Morgan Freeman’s rich, majestic voice has graced a number of documentaries over the years, about religion, Jewish refugees, even penguins. His next one has a scope and subject that befit a man popularly known as the voice of God: the entire history of life on Earth.
“Life on Our Planet,” an eight-part series premiering Wednesday on Netflix, takes viewers through billions of years, beginning at the dawn of time. Starting with single cells in a primordial soup and sweeping through the age of the dinosaurs and the development of human civilization, the series charts the rise and fall of countless species. As Freeman narrates, the show depicts the “great battles for survival and the dynasties that would take over the world.”
Produced by Silverback Films in association with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, the show relies on visual effects to conjure up lifelike prehistoric creatures, including woolly mammoths, a four-winged dinosaur called the Anchiornis, and of course the Tyrannosaurus rex. Visual effects make up 30 to 40 percent of each episode; the remainder consists of footage shot in 45 countries including Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Morocco and the United Kingdom.
Despite the show’s title, this planetary saga frequently dwells on death. In scene after scene, predators stalk their prey: a flying reptile swoops down on an unsuspecting sea turtle, a crocodile eyes a wildebeest, and a squid pounces on a shrimp, the hunts charged with suspense by Freeman’s booming voice.
“The shrimp never saw it coming,” he says, as the squid enjoys its meal.
Death also comes to entire species, with the show’s narrative punctuated by five mass extinctions that together kill off millions of creatures. Each event destroys one group of animals and paves the way for another, progressing from invertebrates to dinosaurs and eventually to mammals.
Freeman, an Academy Award winner, hopes viewers stick around long enough to see the end of the series, when the show depicts the ascendance of humans — the only species capable of bringing about its own mass extinction.
“It was said that God created the heavens and the earth and put man in control,” Freeman said in an interview this month. “That’s a big mistake if God actually did that, because in just a few million years we’ve almost created another extinction-level event.”
In a phone interview from his home in Mississippi, Freeman spoke about the roots of his unmistakable vocal style, his admiration for David Attenborough and his fears about our planet’s future. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you decide to join this project?
Well, the planet itself and the history thereof interests me. I call myself a “planetist” because I’m concerned mostly about what’s happening on Earth.
When did you first start getting concerned?
Oh, I don’t know when I first did. It sort of creeps up on you, you know, watching how things are going. We all know about the changing climates. That’s a human thing. No animals are causing it. We’re causing it. And it’s happening; we can see it now.
I’m curious about your routine when you’re narrating. What’s your process?
There was a script. There was a studio microphone. Some of them require a lot of takes. Because if you read through a paragraph and you slur a word or two, you have to go back and fix that. Particularly in this show, there are a lot of these creatures that have names that are sort of maddening, I guess. I recorded in Mobile, Ala. I also live down on the Alabama coast, so if I get work while I’m down there I’ll go to a studio that I frequent in Mobile.
How many hours would you spend each day in the studio?
If I remember correctly, I was there for over a two-day period. Maybe two to three hours a day.
As you look back on previous documentaries you’ve narrated, which stand out to you?
I did “March of the Penguins,” and that was awesome. I really learned quite a bit about how penguins live and interact.
One of the things that interested me about this series is that it goes to the beginning of time and recreates these creatures using visual effects.
Oh heavens yes. When you’re narrating, it’s actually a learning process in itself. So I find these kinds of documentaries very interesting. Part of the joy of doing it is learning all of that. You just absorb it and it goes down inside you somewhere.
What do you feel is different about narrating compared to acting?
When you’re narrating the point is to try and to be clear and not speak in a monotone. I guess it’s a trick or gift or something. I seem to be pretty good at it. I’m a big fan of David Attenborough. He has that knack of getting information across.
You’re known for a very distinctive voice. How did you develop that?
When I was in school at the Los Angeles Community College, I was taking theater arts classes, which includes voice development. And I had a very good instructor there. That was the beginning of it.
What does your day-to-day life look like?
I get up. Two to three times a week I go to the gym, work out, stretch, play golf every day, weather permitting. Life has a routine: coffee, puzzles and stuff with my lady, and playing golf in the afternoons.
What are you hoping people take away from this show?
How tenacious life is. If we can get enough information out in time things will probably change, but not for a lot of us. The planet itself is what is alive. And we don’t need to be here.