National Geographic Specials celebrates 35 years

Over the past 35 years, National Geographic Specials have taken TV viewers to the top of the world and the bottom of the ocean, inside the human body and to the origin of man. They have explored exotic habitats ranging from...
August 1, 2000

Over the past 35 years, National Geographic Specials have taken TV viewers to the top of the world and the bottom of the ocean, inside the human body and to the origin of man. They have explored exotic habitats ranging from rain forests to deserts, introduced such intriguing individuals as Jacques Cousteau and Jane Goodall, and brought a veritable menagerie of animals into our homes.

Producing these polished presentations, however, required innovation from the men and women in the field. NGS filmmakers have gamely accepted the challenge of finding new methods and techniques to get the stories – even taking life-threatening risks in the process.

Whatever it takes

To shoot the rain forest canopy for ‘Exploring the High Frontier,’ cameraman Neil Rettig had to figure out how to get up 200-foot-tall trees. ‘Just about every shot was off the ground, so it required climbing,’ he says. ‘No matter how careful we were, there was always the underlying possibility of someone getting seriously hurt.’

Rettig’s solution was to rig rope-running mechanisms that allowed him to move vertically up through the canopy at high speeds. He shot a thin cable over a tree limb via a crossbow and attached a climbing rope to the cable. He then climbed using ascenders, or ‘jumars’ – toothed handles that grip the rope tightly. Equipment was hauled on a separate pulley.

When not in the trees, he was atop them. A canopy luge – an inflated triangular sled with netting on the bottom – was suspended from a dirigible and could land on the canopy, effectively allowing him to ‘walk’ across the face of the swaying trees. Using hand-helds, Rettig filmed the biologists collecting samples from angles impossible from the ground or by climbing.

An even riskier shot found him suspended from a blimp on makeshift scaffolding (think window-washer) to film the pilots and the luge below. ‘It was kind of scary,’ he says. ‘The hardest thing was changing lenses and film loads, because if I dropped anything, I doubt I would have been able to find it.’

Rettig has been shooting footage in the rain forest canopy for over 25 years and has learned by trial and error. He originally used climbing spikes similar to those worn by telephone workmen. But in 1973, a slip spelled a 55-foot fall, which resulted in broken ribs.

He says he was relieved when the ‘Frontier’ shoot was over, and nobody was hurt. ‘There’s always an element of risk when you are climbing. No matter how confident you are about a branch that you’re attaching a rope to, you never know if it is hollow.’

While shooting in the Namibian desert for ‘Survivors of the Skeleton Coast,’ filmmaker Mark Stouffer encountered challenges of a different sort. ‘Your eyes hurt. Your nostrils bleed. You’re hot beyond any level of hot you’ve experienced,’ he says. It’s a place where an injury, infection or a stuck vehicle can prove fatal. Stouffer always brings along someone who shares his blood type – just in case.

And then there are the filmmaking complications, which require meticulous planning of every necessary supply, from gear to beer. His crew spent over 40 days in the desert shooting ‘Skeleton,’ the nearest village more than nine hours away.

Daytime light and heat distortion rendered midday shooting near-impossible. ‘The only way to solve the problems of light and heat is to realize that your best aesthetic look is during the first two hours of the morning and the last two hours of the day,’ Stouffer says.

Shooting toward the ground instead of across the horizon reduced heat distortion. Stouffer mounted fixed cameras on an ultralight and shot from heights of 50 feet, which allowed him to track a herd of rare desert elephants without affecting their movements. ‘The ultralight gives you a perspective that isn’t only beautiful but makes you appreciate the amount of space out there.’

During night shoots, Stouffer used an endoscope to film creatures in small crevices, and lanterns and flashlight configurations to get a moody, expedition aura. He shot from blinds at an oasis, waiting for days for elephants to appear at the watering hole.

Desert conditions are tough on humans but vicious to equipment. Blowing sand jams camera gears or can get caught in the gate, scratching film – a problem often undetected until it returns from the lab. Film stock must be refrigerated or the grain might explode. Whipping wind complicates sound recording.

‘The thing about the desert is that it’s you and space,’ Stouffer says. ‘There’s something magical and primitive about that space. To capture it on film is a great challenge.’

If you build it…

To capture images in adverse filming conditions without disturbing the animal’s habitat or behavior, NGS film-makers have utilized a variety of tools and techniques.

Crittercam, a lightweight device attached to marine life by suction cups, was pioneered by Doug Marshall of National Geographic’s special projects division. Crittercam has been a near-obsession for Marshall since he first devised the idea 14 years ago as a means to study shark behavior. The seven-inch long, 3.5-inch diameter, torpedo-shaped device includes a camera and six hours of videotape, as well as audio and environmental recording devices. For deepwater photography, an infra red light can be amplified 50,000 times by a photo multiplier tube integrated in the camera. In ‘Sea Monsters: Search for the Giant Squid,’ the Crittercam captured film and sound records of whales in depths of up to 700 meters, and in ‘Great White Shark,’ it made it possible to record shark activity without human provocation.

In ‘The Incredible Machine,’ a pencil-size lighted probe called a culdoscope was equipped with a telescopic lens to give viewers their first look at a human fetus. Time-lapse photography showed an egg erupting from the ovary, the egg being fertilized and maturing. The special also employed an endoscope to capture images inside the lungs and stomach.

Lisa Truitt deployed a remote camera over the ice edge in ‘Arctic Kingdom: Life at the Edge’ to capture difficult-to-film narwhals, because the animals scatter if they sense a human presence. ‘Narwhals even sense footsteps on the ice,’ Truitt says. ‘By dropping a small lipstick camera over the ice edge, we could then sit quietly on the ice without moving, watching the monitor and recording at will.’

Lenses were winterized and a special rig was built for the lipstick camera that could be operated by remote control. Underwater footage was shot on video, which works better in the darker conditions under the ice.

Aside from the challenges of filming, simply existing in the Arctic is difficult. Much time was spent sitting in tents (the first of two seasons of filming yielded little); others, running for safety. Camped on the ice edge as it was breaking and melting, Truitt sometimes had minutes to pack and dash, or risk drifting off. ‘There were times we were running for safe ice, and even if an animal had done a back flip in front of us, we couldn’t stop and film.’

While scouting locations, Truitt left supplies in Lancaster Sound in Northeast Canada (the nearest village was days away), including gas for an ultralight airplane she would use for overhead shots. An ultralight hadn’t been used to film in that area before and carried substantial risks if Arctic winds kicked up.

‘You don’t know where the action is going to be and once you do figure it out, you have to find a way to get there,’ she says, noting with frustration that it often seemed that her Inuit guide located polar bears or ice cracking just as the crew got into their sleeping bags.

‘Arctic filming takes a lot of planning,’ she warns. ‘If you’re on the ice and forget one thing, and that one thing is the thing you need for the shot, there’s nothing you can do.’

Time is of the essence

Sometimes, it’s basic field craft, patience and understanding of animal behavior that has produced stunning images. In ‘Puma: Land of the Andes,’ cameraman Hugh Miles was able to track pumas over difficult Chilean mountain terrain by comprehensively learning their day-to-day habits over several months. David and Carol Hughes (‘Etosha: Place of Dry Water,’ ‘Rain Forest,’ among others) spend upwards of three years in locales. ‘We’re not technologically innovative. We’re old-fashioned filmmakers who feel time is everything,’ says David Hughes. ‘It’s increasingly rare to get that amount of time. When we’ve needed more time, National Geographic has always given it to us.’

According to Michael Rosenfeld, executive producer for NGS, budgets for Specials typically range around US$600,000, with two years for each shoot. But, he adds, ‘sometimes you have to throw your budget out the window or take a third year because going after things that people feel are impossible is incredibly tough to do.’

Filmmakers Paul and Grace Atkins currently find themselves at that crossroads. For two springs, they have failed to capture the never-before-filmed interaction between grey whales and killer whales when their paths cross in Monterey Bay. The pair has collected enough film and story angles to complete their project, but they’d like one more crack at it – which means waiting another year. And Nat Geo is willing to let them have a third try, even if it means the film is delayed.

Then and now

Nicholas Noxon, former executive producer of NGS, says that while the early Specials could not take claim for any new technological developments, they did take advantage of emerging technologies, including commercial Kodachrome (the first practical professional color 16mm stock), lightweight 16-sync sound cameras, and audio devices to record location sound (replacing sound effects).

In fact, the concept of NGS was innovative for its time. Natural history, science and adventure programming are in demand today, but that wasn’t the case in 1965, when most televised docs (produced by network news divisions) didn’t cover ‘soft’ topics.

On September 10, 1965, the first NGS, ‘Americans on Everest,’ debuted on CBS withthe first televised images from the summit of Everest. The Specials aired on CBS through 1973, went to ABC for a year, to PBS for 20 years and moved to NBC in 1995. NGS returns to PBS this fall with six programs.

From the start, NGS introduced viewers to scientists and naturalists who did pioneering groundwork across a swath of disciplines; a relationship that grew out of research financed by the National Geographic Society. ‘These people rarely had any public exposure except in lectures,’ Noxon says. ‘We discovered that we couldn’t do justice to their subject matter without telling their stories as well.’

‘World of Cousteau’ (1966) was Jacques Cousteau’s first American television exposure. ‘Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees’ (1965) and ‘Search for the Great Apes’ (1976) introduced the work of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, respectively. ‘Dr. Leakey and the Dawn of Man’ (1966) turned Richard Leakey into a celebrity (and earned Nat Geo the wrath of the Bible Belt, Noxon notes). Before he found the Titanic, Bob Ballard was featured in ‘Dive to the Edge of Creation’ (1980).

‘The close relationships we’ve developed with scientists who get close with subjects allows us to do intimate and in-depth storytelling because of the hard work those scientists have put in over the years,’ says Keenan Smart, head of Geographic’s natural history unit.

How NGS tell stories has changed with the times. Early Specials were heavy on music and narration. David and Carol Hughes, who were the first NGS filmmakers to have no on-camera humans and minimal music (‘Etosha’), were considered revolutionary in the late ’70s. ‘We wanted the images to carry the film, to give the experience of actually being there,’ says David Hughes. Rosenfeld expects future Specials to be more cutting-edge in their storytelling techniques, using HD, DV and other means that appeal to a younger generation.

NGS storytelling is intimate; you don’t just get a sense of place, but get to know the wildlife and the scientists. What is considered an animal story and a people story is blurring, Rosenfeld says. Specials reflect the reality that animals increasingly don’t live isolated lives from humans, such as the story of the controversial wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone, in the upcoming ‘Return of the Wolf.’

Whether it’s tracking an animal or searching the ocean depths, NGS continues to provide a window to the world around us. ‘A lot of people my age, who were school kids 20 years ago, remember being inspired by these Specials,’ Rosenfeld says. ‘We want to work with that next generation of inspiring characters and find the new Jane Goodalls.’

National Geographic Specials: Highlights from 35 years

September 1965 – the first Special, ‘Americans on Everest,’ airs on CBS, narrated by Orson Wells

December 1965 – ‘Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees’ introduces the world to the now famous primatologist

October 1975 – New technology offers a look inside the human body in ‘The Incredible Machine’

January 1981 – ‘Etosha: Place of Dry Water’ debuts. With this film, producers David and Carol Hughes commence a relationship with Nat Geo that continues to this day

January 1982 – ‘The Sharks’ airs on PBS, and sparks its own sub-genre

August 1998 – the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awards National Geographic Television the Governor’s Award

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.