Inside Darren Aronofsky's 45-Country Shoot for 'One Strange Rock'

The docuseries demanded cinematographers go to some of the hottest and coldest places on Earth.
Courtesy of Jeff Frost/National Geographic
A time-lapse burning hillside with the Milky Way above.

National Geographic's 10-episode docuseries One Strange Rock is an ambitious, sprawling tale about life on planet Earth, examining the animals and plants that inhabit it, along with the human race, from cultural traditions to exploration of this planet and space. Indeed, the series uses stories from a handful of astronauts, all of whom have spent time in space, to reflect on the miracle of life on Earth from their unique perspectives. "I really wish that everyone could see the world the way that I had a chance to see it," says Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who spent 166 days in space, in the series (which premiered March 26).

To film the Darren Aronofsky-produced show, which is narrated by Will Smith, a team of cinematographers shot in 45 countries on six continents. Veteran natural history cinematographer Simon de Glanville, whose previous projects include BBC series Wonders of the Solar System and Imax movie Flight of the Butterflies, was one of the most active on the project. One of his toughest tasks? Photographing herds of reindeer in the Arctic Circle at the icy temperature of minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit).

"I got frostbite on my cheek," he says. "It is difficult to get close to the herd, so you need to stay very still in order to get their behavior. But the longer you shoot the colder you get, and with the wind chill the temperature drops even more."

The temperature also presented technical challenges to keep the gear in operation because the batteries didn't last long in the cold. Adjustments had to be made in order to protect their tools. Reveals de Glanville: "They built us a tent where we'd take the equipment, especially the batteries, to try to warm them up, and we kept them close to our clothes."

Produced by Aronofsky's Protozoa Pictures, Jane Root's Nutopia and Smith's Overbrook Entertainment, the series takes viewers around the world, from the freezing Arctic Circle to the Lechuguilla Cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park (more than 1,600 feet underground) and aboard the International Space Station, where Paolo Nespoli, an Italian astronaut with the European Astronaut Corps (ESA) recorded exclusive footage for the series (he returned to Earth in 2017 after 139 days in space).

In stark contrast to the freezing Arctic, another team went to the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, which is, at 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), considered the hottest place on the planet.

The show, which has been submitted in the informational series category, was lensed primarily with Red Epic Dragon digital cinematography cameras at 5.5K resolution, and for a consistent feel, all of the crew followed a sort of "visual bible" created by Aronofsky.

The goal was to "film real events and real people in a cinematic way," de Glanville explains, adding that they generally avoided handheld camerawork. "We used stabilizing equipment (i.e. jibs, dollies) and Prime lenses with fixed focal lengths to try to shoot it like a feature film."

These expectations for the style of the shoots did lead to some extra challenges, he adds. "It's more difficult to be reactive this way," he says. "Usually this sort of work is handheld because you are observing reality."

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.