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'Great Migrations' Filmmakers Get Up Close and Personal

National Geographic Channel held the U.S. premiere of its forthcoming miniseries Great Migrations Oct. 21 at the Saban Theater in Los Angeles.

The event featured “Born to Move,” the first hour of the four-hour series, following the lifelong migratory paths of wildebeest, sperm whales, red crabs and monarch butterflies.

The series’ use of new filming technology and compelling story arcs provided a vibrant, intimate (at times perhaps too intimate, as seen with a red crab devouring his fallen companion) look at the little-understood world of species migration.

But as close as audiences got, coordinating producer Katie Bauer got closer. She recalls one of her more exhilarating shoots, when, sitting alone in an inflatable kayak, five sperm whale decided to pay her a visit.

“While the cameraman was filming below, the whales were very curious and came to check out the kayak that I was sitting in. Five massive sperm whales!,” Bauer told B&C. “I just kept thinking that, accidentally, one of them could easily raise above the surface and tip the kayak, and then who knows what would’ve happened? But they’re really gentle, social animals, and it was just an amazing moment to be that close to them.”

These tenuous moments seem to have defined the making of Great Migrations.

“It’s an interesting time to be focusing on migrations, because things are really changing now—a lot,” Bauer explained. “For example, when filming the penguins, the scientist who lived on the island said they arrive like clockwork. It’s been a specific date for the past ten years. This year [the penguins] came two weeks early, so we missed their arrival.” She cites climate change as the cause.

However, she added that it’s such unexpected crises that highlight the importance of Great Migrations’ stories. While the filmmakers missed the penguins, other stories, like that of the walrus’ struggle against melting ice, have caught the devastation of climate change on film.

The series’ crises are also accompanied by triumphs. Crews captured the migration of Sudan’s white-eared kob—feared extinct from the region’s civil war—for the first time in 30 years. Executive producer Char Serwa says discovering the flourishing population of kob was one of the most rewarding parts of making Great Migrations—but also the most challenging.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” she told B&C, explaining that they had to work with the Sudanese government to obtain the first-ever filming permit given—”Permit Number One.” “It [then] took the team nine days, off-road, GPS only, to get to where the kob migrated. And they weren’t a hundred percent sure they’d get there at the right moment to see the kob in this area that has been ravaged by civil war. We had to have armed guards and special vehicles because there were land mines throughout the whole area from the war.”

Such moments, combined with state-of-the-art, high-definition camerawork, inevitably draws some comparisons between Great Migrations and Discovery’s Planet Earth, but Serwa sees the two as peers not competitors.

“What we set out to do was tell stories—to tell the storylines of these migrations. We chose to make sure that we always had a beginning, middle and end to our story, and not just go with the anecdotal ‘money shots,’” she explained. “I think that sets us apart a little bit in terms of how we approach our subject matter. But I think all those projects are equally beautiful.”

Great Migrations airs Nov. 7 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.