In documentary filmmaking, tackling a mind boggling subject usually requires mind boggling amounts of work.
Take National Geographic’s upcoming tentpole series One Strange Rock. Combining big science and natural history, this globe-trotting take on the human experience is being shot in 40 countries, six continents and beyond Earth’s parameters at the International Space Station.
All told, thus far the production partnership between factual heavy-hitters Nutopia and Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures has traveled more than 1,470,000 kilometres — the equivalent of nearly two return trips to the Moon, or nearly 37 circumnavigations of Earth.
It’s no small wonder that Tim Pastore, president of non-fiction programming and production for Nat Geo, regards One Strange Rock as a melding of natural history and earth science “on steroids.”
While Nutopia has been a frequent partner on major series for Nat Geo (The 80s: The Decade That Made Us) and History (America: The Story of Us) among other nets, Aronofsky — director of such acclaimed features as Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan and mother! — and his team at Protozoa are relatively new to the non-fiction cable landscape.
Pastore says Aronofsky, who also directed the 2006 science fiction/magic realism hybrid The Fountain, is the “perfect choice to be at the helm of One Strange Rock, not just for his artistic ingenuity but also for his passion and advocacy for space, science and the conservation of our planet.”
Indeed, Aronofsky’s partner in Protozoa, Ari Handel, came to the subject with an avid interest and scientific cred as a trained neuroscientist.
With Protozoa brought to the table for the project by Fox Networks Group chairman and CEO Peter Rice, Handel says he was attracted by its scope and ambition — attempting to depict how the complexity and interconnectedness of Earth’s systems keep it habitable, and how it could have easily gone in a different direction.
“We seek to understand just how shockingly unique and delicate our planet is; just how precisely miraculous it is that life not only survives but thrives on this speck of a planet upon which we live,” he offers.
Accordingly, locations for the 10-part series have included some of the most “unique and delicate” places on Earth: the Lechuguilla cave in New Mexico; China’s Enshi Canyon; the Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, frequently called the most dangerous volcano on the planet; and the extremely arid Dallol desert in Ethiopia.
Nutopia began developing the project with Nat Geo in early 2015. Due to its scale, when production is complete, it will have been in production for more than 100 weeks. Still, according to Jane Root, Nutopia founder and exec producer for One Strange Rock, it was apparent from the outset what the fundamental building blocks of the series would be.
“Emotion and personality,” she says. “Those were our guiding principles from the beginning.”
Of course, those qualities would also be needed in presenters for the series. When the team was trying to figure out who could lead the audience on a journey that is not bound by geography — or even gravity — it looked to that elite group of people who could provide that perspective.
Thus, eight astronauts, including Chris Hadfield, will appear through the series.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, filming in some of the most hostile places on the planet made for challenging shoots. Crews encountered a live, lava-spitting volcano, and ventured two and a half miles underground for another shoot.
Audiences will see the results for themselves when the series debuts in the first quarter of 2018. In the meantime, Pastore and Nat Geo have high hopes that Nutopia and Protozoa will unearth a new way of looking at our world through One Strange Rock.
“With such a diverse array of talent backgrounds, this wonderfully creative mix allows us to deliver the most thrilling, out-of-this-world epic about our planet,” he enthuses.
This article first appeared in the September/October issue of realscreen