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The Making of Inside Nature's Giants

Mark Evans
Mark Evans

Inside Nature's Giants is natural history - as you've never seen it before - from the inside out. Channel 4 is often asked questions about how the shows are made.

We asked the Series Producer, David Dugan of Windfall Films, to answer some of those questions. In the interview below he reveals what happens behind the scenes of this remarkable series.

How do you choose the 'giants' to dissect?

The first thing to say is that we don't kill animals. So we rely on a network of contacts to find out when a suitably iconic animal has died. We have a list of animals we'd like to investigate. Initially the choice was fairly obvious: the elephant, the giraffe, the crocodile, the lion, the great white shark and of course, if we could find one, the whale.

Our rule of thumb is that they just need to be bigger than our comparative anatomist, Joy Reidenberg! But that will probably change as we uncover the anatomy of bizarre animals like the octopus and giant squid. For us what's important is that the insides of the animal reveal an interesting evolutionary story.

What about the polar bear?

The polar bears were not killed specifically for the programme (and nor are any other animals). Local people are permitted to hunt a small quota of bears per year and the programme collaborated with them. The hunting is strictly controlled, using traditional methods and avoiding mothers with cubs.

How do you find the animals?

In the first series the animals were sent to the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) from zoos around the UK. When a zoo animal dies, it normally undergoes a post-mortem. We took the opportunity to work alongside the RVC to carry out a more detailed anatomical dissection of the animal's gross anatomy.

Incredibly, only a couple of weeks before we were due to start filming our first zoo animal dissections, a large fin whale beached off the South West coast of Ireland. This whale was so heavy we had to carry out the dissection on the beach where the whale washed up. The team battled against high winds, hail stones and incoming tides. Yet despite the difficulties - there was something more visceral and exciting about braving the elements.

So when we started our second series, we decided that instead of looking for animals that died in zoos, where possible we would try to find wild animals and film the dissections on location. This has the added advantage of relating the animal's anatomy to its habitat.

Of course, finding dead animals in the wild is much harder. Often nature gets there first and they are either eaten by other animals or are badly decomposed.

Our network of animal contacts expanded to include wildlife parks and organizations that manage animals. For example, our great white shark came about through collaboration with the Natal Sharks Board, which manages the shark protection nets that line South Africa's coast.

And our Burmese python came from a cull organised by the Everglades park authorities in Florida, to try to control this invasive species that's causing so much damage to the ecosystem.

How do you avoid/manage any difficult ethical issues?

We are always completely open about the circumstances in which the animal died and how it ended up being dissected. All the animals filmed so far have died in captivity or in the wild. Occasionally, animals in extreme pain have been put down by vets and sometimes animals are culled as part of a controlled management programme. But we only use animals that would have died anyway. Recently, a leatherback turtle was hit by a boat, but after several attempts to treat its injuries, sadly, the animal died.

By dissecting these incredible animals - we hope to further our understanding of how they work - and bring the science to a wider, public audience.

How do you organize a dissection out in the field?

Well that depends on what nature throws at you! It can be cold, wet, hot, humid, windy, or the sun might only be up for a few hours, limiting the time you have for the dissection. So you have to be prepared for the conditions and ensure you have the right kit with you.

In most cases the carcass we're planning to dissect has been frozen by the organisation that owns it, which gives us breathing space to organise our crew and get them over there to film the dissection. But often the biggest problem we have is working out how long it takes to defrost these great big animals - think of a turkey but scale it up a hundred times!

The great white shark we wanted to dissect was kept in a freezer in Durban, South Africa, but we had made plans to dissect it on the coast in Mossel Bay, about 1500km away! We hired a refrigerated lorry to take the shark to the location, but when it got there, it was still frozen solid.

And when we actually started filming, that shark was still rock hard. Fortunately the strong South African sunshine managed to thaw out the carcass during the day, but when we eventually reached its massive liver, it was still slightly hard!

There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes before we can actually film the dissection - convincing the owners of the carcass to allow us to dissect it, getting permits, arranging equipment (from knives to cranes) and of course shipping the orange suits over from the UK.

We always rely heavily on local help. People are often surprisingly keen to get involved, and we are always extremely grateful for their help.

What has been the most challenging dissection to set up and film to date?

The fin whale we dissected off the coast of Ireland was the toughest challenge. The whale was a ticking time bomb. From the moment of death, it started to decompose. Gases began building up inside its body and unless the pressure was released, it would explode!

We only found out the whale had beached on the Friday morning (the producer read about it in the Metro on the tube to work). The following morning there we were on the beach in Ireland ready to begin the dissection. Bear in mind that in those 24 hours we had to negotiate access to the carcass, fly our team over to Ireland, and get all the equipment needed to dissect a 20 metre long whale, on to the beach.

Perhaps our biggest challenge was to find an anatomist who could cope with such a leviathan. The local Irish whale and dolphin group had never attempted anything of such magnitude. Through our network of anatomists we found the ideal person, comparative anatomist, Joy Reidenberg.

There was only one problem: she lived in New York. But at a few hours notice, Joy agreed to drop everything and come to Ireland to supervise the dissection.

She left New York at 5pm on the Friday, took an overnight flight to Ireland, drove to the beach (getting lost along the way) and when the tide was low enough walked out on Saturday morning to commence the dissect of this 50 tonne giant. It was a truly amazing sight (and smell) to behold!