There are few television events with as much prestige and relevance as the BBC’s Planet documentaries. Helmed by Sir David Attenborough, they offer awe-inspiring visuals, globe-spanning narratives, and sweeping musical scores to match. The latest instalment, Frozen Planet II, is a tale of nature at its most polarised: the landscapes are majestic yet fragile, the inhabitants at times tender, at others brutal. Bridging these extremes and tying it all together is the music.
Written by Hans Zimmer, Adam Lukas, and James Everingham, the series’ soundtrack deftly balances small, intimate textures against the orchestral grandeur that viewers expect from these documentaries. “Very quickly, we understood that this frozen planet can be both very rough and very beautiful,” remarks Lukas. “It has the whole spectrum – and the music needed to reflect that.”
For a project of such scope, demanding many hours’ worth of scored music, Lukas and Everingham say their first task was to settle on a defined palette of sounds, instruments, and textures. “It had to be vast,” recalls Everingham. “So, the orchestra, with all the different colours it can create, obviously came to mind, but then synthesizers and processed sounds added a whole new dimension.”
Ultimately, the pair drew inspiration from the material around which the whole series revolves – ice. “We looked at natural phenomena,” Lukas says. “At ice splintering and fracturing, and then we tried to convert that into music.”
The first step in this process was to explore instrumental techniques and articulations. Working closely with Spitfire Audio co-founder, Paul Thompson, Lukas and Everingham recorded a string Octet at the famous Air Studios in London. “It was such a privilege to have time to experiment with these incredible players,” Everingham says of the session. “We were conducting them, giving feedback, and shaping the performance in a way that, for me, drew parallels with subtractive synthesis. It felt like working with envelopes and filters.”
The resulting collection of melodic phrases, swells, and extended techniques became Fractured Strings – a custom sample instrument built specifically for the show and subsequently released as a standalone plugin by Spitfire Audio. “Ice was obviously the impetus for how it was developed,” says Everingham. “But we needed a tool that would be useful as we scored the entire series, so it had to be versatile enough to deliver moments of drama and grit, as well as light and funny moments.”
Layered in with recordings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Synchron Stage Orchestra, and the Reykjavík Recording Choir, Lukas says the sample instrument became the “backbone” of the teams score for Frozen Planet II. “When you start to feel lost as a composer,” Lukas remarks. “And, believe me, when there’s six hours of music to write you sometimes feel lost, having a tool like Fractured Strings helps you recalibrate and centre the music because, really, it is the sound of the show.”
Those acoustic recordings provided a firm foundation, but to achieve the glacial textures Lukas and Everingham were looking for, the pair resorted to some old-school production techniques using an analogue tape machine. “Ice is something that once flowed but has been slowed down to a standstill,” Lukas points out. “Using a tape machine, we could essentially do the same thing.”
“You record in at high speed,” Everingham explains. “Then, when you pull the speed all the way down, the sound gets this grainy, organic quality.” It’s a technique that Everingham says was used prolifically throughout the soundtrack: “We fed vocals, percussion, sound effects, all sorts of stuff through this process – it’s all over the score.”
Eleven years have elapsed since the first Frozen Planet series, and in that time the realities of global warming have become increasingly visible and distressing. It’s an issue that Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit have chosen to directly address with their recent documentaries, and one that Everingham says was factored into the score.
“The question for us was: how do we present the climate crisis? How do we give it musical weight but in a way that makes it accessible? What David Attenborough does so well is he showcases the beauty of the natural world, he makes us fall in love with it, and then tells us about what’s going wrong. It’s a big part of the storytelling, but it isn’t heavy handed.”
The key to finding that balance was AURORA, the Norwegian singer-songwriter whose crystalline vocals feature across the soundtrack for Frozen Planet II. “Hearing the voice of a human brings it home,” says Everingham. “We wanted her to be the voice of humanity in our music.”
The singer can be heard on Crisis, which directly grapples with the theme of climate change. The track’s repeated chord progression, clock-like percussion, and mounting intensity form a potent musical metaphor yet, as with much of Frozen Planet II’s soundtrack, it’s AURORA’s voice that helps centre humanity and human action in this narrative. “She’s a true artist,” says Everingham. “Just going again, and again, and again until she connected with what was happening on the screen. She really felt every single note that she performed – and I think that comes across in the final product.”
Both Lukas and Everingham are members of Bleeding Fingers Music, an in-demand composer collective founded by Hans Zimmer and based out of his Remote Control Productions studios in California. A distinctive feature of the collective’s ethos is its focus on collaboration – with multiple composers working together to score a project.
“It’s something you have to learn,” says Lukas. “You have to put effort into collaboration and get better at it. It’s most successful when everyone’s interested in the best outcome – it’s not about me or you, it’s about the idea.”
“There has always been a healthy tension in the work that we’ve done,” Everingham says of his projects with Lukas and Zimmer. “You’re balancing each other out, yet also challenging each other to break new ground.”
Aside from creative stimulation, collaborative scoring also offers the team practical benefits when working on multiple, related projects. In addition to the Frozen Planet II series, Lukas and Everingham were approached to score a Minecraft expansion pack released as an educational companion for the show. “We were absolutely stunned that we got approached,” recalls Lukas. “Minecraft is such a pop culture phenomenon, and I think using it to teach children about the world and climate change, helping them fall in love with nature and with animals, that’s really beautiful.”
Not long after that, they joined forces with Zimmer yet again to score a decidedly icy video for MrBeast. Coming in at only 12 minutes in length, the arctic exploits of the worlds’ most watched Youtuber are still given the full cinematic treatment – complete with themes, variations, and a whole lot of bombast. “It was a lot of fun just writing no-holds-barred, gloves-off music,” says Lukas.
“It’s the next generation of filmmaking,” adds Everingham. “The young people watching this may one day get into the entertainment industry as well. Really, to do a show with such a legacy, working with the BBC Natural History unit, and then to do Minecraft, and then MrBeast, it feels like we’ve managed to touch all generations to a certain degree.”
With the recently announced ‘Sea Ice Edition’ vinyl of Frozen Planet II’s soundtrack, Everingham and Lukas may have finished scoring for sub-zero temperatures – but they make clear that they’re both going to be very busy with new music over the coming months.
“For me, composing is sort of a healthy addiction,” Lukas says. “It’s something that just doesn’t let me rest – but in a good way.”
For more information about Bleeding Fingers, click here.
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