From dolphins to monkeys to toads, the stunning new Discovery series captures never before seen animal adventures

By Amy Jamieson
Updated March 18, 2010 11:16 PM

It seemed like toad suicide. A waterfall toad pursued by a hungry snake in the wilds of Venezuela leaps into a bottomless void – appearing to fall to its death off Avatar-like cliffs. But things aren’t always as they seem. The clever amphibian used his massive hands and feet to grab a stray branch on the way down, effectively saving himself from becoming dinner and from a frighteningly high death plunge.

“It’s kind of like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger … it pulls itself up, and when we saw that, that was extraordinary,” says Mike Guntun, executive producer of the new Discovery series Life, for which this amazing scene (above) was captured. “You’d think it was committing suicide … it doesn’t do itself any harm at all and, of course, no animal will follow it. When you see that you think, ‘How on earth did that evolve?’ “

That question will frequently pop into your head as you watch animal adventures unfold in the stunning new series, the follow-up to 2006’s Planet Earth, which is narrated by Oprah Winfrey and premieres on March 21. Gunton also hopes that viewers will think about the challenges faced by the beautiful creatures captured on film, which includes Komodo dragons, cheetahs, dolphins and monkeys, to name just a few.

“I hope people will kind of admire the same things they admire in people; things like determination, compassion, dedication, and in some cases heroism,” says Gunton, who spent nearly five years working on the passion project. “I think some of these creatures are genuinely heroic. I want people to think there’s more to their lives than this simple existence. They’re complex, complicated creatures.”

A Daring Shoot
The death-defying jump of the waterfall toad is just one of the firsts Gunton and his team of 25 captured with their state-of-the art equipment. In the Komodo islands, they shot a savage Komodo dragon hunt from start to finish, which took nearly a month. And, the hunt nearly took one of their own: When the crew and escorts weren’t looking, one of the venomous creatures somehow ended up dangerously close to cameramen Kevin Flay.

“They’re very, very sneaky,” Gunton says. “Suddenly there’s a seventh one, and Kevin said he turned around and there was one a couple of feet from his ear. He said it could have licked his ear.”

Thankfully, the only thing the Komodos ended up tasting was dinner: a massive water buffalo that was bitten on the leg in week one and slowly died from the poisonous venom weeks later. “The poor thing is unfortunately stalked by half a dozen or six, seven or eight dragons,” he says. “The moment it keels over they strip it to the bone in a matter of hours.”

Wildlife indeed. And getting these amazing scenes for the 11-part series, says Gunton, is mostly luck and, of course, extensive research. It took a year of scouring the world to find these compelling stories. “Most of the stuff isn’t in textbooks, you can’t find it on the Internet,” he says. “A lot of it comes from contacts we have in the academic community, scientists who are studying in the field.”

Candy-Bar Caper
There were certainly nerve-wracking moments when things didn’t go well and a costly shoot had to be scrapped.

Things turned a bit unlucky for cameraman Barrie Britton as he shot vogelkop bowerbirds alone for three weeks in the West Papua. One of the flamboyant birds was building a beautifully colored nest to woo his female counterpart, when he spotted Britton’s tasty Snickers bar.

“Unbeknown to him, a little bit of the wrapper of this chocolate bar was sticking out and the bird, searching for interesting things, found it, plucked it out and put it in his nest,” says Gunton. “Which of course was terrible for us because you can’t have a snickers bar wrapper in there.”

Britton had to wait until the end of the day when the bird had flown away somewhere before he could remove the wrapper. “That was one of the most grueling I would say,” Gunton recalls.

Grueling, definitely (Gunton says there were three marriages, three baby births and one divorce during the production). But looking back, he says the whole experience was a privilege. “The opportunity to scour the planet for these kind of animals, it’s unique,” he says. “If you’re into wildlife filmmaking it’s a dream come true.”