Behind the scenes of National Geographic Channel’s ‘Great Migrations’

In early November, National Geographic Channel will premiere Great Migrations, an epic seven-part series three years in the making. In our new Sept/Oct. issue, realscreen took a comprehensive look at what NatGeo is calling its most ambitious undertaking in its 122-year history.
October 14, 2010

In the end, the elephants knew something was dangerously wrong, even if the humans following them didn’t.

Acclaimed wildlife cinematographer Bob Poole and his team, stationed in Mali to follow the migratory behavior of elephants for an epic National Geographic Channel project, thought it strange when the creatures they’d trained their cameras on began to head back into the forest. But a rising, hazy tide of red sand clouds approaching the site at an alarming speed spelled out the danger that the animals could sense – a treacherous sand storm was on its way, about to engulf the crew. In footage shot by Poole and his team, the viewer sees Poole rooted behind the lens, saying, ‘We’re going to stick this out.’ The swirling clouds of sand, accompanied by howling gales, engulf the team and red turns to pitch black.

‘All of a sudden they saw this wall of sand coming at them,’ says Char Serwa, executive producer for National Geographic Channels, about the incident that was just one of the production challenges behind the making of the seven-part Great Migrations series, debuting Nov. 7 worldwide, except Italy, where it airs a week earlier. ‘And unlike any other normal human beings, they stayed there.’

Great Migrations, three years in the making, is a global programming event, with production teams from National Geographic Television traveling 420,000 miles across 120 countries and seven continents to capture the migrations of scores of species, utilizing state of the art filming technology and uncovering rarely-seen animal behaviors in the process.

A huge undertaking to be sure – indeed, Nat Geo is calling the Great Migrations campaign the largest cross-platform initiative in its history. The seven-hour series, narrated by Alec Baldwin for the U.S. and English-speaking countries with reversioned narration for other territories, will air in 166 countries in 34 languages, reaching 330 million homes. Six books and four magazines published by the National Geographic Society will feature Great Migrations content, accompanied by a comprehensive online hub with more info, footage and games; an iPhone app; DVD sets in HD and Blu-ray; lectures, screenings and exhibits and even a sweepstakes that will send viewers to four of the locations that the series covers.

‘It’s probably the most ambitious project in National Geographic’s 122-year history,’ admits NGC U.S. executive director of content Steve Burns, in explaining the origins of the project. ‘We thought there would be room in the landscape of landmark natural history for a show with real narrative arcs, where you can tell the stories of these animals in an in-depth, epic way.’


Poole is just one of the 27 principal cinematographers contributing to the breathtaking footage within the series, all of it shot in 1080p30, the first NatGeo film to be shot entirely in native Blu-ray format. Other top names in wildlife filmmaking bringing their expertise to the project included National Geographic explorers-in-residence Beverly and Dereck Joubert, shark aficionado Andy Brandy Casagrande IV and Emmy Award-winning nature cinematographer Neil Rettig. Each employed a combination of craft, cunning and ingenuity to get the shots needed in sometimes the most unforgiving of circumstances, with crews working in temperatures ranging from 20 below zero (to capture migrating walruses) to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

More than 800 hours of footage were culled from the two and a half years of filming, with more than 400 of those coming from underwater shoots and over 150 shot from helicopters. Phantom HD cams were employed for their ultra-slow motion capability, shooting up to 1,000 frames per second in true HD, while the super hi-def range of the RED camera was called upon for various polar and underwater shoots.

Aerial shoots were conducted with remote-controlled helicopters, systems rigged up to hot-air balloons, and extensive use of the Cineflex Heligimbal, the super-stabilized aerial Steadicam system that mounts under a helicopter and which contributed to several of Planet Earth‘s more incredible sequences. The ‘Frankencam’ motion control system, devised by Ammonite in the UK and used for the Smalltalk Diaries series, was used to nab spectacular ant footage.

Innovative techniques were explored to capture the migrating animal’s perspective as well. Monarch butterflies were outfitted with radio transmitters to aid in documenting their incredible journeys from Mexican forests to the U.S. and Canada and back again. A ‘Black Widow’ cable dolly system was built to allow cameras to fly through forest canopies, snaking through the trees to capture views seen by assorted animals on the move. Also, the ‘Crittercam,’ a camera that is affixed to an animal to provide its perspective, was employed for remarkable shark footage. That process saw one of the Migrations production team come a little closer to an 18-foot great white than intended, when he was bumped off of his boat by the shark while attempting to attach the Crittercam to its dorsal fin.


Burns gives longtime Nat Geo vet and series producer David Hamlin credit for not only being able to act as a bridge between the scientists consulting on the series and the production teams in the field, but also for his penchant for being at the right place at the right time.

He recounts the team’s efforts to capture the migration of nearly 50 million red crabs on Christmas Island, between Australia and Indonesia, across its forests to the ocean to dig holes for incoming females to lay eggs within. When the eggs are laid, more often than not they are caught by the tides, eaten by fish or scattered by rains and storms. Once every few years, the stars, weather patterns and other circumstances align and the eggs make it back to the shoreline, allowing millions of crablings to emerge from the waters and virtually overrun the beaches as they straggle back to the forests in what Burns calls ‘a rolling pink carpet making its way out of the sea.’

‘The return of the babies only happens every eight to 10 years,’ says Hamlin. ‘When I got this project, I got very excited about telling that story because I saw it as a kid in National Geographic magazine. I immediately called Christmas Island and spoke to the ranger there. He told me that the last time the babies had come was eight years ago. So we took a chance, went out there, and were at the right place at the right time.

‘There’s no doubt that being with this organization provides the ability to live out some childhood fantasies; that trip was one of them,’ he says.

‘I’ve always said it’s good to have a good producer but it’s even better to have a producer with luck,’ sums up Burns. ‘And Hamlin is one of them.’

Luck was needed often over the course of the transcontinental shoots, whether it was for Adam Ravetch’s crew that found its boat, already low on fuel, surrounded by ice while shooting walruses in Alaska, or for the squad traversing the wild off-road terrain of the Sudan in search of the elusive white-eared kob. In that instance, Bob Poole, producer James Byrne and their team were the first in close to 30 years to make the trek in order to capture on camera a species thought to have been wiped out by the violence gripping the region during its civil war. ‘We worked with the government and we were actually the first team allowed in there, so we have Permit Number One, which we’re framing,’ says Serwa with a laugh.


The end result will provide viewers with a unique window on the often miraculous and always mesmerizing migratory habits of millions of animals. Hamlin, Serwa and Burns cite the danger-fraught path taken yearly by more than a million wildebeests, across rivers teeming with crocodiles, as one of the more moving cycles of life they were able to document. In that shoot, the crew captured particularly heartbreaking footage of a baby being pulled back underwater by a crocodile while its mother, on shore, watches helplessly.

Serwa and Hamlin also point to a sequence featuring a zebra foal suckling on its dead mother. As the herd continues forward, its father stays behind with the foal, allowing his harem to move on without him and patiently waiting for the young zebra to join him. ‘Beverly and Dereck (Joubert, cinematographers for the scene) have shot in Africa for 25 or 30 years and they had never seen anything like it,’ says Serwa, who adds, ‘It’s been a joy to work on this project.’

Hamlin agrees, saying that even from the beginning, the team behind Great Migrations worked with a specific ‘mantra’ in mind, focusing on giving a deeper meaning to the concept of migration for the average viewer.

‘The feedback I get from people who have seen this already is that they are moved and inspired, and I hope they are changed,’ he says. ‘I do hope that the mantra will linger forever – that people will no longer just think, ‘Wow, isn’t that beautiful?’ when they see a migration, but they’ll think, ‘I’m rooting for you guys.”

For more from Realscreen’s Sept/Oct 2010 issue, click here.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.