Review: National Geographic’s Hostile Planet And An Interview with Executive Producer Guillermo Navarro
A clip form Hostile Planet: Deserts which premieres Monday, April 29, 9/8c
A moment from National Geographic’s Hostile Planet: Oceans: A mound of sand. A nose, eye. First from the predator’s point of view, sensing movement. A trickle of sand. The head emerges. Finding the tide requires a rapid tap into instinct. Take too long to acquire the target and you become a meal for a gull or tern, perhaps a crocodile. With a deep gulp, our hero drag’s herself through a gauntlet of enemies. Many of her Ridley siblings and cousins don’t make it to the water’s edge. Such is the struggle of bloody tooth and claw filmed close up, from the animal’s perspective, in National Geographic’s Hostile Planet.
From this wildlife eye’s level view, the world morphs into surrealism, not unlike scenes from a Guillermo del Toro vision like Pan’s Labyrinth. This is no accident.
National Geographic’s Hostile Planet tapped a team of filmmakers with experience in documentaries and fiction including Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. As a Hostile Planet Executive Producer, Navarro brought his Pan’s Labyrinth point-of-view to the real world.
Through a keen eye for the surreal, Navarro helps deliver shot-after-shot of creature eye views—scenes never before filmed because getting this close, this intimate was nearly impossible without affecting the behavior of the animals.
Hostile Planet’s use of innovative technology and brave treks into remote and intimidating locations captured new behaviors as well as behaviors from new perspectives, including a heart-stopping snow-leopard-and-ibex tumble; a jaguar seizing a giant caiman; barnacle geese chicks base jumping from cliffs, and the first-ever filmed hunt of an Arctic wolf pursuing a muskox.
The incredible images tell the story. The narration by host Bear Grylls sometimes feels intrusive on the small moments of life or death. Unlike many nature documentaries, Hostile Planet doesn’t shy away from the impact of the biggest predator: humankind. Our impact and threat are clear.
But Hostile Planet focuses most of its energy on battles for survival that stretch back hundreds of thousands of years. Anyone interested in seeing nature up close and personal in ways they haven’t seen it on television before needs to fit Hostile Planet into their schedule between Game of Thrones and the second, third or fourth viewing of Avengers: Endgame.
An Interview with Guillermo Navarro
BestEntertainmentReviews.com had the opportunity to talk with Navarro and ask about his approach and his experience:
BER: I have to start of by saying I’m a fan of your eye. You have a great eye. As much as we are here to talk about Hostile Planet, I have to ask if some day we can perhaps meet at Comic-con and talk about Star Trek: Discovery or Pan’s Labyrinth.
GN: It’s a little bit the same if you think about.
BER: What what drew you for documentary work?
GN: I started my career in documentaries. I learned so much about being there. Being in the truth. All that pipeline of being right there where things are happening and you are a translator of the things that are happening. I brought a lot of that to the feature world. It was very important to have a sense of reality in order to embark into alternative realities. Pan’s Labyrinth is a great example of that. Where you had the Spanish fascism as a real reality, that is an anchor for drifting away into the parallel reality.
BER: What Technical innovations did you leverage when shooting Hostile Planet?
GN: Before we get into the technical, I have to explain something. That was pretty much my contribution to this project. In the same way, I brought documentary to fiction, and then I elaborate, you know, recreating a reality, etc. And then I was able to bring elements of fiction into the documentary.
What was important for me to do here is also to affect the dynamic of how the natural, traditional Natural History movies were made. where there was some very big weight in the narrative of the voiceover of a narrator. That’s why the host was so important. So even though silver still there, I put a lot of weight on the film language and the visual language. So you can see that now, we’re building sequences, we’re telling complete stories as opposed to just chasing animals, going for the paparazzi moments of the kills or this and then. And then they would go to another story. Here for me was very important to the dramatic arc. In that way you can connect emotionally to the animals. In that way they become your characters.
BER: As I watched Hostile Planet, I kept harkening back to my childhood, and hopefully this is not offensive, I found your approach similar to some of the early Disney nature films. Just letting the animals tell their story.
GN: Here we build them as sequences. For instance, in ‘Oceans.’ The first sequence of the turtle that breaks the surface of sand and has to go the water. That is the most extreme movements of her life. And they barely make it. It’s constructed as a sequence, you see her coming out. You see what she sees, you see what’s coming after her, she takes it all in. She goes. She stops. She goes. It’s dramatic. She’s sort of the middle, it’s a little bit like a bunker moment until she makes it into the water. So that’s a full sequence.
The sequence of the orcas, for instance, where they separate out a school of hearing, and then the other whales come in, and then the biggest predator, us, take the whole school out—that’s another sequence, and it’s built as a sequence. So, that is really what I was doing—wanting to do. That would be the driving narrative.
So now going into how we were able to do this, I have to say that most likely that was not possible to do until the footprint of equipment and a crew got a lot smaller. Because you have to be there sort of invisible, with the smallest footprint possible.
The lens has to be with them. Not shot just observing them from a distance. So we have to be building those shots. That was possible because now that we have new technologies that allow that. We have super sensitive sensors, great lenses, small equipment where we can make the camera move fairly easily as opposed to before where you needed a lot of equipment to do that.
Motion in the cameras is an essential part of the film language. We needed to go to them. For instance, in the use of this equipment and also by the use of tools to move the camera, a lot of what allowed this to happen. Not only the conception of it, which is what I brought to it, but how the crews also reacted to that it was much more involved, they had to be closer and take the equipment to be in places that before we couldn’t take it.
That first shot of the Orcas. We are going with them at speed. It’s like an over the shoulder shot. That would have been impossible to do a few years ago. A few years ago you would have to have been satisfied just to be with a long lens panning and just see them go by, but here you’re traveling with your there’s a sense of purpose to that group of Orcas—that they are going somewhere now with determination.
BER: Did you personally study the Natural History of the various species that you were planning to film so that you understood what the sequences looked like?
GN: There were stories somewhere that were, let’s say, we were more interested in doing. And when we started naming what we wanted to do and what we didn’t want to do, there was a very strong research team, finding what animal behavior where, when, and what see, so doing what. So we were sort of thinking which ones would be representative of the story, of the bigger picture we wanted to tell.
So we started organizing that with that tremendous research that was done. Very meticulous. Everything had to be proven real. There is no faking anything.
BER: So going back to the highlights on any of the equipment. So thinking about it being small and flexible, and all that kind of stuff. Were there any innovations that you had to come up with? Where the market hadn’t quite met the need yet?
GN: You know, the innovation was more in putting weight in the visual narrative. The teams had to adjust their gear for that. Okay, so we were passing sort of what we wanted, it was different teams that, by the way, are experts. They are like going to war every day. I mean, imagine what it’s like to survive three weeks in the Himalayas camping out. And then you find the leopard. Most people would run away and these guys go after him, you know, the sort of instinct is it’s incredible. But on top of that, we were asking them to have images that were not just observing them that we could build a scene.
In the case of snow leopard, for instance, because it is very difficult to photograph. They are very solitary and they are moving over very extensive extensions of land. It is very difficult to just run into them, not to mention to actually build a sequence. So we were able to plant cameras in different areas where we thought the locals have seen day them or a rock, where they might leap a fence, or if a mate would come or things like that. So we’re planting our cameras, they were sort of disguised cameras. They have a motion sensor so when something moves the camera starts shooting. So these cameras were planted throughout the space. They would be collecting imagery. Surprisingly good images.
BER: Did you shoot in 1080? Or 4k?
GN: 4k? We were trying to modify the frame a bit and get closer where we needed to.
BER: So out of all of the sequences and, unlike human egos which often make it difficult to choose with the risk of offending actors: What’s your favorite shot? Did you have one that you were just fascinated by and said, I didn’t know this before. And it was just really revealing to you as a human being.
NG: The sequences that are my favorites are the ones where my idea of telling the story with images, and creating that dramatic arc with images came about. They came in places where I had not expected. For instance the sequence of the little turtle and the beginning of Ocean City it’s extraordinary. It’s like we are the turtle taking in all the incredible predators that are there just waiting for you to start walking. And we go with her through all those obstacles and adversity. So that is a great example of that. I love that sequence. Or the sequence with the Orcas, it also connects all the dots how these Orcas separate the school, that do a shockwave and they eat individual herrings here in there. And then the bigger critters come in and scoop 200 pounds of hearings. There are three or four of them. So it’s like a massive thing. And then the biggest predator us. Yeah, I mean, you see a net and they pull the entire school out and then there’s the ship. That sequence connects all the dots for the big story.
BER: Yeah, the thing I like about the turtle one as well. And I’ve seen, you know, kind of distance shots of similar things where the beds of turtles are coming out, but the diversity of the threat, right, so it’s often you’ll see a bunch of seagulls flying around, and then they get something else. But I think that you had four or five different predators all within that sequence and showing that…
GN: but it wasn’t just the predators was also seeing the turtle taking in what we just saw. That connectivity is what really grows…you are there with her. You are experiencing it. Instead of observing a fish tank you are there. And that was the whole part of what I wanted to do.
BER: Since you brought up the word immersion, did you think about any other technologies as you were doing this for VR or anything else? In terms of storytelling?
GN: VR is very particular. Maybe there are some things that could be cut for that. But you have to realize the task of what we were doing was just monumental. We were dealing with six environments to tell the story of a series. It was just brutal. We had people in the field. I think it was 1300 days of shooting. Imagine. Imagine the task.
BER: You have to be very focused on what it is you’re trying to accomplish…
GN: …and how. Everybody can just go and shoot. This is the spin to it, It’s that the visuals are not only that we get incredible images, per se, but that they contribute to the story. I am convinced film language, the visual language, is a language of our time. You cannot imagine a day of your life without it. It has its own rules. It’s my thing: telling stories with images is what I do, it’s what I know.
BER: Well, I agree with you. And as a trained poet, which was my first vocation, I mourn the loss of language as being the primary thing sometimes is the people don’t read, you know, but I’m a very visual poet, so hopefully, occasionally, people still get some kind of inspiration out of that.
Thank you very much. And I look forward to again, hopefully, we can stay in touch through the Comic-Con circuit if you happen to get there and we can spend some more time talking about your other work.
GN: Perfect. All right great. I look forward to it. Thank you very much.
More about Hostile Planet
The show shot around 1,800 hours of footage, traveled across all seven continents. They orchestrated 82 shoots in over 1,300 days of filming. The team consisted of 245 crew members on location. Bear Grylls guides viewers through narration and appears on camera at the beginning and end of each episode.
Hostile Planet Episodes
Hostile Planet: Mountains
Premieres Monday, April 1, 9/8c
The highest mountains on Earth are home to snow leopards, golden eagles, mountain goats, barnacle goslings and gelada monkeys. But only the toughest can endure the extreme weather, scarce food supplies and limited oxygen on these peaks. Showcasing never-before-filmed animal behavior using new technology to capture fresh angles and scales, Hostile Planet provides unique access to one of the most extreme environments on the planet.
Hostile Planet: Oceans
Premieres Monday, April 8, 9/8c
Delve beneath the surface of the largest habitat on Earth – our oceans – to uncover a world of extraordinary extremes from crushing depths to stormy coasts and vast blue deserts to crowded reefs. Oceans are dynamic environments where animals must adapt to life of constant change. Discover how seals fend off sharks; how turtles risk their lives to create their next generation; and how ingenious orca fight to survive in the face of ever-increasing competition.
Hostile Planet: Grasslands
Premieres Monday, April 15, 9/8c
Grasslands are home to the biggest stars of the animal kingdom, but top billing doesn’t make life here any easier. The wildernesses are among the most volatile environments on Earth, where animals must endure an ever-shifting rollercoaster journey through freeze, fire, flood and drought. Now, seasons are becoming more extreme and unpredictable. Life is harder than ever for the wildlife featured in this episode of Hostile Planet, including bull elephants clashing in mating battles; the predator-and-prey dance between cheetahs and gazelles in the depths of the Kenyan savanna; a herd of bison battling a blizzard in the North American plains; and a huge pack of wolves in pursuit of them.
Hostile Planet: Jungles
Premieres Monday, April 22, 9/8c
Plenty of water, warmth, and light provide perfect conditions for life to survive, which make the jungle the most diverse habitat on Earth. But make no mistake, the rainforest is no Eden. As rains become increasingly unpredictable, only the most resilient species will triumph. This episode of Hostile Planet spotlights the fiercest jungle species both obvious and unassuming, including jaguars, caimans, gibbons, orangutans, spectral tarsiers, hummingbirds, and even parasites. Discover why the survival of the fittest amid this crowded and competitive world has never been more apparent.
Hostile Planet: Deserts
Premieres Monday, April 29, 9/8c
The planet’s hottest habitats – our deserts – are getting even hotter, drier and bigger, yet a host of remarkable animals still survive in the harshest conditions, including cunning hyenas, pint-sized meerkats, and sand-dwelling spiders. Follow their lives through a single day in the desert to appreciate how they deal with the sun’s formidable power as it grows stronger with every passing minute.
Hostile Planet: Polar
Premieres Monday, May 6, 9/8c
Step inside the most frigid habitat known to Earth – the poles. Here, the planet’s ultimate survivalists include whale-hunting polar bears, leopard-seal dodging penguins and a pack of Arctic wolves that bring down a pair of musk oxen. Polar species have evolved bodies and behaviors that help them combat the intense hostility of their habitats. But now, their world is changing so fast – literally breaking apart under their feet – and their resilience will be tested beyond the extreme.