélies take to the water in a totally ungraceful way, doing a sort of doggy paddle while shouting encouragement to each other. It was absolutely adorable — and utterly hilarious!”

Discovery Channel/BBC/© Jeff Wilson
Cameraman Mark Smith is surrounded by thousands of Adélie penguins.

Producers for the seven-part series took plenty of time to get their shots, accumulating 2,356 days in the field in conditions as cold as ‐58°F, hovering over wolves in helicopters and hanging out with reindeer in Russia.

“We filmed with Dolgan reindeer herders in Siberia,” says White. “The reindeer have the softest, warmest fur, and they're real gentle characters.”

According to White, when the reindeer deplete the food supply in a given area, “the herders round a few up using lassos, and then the reindeer tow a convoy of huts called Baloks to new feeding grounds.”

Close Encounters of the Arctic Kind

White also worked on shoots of beluga, killer and bowhead whales for the series — the latter of which she found fascinating and unsettling.

“There was the odd moment when a big nose would push boats out of the way, which was pretty unnerving. But the nicest thing about them was their ‘song.' ”  

To eavesdrop on mothers communicating with their calves, the team slipped underwater microphones below the ice. “The calls were so bizarre,” says White, who describes them as “a squeaky string quartet with bellowing base notes, all bouncing and echoing under the ceiling of sea ice.”

As fun and exciting as the process of filming Frozen Planet sounds, there were also dangerous aspects. The “Making Of” episode details some of these instances, like close encounters with hungry polar bears and seals.

One dangerous moment you won't see? “After watching a pod of killer whales hunt down and kill a 10-meter-long minke whale, myself and the cameramen looked at each other and decided unanimously that we weren’t getting in the water,” says White. “There was no way that we were going to get between them and dinner!”

Frozen Planet, narrated by actor Alec Baldwin, premieres Sunday, March 18, at 8:00 P.M. ET. The series will air on Sundays through April 15 on the Discovery Channel.

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