Originally published in Your National Forests 2013. See full PDF here.
On May 19th, 2013, the Discovery Channel aired the first episode of its new seven-part series, “North America.” Narrated by award-winning actor Tom Selleck, the series is an epic look at the wildlife, geography and landscape of the North American continent.
The NFF’s Greg M. Peters had a chance to sit down with Series Producer, Huw Codrey, and Executive Producer, Keith Scholey, to discuss what it’s like to make a series like “North America.” The following excerpt captures the essence of what the filmmakers hope their audience takes away from the series and shares some details about how these filmakers approach wildlife filmmaking. To learn more behind- the-scenes details, find out who’s a better narrator, Tom Selleck or Samuel L. Jackson, and discover what happens when a polar bear tries to break into your cabin hundreds of miles from civilization, read the full interviews at: http://www.nationalforests.org.
NFF: Can you tell us a bit about the “North America” series?
Codrey: Yes. I think that in a line, it really is the natural history story of North America, how the continent’s landscape and weather have shaped its wild inhabitants.
NFF: What’s the primary impression you’re hoping that viewers will get at the end of the series?
Codrey: Well for me, I think the overriding impression that I do hope they get is the sense of the enormous variety of landscapes and diversity of wildlife. I mean, the North American continent really is incredible. You’ve got every type of habitat: you’ve got deserts, you’ve got rainforests, you’ve got temperate forests, you’ve got mountains and coasts—great coasts—so it really has everything. So what I really hope, if it’s not already known by the people who live there, what I really hope is that they come away with this sense of incredible variety and diversity.
NFF: What would you like viewers to understand most about the wildlife and geography of North America after watching the series?
Scholey: I think even for Americans, they probably don’t get just how magnificent it really is. What its huge range is—the scenery, the wildlife. It always continues to surprise me, the more and more I learn about it. It is a magnificent continent and there are some fantastic things in it.
Codrey: But I think also there’s sort of another theme, and it goes back to what I said just earlier about how the landscape shaped its wild inhabitants. I think it’s not pushing it too far to say that there’s a parallel with humans as well—how the North American continent has shaped its human inhabitants, which you might have been able to see in the pioneer spirit; you know, this sort of tough resilience and resourcefulness that a lot of the wildlife has. I think you can see that in some of the American people, particularly in the early pioneers.
NFF: Did the geography of the continent shape the way you approached the filming?
Codrey: Yes it did. There was one fact that we came across early on, and you know I was almost sort of embarrassed to have discovered this later; but I’m glad I discovered this when I did because I’ve actually lived in the States for two years and traveled around 20 or 30 of the states. But it is something that doesn’t seem to be known by many North Americans either. There is no east-west mountain range, so there’s nothing to stop the cold air from the Arctic meeting the warm air of the South, and that single geological fact has this enormous impact on North America as seen in the extreme weather and, of course, that extreme weather helps shape the animal’s responses. I mean there’s a huge migration of animals between North and South America. Ninety percent of the world’s tornadoes appear in North America, in tornado alley as it were—the Midwest—so the geography did make an enormous difference to how we thought about this continent.
NFF: Did you approach filming a documentary in North America differently than you approach the work you’ve done in Africa or elsewhere around the globe?
Scholey: Surprisingly not. I think that with the natural world it’s always the same. Animals, wherever you go, inhabit the same wild places. So that’s pretty similar. Obviously you have huge advantages in North America with the infrastructure that you have. So you can often do things: you can get to equipment, you can get support in all sorts of ways which would be really tough in certain parts of Africa where in America it’s incredibly easy. I guess on the other side, you have a place that’s well managed, well organized, and that can be more restricting in some ways. I think the approach is always the same. The practicalities are different working in these different places and vary a lot. Mind you, you go into the deserts of Mexico or right up into the northern tundra of Canada and boy, you know you’re in some pretty wild places.
NFF: Do you approach a series like “North America” with a fairly rigid and set story-line in mind, or do you tease the stories out after the filming is done and you know what footage you have on hand?
Codrey: Good question. I think that when we start one of these big series, we always do a considerable amount of research. So we start off with the best case, and we sort of say, “This is what we want to film, and these examples will help tell the story we want to tell.” But as you sort of intimated, things don’t always work out as planned, so I think that you have to adapt as you go. I’ve worked on very few of these big natural history series where we’ve ended up exactly with what we started with in terms of the sequence and content. Mostly you are adapting as you go along.
Scholey: The process we go through is that we first try and take the big picture and think, “What is the best way to break this continent up into different subjects?” And then once we’ve done that, we drill into what are the great stories, and we research and research and research to find those stories. Part of that is not just what are the great stories, but what do they look like? Is it going to be practical to be able to film it, etc.? And all that preparation goes into the scripts that we actually create. Once we’re on the path then, of actually having done that work, then we tend to try and stick to that, because then you’re really committing your money to where you’re going to do the filming. But that said, when you turn up on location, you’ve got the story in mind and you think, “Right, we’re going to do this and this and this.” And you turn up and it’s like, “Hey guys, this doesn’t quite fit the script.” Then we just go with what happens. And I think with natural history, you always have that. You know the natural world surprises, and you want to go with the surprises. So yeah, we have a pretty clear and structured way to go forward, but then we’re fluid when we actually get into what’s going on in each sequence.
NFF: What’s a typical day like during the production of a series like “North America?”
Codrey: It really depends on where you are. If you’re in the office, there’s a lot of planning and logistics of shoots with production coordinators, keeping a tag on the budgets, working out some of the details of a story you want to film with researchers and assistant producers and cameramen. In the field, it’s completely different. It’s getting up extremely early, very often 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, depending on where you are. Sometimes it’s looking for your subjects all day and not finding them. But thankfully in every shoot, there’ll be those moments of serendipity, where you get something you didn’t expect or what you did go out to film happens, and it can all happen in five minutes. I think one of the things to realize about working with wildlife films as opposed to any other television genre is that you can have a two, three, four, five-week shoot and the first four and a half weeks could be utter failure. You may not get anything. You’re working tirelessly. You’re getting up, spending 15 or 16 hours a day trying to get what you set out to get and failing miserably. And then it can all happen on the last day, and the shoot’s a success.
NFF: So you got to spend some time in the field on location. What was one of your favorite locations you got to visit?
Codrey: This is always a difficult one, and people do ask it a lot. I think I tend to like most places, but the places that stood out for me in this recent filming of “North America” were Labrador, loved Labrador. It’s a remote and wild place. Loved Costa Rica; we spent several weeks on the west coast in a national park there and that was fantastic. Loved the mountains of British Columbia. In terms of the U.S., I think the deserts of Utah and Arizona are just tough to beat. I absolutely love the Badlands. I actually lived there for a year, but we filmed there several times for “North America.” I think the Badlands is just an amazing place that really few people seem to know about. I also really, really like the Sonoran Desert. So there’s a handful of places, no one place. It’s very hard to pick out just one place in a continent like North America.
Scholey: Yeah I did a few trips. I always try and do that, because in my job if you don’t, you forget how difficult it is. [Laughs] You get demanding on people, and start saying, “Oh why didn’t you come back with that?” And then you go out on location and you remember, this isn’t really very easy.
NFF: How do you avoid anthropomorphizing animals and imposing human values and judgments on their actions?
Codrey: Another good question, and a question that does come up a lot. Whenever people talk about anthropomorphizing, it’s always said in a negative context, but personally I don’t think it should be avoided. For me it’s always about how far you take it. Everyone knows where their line is. When I see something that goes too far, it’s turning the animals into little people. As long the animals are still animals, I don’t think, personally, that I mind a little bit of anthropomorphizing. Because after all, what we’re trying to do is reel in our audience. I think if there’s some way you can give a recognizable context to a story that an audience that is not familiar with these wild animals and that may even only have a passing interest in nature can sort of understand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. That’s what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to engage with our audience. So for me, it’s not a bad thing, it just depends on how far you go. And I don’t think we’ve gone too far.
NFF: Keith, you’ve produced television and feature films for BBC and Disney, is it different producing a series like “North America” for Discovery and a solidly American television audience?
Scholey: I think it is, and I’d be wrong to say or to claim credit for getting that side of it right. We have worked very, very closely with the Discovery team to get this series right for the North American audience. We’re a bunch of Brits. We come from the British television world, and we’ve come together with Discovery, really taking a lot of their guidance and leadership, on how to make it more relevant for a North American television audience.
NFF: How do you handle the incredible logistics of producing a series like this? You had 51 camera crew members, capturing 110 animals, during more than 2,800 days of filming. It must be a nightmare or an incredible adventure or both.
Scholey: I think planning is really the essential part of wildlife film making. We do as much preparation before we set off so we don’t get surprises. The unsung hero is the production coordinator—the person who actually gets all of the stuff in the right place at the right time, and all the right people too, and they have a huge role in what we do. Often for the cameramen and women, they just kind of turn up and there’s all the kit and where they go. So I think, part of what we do, I think what we really pride ourselves on, is being able to organize things. Clearly you’ve got to get your money to stretch as far as possible as well, so your timing is often critical. You need to be there for exactly the right time for when the action’s going to happen. You don’t want to be there for too long and wasting money, but you’ve got to be there for long enough so that you can get what you’re trying to get. So knowledge and planning are really important.
NFF: What advice would you give any budding nature film makers out there?
Codrey: Well, it’s actually a phrase that comes in one of Bon Jovi’s songs in the opening titles. They licensed a Bon Jovi song for the opening titles, and there’s a line in it and it’s “Never Give Up.” And actually without being cheesey about this, that is the advice I normally give people when they ask me about getting into wildlife films. You know it’s quite a small business, a lot of people want to do it, and you have to have a lot of perseverance. We talked about the perseverance when you’re in the field, when you’re trying to get the shots, but actually you need a lot of perseverance to get in. Everyone can tell stories about serendipity and the luck of just being in the right place at the right time. But it’s knocking on doors, it’s working for free very often, it’s getting out there and showing you’re absolutely passionate for it. So if you’re easily put off by rejection, I don’t think you’d make it in this business.