Natural History Docs Aim to Fix "Climate Crisis," Raise Awareness of Endangered Planet
Docu-series such as 'Hostile Planet' (Nat Geo) and 'Our Planet' (Netflix) capture stunning footage of animals and outdoor miracles in an effort to put a spotlight on pressing environmental issues.
In the past, the underlying aim of most natural history documentaries was to raise awareness of endangered species. Today, it's about raising awareness of an endangered planet. To varying degrees, climate change figures in many of this year's Emmy hopefuls, including Nat Geo's Hostile Planet, a six-part series executive produced by Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. Each episode explores a distinct habitat and the struggle for life therein made more intense by depleted conditions resulting from global warming.
Netflix's eight-part series Our Planet delivers audiences into the familiar hands of 92-year-old narrator David Attenborough, a mentor to nature doc veteran and executive producer Keith Scholey. Both have witnessed firsthand the ravages of climate change over decades.
The Flood, Nat Geo's two-part series narrated by Angela Bassett, focuses on a unique ecosystem and UNESCO World Heritage site in Botswana — the Okavango Delta, a swampy inland area measuring 2,300 to 5,800 square miles, which is evaporated into dry savanna every summer only to be flooded again in winter.
"Nature is what man doesn't control," Bassett tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We take control of a lot. We seek to be in control. The fact is nature is there before us, it remains afterward, and it's very powerful. There is one planet, and we are such consumers and all about our own single focus and struggles in living. But it behooves us to take a broader look at this home we call Earth."
The headwaters of the annual surge begin in the mountains of neighboring Angola and pass circuitously through Namibia, which means exactly where and when the flood begins in Botswana is anyone's guess. This presented filmmakers with their biggest challenge. The solution was to embed people throughout the delta for the entire season, ready to move at the first sign of water.
The transformation is captured in stunning time-lapse as arid fields become streams, rivulets and swamps stalked by alligators — footage matched only by underwater hippos cantering gracefully along the bottom, appearing out of the murk as quickly as they vanish.
"Like with most things in terms of climate change, you often can see the result, but it's very hard to anticipate what's going to be the cause," says filmmaker Brad Bestelink, a fourth-generation Botswanan. "It's very hard to pinpoint what is a seasonal change and what is a long-term change."
For Hostile Planet executive producer Navarro, the distinction was considerably clearer. Hosted by adventurist Bear Grylls, the series' title reflects the mortal dangers inherent to the animal kingdom. But, as the episodes reveal, those dangers are exacerbated by climate change, which often diminishes resources.
"The hostility among one another is part of their natural animal behavior. But on top of that, it's a lot harder to survive," says Navarro, noting that his series strives to address pressing environmental issues without presenting a sermon. "We're not offering a political pamphlet on what should happen. It's really about creating awareness. We were able to tell the story so you understand that today the planet is in such a place where it's become much more difficult, hostile, for them to go about their lives. The planet also belongs to them. So, they do have a right to be part of it."
The Oscar-winning cinematographer of Pan's Labyrinth and longtime lenser for its director, Guillermo del Toro, Navarro found his greatest challenges not in the field, where he normally is, but in crafting sequences that engage audiences with methods honed in feature filmmaking.
"It was not enough to get the shots of the animals in the wild. We wanted to create sequences that involved different amounts of shots to be able to connect, to create drama," says Navarro. "Here the visual language takes over. So, that was a way of telling a story to a younger audience. And of course, younger audiences are much more connected and aware and wary of the impact this has on our planet because they're the ones facing the bigger issues."
Earth's average temperature has risen 1.62 degrees since the late 1900s, which may not sound like much until you consider that it was enough to bleach 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef in recent years.
"It's probably the greatest natural environmental disaster in the history of mankind," notes Our Planet's Scholey, who teamed with Attenborough and Planet Earth executive producer Alastair Fothergill. "When you see things like that happen, you think, 'How on earth can an ecosystem like that, that's been around for millions of years, the most complex ecosystem we know on our planet, just go in a snap?' That's a terrifying thing to witness."
For more than 30 years, exec producer Scholey has been filming the wild, since his beginnings with Attenborough on the 1990s U.K. series Wildlife on One at BBC Studios.
"When you go and film in Antarctica, it does become an expedition in its own right," he says. "Some of these trips are sort of militaristic in their organization. We take danger very, very, very seriously."
Among numerous high-stakes settings, his teams filmed gray reef sharks in a nighttime feeding frenzy, as well as an iceberg calving 75 million tons into the water.
"It's the size of the Empire State building breaking off. We filmed it from a helicopter and there were lots of big ice blocks flying around. The pilot had to work out how to navigate around this and make sure he didn't get covered by any flying bits of ice."
While a 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concluded that we must eliminate greenhouse gases by 2050 if we are to have a chance at holding temperatures where they are, indicators suggest that humans are increasing rather than decreasing carbon emissions. But Scholey finds hope in the fact that portions of Our Planet were screened at the World Economic Forum in Davos, as well as for the IMF and the World Bank, where they engaged highly influential audiences in ways the filmmakers haven't seen before.
"The whole purpose of Our Planet is to be aspirational," says Scholey. "We know the problems and we know the solutions. What is really frustrating about the climate crisis is, it can be fixed. We know exactly what we need to do — it's just a case of will."
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.