It's Time to Light Those Motherfucking Blunts: An Interview With the Composers for 'Planet Earth II'

Annalise Domenighini

Annalise Domenighini

“That’s what’s so great about the series. It’s not reality TV. It’s dolphins in rivers.”

The first time I can remember being awed by nature I was 14 or 15, hiking through some mountains in Colorado. It was early in the morning and the sun was rising over a small valley small valley where my summer camp group and I had pitched our tents overnight. Everything had a sparkling, dewy sheen and the creek we camped by reflected the sky's bright blue and pink hues. Forests and fields sprawled for miles, and I swore a quick 360 would reveal every single color known to man. The second time I felt this sensation was half an hour into the Mountains episode of Planet Earth II, while David Attenborough explains to viewers the hostile climate of the volcanic peaks of the Andes, 4000 meters from sea level. As the camera pans out to show flamingos living where the atmosphere is thin enough that UV rays could burn human skin in four minutes, while wind whips salt from the lake high into the air. "I'm jacked as hell on nature" I texted to several people.

In order to get viewers as jacked on nature as possible, producers for Planet Earth II spend many years filming their respective region with some of the most advanced recording technology available. Then all of that footage is condensed and edited to create a compelling narrative, and once that's done it's sent to the show's composers, Jake Shea and Jasha Klebe. Shea and Klebe were kind enough to talk to Noisey about scoring for Planet Earth II, their favorite episode from the new series, and, of course, whether or not they enjoy some of that Good Green while watching themselves.

NOISEY: How did you get involved with Planet Earth?

KLEBE: Jake and I both worked for the company Bleeding Fingers Music, so they kind of approached Bleeding Fingers about pitching for the show. So Jacob and I did a joint pitch and they fortunately liked it. We were coming from a different angle, for sure. We were trying to do a much more cinematic approach to it than what we had seen done in previous [nature documentaries].

Jasha Klebe (left) with Hans Zimmer (center) and Jacob Shea (right)

NOISEY: What fresh approach did you take for this?

SHEA: Using absolutely every kind of music-making instrument or sound we could find, from orchestras to synthesizers to weird instruments that are from around the world. There's nothing off-limits.

KLEBE: Even as far as taking sound design elements that they had recorded when out shooting animals and incorporating that into the score. We really wanted to blur the lines between what was natural sounds and what was music, so that it felt very part of the series still. The series itself, it's such an interesting portrayal of these animals, and so we really wanted to make sure that the music felt that way as well, and really brought the audience in as close as possible to them.

NOISEY: How did you decide to score the different animals? I feel like, when watching, that the birds had sort of this dopey soundtrack, whereas the cats had a little bit more of a dramatic one, and the monkeys had a serious one.

SHEA: Yeah, I think certainly we took … the directors of all these episodes provided us with some descriptors of how they wanted each scene to feel, and that was a guiding light in terms of orchestration or what particular collection of instruments we used. It was whatever felt the most natural.

KLEBE: Each of the producers are scientists, biologists, so they would go out and shoot these scenes, but they very much didn't know what they were going to get. Then they would assemble the scenes and go from there what the story could be. With each episode there definitely was that nice balance between the drama, the comedy, and action sequences. So they did make sure to provide that for us, and so for each episode we wanted to make sure to add a distinct sound for each habitat as well, just the way that things were broken up. We definitely sought to find something for, like, the deserts was far more metallic and raw-sounding and almost otherworldly, while something like the grasslands episode was a lot bell tones and a lot of movement percussive elements that helped with that.

NOISEY: When you're watching it, do you ever feel like, "I really wish I could put some Slayer behind this fight scene," or something?

SHEA: The stuff on screen that they captured kind of eclipsed any sort of fictional blockbuster stuff that Jasha and I have had the privilege of working on. It's survival for these animals, and I think that the iguana-versus-snake scene is the best chase action scene that I've ever worked on in my entire career.

KLEBE: The series is like drama, true to form. It's life or death that these animals experience.

NOISEY: Maybe for the re-release?

SHEA: Yeah, exactly! The director's cut.

NOISEY: Exactly! When you're scoring, do you keep in mind who's watching?

KLEBE: I think a series like this, what makes it so incredible is it doesn't matter what age you are, where you are in the world, since we all live on this planet, and I think we can all connect to these animals in some sort of way. I don't know anyone who doesn't like animals. It's such a, I feel like, a basic instinct for us to connect and care about these animals and this life. With something like this, we really wanted to make sure that … we felt like if we came out of some cinematic approach, it would help with the younger demographic that, I think, in this day and age have such a short attention span and everything like that. So we wanted to make these scenes as impactful as possible. They're little miniature stories within these arcing episodes. What was really nice about this series, as well, is them including the cities episode. That really drew in an audience as well, and showing how we are coexisting with these animals. And throughout, David Attenborough constantly reminding us that it is our duty to help conserve and maintain this planet so that we can still live alongside these animals.

NOISEY:  How did you approach scoring? Because this cities episode is new. It wasn't the first season.

SHEA: That's right. It was really exciting because there are certain … the director was telling us he was being influenced by Massive Attack and things that were electronic in nature. So in terms of the palette, we were able to fuse maybe traditional scoring, like a traditional orchestra sound, with these more modern and more … not urban, but just …

KLEBE: Man-made.

SHEA: Yeah, man-made.

KLEBE: Which is exactly what that episode is about itself: the idea of man-made and the natural world coming together.

SHEA: Kind of coexisting.

KLEBE: I think what was interesting about that episode, too, is it placed you in a lot of times, so we were able to bring in some Indian influences when you're in India, and you're able to give it that New York feel when you're in New York with the peregrines, so that was a lot of fun.

SHEA: Yeah, it was tremendously fun.

NOISEY:  Do you ever get really bummed out watching it? I feel like every single ends with "And don't forget: we're ruining this planet, so …"

SHEA: I guess, for me anyway, that message is not a new one. It's always important to let people know that it's something to keep at the forefront and not lose sight of the fact that this wonderful place that we call home needs some protecting. So it wasn't so depressing as it was doubling down on something I already felt needed to be broadcast.

KLEBE: I think there's a big sense of pride to know that we're being a part of something that has the capability of reaching out to so many people. I think it was Attenborough who said that people aren't going to protect things if they don't know about them. So for us to be able to help in that process, musically, to kind of get it out there … and I think everyone was excited about the U.K. release, to see the amount of people that were watching it. To get up to 12 million people watching an episode is pretty incredible. I think that's the best we can ask for with a series like this. The more people watch it, the more impact it's going to have.

NOISEY: Has the growing attention on film and TV soundtracks lately, like Stranger Things, and Hans Zimmer's playing Coachella this year, did that at all influence the scoring?

KLEBE: I don't think it scares [us], it almost seems like a natural progression. Music is constantly changing, what's in trend, what boundaries can be pushed. I really like the idea that something can be film music, cinematic music, can reach out to wider audiences and be infused with maybe a pop song, things like that, and make it more mainstream. I think that so many different genres of music can get sectioned off, whether it's "That's just classical music," or "That's just country music." To see a lot of these genres cross each other and do that is an exciting thing to be a part of.

NOISEY: Watching the series, what's your favorite creature, or what creature still freaks you out?

KLEBE: One of my favorite scenes was this Wilson's bird-of-paradise. I thought the character himself was such a touching sequence. You watch this bird, out in the middle of the jungle, clear every single leaf away so that he can be the brightest thing in that section, and then he just sits there, calling out for two months, or more or less, until a mate comes. And then he has to stand there at the edge of this stick and show off his beautiful feathers and hope that she likes him. Watching that scene, it's like, "This world is an amazing place." Humans don't have to go and do that.

NOISEY: It's incredible.

SHEA: When I first saw the job for langurs, these monkeys from India, and how they were treating these buildings — they're basically doing, like, parkour or something, insane acrobatics, and they're all infighting between groups to maintain prominence in a region. The amount of activity that's going on at the top of these buildings in the city …

KLEBE: They're bouncing off these walls and racing across the top of the building. It's like …

SHEA: I'd never seen anything like it, and it had the biggest impact on me.

NOISEY: That's awesome. I think my favorite had to be the river dolphins. I didn't realize that dolphins lived in rivers. I remember texting all of my friends and being like, "Holy shit. Did you guys know that there are dolphins in rivers? They're not just in oceans." And all my friends are like, "Annalise, how much have you been smoking?"

KLEBE: Right there is a perfect example of someone watching it and, "Oh shit, there's dolphins in rivers. I've got to tell my friends." That's what's so great about the series. It's not reality TV. It's dolphins in rivers.

Exactly. That's also something that's so interesting: this isn't scripted, but so many people think it's fake.

SHEA: And it's absolutely not.

KLEBE: What's so great about the end of each episode is they have a 10-minute segment showing how they got one or two of the scenes. You see these producers and cameramen going there and just sitting there, waiting for something to happen. They have no idea what they're going to get. For them, it's just as much of a risk. Who knows, you could walk away with nothing. It's interesting that way.

This being Vice, I have to ask you: Are you familiar with the drug culture on the show?

SHEA: I mean …

You know that people are getting high and watching the show.

KLEBE: I have my friends that are very excited to watch the series and chill out.

SHEA: Yeah.

Do you ever compose with the stoners in mind?

KLEBE: No, because, not that I necessarily know, but when you're high, everything sounds great, everything looks great on the series.

SHEA: Part of our job is to heighten the experience, whatever experience you're having.

Annalise is high as hell and jacked on nature over on Twitter.

BBC AMERICA's Planet Earth II premieres Saturday, February 18 at 9/8c