Series producer Karen Bass explains what makes 'Untamed Americas' unmissable TV. And how Sir David Attenborough introduced her to her husband
Starting as a researcher for Sir David Attenborough, Karen Bass has gone on to become one of the world's leading producers of natural history programmes. In 25 years at the BBC's iconic Natural History Unit, she has worked on some of the most seminal wildlife programmes including Andes to Amazon, Wild Caribbean, and Nature’s Great Events.
Her latest series, Untamed Americas, airing on National Geographic Channel from Monday 17 September, is a four-part, high-definition mini-series revealing the grit and glory in the wild of North America, Central America and South America. She talks to Peter Moore about the challenges she faced making the series. And the once-in-a-generation moments she was able to capture.
Why focus on the Americas?
There has never been a whole series about all of the Americas, which is surprising because it's got the most superlative features. You’ve got the longest mountain chains, running from Alaska to Patagonia, forming the spine of the continent. You’ve got the Amazon, which is the largest rainforest, with the greatest biodiversity of any rainforest on the planet. There are lots of different types of deserts, from Senora to the Atacama to the high Altiplano in the middle of the Andes. And of course, as for oceans, you've got the Arctic, Sub Antarctic, Atlantic and Pacific to choose from. It’s just this incredible epic stage.
And then there are the challenges – the blizzards, the blistering heat – that these creatures have got to make their way through all that. And so do our crews!
What can we look forward to?
The tube-lipped nectar bat has already been a bit of a water cooler moment in the US (where the series has already been shown). It was only discovered in 2005, and it has got the longest tongue of any mammal, longer than its body. It evolved to pollinate a particular flower and our footage of it is a first. That got people talking and created a bit of a buzz.
We also managed to get a grizzly bear predation, where bears in Yellowstone National Park hunt elk calves. It only happens three weeks a year, it’s very hard to capture because there's a lot of vegetation. We got three predations of grizzlies and two predations of black bears, taking out these little elk calves.
How is this series different?
We’ve tried to focus on story telling so that the series is as emotionally engaging for the audience as possible. It’s more about character-driven stories.
For example, we follow a group of mustangs trying to survive in the desert. We got the beautiful slow motion footage and the soundtrack is very experiential. But ultimately, what really gets you, is that we focus on an older mustang called Red and his story. He was once the leader and it's his last chance to get back into the herd. He can’t survive unless he gets back in. As I said, it’s great footage, but what people remember is the middle age guy who gets the girl in the end.
With that particular example, a storyline presented itself. Was that the case with all the stories?
No. You can’t get into the tube-lipped nectar bat story like that. It’s a biological story, an amazing piece of adaptive behaviour. You’re not going to get personal because it’s not a social story.
But where you’ve got a social story, like the bears, you can focus on the narrative. The mother has got to feed her cubs and she has only got a couple of weeks to capitalise on what is going to be the biggest bounty for the year.
Then, on the flipside, you've got the elk mother. Her incredible strategy is to leave her kids in the bushes, a bit like Jodie Foster in The Panic Room. If this calf moves a muscle, or makes a sound, it’s game over.
And that seems to be intensified by the way the series has been put together.
I’ve been watching some of the really slick, brilliant television dramas, really first class, very tight, creatively shot dramas. This is the quality audiences are expecting now. We’ve got a really sophisticated audience so we’ve got to go the extra mile.
So, the sound is in the heartbeat. The close up of the eye of this calf, filling the frame. You use the edit and the pace to dwell on that moment. That’s where the tension is.
Natural history documentaries have evolved in such a way to suck you into the moment, to feel what it feels like to be that animal rather than distant, long lens wildebeest-on-the-plains kind of shot. It’s about what is at stake for these creatures.
Technology has changed too. How has that changed the way you film?
I started off using film and you had to have lots and lots of light and very fast stock. Now the new Epic cameras give you incredible frame rates and let us capture stuff that was impossible 20 years ago. Now, with the tube-lipped bat for example, you can not only see the tongue, but also what that tongue is doing four times a second. Suddenly you’re not just seeing the tongue, you’re seeing those little red bits, and little tiny spoons, like little cups, that scientists say help it max out on the amount of nectar it can get with each flick.
How long did the series take to make?
24 months, which is a relatively short time, considering how much time we’d normally set aside for that sort of ambition.
Story selection becomes really important. You've got to calculate your chances for success, prepare and then monitor the situation before you deploy the camera team. And it's getting harder and harder because the climate of the planet is doing weird things. It’s getting much harder to make those long-term commitments to film teams.
One strategy we used on this series was to use locally based crews. We prepped them. They had the storyboards and knew what we wanted. Hence we were able to get the amazing Mobula Ray event off La Paz in Baha, California. It was the biggest concentration of Mobula in a generation and our local guy got incredible footage – from the air and underwater as well. If we'd sent a crew they would have missed it. But he was there and did a great job for us.
What are your favourite moments from the series?
Loved the bat. Loved the bears. Loved the wonderful puma cubs that had to learn to hunt in the Mountains show. I'm really proud of the Mobula Ray footage because it’s such a rare, fantastic moment in time.
I really loved the wood bison at the end of the Forest episode too, when they are rolling in the dust to get rid of all these mosquitoes and biting insects. Having spent years in jungles and knowing what it’s like to get bitten over and over again, I really related to it. The crew used to call me ‘The Bait.’ That’ how much I attracted mossies. So just to witness this glorious moment when the bison get to roll in the dust and not get bitten for a few seconds, I felt their joy.
Getting grizzly bears feasting on a whale carcass in Alaska. We had heard that it happened, and tried to get it for a whole year, without success. We had this pilot network up in Alaska, to give us a tip-off. Then, in the last week of September, the last week that we would be able to film because winter closes in very fast, we got it. Grizzly bears pigging out on the carcass then rolling over like it was Thanksgiving. It’s was high fives all around the office because we had pretty much given up.
Hardest moments to catch?
The Mobulas. To get the biggest event in a generation, when they only do it for a day and then disappear, was really special. I wept with joy, literally.
Is there a holy grail you are still chasing?
Yes there is. Quite a few. On every continent, and in every habitat, there are still great stories to be told.
Untamed Americas begins on 17 September at 8pm on National Geographic Channel and then at 10pm on Nat Geo Wild.