"'Untamed Americas' has made me realize just how special this land is, what incredible diversity and variety there is. It's a bit of a love affair," says Karen Bass, producer of the four-part nature documentary that premieres on National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo Wild on June 10 with "Mountains," followed by "Deserts," "Forests" and "Coasts." "Being a Brit with an outside perspective, I have come to realize how many people don't appreciate what they have right there in their own backyards. Making the series has opened my eyes," Bass continued. A passionate world traveler and an award-winning wildlife documentarian for the BBC's Natural History Unit, Bass climbed up erupting volcanoes, swam with whales and sea lions, got attacked by a giant river otter and had spiders fall on her head in the Amazon, and had cockroaches climbing on her feet while filming in bat caves in the course of making the series. She shared her making-of experiences with MNN.com.
MNN: How did you decide what to focus on?
Karen Bass: The criteria that we as a team were looking at were new stories and thinking about how we could surprise our audience. The scope of the Americas, from Alaska all the way down to Patagonia, is an amazing canvas with so many landscapes and animals to choose from. We wanted to find some new creatures to showcase while also finding a fresh angle for some of the more familiar faces like grizzly bears.
Why organize it into the four themes you chose?
That was a very obvious and clear way to organize the programs because it enabled us to really appreciate the variety and diversity of the different types of landscapes and to take a journey down the American Cordillera, which as you know runs from Alaska to Patagonia and includes the longest mountain range on the planet, the Andes. It's also a very clear spine through the continent — that north to south journey gave us a narrative spine as well as a geological and geographical spine and to be able to group the habitats like that gave us a sense of variety and showed the scope of what the Americas has to offer.
What kind of preparation and research went into it?
Massive amounts! As always with these natural history shows, so much of the success of the filming is in the planning and preproduction — so first you start with the research, contact scientists and other cameramen, try to work out what's filmable, what kind of technology is necessary, what time of the year you need to film certain shots and how long you need to be there. Every single shoot is so different — an aerial shoot has all sorts of different parameters associated with it, underwater you have to know what the currents are doing, have good visibility — you may have all the creatures there but not be able to see them! On land, you may be sitting in a hide for days or weeks on end; with that kind of photography usually the creatures need to have a hide in place several weeks before the cameramen show up. That enables them to get use to the hide, so that by the time the cameramen arrive, they're habituated and not taking any notice of it. So much of what we do is really about being invisible to the animals so they'll just play out their natural and normal behaviors and that is all about preparation and making sure you have the right technology and the right systems to help facilitate that.
What were the biggest challenges, logistical, physical, environmental and creative?
Well, a lot of it depends on the environment. The Altiplano was a very challenging place to work at 15,000 feet. It's cold up there; especially at night, you can't feel your fingers or toes. It's hard to breathe at that level, never mind picking up several pounds of kit and lugging it around. You have to be careful about where you tread — those caustic pools — you hear about people falling into hot springs. So you've got to keep your wits about you, especially at night. And of course the altitude sickness is one of the biggest challenges. Luckily I haven't suffered from it significantly, aside from the occasional headache.
One of the other challenges in the Amazon is dampness, which can be very detrimental to the equipment. Keeping the kit dry is one of the great challenges working in those environments, while in the desert, it's all about keeping the sand out. It gets in the all the lenses and takes forever to keep everything clean and working as it should. And that of course is on top of heat exhaustion, making sure the crew is drinking water, taking rests — pretty much the same kinds of things you'd consider before going on a long hike — the difference is with these guys, they're carrying heavy equipment, operating cranes, and running around with cameras.
Which were the most difficult animals to film? Why?
None of them are easy. If you're looking for really incredible behavior it's always difficult because often these animals are very elusive. For example, the puma down in Torres del Paine, I tried years ago to film them and all I saw were their kills. I never actually caught a glimpse. This time we got fantastic shots, executed by a very talented cameraman, John Shier, and a wonderful story which played out in front of him about a family of mountain lions, two of which were learning to hunt. They only have a few weeks to learn and to be in the right place at the right time with such an elusive creature takes a lot of local knowledge. Luckily we had a fantastic person to work with in Chile who was able to help the cameramen and crew get familiar with these creatures. That is one of the holy grails in natural history filmmaking, getting creatures like that.
Others are challenging not because they're shy, but because they're so unpredictable. To film the Mobula rays (in the "Coasts" episode) you've got to be in the right place at right time because they appear in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico en masse out of the blue — literally from the depths of the sea. I thought if we were lucky we'd get one or two hundred, but as it turned we got tens of thousands! We shot them from the air, underwater, and leaping out of the water and flying through the air — and these are not small creatures. They have a wingspan of seven feet across so you can imagine how incredible it is to see these creatures flying through the air. Everyone said they'd never seen an aggregation this big in their lifetime. So sometimes, you really luck out. It's all about being in the right place at the right time.
Another shot we hoped to get was grizzlies feeding on a whale carcass and heard this could happen in Alaska in the summer months. So we had what we called a grizzly hotline. We asked one of our colleagues, Mark Emery, a cameraman who worked on the series, to keep an ear to the ground and to scramble to get on location and film it if it happened. The whole first summer passed — nothing. The whole of the second summer passed and we were right in the end of the period where this could happen, and amazingly we got the call. Sure enough it was about six grizzlies; they can smell the rotting carcass from miles away and can't resist the temptation to get a hold of that fat and blubber to lay down their fat reserves before they hibernate. Everyone who's seen it remarks that the grizzlies look like us after a Thanksgiving dinner. Being a Brit, it's more like after Christmas lunch ...
Was there anything you couldn't get?
There's always something you didn't get. But the thing is, if you've done everything right and luck wasn't with you, so be it. One of the great things you have to do from the outset with filmmaking is have a "plan b" and move on quickly to make sure you're getting the next best option. Thankfully for us, a lot of what we set out to get was successful. And sometimes you get things you weren't expecting. What you may have missed on one shoot you can more than make up for it in others.
Any dangerous/close call moments?
When John Shier was filming the pumas at dusk, he looked around and saw one of the young pumas taking an interest, which shocked him a bit at the time. By and large they're not interested in humans, but maybe the youngsters were curious and trying to learn the ropes with anything that moves. Producer Andy Mitchell had an unfortunate accident boarding a dive boat while filming dolphins in Brazil and lost the tip of his little finger. That sort of thing can happen anytime you're working with boats and swells, as any diver will tell you. And of course there's always the possibility of heat exhaustion, altitude sickness, etc., but we do a lot to mitigate risk and try and keep everyone safe.
What are your favorite sequences that you're most proud of getting?
I'm very proud of our tube lipped nectar bat probably for all the obvious reasons: it's a first as a creature that was only discovered in 2005 in the cloud forests of Ecuador. It's amazing when you think about the fact that there are incredible animals like still being discovered. Then there's the tongue itself – if it was a human, it would have a nine-foot tongue! The reason the tongue is longer than the length of its body is so it can penetrate these incredibly beautiful white flowers — the tongue penetrates down to the base of the flower and has loads of tiny little cups on it to suck up as much nectar as possible. If you were looking at that as a human, you'd never be able to see it — it would be so quick and it happens at night. But if you slow down the action by 40 times using a phantom camera, that gives you an incredible insight as you watch this creature's ability to hover in the air and then to uncurl that tongue down, control it, get the nectar — it's quite incredible. We're very proud of that, partly because of the way it was shot and the technology involved but also because it's a really cool story and a brand new animal.
How long did you spend on the project beginning to end?
Just over two years. The majority was done in just over a year, which is incredible when you look at all the different countries we filmed in — the seasons really dictate when you can film and what you can film so fitting that into an incredibly short time was a challenge. Sometimes we had 12 shoots going on at once.
What place(s) were you in the longest?
Torres del Paine in Patagonia for about four weeks as well as Punta san Juan (the desert coast of Peru) to film sea lions and penguins for about four weeks.
What did you learn from the experience? Did it change you in any way?
I suppose what it reminded me, because sometimes we all forget, what an amazing land the untamed Americas are — the variety, the scope, the extremes — the stories I hadn't heard before, the surprises ... It's great to be surprised, to find new things, to find new ways of filming maybe familiar subjects and it's been fantastic working with my team here at National Geographic Channel who have become great friends as well as colleagues, to be inspired again by places and creatures, that's a wonderful feeling. Also being left with the feeling that there is so much more to explore — places I haven't been to yet and creatures I would love to see.
Why was Josh Brolin the right narrator?
Josh was the perfect narrator for this series. He's got a fantastic voice that works really well with this type of show. It's a great storytelling voice and he tells a great story. Personally, he was just really wonderful to work with and so much fun. We think he's done a fantastic job. We're grateful he loved the show and wanted to work with us.
Is there a conservation call to action/initiative? If so why is this important?
There's not a direct one, but personally I believe that being aware of what is out there is always the first step. Of course there's so much more beyond just knowing about it — it's trying to make your audience care enough about it, to introduce them to these diverse and incredible landscapes and all the animals that depend on those wilderness areas ... once it's gone, it's gone for good. We try to engage our audience with incredible and intimate stories featuring extreme environments and epic landscapes, and of course those extremes are challenging for all the animals who have to survive there. Often our stories are intimate dramas that bring to life how these creatures go about surviving, whether it's a mother trying to raise a family or an old male trying to get back into the herd, all of these little dramas can be the difference between life and death for these animals. We want to emotionally engage our audience in those stories but also to show the incredible epic backdrop in which all those stories play out.
What do you hope audiences will take away?
If they can feel just a little bit of the passion for these places and creatures that I have, then that would be great. Ultimately I hope they'll be surprised and realize what a cool place the untamed Americas are. Perhaps some will want to get out and experience it for themselves. Maybe the next generation of wildlife protectors, filmmakers or future biologists will be inspired as well as entertained.
Photos courtesy National Geographic