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The Composers Behind the Epic Music of Planet Earth II Talk About Scoring the Iguana Chase Scene and Working With David Attenborough

Ten years after Planet Earth blew the minds of every biology student and pot-smoking teen who came across it, the BBC has rolled out the sequel: Planet Earth IIwhich premiered stateside on Saturday after a run in the UK late last year. You may have been too dazzled by the dancing birds and rooftop-jumping langurs to pay much attention to the score–or maybe you just muted your TV and cued up Dark Side of the Moon, Wizard of Oz-style. But if you were paying attention, you heard the subtle atmospheric work of composers Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe.

Like Hans Zimmer, the heavy-hitting film composer who created Planet Earth II’s main theme, Shea and Klebe come primarily from the world of scripted cinema. Working along with Zimmer, they created the music that drives the series along, blending an orchestra with electronics and sounds from nature to create the backdrop for each scene. SPIN chatted with the pair by phone last week, discussing their favorite animals to soundtrack and the challenge of working with an instrument as imposing as David Attenborough’s narration.

SPIN: Before Planet Earth II aired in the states, the iguana and snakes chase scene was circulating on social media here, and that scene really blew people’s minds. You guys did a great job of ratcheting up the tension there: the score starts really tense, thrilling, and percussive, and then as the iguana’s fate starts to change, you get this really fist-pumping, epic harmonic stuff coming in. What was your process when working on it?

Jacob Shea: That story of survival is so compelling that it kind of eclipsed any sort of superhero movie that I’ve been privileged to work on. The survival aspect of it was what struck me the most. We were really just trying to create a score that made it feel like you were right there with the character, and it was life and death. It’s just taking cues from those poor baby iguanas, because they’ve got it pretty rough as soon as they come into the world.

Jasha Klebe: Well, I think that’s what made the series so interesting as a whole, and why it can have such an impact on people. These are real live animals and this is what they experience from day to day. Coming from the cinematic world, where you have these fantasy worlds oftentimes—it was quite a unique experience to see the real natural world in front of us, and still see things you’re absolutely shocked by. It becomes quite like drama in its truest form.

It’s true that in Planet Earth, you sometimes have this drama that matches or surpasses something you’d see in a scripted movie. Since you guys are coming from the scripted film world, was there anything that changed in your approach, knowing you were soundtracking this drama that happens in nature all the time, rather than something that someone cooked up in a screenwriter’s room?

Jacob: We were kind of trying to blend in the sound design, the natural sounds that are found in these habitats, with the score. So we would take some production sounds—like thunder claps and locust swarms—and put effects on them, to make it part of the score, and to heighten the viewer’s experience.

In David Attenborough’s voice, you have one of the most beautiful, commanding instruments on Earth that you’re competing with, with your music, how do you—

Jacob: Supporting!

Right, supporting–not competing with.

Jasha: It’s really the lead instrument. We’re very conscious of that, especially speaking with Hans [Zimmer] early on about how to approach this. A lot of us grow up with him telling us about this world that we don’t always get to see. So yes, we were very conscious of the fact that David Attenborough’s voice was as much to the forefront as possible and letting him help guide us musically.

Are there specific examples you can recall of composing around his voice, or the ways that it impacted your work?

Jacob: With the racer snakes versus iguana sequence, there are moments where the narration is explaining what’s happening on screen, and the music kind of loses interest a bit and holds still. Maybe a bit of bowed metal or something, to create a tense atmosphere–but really trying to keep the soundscape uncluttered, so you’re really able to take in what he’s describing. And then when it plays out when he’s not speaking, it has more of an impact.

Jasha: There was a scene in “Jungles,” where there’s this Wilson’s bird. He plucks every single leaf off of a plant, removes them, so that he can be the brightest thing in the forest and attract a mate. And there’s a certain humor that Attenborough brings to it. We wanted to bring a musical sense of humor to the scene as well. If you were watching it without Attenborough telling you what was going on, you have no idea of the comedy. So he helped determine the overall mood of that scene as well.

Did you have particular animals that were favorites to be scoring around?

Jacob: The Jodhpur langurs in the “Cities” episode. These mammals in India, they jump from rooftop to rooftop like some sort of gymnast that also practices parkour, or something. The way they move is so incredible, just seeing the scene it felt like a James Bond-heist-chase thing, but it’s actually just what these animals have naturally come to do, living in this place. And it was incredible to see.

Jasha: I loved the snow leopards from the Mountains episode. There was something very mythological about the creatures–even the way they had to capture these animals by putting camera traps high up in the mountain that would trigger as an animal would go by. It’s something you couldn’t ever see, and you had this opportunity to get this inside look into a whole other world. And it lends itself musically, to an almost fantasy theme or mythical-type score, so that was cool.