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Racer Snakes

This Planet Earth 2 iguana vs. snake scene plays out like a chase from The Bourne Identity

The Independent

We spoke to the editor of the scene being hailed as potentially the 'greatest TV moment ever'

Planet Earth II is a considerable step up for the nature series, and you can find me waxing lyrical about its stunning cinematography and editing at length here. One particular scene stood out and typified its stunning new approach in the first episode though: 'marine iguana hatchling vs. frankly too many snakes' (coming soon to a SyFy channel near you).

It saw iguana after iguana chased down and asphyxiated by wily racer snakes as they attempted to make their way to the sea, leaving just one left to poke its eyes above ground and survey the devastation like a shellshocked soldier.

The little iguana eventually made a break for it, darting away from the predators like Matt Damon or possibly notoriously cinematic sprinter Tom Cruise.

Heartbreakingly, he looks to be beaten at one point - trapped in a snake’s coils - only to give it the slip and escape up a nearby rock.

I asked Matthew Meech, who edited episode one, if he took any cues from cinema for the scene.

"I'm a bit of a movie fanatic so I kind of pick things up from all over the place - big Hitchcock fan, Christopher Nolan, Scorsese Spielberg etc," he said.

"But cutting wildlife films are like cutting silent movies, it's all about action/reaction. Also timing, be it for comedy or thrills. The narration can provide some of this, but you don't want to make the pictures just wallpaper for the commentary. The shots need to speak for themselves.

"I really like to find a genre that fits with a sequence if I can, as it's a subliminal way to ease people into a new story. On Africa (another Attenborough BBC documentary) I cut a sequence with fighting giraffes in the style of a Western, in The Hunt we did a wild dog hunt like a car chase in a Bourne film."

Of this latest jaw-dropping scene, Meech explained: "With the iguanas and snakes sequence we really wanted to set up the feeling that something wasn't quite right when the first iguana pops out, so as to make the first wide shot, when the snakes start creeping up on him, really stand out.  

"There was so much good footage that we couldn't tell the story of just one iguana so we found a way of using all the great chase moments. As well as some of the more grisly footage (although there's a limit to how much you want to see of that).

"One of the amazing things about the encounter was that it was shot at such a high speed. So in real life those things are moving much, much faster. It's incredibly hard to film them while running and keep everything in focus. But sometimes the focus didn't matter as the moment was so intense. The music and sound design was obviously a big part of it too. The work everyone did was amazing."

The moment is set to a score reminiscent of the more dramatic scenes in Interstellar, and has attracted nearly 7 million views on the BBC’s Facebook page, being hailed by some as the possibly the “greatest TV moment ever”.

The nation cheered for the plucky iguana, but you've got to feel for the snakes too - it was the best feeding opportunity they had all year.

When editing together a nature documentary scene, you might not have the benefit of carefully planned shots captured on a schedule as you do with fiction, but you do have a tremendous amount of footage to work with.

"The big difference between dramas and docs are that everything is preplanned with dramas; when you are filming animals you never know what you'll get," Meech added. "So a lot of the story structure happens in the edit working with the director [Elizabeth White].

"Often the camera crews have been out in a place for weeks and shot maybe 20 hours of footage for a five-minute sequence, so it's a case of meticulously going through the footage to find the key moments."

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