The Blue Planet Live!
by Jen Drake
A strong drink was what I needed. I lightly jumped from the Pierce Transit bus and meandered down Seattle’s Union Ave towards Benaroya Hall in search of a cheap drink. One quick Mojito and a few blocks later I seated myself in row BB4 to read the musical notes of Seattle Symphony’s “The Blue Planet Live! A Natural History of the Oceans” composed and conducted by George Fenton and narrated by NPR celebrity Frank Corrado.
George Fenton, guest conductor, is famously known for writing and conducting the musical scores for “The Fisher King,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Ghandi,” and “Cry Freedom.” Others include “Ground Hog day,” and “Anna and the King,” amongst others. His score for Planet Earth won an Emmy and Best Soundtrack at the Classical Brit Awards in 2007. Frank Corrado, narrator and NPR celebrity, has been acting for 30 years, ranging in roles from the Kings, princes, and clowns of Shakespeare to performing Donald Rumsfeld in “Stuff Happens.”
Now on a World tour, the “Blue Planet Live!” is a fascinating film sequence of BBC’s tele series, “The Blue Planet.” The sequences were edited for the big screen, accompanied by a full orchestra, not unlike an old black and white film of Charlie Chaplin’s—minus the flailing body parts and Grandma’s pump organ. “Blue Planet Live!” toured the UK in 2006, conducted by George Fenton in Manchester, Newcastle, and Nottingham in three critically acclaimed shows. The tour continued in 2008 with dates at Wembley Arena, Nottingham Arena, Manchester Central, and this year Fenton arrived at our very own Pacific Northwest venue: Benaroya Hall. For the show, some of the most spectacular sequences from the series were edited together and displayed on a huge screen above the symphony.
The challenges faced by wildlife filmmakers are to capture the essence of the moment by providing a sense of nature’s vastness. From the frolicking dolphins to the desolate thousand foot darkness, the combined photography and music must convey common human emotion and natural realities.
In the concert’s third section, a jolting reality had people around me gasping as the brutal story unfolded: a mother and baby Grey whale were attacked by a raging pack of sleek black and white Orca whales. The music brought a dark foreboding tense tone, and as the baby’s blood flew through the air and on the crests of waves, the strings took a frenzied notch up, and as the camera panned below the water’s surface to view the drowning baby, so too the high volume music receded into the dark silence.
The series was filmed in over 200 locations in a five year span. Different ocean habitats are visited, from the comfort zones of kelp forests and coral reefs to the two-mile deep darkness of an ocean floor. Besides recording and witnessing animal behaviors for the first time, the crew were helped by marine scientists all over the world with state of the art equipment. Blue whales, whose migration routes were previously unknown, were located by air after given radio tags. The camera team spent three years on standby, using a microlight to land on the water nearby when they finally caught up with the creatures in the Gulf of California. The open ocean proved difficult and over 400 days were invested in often unsuccessful filming trips. After six weeks the crew chanced upon a school of spinner dolphins, which in turn led them to a shoal of tuna. Off the Mexico coast, a flock of frigate birds guided the cameramen to a group of sailfish and marlin, the fastest inhabitants of the sea. Near the coast of Natal in South Africa, the team spent two seasons attempting to film the annual sardine run, where a huge congregation of predators, such as sharks and dolphins, feast on the migrating fish by corralling them into “bait balls.”
In the spinning dolphin scene, filmed 100 miles off of Mexico, composer and conductor George Fenton created a happy emotional state by garnering the help of two flutes, two guitars, combined with the full orchestra in a fun and lighthearted sound. Hundreds of jumping, twirling, and gliding dolphins, set to the sound of a happy plucking of flutes and guitars, had those people sitting around me smiling and seeking comfortably into their chairs.
Two sections later the film crew visited the dark abyss of an alien world, two miles under the ocean’s top. A dive boat flickers to life and sinks to the depths to record the largest migration on the planet: the bottom dwellers rise up at night to feed, shedding a cascade of rainbow jelly fish, pulsing their colors into the jet blackness, and odd creatures with no eyes and clear see-through skin all rising upwards.
One particular sequence gave a sense of being a tiny sardine being hunted. Off the coast of Africa, millions of sardines congregate and stay together in a pack, swirling in a massive funnel, over 20 feet long, like a tornado comprised of sardines. The music was jumping, rushing, racing, with drums, high flutes playing in rhythmic syncopated motions. Suddenly, dolphins and sword fish dashed into the sardine tornado, grabbing what they could, forcing the fish to rise upwards where the seagulls awaited. As the seagulls dive bombed the water, the chimes came on full force, and the camera took on an ariel view as thousands of seagulls dove into the water and came out with a mouthful of sardines. The rat-a-tat of drums signaled the arrival of sharks. Apparently, dolphins blow bubbles to create a sort of bubble wall to keep the sardines trapped, making them easier to snatch. As the rat-a-tat drums increased in pace, suddenly the scene ended with an exploding whale smashing into the sardine tornado, and the screen went blank, and the audience broke into loud clapping.
I imagine the camera person filming the gurgling tornado of fish must have been in for a shock. The camera panned in to the swirling mass of fish; suddenly, blood appears and the tornado of fish dissipates to show one fish is MIA. A swordfish jumps into the scene, and the tornado of fish suddenly swoop in on the camera, surrounding it. Suddenly, with no warning, a behemoth of a whale appears, mouth wide open, and just at the last second sees the camera and swerves. I imagine the person must have shat his or her pants as this amazing behemoth continued to swoop in and out of the swirling mass. The last scene shows the whale slowly fading into the murky blue, sinking lower and lower into the depths, until it disappeared and the violin section slowly and gently sunk to their low wailing notes as well.
Sitting there in my seat, I felt the gravity of one fact: I am but one speck in one fraction of a second in nature, and so is everything and everyone else. In Patagonia the killer whales grabbed the sea lions from the shoreline, carting them out to deeper waters and hurtling them 30+ feet into the air. Like Guantanamo, Killer Whales toss the sea lions in the air, toying, baiting, biting, torturing. The resounding smack, as the still-breathing sea lion hit the water, had hundreds of us moaning, and shocked, as the killer whales toss them about. In the South Pacific, red crabs march out Christmas day to lay their eggs in the sand, thousands marching and waving their pinchers. In the arctic, white foxes with blood on their necks from the previous kill frolic and lick one another.
Less than one thousand blue whales are left in the oceans. 70 million sharks alone are killed yearly for their fins. 100,000 marine animals and one million birds are killed by plastic waste dumped into the ocean. Scientists predict that in fifty years the polar ice cap will be gone. Two years ago while in Glacier National Park, a Ranger told me all the park’s glaciers would be gone in 20 years; we have 18 years left to view the clean ice cold blue glacial waters. The filmmakers goal in “The Blue Planet Live!” is conservation, but perhaps also recording what creatures look like now so when extinct, future generations believe they existed, unlike Barney the Dinosaur or Rainbow Brite unicorns. The ocean isn’t just a vast bucket of salt water but the home of the largest population of life on earth; because of this, we cannot afford to exploit those lives.
After seeing creatures that made me, and hundreds of others in the sold-out hall laugh, gasp, and sit on edge, I have to say it was a productive investment to see the show. Watching sea creatures live their lives in total separation from us, yet still somehow manipulated by humankind, made me wonder if we too are but the testing pool of some larger, more exotic creature than us, and as they film us and analyze us in their test tube, we continue on staring at something smaller than our own beings. Kudos to conductor and composer George Fenton, narrator Frank Corrado, the Seattle Symphony, Executive Producer Alastair Fothergill, and everyone else involved in educating us on the test tube we life in and call life.