Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro On Creating The Immersive Visual Story for Hostile Planet
Listening to Guillermo Navarro talking about National Geographic’s Hostile Planet is something one can hear all day. Navarro started working in documentary and used his knowledge to transfer those skills to feature film. He worked with Guillermo del Toro on Pan’s Labyrinth and was approached by National Geography to capture our world in their new show Hostile Planet. Once again, Navarro took what he had learned from feature film making back to documentary. What we see in Hostile Planet are images that are so visually rich, but a documentary that takes us to another level. We’re swimming alongside orcas, we’re seeing a baby turtle take to the ocean from the first time. Using drones and technological advances, Navarro immerses us into the world of animal behavior with his lens.
I caught up with him for a brief chat to talk about lensing the stunning series for National Geographic.
Hostile Planet is phenomenal, it’s beautiful and stunning. It’s different than so many other shows we’ve seen. Talk about going back to documentary film and how it started for you?
Probably three years ago went by from when I first got on the phone to National Geographic. It was a massive project. There was so much to do, so much to research and so much to think about.
National Geographic started reaching out to filmmakers for their projects. They did the scripted series Genius. They worked with Darren Aronofsky, and they called me. I’ve worked with them before and for me, it was always something that opened my eyes. It was great to be back in that world.
I started out doing documentaries as a young Mexican man overwhelmed by the color and culture. I went out and did a lot of documentaries. I learned a lot photographing it. I went to do feature films and brought a lot of my know-how from what I learned in documentary work into feature. Dealing with truth and reality was an important base to start talking about things. Documentary puts you in touch with that and it was a major thing for me and I was able to contribute to the drama world with that. Maybe that was part of my success where I could do parallel realities and it became the most important thing where film language was the real storyteller. Since my work was visual, that was what I thrived on.
It was the most important drive for me. I learned a lot and I’m convinced that the visual language is the language of our time. You can’t have a day go by without being in touch with the visual language.
This show wanted to address younger generations that are going to be facing the issues of the planet. This contribution of using the visual language to engage you became mandatory for me.
I had a meeting with Plimsoll Productions in London because they have so much experience doing wildlife. We started watching a lot of material and traditional documentaries. I said I wanted to find out what was wrong with this because I’m here to change it. I’m here to open this discussion. What’s happening in the world is transforming us and transforming how life is out there. We have to transform how we tell the story.
Traditionally, there’s always been a host and the visuals were illustrating a text. The voiceover was carrying a narrative. There were visuals to illustrate what they were narrating. For me, that was the most important thing to address. I brought down the level of voiceovers in Hostile Planet. There is still voiceover, but what I did was give a lot of weight to the film language.
Aside from the visuals illustrating the text, it was shot in an observational sense. You’re just observing the behavior and all they want is to find the paparazzi moment of the kill and that’s the highlight and the stories don’t round up.
I wanted to shoot not in an observational way as if you’re watching a fish in a tank. I wanted to be with them and to do that, the lens had to be right alongside the animal.
I wanted the number of shots that not only shows the animal but the ones that show things from their perspective and what it’s like to be them. That allows you to make a dramatic arc and the animal becomes your character.
It’s just so visually rich. When you have the orca pod at the beginning, it’s such an incredible perspective and the same with the alligator
The camera pulls you in. It’s an immersive experience. You’re taken by what’s happening because you are living it with them and you see what it’s like to be them.
In Oceans where the turtle is born. You see where she’s born, taking a look at the world for the first time and you see her take in what she’s watching. You see the task of her going the few meters towards the ocean and it’s the hardest thing of her life. She’s a newborn. We build the sequence and it’s almost like a scene from Dunkirk, where you are with her. She has to survive all battles and adversity and she makes it to the water. It’s where her life starts.
There are so many ways to shoot this. If you shoot them going into the water and you pan, there’s nothing. That’s where I had to change things – the attitude. I had to change the attitude in making this film. People who were involved in the making had been doing the other thing and shooting that style. So, I changed it.
With today’s equipment and technology, it was easy to do that. The footprint and presence are so small. You have a lot of cases, but the lens and cameras are very small. They’re light. We have the equipment to move the camera so well. The camera can travel with the animal.
There’s a sense of purpose where the camera moves with purpose. It moves and takes you somewhere. It takes you to where the eye would not usually look. That builds and builds and you’re able to experience that.
The shot you talk about with the orcas, we were flying next to them. That was done with drones. It’s like an over the shoulder look at them, we’re traveling at their speed. Before that was something that was impossible to do.
In terms of all that you experienced going across the continents and environments, what were the most awe-inspiring highlights for you?
Sticking with the perspective with what I wanted to achieve, there’s a sequence with the orcas that connected the dots with what I wanted to happen.
Here we are with orcas, they work in a team and they’re smart. They go because they know there’s an abundance of herrings in that part of the world. There’s so much herring that they have to divide into smaller sections so they can share it. It’s kept compact. The orcas use their tails to disrupt that school of herrings. 30 or 40 herrings get knocked and the orcas eat one at a time, it’s like a dance.
Other groups of whales come in, and it’s a second scale of predators and they take 200 pounds of herring in one scoop. As if that’s not enough, the biggest predator of all, us – we come along with our net and the whole school is gone. That was a highlight that connects what I set out to achieve.