One of the elements that draws an audience to natural history programming is unpredictability. As cameras follow the paths of exotic animals in the wild, we can never be really sure how the subjects will react to the situation, or what other elements will factor into the action. It makes for riveting viewing, but it can also make for sleepless nights for the filmmaker.
Judith Curran, NHNZ series producer for the upcoming international blue-chip miniseries Life Force from NHNZ, NHK, France Télévisions, Science Channel and Animal Planet International, can testify to the above. An episode of the series focusing on how marsupials have adapted to life in the arid Australian desert was bound to require long shoots in terribly hot temperatures – sometimes as high as 50 degrees Celsius. The team was fully prepared for the arduous nature of the shoot, as ultimately it would result in capturing these resilient animals in their true habitat.
‘We got there and it rained,’ she says with a hearty laugh, recounting the event on the eve of the completion of the series. ‘All of the locals were dancing in the street because of the rain and we were just standing there saying, ‘Great!’ So about two months later we went back and it was back to 50 degrees again.’
Yes, sometimes rare, once-every-two-decade events throw a monkey wrench into the most coordinated of shoots, especially in natural history. Still, challenges are to be expected when creating ambitious programming. And for the international team behind Life Force, ambition was a key element to the project. With NHNZ and NHK having already forged a formidable production relationship through two previous projects, the Wild Asia series and the more recent Equator (2005-2007), the decision was made to embark on something even larger, but the idea needed to crystallize.
‘The [previous] series had done well for NHK,’ says Neil Harraway, NHNZ’s executive VP of development and marketing. ‘So the question was mutual – what can we do next?’
NHK executive producer Shinichi Murata, who had worked on the previous two series, says the goal was to arrive at a concept that would extend beyond traditional natural history series. NHK gravitated towards the concept of ‘Hotspots’ – areas of the earth that are remarkable not only for their geographic splendor but also for the strange, hardy and in some cases endangered inhabitants within.
‘That’s why it’s called Life Force [internationally] – it’s not just a catalog of pretty places and things and wonderful animals but there is a thread followed,’ says Harraway. ‘The way we approached evolution with this was to go place by place, to the most remarkable places in the world that show the most remarkable end results of evolution.’
‘We were confident that we could combine the latest science on evolution and a blue-chip style of natural history successfully, and that the series [could] look new and intriguing,’ says Murata. The series employs exciting new tech developments, married to CGI from renowned Wellington-based VFX house Weta Digital, to provide its 21st century approach to blue-chip. However, it was also a priority to have great talent behind the camera, such as director Rory McGuinness.
Once it was decided that the series would focus on six different sites and their inhabitants, more thought had to be given to how to present the stories. Echoing Murata’s words, Curran says the option to employ a traditional blue-chip approach was nixed relatively early on.
‘What we’ve been doing is weaving quite complicated dramatic narratives within the evolutionary journey not only of the animal characters but of the land itself and how they interact,’ she offers. ‘So that has all led to really compelling narrative arcs, which are not always part of traditional wildlife shows. With our animal characters we have ‘A’ characters and ‘B’ and ‘C’ characters, much like in dramatic storytelling.’
COLLABORATION IS THE KEY
It’s an approach that found favor with other partners as well. Harraway says France Télévisions signed on as a copro partner early on, with Discovery Communications’ Science Channel and Animal Planet (as well as Animal Planet International) also taking part. While some may say the road to maintaining consistent editorial tone in a major international copro is fraught with danger, both NHK’s Murata and NHNZ’s team say such has not been the case with Life Force.
‘All of the coproducers wanted very similar things,’ says NHNZ executive producer Andrew Waterworth. ‘They wanted a story about evolution; they did not want a, shall we say, classical blue-chip wildlife series.’
‘We think our viewers will appreciate this beautiful series that shows exotic, strange and amazing ways that life mutates to survive and thrive,’ says Science Channel GM and EVP of programming Debbie Myers, calling NHK and NHNZ ‘wonderful creative partners.’ Science Channel will air the series in February under the name Mutant Planet.
Collaboration was key in not only financing the series – NHNZ says the series cost over US$1 million an hour to produce – but in developing content. With NHNZ filming two of the episodes (Australia and New Zealand) and NHK taking the other four (Africa, Brazil, Madagascar and Japan), and with NHNZ handling the post for all six, Murata says the teams worked side by side from the onset.
‘From the early development stage through the end, we have communicated very closely with each other,’ he says. ‘At the editing stage in New Zealand, I’ve always come to the editing suite to view [footage] directly and discuss issues face to face. However, there will always be some differences, and both sides will need some compromise.’
While Curran says Japanese audiences tend to prefer longer, slower shots of landscapes and vistas, American viewers may opt for faster-paced sequences. Still, ‘I think the stories are so fascinating that we don’t really have to fashion them particularly, and they work for any audience.’
‘While Kiwis don’t tend to pat themselves on the back too much, one of the great qualities we do have is the ability to work with everybody, to work by consensus and to engage, listen and to find creative solutions,’ adds Waterworth.
ADVENTURES ON THE FIELD
Creative solutions were often called for when attempting to document rare animal behaviors, many that had not been captured on camera before. Some of the oddities were filmed on sets, for cases where constant observation was needed to film a particular behavior, while care was also taken to document as much activity in the wild as well.
‘Filming the decisive moments of rare animals which have never been seen before is always challenging and the key to it is to have a good local network, good research and patience,’ says Murata. ‘We prepared those elements very carefully by taking time. Also, to increase the rare filming opportunities, we set as many small remote-controlled robot cameras as possible in every field.’
Other creatures that proved to be fascinating to observe included the carnivorous snail, which only eats once every six weeks and therefore required an NHNZ crew to watch over it in a constant vigil, for fear of losing the big shot. A cinematographer on the field for the Australian episode was able to gain the trust of a female red kangaroo and insert a tiny Iconix camera into her pouch to catch unique footage of her joey.
Curran and Waterworth also recall their encounter with the honey possum, which calls Western Australia home. Curran says NHK was very keen to have the wee marsupials in the Australia episode, not only for their rarity but for the evidence of their rather canny evolutionary strategy.
‘They’re the only surviving line of one particular species of marsupial, and the reason they survived is because the males have the largest testicles compared to body size of any living animal,’ she says with a laugh. ‘It’s like a man walking around with a pair of watermelons. And inside them they have the largest sperm of any mammal – bigger than the blue whales.’
Those attending the Wildscreen festival in November will get a sneak peek, when NHK will present material from the series during a screening. Murata says it will begin airing in Japan in the new year, probably under the title Hotspots: The Last Eden, and Harraway says most other partners will probably follow suit in 2011. Off the Fence will be handling international distribution. Curran reports that a New Zealand broadcaster hasn’t been firmed up yet, but all involved are very keen on releasing their work of the last couple of years to the world.
And while Waterworth admits that ‘the journey has had its twists and turns and unexpected dramas,’ when asked to summarize the thread that runs through the series, Curran’s words could very well apply to the making of Life Force itself: ‘Heroic stories and fantastic luck.’