National Geographic returns with another season of America’s National Parks. This season, viewers are treated to an extraordinary venture across world-famous and lesser-known national parks to reveal the diversity and wonder of this beautiful country, from the lush valley floors of Yosemite to the constantly erupting volcanoes of Hawai’i. The series’ producer, Anwar Mamon, discussed what it takes to make it happen.
How did you first get involved with producing America’s National Parks for National Geographic?
Wildstar Films and National Geographic collaborated on the initial idea as it felt like there was an opportunity to produce a deep dive into America’s National Parks. I was lucky enough to become part of the team which included some very talented filmmakers and exec producer Garth Brooks. Our aim was to make the most comprehensive and surprising national parks series ever.
Besides the obvious desire to, in general profile the different parks featured in the series, what were your goals and putting America’s National Parks together?
It was exciting to think about what makes each national park unique and, with a year filming time, be able to reveal the surprising stories within each park – not just wildlife but, where appropriate, we could broaden our storytelling to encompass people, history, culture and weather events. The goal was always to create a “love letter” to each park and to reveal different sides to these icons that people think they know. For example, in Grand Canyon national park, most people visit the North and South rim, totally unaware that there is an incredible woodland on the Kaibab Plateau home to plucky squirrels.
There are so many possible subjects that you could potentially focus on in each of the parks. How did you narrow things down? For example the Inchworm / carnivorous cousin in Hawaii was amazing.
The mix of stories was important to get right and we spent a lot of time looking at the balance across all episodes. The question we kept asking ourselves was “what does this tell us about the uniqueness of the park?”. The inchworm in Hawai’I Volcanoes National Parks is a great example; here’s a forest ecosystem that’s grown on hardened lava – a weird and wonderful alien-like habitat, so which animal can really help us get across how strange this place is? The inchworm was perfect!
Producing projects anywhere always has a hiccups. You could be shooting in your bathroom and something will still go wrong. What challenges arose during the course of putting America’s National Parks together?
While filming in the giant redwood forest for the Yosemite episode, one of our Series Producers, Myles Connolly, was fortunate enough to be working with our two scientists Anthony Ambrose and Wendy Baxter as well as climbing cameraman Owen Bissel. The goal was to get them high up a giant redwood doing their science while Owen would dangle alongside to film them.
This area is populated by black bears who are notoriously curious, and Myles’s job was to stay with the kit down below, positioned just out of the shot and keep an eye out. The team climbed up the tree and filming commenced, and it was idyllic there in the sun, surrounded by giants, all running smoothly.
That lasted about 5 minutes and then Myles heard something coming through the trees…
An adult male black bear was searching for food and approaching our site. The park monitor shouted at the bear who perked up but kept coming, not in a threatening way but still… it’s a bear. Myles started shouting too! The bear didn’t care, just wanted to see if there was food.
When he got to about 50 feet from Myles, the park monitor picked up a piece of bark and threw it in the bear’s direction. The bear reared up, then bolted… straight towards the tree where our team were filming! He began climbing the tree very rapidly but, fortunately the team were up about 200 feet up so he had a long way to go. The bear slowed, then stopped, looked around and decided that it was better to descend and make his escape.
As he headed off into the forest, the radio crackled; “can you guys stop shouting down there?!!! We’re trying to get some work done up here!” If they only knew how close they’d come to having a shaggy visitor, they’d have been more forgiving.
Even though it’s hard to choose, what are some of your favorite moments in the series?
It is so hard to choose! But one of my favourite stories is from Big Bend National Park in Texas where, using the latest low-light cameras, we captured Mexican long-nosed bats feeding on agave plants at night – something that hasn’t been filmed before. Because we were able to film using only moonlight, it’s an intimate view of this wildlife event. And, an important story showing the interconnectedness of America’s National Parks – the bats migrate to Texas and their feeding helps spread the agave plant in the park. Without the bats Big Bend would look very different.
If you compare yourself today with when you first started in the industry, how has your process changed when it comes to how you approach new projects and execute them?
Technology has elevated wildlife filmmaking and we are living in a boom time in terms of cameras, lenses and drones. But the core skill of storytelling is still more important than anything. We used many different techniques on America’s National Parks but the team were always mindful of how best to serve the story and, ultimately, the national parks themselves. Our main filming period was during the Covid-19 pandemic and we used a lot of American based camera operators which was made much easier by using the internet to communicate and also to securely view and download rushes. We think it also gave our series more heart as a lot of the people filming in the parks were local residents passionate about showing their wild spaces to the world.
Finally, what’s next for you?
I’m very lucky to be part of a team working on another series for National Geographic and Disney+ called Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory – it’s a fantastic wildlife/adventure show coming to your screens on Disney+ Day, September 8th.