Conversations with Anwar Mamon: Second season of America’s National Parks focuses on lesser-known natural treasures.

National Geographic’s America’s National Parks returns for a second season. Each episode takes viewers on an extraordinary venture across the lesser-known, though the most spectacular, parks to reveal the wonder of this beautiful country – from the Grand Tetons, the snowy wonder of the west, to Biscayne National Park hidden beneath the waves near Miami. Returning with his endearing narration, No. 1-selling solo artist in history, Garth Brooks escorts us to discover breathtaking landscapes and extraordinary wildlife in wilderness full of surprises. The series captures not only stunning landscapes and frozen moments in time but intimate glimpses into the charismatic lives of animal inhabitants.

America’s National Parks premieres on National Geographic on June 5 at 9/8c. All episodes will be available to stream on Disney+ June 7. 

Anwar Mamon, one of the show’s executive producers, set aside some time to discuss the upcoming premier.

As one of the executive producers of “America’s National Parks”, what were some of the initial objectives or visions you had for this docuseries?

As one of the executive producers of America’s national parks, the biggest objective that we all discussed from the beginning at WildStar Films and National Geographic, was essentially to ensure that we were putting the parks and their stories first. We often referred to this project as a love letter to the parks.

We were very keen to treat each park as if it were a person and to discover the individual character traits of each one. This understanding informed the stories we chose to tell, the structure of the shows, and what we filmed and when. It also meant that we were able to share stories that extend beyond the scope of a typical wildlife show.

We were very keen to feature people where relevant, and to incorporate history into our narratives. Our aim was to paint a picture of the modern perspective of the national park system. We wanted to show more than just the pristine wildernesses that they are, but also the important ecosystems that they represent to modern-day America.

Given your experience with Wildstar Films, how did your prior work influence your approach to this project, particularly in terms of storytelling or production techniques?

My background lies in various genres of documentary filmmaking, not purely wildlife. Although that’s primarily what I’ve been doing for the past five to ten years, the things that influence my work mainly involve finding different angles to familiar stories, or uncovering unexpected narratives about places, animals, or people we think we know.

This philosophy is at the core of everything we produce at WildStar Films. In “America’s National Parks,” for example, we sought to feature not just the well-known parks, but also lesser-known locations. I believe that in this series, there are very surprising stories to be found in places like Biscayne or Channel Islands National Parks.

In particular, our approach to storytelling and production techniques can be exemplified by Channel Islands National Park. We were able to film in this location off the coast of California, which, from a global perspective and even to many Americans, is not well known. However, it holds global significance due to its intriguing history and the significant human impact it’s endured. Thanks to the tireless efforts of local communities and scientists, it has bounced back remarkably, with wildlife making a significant recovery. This story demonstrates what can be achieved in a relatively short span of a few decades if we give nature space to recover. That tale is globally significant and originates from a lesser-known national park, a narrative combination I truly enjoy. This is a sentiment shared by National Geographic.

A significant aspect of our storytelling focuses on character. These characters could be humans, animals, or even landscapes and places. For instance, with Channel Islands National Park, those islands are home to a unique species of fox called the Channel Island Fox. This species, and one individual in particular, became a major character in the episode, which guided our filming approach.

We managed to capture incredible drone shots of this fox scouring the landscape for its next meal, interspersed with intimate close-ups and revealing behavioral traits. This allows viewers to really get to know the individual, fostering a connection that enables us to tell the story of the animal and the location with much more impact.

Could you elaborate on the choice of Garth Brooks as the narrator and executive producer for this series? How do you feel his voice and presence contribute to the tone and message of the docuseries?

The choice of Garth Brooks as the narrator for “National Parks” really came from our executive producer at National Geographic, Janet Vissering. We were very keen to find a voice that would tie together all these very different locations, stories, animals, and histories. We also wanted a voice that was accessible, one that could convey humor, warmth, and drama, and deliver conservation messages all in one package. It was Janet who had the foresight to see that Garth Brooks would be the perfect fit for this. I believe, if I’m not mistaken, that Garth Brooks had never narrated a wildlife show before.

When we went for the first voiceover recording session in Nashville at his studio, as soon as he started reading the scripts, we all felt he was the perfect choice. Garth is also an executive producer on the series, and he’s exceptional at bringing character-led animal stories and landscapes to life.

He’s adept at bringing emotion and warmth to sequences. He recognizes, presumably due to his musical ear, the right timing and manner to deliver certain lines, enhancing the overall narrative. I believe his delivery adds more depth to what’s going on than many other voiceover artists out there.

With the series covering a range of parks, from well-known to lesser-known ones, what were some of the challenges your team faced in capturing and showcasing their diversity and unique beauty?

“America’s National Parks” was filmed over the course of about a year and a half, all over the United States. It was actually filmed during the tail end of the pandemic, so we had to take precautions very seriously for the health and welfare of our crews.

Partly due to the pandemic, we increasingly turned to US-based camera crews. I think this really benefited us because many of the cinematographers were filming in national parks that were local to them. They often filmed with more passion, knowing the best places and the animals or at least the species well. You can tell when you watch the series that it’s coming from a different place. It isn’t an outsider coming to a national park and discovering what it’s about. Rather, it’s an insider with intimate knowledge of a place, wanting to share it with the world.

Aside from the challenges posed by COVID, there were many others. Increasingly in wildlife filmmaking, one of our biggest hurdles is the unpredictability of weather and seasons due to our changing climate. We might arrive at a location only to encounter unseasonal storms or a heatwave when it should be raining. These changes impact wildlife behavior and can even affect crucial elements such as the breeding season. Planning to film certain animals giving birth, or capturing cubs at a certain age, became highly unpredictable.

In addition, this series really strived to raise the bar in terms of obtaining shots that are not only seamless but also awe-inspiring, making viewers wonder how they were even achievable. For example, in the Biscayne episode, we were able to use ultraviolet lights and an ultraviolet lighting system underwater at night to display the incredible fluorescence of coral in Biscayne National Parks and its heat stress response at night. However, capturing those shots required significant planning and equipment not typically used underwater or in a film setting.

Thankfully, we had some of the most technically gifted crews in the world working on this series. So when there were problems underwater with ultraviolet lights that hadn’t been used like that before, they were able to fix them. An increasing difficulty on this series was that many of the national parks we filmed have a lot of visitors or are close to urban environments, like Biscayne National Park. We didn’t want to shy away from human activity because that’s an important part of the national park system, both in the past and today, but it creates unique challenges for filming.

Using Biscayne as an example, if there is a lot of water activity, with speedboats moving around, it can hinder our underwater filming due to poor visibility or waves pushing us away from certain shots. All these factors make the filming process just that little bit harder.

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Can you talk about the integration of cutting-edge technology like long-lens cinematography, macro photography, and high-resolution drone technology in filming? How did these technologies enhance the series?

At Wildstar Films, we’re very proud to have a tech department. This department can create bespoke camera systems to meet our unique challenges. When we want to film something that’s never been filmed before, we can ask them, “How can we achieve this? Is it possible?” They often build specialist camera rigs for our productions, and “America’s National Parks” was no exception. We used a whole host of different and new technologies, including motorized time-lapses with robotic arms, long lens cinematography, macro underwater photography, and drone technology. These things certainly enhance a series, but we’re very keen to use them only if they’re relevant to the story.

For example, our motorized robotic arm for motion control time-lapse was only really used in Lake Clark National Park, where it was able to bring the forest floor to life and show how the tiniest plants can have surprising stories. This included a carnivorous plant that catches flies, something only really possible to film with the steadiness and predictability of that robotic arm. However, we would never use technology merely as a gimmick. It has to be something that’s relevant to the story and will bring it to life for the audience.

National Geographic coordinated with the White House and Dr. Jill Biden about the filming we did with her in Grand Canyon National Park. They also liaised with them about the Joining Forces initiative. We’re really proud to have partnered with them.

How did you coordinate with Dr. Jill Biden and the White House’s Joining Forces Initiative in the making of the series, and what impact do you think her involvement has had on the final product?

The partnership of “America’s National Parks” with the White House and Dr. Jill Biden had a significant impact on the series, and we hope it also had a positive impact on the national parks themselves. The important thing about the national park system is that it’s for everyone. The pandemic, if it taught us anything, highlighted the benefits we all gain from spending time outdoors.

If there’s a take-home message that we’d like everyone to remember, and I know Dr. Biden agrees, it’s this: please do venture outside into nature. It has proven benefits for mental health. Furthermore, the national park service plays an essential role in preserving these parks, but they do need visitors and funding. This support is only possible when people visit and utilize them.

Finally, as an executive producer, what was the most rewarding aspect of creating “America’s National Parks”, and what do you hope viewers will take away from this series?

As an executive producer on “America’s National Parks,” I find the whole series incredibly rewarding. I’m very fortunate to work on films that are about wildlife and nature and can have a positive impact. I would like to think that what people take away from the series as a whole is that these places are special and we need to keep them protected for future generations.

However, we also need to recognize their vulnerability and what we all can do to help. It doesn’t have to be a major lifestyle change; it can be small actions to help preserve these national parks. These special places, these wild places, are like islands in America. And while they may be protected, the animals often don’t recognize national park boundaries and migrate beyond them.

Those same special animals that you might fall in love with in our series might also be in your backyard. So, I would like to think that viewers might realize the importance of protecting their own backyards and their little patches of nature. If everyone does that, if everyone ensures that they’re doing whatever they can to keep their little piece of America healthy and good for nature, then that will directly help America’s national parks and the incredible biodiversity found within them.

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