In creating music for the BBC documentary series “Planet Earth II,” composers Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe of Hans Zimmer’s music production company Bleeding Fingers wanted to move the audience emotionally by creating an intimate connection with the world and its creatures.
The original 2006 “Planet Earth” looked at nature from above; the new episodes bring us down to the level of the animals. To achieve that goal, the duo labored for seven months to create strong parallels between the visuals and the audio.
For his part, Zimmer composed the show’s theme, which plays during the opening title sequences and serves as an anchor for the series. Shea and Klebe worked closely with Zimmer during the early stages of composition and would refer back to his theme in scenes during which narrator David Attenborough addresses such ideas as conservation or planet politics.
With a different sound created for each episode — such as “Cities” or “Grasslands” — the duo used distinguishing instruments and characteristics to invoke the unique feelings. The barren “Deserts” sounds metallic and synthetic. “Islands” has post-apocalyptic undertones, drawing from a dramatic chase scene between hungry snakes and newborn iguanas. “Jungles” incorporates a small choir of “magical humming voices” to demonstrate its mystical nature.
To inspire the audience to feel connected to the animals, Klebe and Shea blended natural sound from the shoot with music and beats borrowed, they say, “from all sonic worlds.” That includes not only unique instruments played by session musicians and processed orchestral tunes by a 50-piece orchestra, but also swarms of locusts and manipulated high-elevation wind.
“I had never heard anything in the natural world like those buzzing locusts,” says Shea. “I used them to create unsettling ambiances in the score.”
For “Mountains,” to simulate the feeling of being on the cold top of the world, Klebe manipulated wind into different tones and layered the resulting audio into the music from the orchestra. Similarly, the rustling grass and gravel were stretched out in “Islands.”
The team also mimicked the environments as the animals themselves might experience them. For example, how would a small mammal hear a roar differently than an elephant or high-flying bird?
In one instance, a mole peaks above the ground before returning to its burrow, perceiving a different soundscape in each place. Above ground, the melody is lively and close; inside the burrow, the sound becomes muffled.
In another scene, Surround Sound amplifies the action of langur monkeys bouncing around the city streets of Jodhpur, India. As the simians fly to the right, the sound flows to the right speaker.
In addition to the experience of the animal and habitat, the techniques used by the videographers to capture the action, and how they explained their experience upon returning home, greatly inspired the studio-bound composers.
The composers had many dynamic images to work with, created by crews using such techniques as low-light technology for nocturnal images, drones to capture aerial perspectives, and camera stabilization, which allowed the lensers to move rapidly as they followed animals’ footsteps.