Nat Geo’s Secret to Capturing ‘Hostile Planet’s Most Savage Wildlife

National Geographic Switzerland - Bear Grylls filming in the Swiss Pennine Alps for the 'Mountains' Episode.

Hosted by Bear Grylls, National Geographic premiers its newest wildlife show, Hostile Planet on April 1. The six-part mini series, executive produced by Oscar winning cinematographer and director, Guillermo Navarro, along with Emmy Award winning showrunner, Tom Hugh-Jones, Hostile Planet takes viewers into Earth’s most extraordinary places to show how animals are adapting to life in its cruel and unforgiving areas.

For those worrying that the series is six hours of seeing animals tortured, or a tome on climate change, Hugh-Jones, who spent two decades working with BBC’s Natural History Unit on their long-running hit series Planet Earth, assured Heavy, it’s not. He told us that the goal with Hostile Planet was to present “something that shows you how the world is today… and to make it spectacular and exciting.”

National GeographicGuillermo Navarro (L) and Tom Hugh-Jones

Hugh-Jones, a fearless producer, who travelled to Canada to film the wolves and buffalo for the episode, “Grasslands,” where the crew closely tracked a pack of wolves hunting bison in the snow. The showrunner also sailed to the Arctic to film the polar bears for the series finale, “Polar,” which he described as being a dream come true, but also one of the most difficult shoots of his life.

A young female Polar Bear on the island of Svalbard in ‘Hostile Planet.’

“We planned the trip in the winter,” he said, “and it was the warmest winter the Poles have ever had. There was almost no sea ice. Then, there was this freak weather, which is becoming more and more common, and just before we turned up, the whole place froze again. And we had to break through the ice to get the polar bears, again. You’d wake up and the boat would just be locked in this ice, and you spend your whole time trying to push your way through. You kind of move with the wind, and you think you’re going to go through this channel, but then wind changes…” he wrapped up his thoughts by saying that the boat captain didn’t tell him until afterward how much danger they were actually in at the time.

Cameraman, David Reichert filming the Emperor Penguins on ‘Hostile Planet’

In addition to the boat captain and Hugh-Jones, there were only four other people on board, two cameraman and two spotters, and they were out in the Arctic for six weeks. Hugh-Jones said, “My kids didn’t really appreciate that,” but that when it comes to filming wildlife, “We’re not glamorous. We save all of the money that people usually spend on posh hotels and fancy dinners, to be out in the wild as long as possible. That’s when you get the good stuff. The longer you spend out there, the more likely you are to capture the action.”

To be clear, it’s the cardinal rule of every professional wildlife documentarian to never interfere with the animals’s natural way of doing things. In order to catch something wonderfully dramatic, the not-so-secret secret is that you don’t do anything, except wait, and watch. “You can’t predict what’s going to happen and some shoots just don’t pan out,” Hugh-Jones said. “So, you have to be adaptable, and change your plans. Halfway through, you may think oh my god, this show.. or this episode isn’t going to work, but you have to keep your nerve.”

Camera operator Cristian Dimitrius filming the wettest time of year in the Amazon Jungle.

Filming in the ocean was also challenging, as Hugh-Jones mentioned the obvious reason, “the whole water element.” He said when shooting someplace like the Serengeti, “you just have a cameraman and a director,” but when shooting underwater, “you need a whole dive team and then boats that are expensive to operate. You have this vast, big ocean to find the animals, so it’s logistically harder. And then when you find them, you have to get in the water, and catch up with the animals. They can swim really fast so it’s tough.”

According to the wildlife producer, all this effort to film in such unrelenting atmospheres, it absolutely pays off. “And it’s all that much more wonderful because it is other worldly,” Hugh-Jones said. “You become obsessed. We’re out there every day before sunrise and go to bed after sunset. You think ‘Oh that, lion is asleep, there’s no point in staying here.’ And nine days out of 10, it’s not worth while. But there’s that one day where they do get up and do something interesting, and if you’re not there to cover it, you won’t get it. You just have to be determined and tenacious.”

National GeographicCameraman Miguel Willis filming gelada monkeys in Ethiopia.

While having wildlife superstar Bear Grylls as host and filmmaker Navarro, who won an Academy Award for Pan’s Labyrinth on board is fantastic, Hughe-Jones insists that the animals are the true superstars of the series. “Most people aren’t even aware of these incredible animals,” he said. “because they are incredibly hard to accurately capture on film in their incredibly hostile planet.”

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