Natural beauty takes on a whole new meaning with the awesome Planet Earth, an 11-part BBC documentary series that made its American debut last Sunday on Discovery (see listings for upcoming episodes). The numbers behind the images — more than 2,000 days, 204 locations, 60 countries, five continents and 70 crew members — can't begin to convey the wonder of the series, which became a smash in Britain when it aired last year. So to prepare you for your global journey, here's some behind-the-scenes scoop.
1. Powerful high-def cameras go where few eyes could. "One of the benefits of high-definition," executive producer Alastair Fothergill says, "is the very powerful lens. Cameraman Mark Smith could film a snow leopard running down the cliff from almost a half mile away." The Cineflex high-def camera, in a gyro-stabilized support mounted on a helicopter, allowed aerial specialist Michael Kelem (Black Hawk Down) to fly undetected 1,500 feet above a pack of African wild dogs on the hunt while "being able to zoom all the way in to isolate a single dog."
2. This show has real survivors. Now these are tough working conditions: Earth's crew survived the world's coldest, hottest, wettest, driest, highest and lowest locations. Not to mention the ickiest. Producer Huw Cordey and his crew stood on the world's largest bat-guano mound — one covered with hundreds of thousands of roaches — in a Borneo cavern.
3. Footage includes film rarities. Among the rarely filmed wonders: thousands of migrating penguins, a hundred sailfish hunting together, polar and grizzly bear moms emerging from winter dens with newborn cubs, a deep-sea light show performed by a vampire squid, and — in a stunning example of animal courtship — male dolphins using stones to woo females.
4. Five minutes of footage can take months of patience and fortitude to capture. A cameraman spent 600 hours crouched in the jungle to film the mating dance of blue birds of paradise.
5. Nature can be temperamental. Cordey conducted several expeditions to remote areas of Guyana to film the elusive jaguar. Due to jungle flooding, the jaguar remained elusive.
6. Governments can be temperamental, too. Producers spent two years getting permission from the U.S. National Park Service to film inside New Mexico's pristine Lechuguilla cave.
7. Osama bin Laden almost mucked things up. Filmmakers had to postpone their hunt for snow leopards in Pakistan's Karakoram mountains near Afghanistan while U.S. and British troops searched for the Al Qaeda leader. "We had to wait a very frustrating year until they decided bin Laden was not there," Fothergill recalls.
8. Crews were under "do not disturb" orders. No animals were tagged or otherwise harassed during the making of this film. Even human noise was kept to a minimum so as not to interrupt the animals' natural behavior. After all, the sound of one footstep in the crusty snow could break apart a huddle of incubating male penguins.
9. There were a few close calls. A flare gun was fired to scare off a polar bear advancing on a camera crew. In Namibia, jackals kept the crew from visiting latrines at night.
10. You won't see some of the grislier scenes. While viewers will see amazing footage of a great white shark surfacing to grab a seal, and a crocodile snatching a wildebeest, other images were deemed unsuitable for family viewing. So when a pride of lions takes down an elephant, much of the carnage has been edited out.
11. Local talent was hired. New Guinea tribesmen and Mongolian trackers assisted photographers in the search for birds of paradise and Bactrian camels, respectively.
12. Some tales are stranger than science fiction. What makes some ants go crazy? A fungus parasite that attacks the brain.
13. Even trees require perseverance. Remote time-lapse cameras were kept running for an entire year to capture one 50-second shot that shows a woodland in Europe passing from spring through winter.
14. You'll feel the heat. "If you see a polar bear struggling on melting sea ice," Fothergill says, "you can't not be emotionally engaged."
15. Coming soon: Earth, the movie. Due in theaters next fall, the documentary, shot simultaneously with the series, follows the migrations of three mothers — a polar bear, a humpback whale and an elephant — and their offspring. Think An Inconvenient Truth with paws, fins and trunks.
Check out this video preview of Discovery's Planet Earth.