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Go into the wild with National Geographic's 'Untamed Americas'

June 08, 2012|By Yvonne Villarreal
  • In the Great Bear Rainforest of Canada, a subspecies of black bear with a white coat -- known as the "spirit bear" -- emerges during the fall to feast on salmon.
In the Great Bear Rainforest of Canada, a subspecies of black bear with a… (National Geographic Channels )

Think of “Untamed Americas,” a four-part nature documentary, as a bunch of little “Mad Men” episodes [or any drama of your choosing], said producer Karen Bass.

“You’d be surprised the amount of intimate drama you can capture through the survival stories of animals,” Bass said. “It’s better than any action sequence or riveting story line on a TV show or movie.”

The documentary will premiere on National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo Wild on June 10 with “Mountains” (for those who don’t like steep inclines, there’s also “Deserts,” “Forests,” and “Coasts”). It was two years in the making, with filming taking place in 20 countries to capture such instances as a lone wolf struggling to run down a caribou or mother bears stalking elk calves hiding in the brush in Yellowstone National Park or bighorn sheep withstanding 20-mph head butts in the snow-coated Rocky Mountains.

Viewers get to watch it all unfold with the click of a remote. Bass, however, had to put in a little more effort: She climbed erupting volcanoes, was attacked by a river otter and endured those pesky creepy crawlers (aka cockroaches) scurry across her feet while filming in a bat cave.  

We spoke briefly with the documentarian about the experience.

With animals being so unpredictable, how stressed do you get through the whole process?

You get used to the unpredictable nature of everything. There’s a lot of research that goes in at the beginning. We’re working closely with local experts and scientists as much as we can. Sometimes it’s good old-fashioned field knowledge of the area. One of my colleagues John Shier was a cameraman who lives close to Yellowstone National Park. He was able to anticipate some of the behavior. There’s a grizzly bear and black bear sequence in the mountain episode as they’re sort of hunting for those elk calves — that had been years of knowledge of him knowing that area and us being able to say it had never been filmed really comprehensively so let’s give it a roll of the dice. It is high-risk but, again, it’s the local knowledge that is really invaluable.

And sometimes you’re going for something like the long-tongued bat, which came from a scientist who was like, ‘Every year I do my research and I go along and I observe them. I’d love to have you guys come along.’ But it happens so fast and it happens at night: How do you get the right equipment? We need to slow the action down using a phantom camera, and then we have to cut little hole in the flower to get the close-ups of the tongue. There’s a lot of research. It’s not just about being at the right place at the right time. You have to have the right technology with you. But at the end of the day, nature is nature and certain things are going to happen that you don’t expect. And some things happen just as you’ve written them in the treatment, which is rare but fantastic.

Have you noticed any change in behavior — or that it’s become harder to predict things like migration patterns or other cues you’ve been studying?

I think so. I think what has happened over the last few years — even beyond this production. I did a series before called “Nature’s Most Amazing Events” for BBC and Discovery and that was all about pinpointing time and when these events are going to happen. And a lot of the sequences we filmed for “Untamed Americas” is the same problem. You hear people say, “Well, in a normal year, they’d do this …” but then they’ll follow it up with, 'But I can’t say the last few years have been normal' or 'I wouldn’t set my watch to it now.' So you just go on what people are telling you around the world. Things don’t seem to be happening in expected ways as they used to or expected times and sometimes they don’t happen at all. For example, things can happen just by chance that are amazing. We had some contacts down in Baja California and we wanted to film these incredible mobular rays. There’s this amazing scene of tens of thousands of mobular rays — they’re seven feet across. The locals had never seen anything like it. Then they leap out of the air, so they’re flying through the air. Imagine, you’re filming that from the air, you’re filming that underwater and you’re filming from a boat as they’re leaping. That was something which you couldn’t predict. We had no idea. We just thought it’d be great to get a sequence — I had no idea we’d get that.

What was the biggest 'get' during production?

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