Day 6

David Attenborough's Dynasties follows five animal families as they struggle to survive

Each episode of the new BBC Earth series 'Dynasties' follows a single animal family's struggle to survive in the wild. Series producer Rupert Barrington takes us behind the scenes of episode one.

'They're very relatable challenges, and of course chimps are very relatable animals'

Chimpanzees as filmed for the BBC Earth series "Dynasties." (BBC)

The voice of BBC presenter and naturalist David Attenborough is now synonymous with hugely popular wildlife documentaries, including The Blue Planet and Planet Earth.

Now, Attenborough is back as the narrator of the new BBC wildlife series Dynasties.

But where The Blue Planet and Planet Earth examined the lives of various species in a series of short segments, each episode of Dynasties will feature just one species, following a single animal family over the course of several years.

We had about 300 hours worth of footage, out of which we had to make a one hour film.- Rupert Barrington, series producer, Dynasties

The first episode, about chimpanzees, premieres in Canada on BBC Earth on Saturday, Nov. 17.

Rupert Barrington is the series producer behind Dynasties. He spoke about the new series with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

We just heard David Attenborough talking about a chimpanzee named David. David is the star of this episode. Who is this chimpanzee?

He's the leader of the group of chimpanzees where we filmed for about two years.

When we got there, he'd been leader for about three years. And that is as long as a leader male normally lasts before he's pushed out of his position. So we thought that some sort of dynamic change is likely to happen, some kind of challenge to his leadership.

Naturalist and BBC presenter David Attenborough. (BBC)

For each species you document, the producers follow animals for years. How many hours or days at a time were they spending with the chimpanzees in Episode One?

Well, I think an average day with the chimpanzees was getting up at about 3:30 in the morning, and they needed to get out to where the chimpanzees were before the chimps wake up. Because if the chimps woke up and started walking, you'd never find them.

So they needed to be with them before dawn, they'd follow them all day, and then they'd wait until they got to sleep at night before heading back — probably getting back to base at about 8:00 or 9:00 in the evening.

How many hours of footage do you have at the end of the shoot?

Well, at the end of the whole thing we had about 300 hours worth of footage, out of which we had to make a one hour film.

And each time they trekked in and out did they take all of their equipment with them?

Yes, the crew of three had about 80 kilos of kits spread between them.

That's amazing. That's such a long trek every day to follow the animals. Did they become emotionally connected to the animals?

They did, yeah. They said they just couldn't help it because you're seeing, say, the alpha male David facing these huge challenges. And they're very relatable challenges, and of course chimps are very relatable animals. So yeah, they couldn't help but get connected to his story.

Each episode of the new BBC Earth series "Dynasties" focuses on a single family within one animal species, filmed over several years. (BBC)

Midway through the chimpanzee episode, David suffers a dramatic setback when he is beaten viciously by some of the other chimpanzees. What was that moment like for your team when they realized that David had been so badly hurt?

Well, I think that was a very emotional moment, because they've seen him as this dominant alpha in charge of everybody and making all the decisions for the group. And suddenly he became, overnight, incredibly vulnerable, incredibly weak. I think it was a real shock for them actually.

Was there any question about whether or not they would intervene?

No. Never any question. I mean, for various reasons. There is nothing they could have done if they had even wanted to.

But you have a very complicated social world there, and if a crew intervened and started, through their actions, changing what was going on that could have unseen, unknown implications for some of the other chimps.

A chimp as filmed for the BBC Earth series "Dynasties." (BBC)

David isn't done. David fights to maintain his alpha status. And all of that plays out like an episode of House of Cards. It's a moment of extreme survival. Was it difficult to portray the inner lives of these animals without anthropomorphizing them as I just did?

I mean, it's always sort of hidden danger that you start anthropomorphizing — particularly with chimps, because their body language is so like ours and when you look into a chimp's eyes you see an intelligence there.

But throughout the series, we've been very, very self aware, if you like, when we've written the commentary that we don't do that. Because it would be a great sin.

We're observing these animals lives and not trying to impose our own thoughts or emotions on them.

This erosion of their habitat is potentially a big problem.- Rupert Barrington, series producer, 

But is it a stretch to see this story as a story about politics among chimps?

No. In chimps, there are many things about their societies which do have direct parallels with ours. And they do play politics.

They decide who they want to be friends with and how to go about it. They decide who's not worth making a friend of. An alpha like David knows he needs to have allies if he's going to see off his challenges. So there's a lot of political stuff going on.

One of the biggest takeaways from watching this episode is that it is very stressful to be a chimp right now. Humans are making their lives more stressful. There is enormous incursion, especially in Senegal, where this episode was shot, on their habitat. How evident was that to your producers as they followed these animals?

It was quite evident. It hasn't yet affected the behaviour of that group. It may do in the future, if that incursion continues to grow. But there's a lot of roads going through there. Across the two years they saw a lot more people in that area moving from one place to another. So it's changing rapidly.

How endangered are the chimps that you profile?

Currently not. I mean, the great thing about that area, compared to many areas where chimps live, is that they aren't the victim of the bushmeat trade, where people hunt them to eat.

That is a big problem in many other parts of Africa, but they're not seen like that in Senegal. So that's a threat they don't face. But this erosion of their habitat is potentially a big problem.

As a producer you've worked on other wildlife series, but what makes Dynasties so unique? Why is it so powerful?

Well, I think it's the ability — these are 50 minute films — it's the ability to spend that amount of time with one story and one individual. Normally, on these series we'll have 10, 12, 15 sequences from around the world, different animals doing different things, and within a five-minute piece you don't have the chance to delve deep into the animal's life.

And sometimes, as a filmmaker, you're left slightly frustrated that you've seen — potentially — a wonderful situation, but you can't go deeply into what those animals lives are like. Whereas here, we can go on a day-by-day basis and see what it's really like for a chimp.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Rupert Barrington, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.


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