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“We’re up there with NASA in terms of storage”

How the BBC's Natural History Unit dug deep into its archive to produce Penguins: Meet the Family.

The BBC’s Natural History Unit dug deep into its archive to produce Penguins: Meet The Family, which will be broadcast on BBC One over the festive period.

The hour-long documentary follows all 18 species of penguin, following them from harsh deserts to city streets, from the Equator to the frozen bottom of the world. It delves deep into the NHU’s archive for footage from the original Frozen Planet series, first broadcast in 2011.

Doug Mackay-Hope, executive producer at the NHU, tells TVBEurope the programme was a lovely project to work on, with the production team able to draw on their NHU colleagues’ knowledge of what was in the archive. “The beautiful thing is there’s lots of people in the unit who shot it all and we quite often talk to each other,” he says. “I think unashamedly, we also all love watching the content we have. We had a great AP in Emily Miller who basically went through all the archives and found it all. But it’s not just about finding the footage, there’s all sorts of restrictions and embargoes. I have to admit we did have to find some content from elsewhere, it’s amazing to think the BBC has not filmed every penguin on Earth!”

Luckily, the NHU future proofs its footage at the shooting stage, with much of the material available to the production team in high resolution. “That means when you go back to the material you can grade it and tweak it and it looks like in shot yesterday,” explains Mackay-Hope. “Having that strategy for so many years pays off for a show like this.

All our content is shot in HD as a minimum and most of the material is still accessible at whatever ‘K’ we shot it at. I think one of the most beautiful sequences in Penguins Meet the Family that has never seen the light of day before is when a young penguin climbs off his dad’s feet for the first time and starts discovering the world. You just think that’s amazing and what a film the Dynasties episode about penguins must be if that gets cut. We did find some hidden gems and went back to the rushes to find our own take on these stories.”

Established in 1957, the NHU must have tonnes of footage available to producers. How easy was it to find the footage for Penguins? “It’s accessible and that’s almost all I need to know about it,” laughs Mackay-Hope. “We’re up there with NASA in terms of how much storage space we have. The digital revolution has certainly made it more efficient.”

“Once what footage we had, and we knew what stories that were potentially available to us, we then wrote a running order and and a shooting script so we could work out simply putting it together,” he continues. “We actually pulled this all together when there wasn’t a full lockdown, editors were allowed into the edit suite in the post house, and our producer Lara Bickerton was allowed to go in and see them. The rest of it was done via video call. The post house had a great portal where hey could upload videos and we could watch it and feedback comments, it was pretty smooth. Penguins are such a lovely subject to work with. I don’t want to make them sound stupid but they’re very focused, so you can tell the story of what they’re doing in its own contained and wonderful space without worrying too much about the complexities of storytelling. That was what was really interesting about the project, the focus was to try and make each species tell another part of the penguin story.”

Typically, the NHU can spend up to four years working on a commission. But for Penguins, the timing was a lot shorter. “We had three or four months, so it was pretty fast. Natural history works so well at Christmas, so therefore an idea of producing a penguin special for Christmas just felt right. They have this sort of magic place in our hearts. They do as much as they can to keep to the very edges of the Earth so to see them in the wild is a real treat.”

Penguins: Meet the Family will be broadcast on BBC One at 6.30pm on Tuesday 29th December.