Life From Above: Earth like you’ve never seen it before

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Last night, the final installment of the series, Life From Above, aired on PBS. Individually and taken as a whole, it captured the vibrancy, beauty, and dynamism of the planet’s surface as it undergoes changes, both man-made and natural. Aesthetically, the satellite images offered breathtaking abstractions swirling with color and surprising instances of symmetry. If you missed any of the four episodes, you can catch them for a limited time on the PBS website.

Bill Margol, Sr. Director, Programming & Development at PBS set aside some time to discuss the series.


SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: How did Life From Above come together? Where did the initial idea come from?

BILL MARGOL: We were fascinated with the idea of viewing our planet from a perspective that few have seen before—from space. Only by zooming out and watching from far above can one truly appreciate the great movements, colors, patterns and changes on Earth. We wanted to show viewers this new viewpoint to allow them to understand and appreciate the world and how our actions can have great impact.

SI: The backbone of the series consists of striking and beautiful images of the Earth’s surface from space. How did the filmmakers get access to satellite images?

BM: The production team in the BBC Natural History film unit had a unique opportunity to access images taken by more than 20 different satellites operated by national space organizations. The production team provided coordinates to these organizations, based on the locations of the specific stories in the series, and were able to secure footage of these places as seen from space. While the cameras were on the ground, these satellites captured real-time footage from space. This allowed the producers to connect the dots, stitching together the stories from far above, while zooming in to the details gathered at ground level.


SI: Partly because the series is about the entire planet, the scope of the individual narratives is so vast. It goes from cities to rain forests and traverses continents. How long did production for Life From Above take?

BM: There was an incredible amount of coordination that had to happen. The production team wanted to get perspectives from ground-level camera crew, in-air drones and orbiting satellites. So, they needed to have all three of these levels timed precisely to stitch together the footage. They were at the mercy of whenever satellites would be orbiting at the opportune times—and whenever the skies were clear enough for them to gather clean images. It took the producers almost a year to get footage of just one particular lake in Brazil due to constant cloud cover.

SI: Just to follow up on the previous question, how were the individual stories chosen?

BM: We work with producers to choose stories that, together, tell a greater story and are connected by a larger theme. But of course, then, it’s about the stories that CAN be told – access, seasonality, weather, they all go into figuring out what stories we can tell. And we always think about what stories will resonate with the audience, what will keep them engaged, what will make them think and what will connect them with the ideas we’re trying to illustrate.


SI: What are some of your personal favorite moments/images in Life From Above?

BM: Well, I love the images from the Shao-Lin school, where thousands of students in a courtyard, moving in synchronous motion create an almost hypnotic pattern that can be seen from space. It’s about the weight of numbers. We often think of ourselves as insignificant individuals, but together, en masse, we can do amazing things – but that weight of numbers can also have an impact on the negative side. We need to be aware that the actions we take as a group, as a society, can be both beautiful and harmful.


SI: Life From Above ends with a call to action, imploring the public to be responsible and proactive in caring for the planet and its resources. Can you discuss the way Life From Above highlights how human beings have altered the Earth’s landscape?

BM: The evidence of our changing planet, as seen from space, is drastic. Our satellites captured astonishing visuals showing melting glaciers, expanding cities and diminishing natural resources. The rate of change our planet is facing from human behavior is faster now than at any other time in human history.

However, Life From Above also shows how humans are working to save wildlife through advances in satellite imagery. For instance, satellite footage has enabled us to monitor changes in active volcanoes to predict future eruptions. Scientists in Ecuador are able to relocate the endangered Quito rocket frog and save it from extinction before eruption. In the Congo, scientists are using satellites to monitor reforestation efforts made by locals, to help the chimpanzee population. We have tremendous capabilities to use our advancing satellite technology to the benefit of our planet.

Watch Life From Above on the PBS website for a limited time.


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