Image: BBC America - Highway system of Shanghai, China

How 'Planet Earth II' Uses Hyperlapse Photography to Highlight Human Habitats

It’s a jungle out there, for humans and animals alike.

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Mar 25 2017, 7:00pm

Image: BBC America - Highway system of Shanghai, China

Are humans a part of nature, or are they apart from it?

In most nature documentaries, humans are the encroaching enemy against which nature endures. In this sort of storytelling, "nature" exists most authentically in the remote parts of the world, untouched and unspoiled by clumsy, thoughtless human involvement.

The counterpoint is that humans, despite their evolution, have never escaped nature, despite our best efforts to do so. Our actions parallel those of other, "wild" animals. Like beavers that build dams, we build high-rises to shelter ourselves from the elements. Like ants that construct elaborate tunnels beneath the dirt, humans also dig tunnels—subway tunnels, shelter tunnels—to make travel less perilous.

Planet Earth II tackles this conflict on "Cities," the final episode of its second series, which debuts on BBC America tonight, March 25, at 9pm ET. One recurring complaint about the series is that while it is beautifully shot and effectively edited, it provides an idealized lie about the natural world, minimizing mass extinction and shrinking habitats. The filmmakers address this concern in "Cities" by showing how humans and animals sometimes succeed and sometimes fail to co-exist.

Image: BBC America - Hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia

There's an emotionally difficult sequence near the end of the episode where baby turtles, dazzled by the Barbados city lights, head away from the ocean and towards certain doom. But there are also quirky scenes of macaques stealing marketplace food in Jaipur—these animals are surviving and thriving in a man-made ecosystem.

Image: BBC America - Macaques in Jaipur, India

And just as prior episodes of Planet Earth II provided uncommonly beautiful, wide-angle views of animal habitats, "Cities" does the same for human habitats, presenting our urban sprawls with a high-resolution attention to detail. Most notably, filmmaker Rob Whitworth, who joined the project in 2013, created a hyperlapse of Shanghai that is both beautiful and quietly menacing.

"The entire idea about all of this is looking at a city through an animal's eyes and trying to represent how alien and hostile it could look to the animals," said "Cities" producer Fredi Devas in an interview with Motherboard. "And Shanghai has the brightest night skies of any city in the world."

Time lapse photography—placing a camera in a stationary position where it takes photographs over days, weeks, or even months—condense time. But hyperlapse—the act of moving a time lapse camera through an environment, can condense both space and time, and adds an exploratory element to any sequence.

"There are apps now on your phone where you can do a hyperlapse relatively easily, but when we were doing [this hyperlapse], it was much more complicated," recalled Devas. "We had to make sure all the axes on the camera were consistent while we were moving it around."

The goal of the Shanghai sequence was to introduce how unnatural light affects wildlife. The sequence begins with an incandescent light bulb—one of the biggest culprits of light pollution for 140 years. The camera then zooms out into a sea of neon signs. Then, it descends into a subway system; light is omnipresent in the human habitat, even when one is below ground. And lastly, the camera moves out of the subway and into a taxi, where one can see lights streaking by the windows.

Planning for the Shanghai sequence took over a year and a half; the team secured permissions to film on location, on the roofs of Shanghai. Then, the team spent three weeks in the city itself, planning and shooting raw footage. Finally, the post-production editing of the Shanghai sequence took approximately six weeks.

This hyperlapse was not done in a single take, despite appearances. Whitworth used seamless transitions whenever possible, and avoided traditional cuts.

"The thing we're really paying attention to is where the eye is drawn in [each] shot," said Devas. "If there is a light bulb in one scene and a light bulb in another scene, then you can transition between them, The [audience's] eyes are focused on the light bulb, and they don't see what else is happening in the rest of the picture."

Eagle-eyed viewers might notice new visual effects. The traffic sequences were shot on a Canon digital SLR, and through the use of recently developed software via Magic Lantern, the camera changed its level of exposure while filming at night. A long exposure, rather than capturing individual cars, captured long streaks of light. Short exposure, meanwhile, resulted in short staccato dots, each one representative of a single car. Devas wanted a gradual shift from long dashes to short dots, and the music in "Cities" swells during this transition, creating a "ramped-up" effect.

"99.999% of the people watching this would have no idea," Devas laughed. "But there's a few people who might pick up on the lengths that we've gone."