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Q&A: “Welcome to Earth” team talks melding science with Hollywood

Welcome to Earth is a new hybrid adventure-science docuseries from National Geographic launching on Disney+ December 8 starring Will Smith and executive produced by Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky. The show ...
December 8, 2021

Welcome to Earth is a new hybrid adventure-science docuseries from National Geographic launching on Disney+ December 8 starring Will Smith and executive produced by Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky. The show comes from Nutopia, Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures and Smith’s Westbrook Studios.

More than two years in the making, Welcome to Earth — named for Smith’s iconic line in his breakout blockbuster hit Independence Day — had a production that rivalled a Hollywood epic, encompassing 92 shoots in 34 countries on all seven continents with more 700 crew and production team members from around the world. And with part of production taking place during the pandemic, it made a complex shoot even more complicated.

“We went to Iceland during the pandemic to shoot with Will and we discovered that Iceland didn’t actually have enough testing facilities for all the amounts of people and all the amounts of tests we were going to need over the period, so we ended up having to build our own lab there and getting government approval so that we could test ourselves, and then at the end, we gave that lab to the government,” showrunner Graham Booth tells Realscreen. “There was another case in Namibia where we had to pretty much build an airstrip to make sure that we could get everybody in and out in time. It’s just a scale that you rarely come across.”

The show teams Smith with a diverse group of talented explorers each episode who take him on adventures around the globe. While not movie stars themselves, the explorers each have an easy chemistry with Smith, whose charisma makes him a great audience surrogate as he asks questions about surviving in a desert, diving into a cave or crossing a gorge.

Realscreen spoke to Welcome to Earth showrunner Booth, executive producer Peter Lovering and Alan Eyres, SVP of production & development for National Geographic Content about the show.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

There’s a lot of impressive, state of the art technology being used in the series. How important was the tech aspect of the project?

Graham Booth: It was very important in two ways. First of all, we wanted to make something that looked amazing and was cinematic. And we wanted to use state-of-the-art cameras for that. But more importantly, the whole series is about trying to show that there’s hidden worlds all around us. In an era when we think we’ve explored every inch of the planet, there are still new frontiers, all around us all the time. But you sort of need to know how to look at those things, and they’re things that we normally miss, generally because they’re hard to see and hard to photograph. So there was quite a lot of new science that we investigated. And we sort of needed to put together new tech to visualize those things.

When we were filming in the submarine, in very low visibility, we were using existing cameras, but we had to hack into the software and build systems that altered the way they behaved so that we could, as it got darker and darker as you descended into the ocean, it would automatically adjust LED light levels and the camera levels, and also monitor how much heat and light they were putting out, because the submarine is a very temperamental environment, it needs to be very precisely balanced. So there’s quite a lot of stuff like that, where we were just having to find tech, or we were taking things that we were used to using in a studio or used to using in a lab and trying to find ways that we can make those work in the outside world.

How did the “nature series meets adventure movie” concept come about? Was that because you had a movie star involved?

Peter Lovering: We had been working on a show before for National Geographic called One Strange Rock, which Will Smith hosted. But he was hosting it primarily from the studio, so it was much more of a traditional linking role. We were very keen in this series to really get deeply into the world of exploration on the planet, and as Graham said, to discover those things that are hidden in plain sight. And Will was very keen to get out of the studio and to become part of the exploration, to go into the field. He’s made it very clear to us and has always said that being an explorer was something he always wanted to do. So it was a great opportunity for us to bring together his desire with our story in a way that felt like it was organic.

How did Smith and Darren Aronofsky come into the project?

Alan Eyres: We’re very lucky to have built great relationships with both Darren and Will through working on One Strange Rock. That series started way back in 2015, when we had the notion of making a series about how the planet worked with Nutopia, and Peter Rice suggested we talk to Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel at Protozoa. Darren and Ari brought not only an amazing, cinematic approach to the visuals, but a really rigorous and in-depth interest in science. Darren also attracts other high-level talent, and through that Will Smith came to the series. For One Strange Rock, we filmed Will in a studio and used him as a narrator. Before we’d even finished making One Strange Rock, we knew we had a really unique mix of creatives and wanted to do more. We hatched the idea of a bigger, more ambitious series for Disney+ which saw Will Smith travel the world and encounter first-hand some of the most amazing locations and natural phenomena — and that series became Welcome to Earth. So, working with Darren and Will has evolved and grown alongside our ambitions for factual television.

How does having a celebrity involved change a project like this?

PL: The biggest difference is the scale of operation. With a typical, traditional natural history show, basically it’s taking a number of camera people and a very small unit that goes out into the field for a very long time. And we did do some of that. We had people who were going out in smaller units to shoot some of the non-Will sequences. But we also then obviously had a much bigger operation, which ran alongside that, which was to actually film with Will in-situation. And those obviously were both complex, from the point of view of the number of people involved, but also complex just in terms of the the health and safety and the risk element as well. More people obviously means more health and safety. And we wanted to make sure that we were able to get Will into difficult places, but were able to make sure that it was also done in a way that was safe.

The other thing … was obviously the amount of time that you have with Will is limited, not surprisingly, he’s got a lot of other commitments. So we needed to find a way of filming with him in a very short and truncated period. And therefore we deployed a large number of cameras to be able to film as much as possible.

GB: It was partly because of the amount of time we had with him, but what we could have done in the same amount of time is really break down the sequences, script everything, direct it really tightly and just get the exact little bits that we wanted from him. But that wouldn’t have really served the show, because then he would have been basically working as an actor, grafted onto a show about something else. What we wanted was for him to have the experience that hopefully the viewers have, for real. So to go, “I can’t believe that’s happening in my eyes, that’s amazing.” To do that, we basically engineered it so whenever he walked onto location, he could go anywhere and do anything and say anything — just have the experience — and we would make sure that there were cameras there to cover that.

AE: In a world where audiences have infinite content choices, we’re aiming to make series which will instantly jump out at audiences with their scale and ambition, and working with A-list talent helps us greatly to achieve that. The key is the personal investment of the talent — both Chris and Will are voraciously curious and gave an astonishing amount of their time to travel the world and often undergo huge and daunting challenges, and in the process often reveal a lot about themselves. The result is to give audiences storytelling which is personal, intimate, and sometimes surprisingly funny — and puts human experience at the heart of stories about science.

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