John Conrad Corbis
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — If your appetite for nature's wonders wasn't sated by "Planet Earth" or "Life," National Geographic Channel offers another view of the world's wildlife in "Great Migrations," a seven-part special making its debut Sunday at 6 p.m. MST.
Three years in the making, "Great Migrations" follows animals on the journeys they ritually undertake to survive as a species. Filmed in high definition and narrated by Alec Baldwin ("30 Rock"), the program begins with "Born to Move," tracking the movement of red crabs, wildebeests, the monarch butterfly and the sperm whale. At 7 p.m., "Need to Breed" explores the processes that ensure future generations of red flying foxes, army ants, elephant seals and penguins.
"Great Migrations," which is also featured in this month's National Geographic magazine, offers extraordinary close-up footage of animals in their habitats, something that's becoming common in these nature specials even as it remains shocking just how close TV can now take viewers.
Capturing some of these shots must have required incredible patience.
"It does take a long time to get good natural history, and that was what was so amazing about this project," said Andy Casagrande IV, a principal photographer on "Great Migrations." "It allows us to spend a long time in the field and get really compelling stories, not just eye candy, so it was an epic."
At an August National Geographic Channel press conference, producers and camera operators involved with "Great Migrations" said the advent of smaller technology allows for the creation of "crittercams" that can be attached to animals. These cameras offer an animal's-eye view of the world, but even they have limits.
"We were deploying crittercams in Cape Town where the great whites breach in False Bay hunting seals, and they breach with such velocity that the cameras kept coming off," Casagrande said. "No matter what cam system they designed or fasten it to the fin, it wouldn't allow the camera to stay on."
Still, getting cameras on sharks provides a new view of the animal kingdom for veteran wildlife filmmakers.
"If it's stuck to the shark for 10 hours, you get some really interesting insight into their lives," Casagrande said. "I can stay underwater for about five hours on my rebreather, but I can't keep up with a shark. I can follow it for however long I see it, but then it's gone."
"Great Migrations: Behind the Scenes" (8 p.m., Nov. 14) will show how the program was made. Producers made extensive use of remote-controlled helicopters to capture scenes of the animals, and they used a specially designed hot-air-balloon camera mount for silent aerial perspectives.
"It's like a candy store for filmmakers like us to have this opportunity to work with these technologies and show the world amazing things and inspire people to care about the planet," Casagrande said.
Of course, watching animals in their habitats can be both exciting and heartbreaking, particularly when filming as baby animals die. The filmmakers have a mandate not to interfere.
"It is wrong of us to believe that we are going to play God with nature," said Beverly Joubert, a National Geographic explorer in residence. "This has been happening for millions of years. What we're trying to do is show how unique and how similar, actually, wildlife is to us, and by doing that and not interfering even though it is heart-wrenching."
Series producer David Hamlin said that approach fit with the film's goal to capture compelling stories:
"Migrations are epic journeys with very strong beginnings, middles and ends. There's triumph. There's tragedy. There's grief. There's elation. And that's what our passion and our responsibility was: to try and frame it and bring it home as storytellers."
"Great Migrations" airs 6-8 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Nov. 9; 6-9 p.m. Nov. 14; and 6 p.m. Nov. 20.
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