‘Incredible Animal Journeys’ Will Have You Rooting for Dung Beetles

A funny thing happened amid Hollywood’s obsession with new tech, higher resolution, and utilizing bells and whistles to grease the path to quality images. In addition to everything from 4k upgrades to IMAX reimaginings and Darren Aronofsky going full 18k, the upgrades were quietly adopted by other aspects of the entertainment industry to staggeringly gorgeous results. Sure, inventing new lenses made “Killers of the Flower Moon” a swoon-worthy cinematic spectacle in theaters. But did it make you care about a dung beetle?

That’s the charming and beautiful trick of Nat Geo’s new seven-part series “Incredible Animal Journeys,” premiering November 19. Narrated by Jeremy Renner, each episode follows a wide variety of wildlife on their regular migrations; the first episode alone includes a flaming flock of flamingoes, a herd of zebras facing multiple predators (including the results of climate change), and that dung beetle. There is the natural drama and cruelty of wildlife that one expects from a nature docuseries, but there are also moments that have never before been witnessed, captured thanks to the latest technology and years of research and planning.

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“It takes three years for us to make a series like this,” showrunner Sarah Gibbs told IndieWire. “And we work very closely with scientists to put us in the right place at the right time. One of the things we really wanted to capture for this series, which has never been captured before, is a humpback humpback whale’s amazing journey from Hawaii to Alaska.”

Part of what makes filming never-before-seen moments possible is the advent of drones. “Drones, which we’ve been using now for a number of years have really revolutionized what we do,” said Gibbs. “But when you’re making a show for Nat Geo and Disney, you have to meet a cinema-grade spec. Your drone needs to be flying a Hollywood-grade camera, so they fly red cameras. And that’s pretty heavy when you’re trying to build a drone that can fly at 80 miles an hour as it makes its first flight a thousand feet off a sea cliff, right? So a lot of the equipment we have, we adapt it to our needs.”

Drones also capture moments that aren’t noticeable from land, including a sequence in the Falklands in which Southern sea lions hunt gentoo penguins. “Every day, [gentoo penguins] go out to sea to fish and then come back to feed their chicks and family,” executive producer Mark Brownlow told IndieWire. “But these canny sea lions have worked out they can be intercepted in the shallows. It’s an amazing example of cooperative hunting. The drone delivers a behavior that you might not have noticed from shore.”

“[The sea lions] kind of tag team to herd penguins so they can catch them,” Gibbs added. “And the gentoo is the fastest penguin in the sea, so it had to really work to outrun these sea lions. It’s kind of one of those jaw-dropping things. And that footage will go to scientists who are then using that as the basis of new research.”

A group of gentoo penguins make it safely to the beach. (National Geographic for Disney/Georgina Strange)
A group of gentoo penguins make it safely to the beachNational Geographic for Disney/Georgina Strange

Drones aren’t the only way “Incredible Animal Journeys” capture singular footage, though. In addition to the utility of shooting in 8k (which allows the crew to push in close without disturbing the animals), “all the time we’re looking at new [innovations], placing suction cups onto the backs of, for instance, humpback whales, where we work hand in hand with scientists,” Brownlow said. “They not only record video, but they also have sensors that record invaluable detailed scientific information. So it’s a beautiful marriage between us and science.”

That marriage included in-depth collaboration with Dr. Rachel Cartwright, a leading expert on humpback whales, who, like the “Incredible Animal Journeys” team, wanted to witness a humpback whale’s birth for the first time. After months of planning, the team not only captured the birth but something they could never have planned for.

“The behavior that these guys captured, it still blows me away,” Brownlow said. “And that is the moment a traveling humpback whale chances upon a dying whale and then assists her to the surface after fending off the sharks to take her last breaths in peace. That is just, for me, the most extraordinary moment of the series and one of the most extraordinary sequences I’ve ever seen in wildlife filmmaking. You could never plan for that.”

Scientists had never seen whales behaving in that manner — though stories about it date back to whaling days. “Whalers would kill a whale, and then know that another whale might come along to try and help. And so they would actually use that to bring more whales in,” Brownlow said. “So [scientists] had heard of this, but they had never witnessed this behavior in the wild. And you’ve got to remember that everyone who works on these programs is passionate about animals and the natural world. So they’ve just witnessed an animal that’s dying and an animal coming to its aid. And it’s a really powerful emotional moment, and you can tell that from talking to them. So I knew as soon as I spoke to them that they had something incredibly important and unique.”

Incredible Animal Journeys — Arctic Fox
Incredible Animal Journeys — Arctic Fox

The behind-the-scenes work is included in a special episode that takes viewers into the filmmaking process — including some unplanned aspects of filming wild animals, like an arctic fox marking its territory and cracking a camera lens in the exclusive clip above. That episode also reveals an inconvenient truth: The deadliest plastic debris in our waters is not plastic bottles; it’s millions of tons of fishing nets and lines that are lost in the oceans every year. Even as technology allows us new ways to look at the beauty of the natural world, humanity seems intent on finding new ways to threaten it.

That might be why there’s something so charming in the prosaic migration of the dung beetle. As flamingoes preen and humpback whales traverse the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Alaska, the dung beetle stolidly soldiers forth (as many of us do in our own lives). Except the dung beetle has a surprising skill: “They navigate by the sun, but they also navigate by the Milky Way,” Gibbs said. “And do you know how they know this? The scientists know this because they’ve tested them in a planetarium.”

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, they may be in the gutter, but dung beetles are looking at the stars.

“Incredible Animal Journeys” premieres November 19 at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic. New episodes premiere every Sunday and stream next day on Disney+ and Hulu.

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