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Making National Geographic's Great Migrations

David Hamlin, the senior producer for National Geographic Channel’s groundbreaking new seven-part global television event Great Migrations, discusses the “rich, tenuous, urgent dramas” of Earth’s animals on the move, and the rewards and challenges of natural history filmmaking on an epic scale. By Ford Cochran The largest programming event in the ten-year history of the National Geographic Channel, Great Migrations premieres in the U.S. beginning at 8 p.m. EST/PST Sunday, November 7, 2010, with related coverage in National Geographic magazine and an official companion book. Emmy Award-winning producer David Hamlin brings decades of cross-continent, multiple-crew production management experience to Great Migrations, where he was responsible for all production and editorial oversight. Hamlin won an Emmy for his work on the National Geographic Explorer series, and also produced Reptile Wild and other natural history and science specials and series for National Geographic Television, including Expedition Journal. Hamlin began his career as a schoolteacher, then as a scriptwriter for Sesame Street while still in college at Dartmouth.

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I spoke with Hamlin about Great Migrations.

The Geographic has described this multi-night film as the biggest project in the ten-year history of the National Geographic Channel, and indeed in the long history of National Geographic Television. What makes Great Migrations such a unique and superlative undertaking?

Technically, what made this the biggest project in our history is that we were given the time and the resources to do it right. That meant three years for the project, two and a half years in the field, and the resources to be able to stay in the field long enough. You could go for one month, maybe for two months, and then return later. That allowed us to get all the different stages and chapters of the stories that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us on a traditional budget. You had a number of teams working on this. How many independent film crews were working simultaneously to document this story?

I tried to calculate how many people worked on this. It’s in the hundreds. I don’t know exactly. All I can tell you is from the very first person to the very last person, everyone had the same passion and commitment. Everybody somehow understood this was the biggest thing any of us had been involved in, and we all agreed that we wanted to make it special. What were some of the biggest challenges to the production, and were there any hazardous moments for the people involved?

Every day was a challenge. Every day was also a blessing, though. This project was filled with endless obstacles, but also opportunities.

The one story that I think we probably sweated the most, though, was southern Sudan and the story of the white-eared kob. It’s a really interesting animal that folks have never really seen, and hasn’t been documented in well over 30 years because of constant civil war. We were able to get back in as the war eased about three years ago, and to find that lo and behold, against all expectations, a million kob–this antelope-like creature–had somehow survived a 30-year civil war. Everything else had been killed. There were almost no lions, zebras, elephants. The largest intact savannah in Africa was barren, this region. But the kob had survived.

The thing that made it so remarkable for us is that the reason the kob survived is migration. They were always on the move from one really inhospitable place for humans to another really difficult spot. So they were always one step ahead of the guns. Migration is what kept them alive. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage were shot for this production. You probably looked at many of them–most of them. Of the moments that finally made their way into the series that will air, what are a few of the most memorable things that stand out for you?

There’s so much memorable footage. The first thing that comes to mind was the very first set of shots that came back from the field using the Phantom camera–the slow-motion camera. That was the work that we did with the wildebeests and the river crossing. To capture that crossing in slow motion at better than high-def resolution, it absolutely floored us all. I’ll never forget sitting in the room with the team that just came back from the field, and we’re literally screaming in our office just so excited about what it looks like. That memory is really special. The Phantom is one of the brand-new technologies deployed in making this series. Are there a few others that come to mind, extraordinary new things you used to capture these stories?

We worked really hard on using new technologies and bringing all the digital opportunities to bear. There were things like the Phantom camera, the slow-motion camera that allowed us to go up to 2,000 lines of resolution at 1,000 frames a second–better than high-def. There were 4k cameras, 4,000 lines of resolution–the Red Camera, they’re called.

And then there’s the Heligimbal, which is this aerial mount that uses gyrostabilizers that frankly come out of nuclear missile guidance system technology. It allowed us to fly over a kilometer in the air, shoot straight down on something the size of this chair and me, and get a rock-solid close-up. That really transforms what aerials are and can be in wildlife filmmaking, because the animals are relaxed. Nobody’s buzzing them with an airplane or a helicopter and forcing them to stampede and be stressed. When you’re up that high, the animals don’t hear you, don’t see you, and they can live their lives in a relaxed fashion. You get a much more true-to-life documentation. What are some of the most threatened migrations you and your team were able to document, and what does Earth stand to lose if they disappear?

I would argue that every migration we filmed, and literally thousands to tens, hundreds of thousand of other species, they’re all threatened. They have all survived for a very long time under very arduous circumstances. There are predators and natural obstacles that they’ve always had to overcome. None of this is easy. But now, as our human footprint continues to expand and our transportation systems grow–be that roads or highways and fences blocking off corridors for wildlife, whether it’s in the sea, through shipping lanes, or on land with farming and other development, or even in the air–it’s tough, and it’s getting tougher.

So I don’t think any of our migrations are safe, the planet’s migrations. They’re all stressed. It’s our obligation to try to make sure we find a way–not to stop human development, because that’s a foolish conversation, that’s not going to happen–but to regain some sense of balance and some sense of our stewardship for the planet.

How were scientists involved in the production?

National Geographic is ultimately a research and a scientific organization. So the role of scientists was critical in the making of Great Migrations. We were blessed to have strong relationships with scientists in every field of every type of animal that we were dreaming of filming. Everything from ants to whales to wildebeests to walrus–we were able to tap into the leading scientists studying these creatures and their movements, and work with them to do two things: Not only to define what it is the animals do, and make sure we were at the right place at the right time, but also to work with them to better uncover the urgent stressors these animals are under, the changing nature of their migrations. Scientists played a critical role from the start all the way to the end. The scripts, when it comes time to write, the proper language, scientists were critical to make sure we not only say the right thing, but that we’re truly exposing the most inspirational things to say.

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You’ve been filming the planet for National Geographic for awhile, but this was an enormous project. Do you think your views about Earth and its systems have changed because of your involvement in Great Migrations?

My sense of the planet and my role in it and humankind’s role in it have been completely transformed by work at Geographic. Before I came here, I was just someone who enjoyed the planet as a mountaineer and a kayaker, mostly in my expeditionary joy. But coming here completely rewrote my understanding of my place on this Earth. It’s not enough to simply enjoy the fruits of nature. If I’m going to be a filmmaker and I’m going to be here, I have to be exposing and inspiring the incredible diversity of the natural world that we need to celebrate, and yes, protect.

Working at National Geographic has made me do so much more than I ever would have otherwise. It’s opened my eyes. It’s opened my heart. And hopefully, I’ve created much better work. Is there a thought, a particular idea, that you want the viewers of Great Migrations to take away?

There’ve always been two watchwords that have driven me over the course of this project, and I think all of us on the team. And that is that on any given night that someone is watching our work, and they turn off the channel, it’s time to lie down and go to bed, that as they lie there with their head on the pillow, they’ll think, “Wow, tonight as I sleep, this planet is just churning with movement. It is pulsing with life–the seas, the land, the sky. There are countless creatures that are engaging in the most epic journeys imaginable, full of triumph and tribulation, of loss and redemption. It’s an incredibly dynamic planet.”

The second thing is hopefully we’re getting people to redefine the word “migration” for themselves, and to think of it no longer just as this beautiful, epic movement of animals and a gorgeous image, but that it’s actually these rich, tenuous, urgent dramas. So that from now on, when people look up and see animals on the move, they won’t just say “Wow, isn’t that pretty?” They’ll say “Wow, I’m rooting for you guys.”

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  • Watch Great Migrations on the National Geographic Channel beginning at 8 p.m. EST/PST Sunday, November 7, in the U.S. (Check local listings for air dates and times outside the U.S.)

  • Help conserve the landscapes of migratory species with National Geographic’s Global Action Atlas.

Image of monarch butterflies courtesy National Geographic television; photos of Pacific walrus by Paul Nicklen; book cover courtesy National Geographic Books

Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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More posts by Ford Cochran

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