Producer and director James Honeyborne has been making wildlife films for 25 years, including The Meerkats (2008), Blue Planet II (2017), and most recently Our Great National Parks in collaboration with Higher Ground, former President Barack Obama’s production company that struck a deal with Netflix to produce films and series in 2018.
As it turns out, Honeyborne was in the process of making a deal with Netflix at the same time, and his eye towards the natural world and the state of our environment dovetailed nicely with Higher Ground’s own purpose of creating programming that reveals and educates while it entertains. James and I touch on the genesis of his partnership with Higher Ground, as well as his passion for nature, and his desire to inject hope into the cause of protecting our environment and our future.
Awards Daily: How did this project come to light?
James Honeyborne: Well, after Blue Planet II I spent some time thinking about the response to that series, and how there was a big movement against plastics. I was thinking: what are the really important subjects to remind us all of? What stories can we tell that are really relevant to the world today, and that we can tell in a way that’s entertaining? Because we know that if we just overwhelm people with really big conceptual problems, human nature means we can put our heads in the sand.
Awards Daily: Right, it’s just too big.
James Honeyborne: The big-picture thought is that the health of the planet depends on having healthy wilderness. It’s our life support system, so we have to take care of it, and yet it’s so easily forgotten. And what some people might think of as empty space isn’t—it’s doing a vital function for us all. Just reminding ourselves of that and exploring the relationship between humanity and nature feels like it’s never been more important. So I had that bubbling in the back of my mind at the time that Netflix introduced us to Higher Ground. Higher Ground and my company Freeborne both started creating partnerships with Netflix around the same time, and it quickly became apparent that we shared common interests in this area—and National Parks became a very attractive framing for the conversation we wanted to hold around wilderness and our relationship to it.
In our discussions it became apparent that President Obama would be a great person to tell that story, and of course he brings a great authenticity to that story, having protected more wilderness than any other US President in history. In a world with so many environmental concerns, the formation of national parks is one of the greatest global conservation success stories of the last century. That effort started 150 years ago and actually has picked up pace since – it’s been in the last 50 years that over half of the 4,000 parks on the planet have been created. It’s been a really global movement, so we felt that was something to celebrate.
Awards Daily: You referenced your extensive history with nature productions. What spurred your initial interest? Obviously it’s incredibly important to you.
James Honeyborne: I’m a biologist by degree. And I was very lucky I ran into a film crew while I was in Africa in my late teens, and that gave me an ambition to want to get into the industry. When I first joined the BBC, for my first ever job I was a clerk of the film vault, which is a very archaic sounding title. It was down in the basement with these great vaults of film to spool through and try to tell stories with the materials there—that’s what introduced me to the world of storytelling and filmmaking. I really worked in every editorial position from the basement up whilst at the BBC Natural History. I was there for 25 years, and of course in that time you go to many places and see many extraordinary things, and over time things change. Glaciers I filmed 20 years ago aren’t as big as they were then; they’re not in the same place as they were then. Places are getting warmer, the wildlife is becoming less predictable, there’s less wilderness around. You see change happening literally in the course of your career. And I guess I’ve reached an age and a stage where I’m really keen to tell stories that are forward-facing, that are relevant to the next generation who will inherit this planet and its problems, and we have to have something left to leave them.
Awards Daily: When I first saw the title of the show Our Great National Parks, I assumed it was going to be Yellowstone and Yosemite, and be focused on American national parks. I was so pleasantly surprised to see all of the international National Parks that I just wasn’t aware of. I take it that was a very intentional choice to expand the scope of what one might understand “our” to mean.
James Honeyborne: We very much wanted to tell a story that felt global, and inclusive, and when there’s over 4,000 parks to choose from and every one has a different story to tell, how do you choose? We looked far and wide and circled on the idea that it would be good to tell stories from different continents, but also taking place in different habitats and ecosystems; one that was maybe more forresty, or one might be a savannah, or one might be a marine environment. And then when we started developing this with Higher Ground, there also came in this thought that the president had a very global experience of the world and a global upbringing as well, and so there was an opportunity to choose places and parts of the world that were personal to him. And that again helped it feel like an authentic story for him to tell, and it felt more personal and therefore more entertaining for us to see I think. A scene like the president on the beach in Hawaii talking about his relationship to the ocean before he was even born—that’s what I mean by personal, and being let into his perspective on his own relationship with nature.
Awards Daily: There isn’t enough time possible to talk about all the eye-popping and extraordinary individual shots. But can you talk a little about the first episode, where the lemurs leap through what looked like a Game of Thrones topography? How was that filmed? And when you’re filming, do you have the same tension we do as to whether these animals are going to survive that dangerous jump?
James Honeyborne: You have skipped over the surfing hippos, which I’m quite disappointed about.
Awards Daily: [laughs] I have a lot more stuff here, don’t worry. The surfing hippos were amazing.
James Honeyborne: You’re talking about the Decken’s sifaka lemurs. They live in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park in Madagascar where you find these limestone cast formations, which are these incredible craggy peaks, eroded over the millennia. And these peaks are many stories high and some as sharp as knife edges—so it’s the real deal. There are a few viewpoints across this landscape where it’s possible to film more conventionally with a long lens, and that’s what we could do in some of the more forested areas we could access. But we actually found a family of lemurs looking like they were going to make a crossing and that was when we decided to film that one family, which we were able to do using a drone. The drone allowed us to follow them at a distance where we weren’t interfering with them, but the height also gave that really precipitous perspective that was important in the framing of that story. So we were lucky to have that technology at our disposal, because it’s not a landscape anyone can cross easily. And it’s actually a very delicate landscape as well, so we try to leave nothing but footprints—and if you don’t want to leave even footprints, a drone is really great.
Awards Daily: That’s a huge distance shot, but there’s also wonderful intimate shots, like the tracking shot of the otter under the pier with her baby. I watched that and thought “how in the world did they get this footage.” How did luck combine with preparation to catch a shot like this?
James Honeyborne: That was the lovely story of the sea otters in Monterey Bay at Moss Landing. We had sort of two different camera setups: One was a stabilized camera on a small boat, which allowed us to drift around the pontoons and see who was about in the sea otter population, because we know them as individuals. And we were very fortunate that this birth had just taken place and that there was a newborn around. And we worked out that the mum was occasionally stashing the baby under the pontoon itself, which is not even recorded in the scientific literature, that behavior. So we waited for mum to take the baby off, and we went and rigged it out under the pontoon where there are actually locked off remote cameras, which is what gives you that sense of drifting. Mum comes in from underneath one of the cameras and beautifully drifts along, then turns and deposits the baby on the side, and, lo and behold, we get to record something no one’s seen before. Really it’s all about spending enough time with the animals for them to reveal their most intimate secrets.
Awards Daily: I personally appreciated that there’s not a lot of blood and guts in the series. You didn’t shy away from that completely—of course the big exception being the baby whale and the orcas—but this program did less of that than some other nature documentaries I’ve seen. Was it a choice to lean more towards the wonder and beauty of nature and less towards the harshness of nature?
James Honeyborne: Well, nature can be red and tooth and claw but not all the time, and actually predation events are surprisingly uncommon—so that’s not always how we choose to depict our characters. We always try to find interesting animal characters at pivotal moments in their lives, but they might be making complex decisions, or they might be making arduous journeys. There are lots of other stories to tell that rely less on blood and guts and more on behaviors that elicit a broader range of emotions amongst viewers. When you’re trying to make entertaining wildlife films, you want to not just trade on the drama of the hunt or the awe and wonder of the spectacle. There are other emotions that we would like to engage, and that we can do by telling these slightly more complex stories about the many other things animals get up to.
Awards Daily: You mentioned before that there was a desire to educate but not be didactic, and we live in a time when everything is very sensitive and politics can be triggering. How did you feel about trying to find the right tone to educate but not be too heavy handed?
James Honeyborne: I suppose with this series we chose to be purposefully hopeful in the stories we would tell because the story of national parks, in terms of conservation, has been a largely hopeful one. So it’s partly the subject matter. But what we’ve also tried to do is to reflect the scientific truth of the situation the best we can, and the planet is facing several crises all at once. We’ve got the climate crisis, we’ve got a crisis of biodiversity and extinction, and we’ve got the escalating pollution crisis—so we’ve got some really major existential threats happening to the planet at the moment. But within that there are still some inspiring stories that can give us hope, and hope is an emotion we all need to feel to improve our relationship with nature, and that, I’d like to think, is not a partisan approach to take. Hopefully it is appealing to human nature across the board.
Awards Daily: You mentioned before that you wanted to inject some positivity into the project. There are certain environmentalists, Bill McKibben is an example, who are ringing the alarm in such a way as to say “guys, it’s almost too late.” In a series such as this one, I can imagine if you had presented this information in a way that felt hopeless, then a call to action by the program could ring rather hollow.
James Honeyborne: I think we all need to feel empowered. We all need to feel that there are things we can do, and that we can have agency in this. It’s really important that people feel that. And again, we tried to make this series very much with the next generation in mind. They know the clock is ticking, they know time is short. And when we say in the commentary “it’s been said that we’re the first generation to understand the threat we’re facing, and maybe the last who can do something about it,” we don’t shy away from that timeline. But equally we are living in a moment where I feel what’s important is to inspire people to feel the positivity of change and that change is possible. That’s why there’s a digital impact campaign that sits alongside the series to help engage with audiences who feel activated to find out more and do more.
Awards Daily: My wife made a comment when we began watching the series and heard Barack Obama’s voiceover. She said that whenever Morgan Freeman gives up voice work, “this is the guy they are coming for.”
James Honeyborne: Right, he’s clearly unique. Because he has such a distinctive voice and a distinctive delivery, I think it helps the audience feel like they’re in a safe pair of hands and the information is coming from someone who knows. There’s an authority that comes with that as well. We really felt it enhanced the series, and personally it was a joy to work with the President and with his production company.
Awards Daily: These are passion projects for you. What are you up to next?
James Honeyborne: We have just announced a new series with Netflix on the health of the world’s oceans. But right now I’m still concentrating on getting this series out and helping the impact campaign. It’s really important to engage communities with the importance of wilderness, and we have a campaign in collaboration with Higher Ground Productions and the Wildlife Conservation Society in order to do that. You can visit the website www.wild.org and learn how to make a difference.