Tracking the sun around the globe over the course of a single day, this magnificent cinematic expedition reveals wonders of the natural world from the tallest mountain peaks to the most remote jungles and harshest environments. Against this backdrop of scenic splendor, the cast of unforgettable animals is presented with humor and intimacy.
Composer, Alex Heffes, underscores the emotional journey, balancing his compositions between imposing orchestral works that highlight the grandeur of the world and personal, funny, sometimes frightening, interludes that project the essence of the characters and their existence. Having previously worked on a string of different projects with Peter Webber, one of the directors, Heffes jumped at the opportunity to work on the documentary because the composer had grown up watching what he called, “amazing” BBC Planet Earth films.
“It’s obviously a nature documentary, but they were making it for the big screen and wanted to score it like a movie and give the audience that sensibility of storytelling,” shared Heffes. “What we wanted to do was make it a movie going experience and guide you through the different environments.”
Advances in filmmaking techniques allowed the crew to cover amazing events such as newly hatched iguanas in the Galapagos Islands instinctively running for their lives across the rocky landscape, in order to escape predator snakes, or pods of horned narwhals traversing the frozen Arctic waters through newly formed channels in the dense ice flow. Heffes’ music leads the viewer through the various scenes, “like a travel guide can take you to different places.”
The choice of instrumentation is used to change the emotional tenor of the music. For instance, to emphasize the humorous visuals of bears scratching their backs on tree trunks, Heffes uses clarinet as his lead instrument in that sequence.
“I couldn’t resist it. We looked at various different genres to see what music would fit a bear dancing. This is the slightly crazy job I have. I’m a big Henry Mancini fan. I felt there was a bit of a 60’s jive thing going on there. I tried to find a rhythm and a beat to lock into what the bears were doing,” explained Heffes. “We had fun doing that.”
Heffes used various techniques to emphasize the character of different creatures. For the nighttime glowing worms found in New Zealand caves, he created a somewhat alien sound using a musical saw and double bass laid on top of the orchestra. Instead of focusing on the stereotypical idea that a sloth was slow and stupid, which the directors did not want, he created a silent movie love story for those particular animals. For the Rainforest, he wanted a magical sound that would bring a smile to the listener’s face. Heffes felt the unicorns of the sea, the narwhals with their twisted horn, were from a fairy tale, so he scored that section like an ancient myth. For his favorite sequence, the miniature world of a hummingbird battling bees for food, he composed a mini, aerial “dogfight.”
Heffes’ overall intent with the music was to have the audience feeling lighter after the movie than when they came into the theater. Because the film is family orientated, Heffes was aware that children would be among the primary audience.
“You get into a story and try to find a character there, especially so the kids can enjoy it. I think it is a very kid-friendly movie. No one gets eaten. No one gets dismembered. It’s much more about the joy, the wonders, the magic.” Heffes noted, “Magic is a big part of the film.”