After growing up in England and studying anthropology and biology at Oxford, Vanessa Berlowitz embarked on a career in documentary filmmaking that’s taken her from the nightclubs of L.A. to the mountains of Pakistan. After producing two episodes of Planet Earth, the epic natural history series that aired in the U.S. in 2007, she became the series producer of Frozen Planet, which premieres on the Discovery Channel on Sunday, March 18. Like Planet Earth, Frozen Planet uses high-definition production techniques to capture intimate animal behaviors in rarely seen natural environments—in this case, the regions surrounding the North and South Pole.
Slate spoke with Berlowitz on the phone earlier this week about whether it makes sense to be sad when animals eat one another and what it’s like being a working mother when your work involves trips to Antarctica.
Slate: People have a natural tendency to anthropomorphize animals, and it seems like the narration [of Planet Earth and Frozen Planet] emphasizes that. Is that the way you think about animals?
Vanessa Berlowitz: You have to do it within reason, and we do check it through with scientists. But I think it’s a really powerful tool to try and make people identify with the behaviors. Particularly with more intelligent animals like bears or wolves; there are definitely aspects of their family life and of their mating that you can draw analogies to human behavior without being too inaccurate. For example, in program one, we have a polar bear courtship, and we play that for humor. It’s kind of funny that this male’s desperate to get hold of this female and then has a tough time holding onto her. But if you listen, the scripting is very careful—we never say, “He thinks this” or “He thinks that.” It’s more an objective comment on his behavior, and often it’s a throwaway line rather than inferring human emotions into the animals, which I think is wrong.
Slate: Do you ever find it upsetting to watch animal behaviors?
Berlowitz: I don’t feel particularly emotional about, for example, hunting sequences. And in program one, I know some people find that shot where the seal is dragged back into the water by killer whales quite disturbing, but from my point of view, I see it as an incredible piece of animal behavior. I’m filled with respect for the killer whales, and I’m sad for the seal, but all around us, animals eat and are eaten.
At the same time, I’m completely respectful that people living an urban life in New York City do not see that every day, and it’s very upsetting for them. And we have a lot of families and young kids [watching], and Discovery is all about families feeling confident that they can put their kids in front of a documentary and know there’s going to be nothing that really upsets them.
Slate: Speaking of kids, you were pregnant during one of the times that you were in the Arctic filming the polar bears. What was that was like for you? Was it challenging, or was it less challenging than you thought it would be?
Berlowitz: It was definitely tough. I got checked out fully and was given a clean bill of health, so I wasn’t taking any particular risks. And I’ve spent most of my working life in the field; it’s like my office job, so I wasn’t nervous about being in a remote place. If I had to get back to a hospital, I could have gotten an emergency helicopter to come and get me within an hour, so I wasn’t completely as remote as a lot of the shoots I’ve done. But I won’t deny when I was there, I was pretty grumpy, and I definitely had bad backache and all the stuff that pregnant women get, and sitting in a helicopter for 12 or 14 hours a day when it’s minus-25 is probably not the way to pamper yourself when you’re pregnant.
We had been looking for polar bear mums for about ten days, and I had had enough; I was definitely not as patient as usual. Literally at four o’clock in the morning when I was well ready to go back and get some sleep, the pilot said, “I think I can see a mother polar bear.” And sure enough, we flew over and we found incredible footage and stayed with this female for three days. She was completely oblivious, and we shot the entire sequence from helicopter. What we do is we get airborne for five hours at a time, and then we all settle down in the helicopter on the ice, sleep for three or four hours, and then go back up again. I was so invigorated by seeing this mum trying to deal with her tiny little cubs, I couldn’t wait to get up in the air and see what naughty things they were trying next time. It was hilarious. So yeah, it was challenging, but I don’t know, no more challenging than going into an office when you’re really pregnant as well.
But then I think the tougher thing was, to be honest, when [my son] was ten months old, I went to Antarctica for two and a half months. And that was really hard, as a new mum, leaving my ten-month-old behind with his dad. I was a little bit paranoid, I have to say. Would he be able to look after him properly? So I wrote this kind of hundred-page instruction manual about how to look after our baby, and there were sticky notes all over the house saying, “Stop! Why are you in the wine cellar? Where’s Cameron? Is he safe?” or, before he’d leave the door, there was a note saying, “Stop! Has Cameron got his gloves and hat?” and all that. And of course I came back two and a half months later, and they’d coped just fine. The house looked like a bomb had gone off, and all the routines and rituals that I’d set up had gone out the window, but of course they’d survived, and actually they’ve got a phenomenal strong bond as a result.
Slate: I imagine you were one of few women on the crew of Frozen Planet, and it seems like you work in a mostly male-dominated field. Is that accurate?
Berlowitz: Well, my one sadness with our making-of show was in fact, I was a director, and there were two other female directors on the series, but sadly they weren’t very pushy with getting themselves filmed. And actually some of the most challenging sequences in the series—for example, the wave-washing sequence in program one with the seals and the killer whales, that was actually directed by Kathryn Jeffs. And they’re both under-ice divers, which is very hardcore.
But you’re right; on the whole, it’s a very male-dominated profession. It’s getting better, but there aren’t that many women in senior positions. I’m one of very few series producers. It’s been tough to break through, and part of it is physically you have to be pretty resilient. You don’t have to necessarily be unbelievably strong, but you have got to be happy to go into very extreme positions. You don’t bathe for six weeks; you eat terrible food. You have to be tough. And I suppose in the past that didn’t necessarily attract women. It does now, and I think there are plenty of incredibly talented, for example, camerawomen. In fact I used one of them in the Greenland shoot that we did. And it’s just a shame, I suppose, that our making-of show doesn’t really reflect all the women that worked on the series, but they tend to be a bit shy around camera.
Slate: What do you want viewers to get out of Frozen Planet?
Berlowitz: All the people that work on this series—I just want to stress, it’s made by twenty people in the team and beyond that huge numbers of camera people and experts—I think we’re all passionate about wildlife in the natural world. And the reason why we make these series is not just to make something that’s beautiful, but the aim is to get people to watch it, and through entertainment and through engagement, to be inspired to find out more, to learn more, to engage in debate, to get active possibly in politics. And really think about how what we do possibly affects these parts of the natural world that maybe many people feel disconnected from. And maybe people will start to care and maybe do something to protect it. That’s my bigger ambition with the series, which is why we have a final episode that’s all about the change that’s going on there in which we just go out to document the physical facts about how much the ice caps are melting.
The idea is you draw your own conclusions; we’re not lecturing; we’re not making assumptions of what’s causing that change. But clearly, the poles are melting, and that’s the key thing to focus on. I think a lot of people get preoccupied with the climate-change debate and is that caused by humans and how much is natural cycles. Regardless of that, the change that has happened in the poles is so much faster than in any other period as far as we know in recorded history. And we’ve got to address that, and we’ve got to really think about why that’s happening and if there’s anything we can do to decelerate that change.
Interview has been condensed and edited.