Sexy is not a word you might normally associate with nature documentaries.
Neither is edgy.
Gritty doesn’t exactly recall those cinematic sleeping pills you used to watch in middle school science class. Those interminable shots of gazelles skipping across a prairie before the lion starts eating one with shrugging indifference, as a stodgy old man with a British accent somnambulantly narrates—they can be thrilling?
Jaw-dropping? Intense? Or, even yet, must-see? A nature documentary???
Yet here we have Wild Yellowstone, a groundbreaking two-part event series from Nat Geo WILD premiering Sunday night—Grizzly Summer and Frozen Frontier—that takes every preconceived notion we have about nature documentaries and chews them into grizzly-ravaged gristle.
It’s the opening salvo in what the six-year-old network is calling “Natural History 2.0,” its attempt to revitalize the floundering genre with what it’s calling its biggest, most expensive gamble yet.
Fittingly scheduled as the National Park Service continues its 100th anniversary celebration, Wild Yellowstone bridges the mystique of the oldest, most familiar of the country’s parks with some of TV’s most innovative and cutting-edge technology, all pioneered by action sports production company Brain Farm, which teamed with NatGeo Wild to capture Yellowstone in visceral, immersive new ways.
More simply: it’s really freaking cool.
All your favorite friends—the elk, bison, bears, birds, and beavers—are there, navigating the Yellowstone you’ve never seen, the one where torrential floods and scorching temperatures are as much of a threat as predators. The bears and wolves are sparring for meals. Bison bulls are battling for alpha status. Even the hummingbirds are fighting each other, protecting their stake in the wildflower game.
All of it is filmed with the kinds of camera equipment and technology that, until now, had only been used to capture action sports’ most adventurous athletes as they defy the laws of nature on their skates and snowboards.
It’s even cooler here, though; in nature, there are no laws.
“The genre was ripe for a makeover,” says Geoff Daniels, executive vice president and general manager of Nat Geo WILD. “I think where the whole television and film industry is going, people are wanting much more dynamic experiences.”
With the help of Brain Farm and its CEO Curt Morgan, who ESPN once dubbed “the auteur of action sports,” Wild Yellowstone doesn’t just marry action sports and blue-chip nature documentaries to slick, exhilarating result. Amid an ever-crowded world of entertainment options and attention-grabbing gimmicks, it could save the genre from extinction, too.
“So much of [Brain Farm’s work] is driven by visual, by sound design that really triggers an emotional response—as opposed to the traditional call and response of the big voice of God narrator, the swelling orchestral music, and the long-distance beauty shots of the animals walking across the plains,” Daniels says.
“These guys were much more about ‘Let’s see the sweat. Let’s see the ripple of the muscles. Let’s see the impact of those rams hitting.’ And trusting that you can tell a much more gripping and, in many ways, much more relatable story by just getting in closer than most filmmakers would ever dare get.”
Yellowstone is the rare place in the U.S. where the animals who are supposed to be there are actually still there, and the view is still exactly what God intended it to be.
It’s an unforgiving landscape, with crags and peaks rising into a sky that, somehow, is perennially clearer and crisper than anywhere else in the country.
Cauldrons of geysers and thermal pools bubble amidst a web of snaking rivers, emitting the mystical steam that gives the region its fitfully moody and ominous feel. Teeming through it all are creatures both adorable and deadly, all engaged in their own Game of Thrones as their instincts stop at nothing to keep themselves alive.
As inviting as Yellowstone is in all its untouched serenity, its unrelenting terrain, ferocious residents, and unpredictability are constant warning shots fired to keep us from the war of nature and beasts waged inside.
Of course, that’s precisely why we can’t stay away.
That’s how I found myself in a makeshift safari van in October, navigating the sparse roadways built to traverse the ecosystem of Yellowstone National Park. The leaves are changing in the trees, scaling the mountain ridges to create the kind of kaleidoscope Instagram was practically devised to capture.
The frenzied animals we encounter are heeding the colorful signal the leaves are sending: Winter is coming.
It’s a race against time with the highest stakes—survival—and a change of seasons that, though lovely to gaze at through a window on a perfect autumn afternoon, is rarely captured with such all-immersive imperativeness as it is in Wild Yellowstone.
One of the special’s cinematographers, Ryan Sheets, is narrating our mini-safari. We’re revisiting some of the areas where he, off-and-on for over two years, participated in capturing that circle of life by bringing the audience into Yellowstone not as an observer, but as a resident.
Using an expensive array of state-of-the-art high-speed and infrared cameras, rigs, and stabilizers, Sheets and the Brain Farm team film Yellowstone through the eyes of the animals.
Whether it’s a beaver mother and father working feverishly to fell enough trees and store sticks to feed their kits for the winter or a bear desperately traversing the frozen terrain to bulk up enough to survive his first winter on his own, you’re not just watching the journey. You’re on the journey.
“You can’t just go out there with a tripod and shoot a geyser,” Sheets says, as the van rumbles along. “That isn’t good enough anymore.”
He starts rattling off names and specs of the equipment Brain Farm brought in to film Yellowstone like the dangerous action sports arena it truly is, things with names like the Phantom Flex 4K—capable of capturing 1,000 frames per second at 4 times normal high definition (that’s really high resolution)—and the Shotover, which has six-axis stabilization, allowing for aerial and traveling footage with sweeping, smooth camera movements, no shaking.
“You have to use a lot of the same cutting-edge techniques you see in action movies, or people are going to get bored and start looking at their phones,” he says.
He barely finishes his thought when suddenly the van is peeling away. A grizzly is spotted and everyone in cars is chasing it like a police caravan in pursuit of a perp. It gets to the river and all the cameras come out. A grizzly wading through the water, the Tetons in the background: heaven on earth.
Idyllic as that is, it doesn’t compare to what’s down the road, which we soon come upon, a reminder of the brutal savagery of nature. When we pull over and set up a telelens, we spot with jarring detail a bear feasting on a slain elk with such carnal fervor that, minutes later, he’s exhausted, napping on the bloody carcass. It’s gross. And awesome.
“Tech like this helps you capture the youth audience,” Sheets says, my childlike giddiness confirming his theory. “How do you impact a 6-year-old? A 12-year-old, or 18-year-old, who will be the ones in office or running nonprofits? This could have a huge impact engaging youth. The older films were the parents’ films, and a little boring. But engaging youth is necessary.”
Soon we’re pulled over again, milling around a herd of bison who are parked nonchalantly just inches from the road, unfazed by our presence.
It’s a stark contrast to scenes in Wild Yellowstone, in which these seemingly peaceful animals transform into terrifying warriors, the 900-kilogram bulls charging into each other with wrenching to-the-death force—all shot in with the kind of revolutionary intimacy and intense close-ups that will have you cringing like you’re watching a Tarantino film.
“I think us being a little bit younger and from this different, action sports world brings a new perspective to something that’s been done over and over again,” Brain Farm CEO Morgan tells me.
To say the least.
Nature documentaries can still be eye-opening cultural lightning roads and, appealing to our universal curiosity about the animal kingdom, wildly popular. March of the Penguins, Planet Earth, and, to some extent, the series Meerkat Manor speak to that.
But the landscape of entertainment can change just as fast as that of the natural world. “We’re now competing with so many things out there,” says Daniels. “I mean you’re talking about the crazy cat viral video, 400 scripted dramas that are being released a year.”
In response to such a glut, the world of nature television has gone the way of the gimmick. Man fights a wildcat live on camera. Man gets eaten by a snake. Man is dropped in the middle of the woods naked with no resources—how long until he drinks his own pee?
Wild Yellowstone is a bold rebuttal to that trend, a nature special that tries to make discernible noise in a cacophony of entertainment by going back in the direction of the traditional documentary, just making it better.
Daniels paraphrases the old cliché: “How do you teach blue-chip wildlife documentaries new tricks?”
You bring in the action-sports wizards and all of the mind-melding, proprietary technology and camera work they bring.
“It raised a lot of eyebrows,” Daniels says. “I think the community at large was like, ‘What are these guys thinking, taking an action sports crew and then pushing them into this traditional world that really, frankly, is a hard barrier of entry?’”
But the prospect was tantalizing. Partner seasoned nature documentary producers like the legendary Karen Bass, who know their way around animals and the genre’s quirks, with the extreme sports guys. Really, could an environment get any more extreme?
And the fit was more natural than you might think.
“We’ve done a lot of work filming snowboarding, where you’re out in the middle of nowhere at the mercy of nature trying to get the shot,” says Morgan. “Conditions have to line up perfectly. I’d say that quality extends into natural history.”
“Filming action sports, you’re filming a guy going down a mountain and you really never know where he’s going to go. So it’s very similar to filming an animal. You’re at the mercy of the subject. We trained for years and years to be able to follow that kind of action.”
The payoffs of that training are abundant in Wild Yellowstone.
When the special first screened at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in October, where it also won two awards for Best Editing and Best Cinematography, the sequence that undeniably got the biggest reaction was the battle royale between the rams, equal parts harrowing and humorous as filmed through the Brain Farms lens.
Morgan and his team worked for months with local researchers and scientists to track exactly when members of the herd would end up brawling, eventually opting out of the traditional tripod-camera system used in the past to capture the big event for a team of 10 filmmakers, a self-built crane and dolly system armed with those innovative Shotover stabilizing cameras, and a whole crew fitted with headsets.
“They basically wired it like they were covering the Super Bowl,” Daniels laughs.
“It was a huge risk because you could put all that stuff right there and not get anything,” he goes on. “Ultimately what made that scene for me was the super close-up of the eyeball of the ram right before, the intensity of that directed fury and then the rippling of the muscles and then the flying of the spittle. It was so powerful and so intimate and you didn’t need one lick of narration.”
Equally spellbinding was a scene of a fox.
“The only way to do that scene was by foot and we had to track the fox many, many miles,” Morgan says. “First you have to find a fox, and then you have to track it. We had teams out with hundreds of pounds of equipment traipsing through snow in subzero temperatures in hopes to really capture a shot of the fox—the goal—leaping and hunting its prey at a thousand frames per second, which required the Phantom camera.”
The result is one of the coolest shots you’ll see on TV this year.
Can one neat shot of a fox save a genre? Nat Geo WILD certainly hopes so.
It’s leaning into this Natural History 2.0 with next year’s marquee programming, too, with a special referred to internally as Big Game of Thrones, which will be a serialized docudrama about animal clans vying for supremacy in Botswana.
But in the short term, the goal is both even loftier, and yet somehow even more attainable: maybe just saving the parks.
“I think there are so many people who love animals and want to love the genre but who never actually have been drawn into the experience and transported by it,” Daniels says.
“I really hope that an event special like this turns the next generation audience on to the dramatic potential, or inspires them to fall in love with the genre all over again. To have the childlike wonder and passion that gets them to care about these animals, care about these places, and then engage with them in all sorts of different ways that will enable us to make places like Yellowstone and the animals that live there protected and preserved for years to come.”
And what could be sexier than that?