Partially I’m wondering the physical aspect of how they fit in these places or get close enough to dangerous situations to film them; and partially I’m wondering how they seem to be in the right place at the right time to catch things like a dead whale sinking down into the ocean?
What are the odds they’d be there to capture that and how much time do they spend waiting for these types of things?
An incredible amount of time and effort goes into programmes like Planet Earth. Research will begin over a year before filming dates are even considered. Researchers and producers on the film team will reach out and find leading scientific researchers who have likely been observing and researching a specific species and/or behaviour for years.
The researchers they find can then suggest the best places and times to film the species and behaviour they want to see.
The crew then spend months or even years on location filming long hours, every single day.
Often when you see a sequence on a wildlife TV show (let’s say a cheetah chasing a gazelle), it’s not just one chase. It will be shots of multiple chases that took place over days, weeks or months and may not even be the same cheetah. There are exceptions to this, but usually, it’s just physically impossible to film a sequence like that from multiple angles in the ways that produce the compelling sequences we are used to seeing on these shows. This is becoming less common as time goes on though, as technology is making it more and more possible to cover natural events more completely.
The odds of capturing the events that they do are fairly high as they film for so long, in the best places in the world at the best times as recommended by the worlds leading experts on the species. Some of it does just come down to luck, but honestly, it’s a hell of a lot of hard work from a lot of people.
As for the technical how, there’s a lot of technological innovation that the wildlife film-making industry produces trying to work out new and interesting ways to film in unusual environments. There are camera gimbals costing half a million, based on missile technology that are so accurate that you can have the camera mounted on a vehicle travelling 60mph over rough ground hundreds of feet away from an animal running full speed the other direction and tracks it perfectly in shot, filling the frame, completely vibration free. There are lens modifications that allow cameras to film macro scenes (very small, like ant sequences) without looking like they are just zoomed in on, and very realistic animations with cameras in the eyes for getting closer to wildlife without disturbing them.
Source: I’m a documentary camera and drone operator who has worked on shows for the BBC, BBC NHU, Discovery, PBS, NatGeo, C4, etc.
**Tl;Dr:** Lots of hard work, for a long time, cooperating with world leading experts in the species they are filming, using groundbreaking innovative camera technology specifically designed for their unique purposes.