From the ocean depths to the African plains via the edge of an active volcano and the perilous side of a glacier, Will Smith gets up close and personal with the living planet in the new natural history blockbuster Welcome to Earth. The National Geographic series on Disney+ takes blue-chip wildlife documentaries to another level. The six-part original series follows two-time Oscar nominee Smith on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to explore the world’s greatest wonders and reveal its most hidden secrets.

The series is executive produced by Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, Protozoa Pictures, Jane Root’s Nutopia and Westbrook Studios. The scale of the orchestration required to capture the intimate and the spectacular on location was an enterprise closer to a large drama shoot in its scale and ambition.

“It would be very easy to make Will a presenter, but we wanted to give him the real experience and have him absolutely live that experience,” says BAFTA-winning director and Nutopia showrunner Graham Booth. “We didn’t want a performance. We wanted the true, flowing journey, not just a series of scenes with set lines to say. He’s reacting exactly as you would when faced with a huge shark, an extreme cliff edge, or a terrifying rapid.”

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“We were determined to make this a realistic fly-on the-wall journey”

Groundbreaking in the genre

Nutopia, Westbrook and Protozoa had previously made the National Geographic documentary One Strange Rock but this show couldn’t be more different.

“I would say it’s groundbreaking in the genre,” notes Booth. “It’s absolutely out of the ordinary. Obviously, he is a superstar, but this is not a celebrity vehicle. This is a genuinely profound and honest journey by Will into the natural world.”

Another alum of One Strange Rock was award-winning cinematographer Brendan McGinty. “It was unlike anything I’ve experienced on this scale,” he says. “We were joining two worlds, that of A-list Hollywood production logistics on one level with the speed and agility of documenting the real world.”

A key decision up front was how to marry these worlds into one consistent aesthetic. “We were determined to make this a realistic fly-on-the-wall journey, but wanted it to look like cinema too,” Booth says. “It’s very hard to create beautiful shots when you don’t know what will happen and you don’t want to stop the action. So, shooting 8K allowed us more flexibility to punch into the shots in the edit, and the RED camera always produces the most beautiful images.”

McGinty has previously chosen RED cameras as the right tool for the job, starting with shooting RED ONE for doc series River Monsters in 2010. Booth and Aronofsky knew that in signing McGinty, they would be getting a seasoned RED filmmaker.

“Graham and Darren knew my thinking was RED from the get-go,” he says.

“Graham and Darren knew my thinking was RED from the get-go”

Multi-camera documentary filmmaking

Preparations for the shoot were extensive, and after a wealth of testing the decision was made to shoot on RED GEMINI S35 for the ‘documentary’ vignettes in the series and to shoot on the MONSTRO 8k VV for the extensive Smith ‘host’ sections.

“Since we’d be shooting close up to Will, I thought that the look and feel of the large-format frame combined with the landscapes would give us something audiences hadn’t seen before,” McGinty says.

“I’d used GEMINI before and know it has amazing latitude and low-light performance. The MONSTRO had only just been released and I was immediately impressed by its color fidelity. For color alone, it is one of the best sensors out there.

“Our aspiration was always to keep the action continuous.”

McGinty was the DP and main operator for all the host shoots across the series. “My role was always to be on the shoulder of Will, seeing the world through his eyes. Being on a large-format sensor gave us a mix of intimacy with Will combined with the majesty of the VistaVision sensor. We wanted everything to look as cinematic as possible.”

On every host shoot they’d run at least 10 camera bodies: five MONSTRO and five GEMINI across handheld, Steadicam, gimbal, and extreme telephotos. Drones and mini cameras augmented coverage. “There were loads of occasions we had single camera shoots but even with multicamera, we moved incredibly fast considering the amount of people on the ground. Our aspiration was always to keep the action continuous.”

The typical plan included an A and B cam, often handheld and sometimes on legs and sliders and a C cam pre-built into a gimbal and/or Steadicam gyro-stabilised in some way. In the Serengeti, REDs were on Flight Heads mounted on vehicles.

The team carried ample sets of primes, but often preferred Angénieux EZ zooms designed for full frame/ VV. “That allowed us so be super responsive. I’m going down a volcano with Will and I’d be on a 45-135mm F2.8/T3 on his shoulder. I can reframe and grab different options of what’s happening in an instant.”

Covering every eventuality required considerable orchestration on the ground. Like a major blockbuster the team would recce the location, rehearse and block allowing Smith the freedom to move how and where he wanted during the filming.

“The challenging working conditions on ice added to the drama”

“We made it genuinely all one journey,” Booth explains. “From the moment Will arrived at the location the film began. We had multiple cameras and the crew had rehearsed and rehearsed all the options in the days before he got there. This meant that we knew how we would cover all eventualities. We knew we could deal with whatever he threw at us.”

Extreme telephotos were used for covering at distance. “An operator would be on a 50-1000mm able to frame me out and still be getting the action,” McGinty says. “We knew some of this action would happen in a heartbeat and we couldn’t risk not getting these moments.”

The Serengeti provided the most critical real-time challenge. Arguably, the greatest wildlife spectacle in Africa is when thousands of migrating wildebeest make perilous crossings of crocodile-infested rivers.

“The critical timing of this moment together with capturing Will’s immersion in it was something of a minor miracle to achieve, but the results were spectacular,” McGinty remarks. “Our natural history unit’s diligence with the dramatic slow-motion details really lifted this key sequence.”

Off the Bahamas, Smith and scientist Diva Amon explored the Atlantic in a submersible at depths of 1000m where the colors of the spectrum vanish. Multiple MONSTROs were deployed for topside filming while a second sub armed with a stripped-down HELIUM was remotely operated by a specialist crew from OceanX.

McGinty explains that shooting in Iceland provided a spectacular mix of dramatic arctic landscape combined with extraordinary light and color.

“The challenging working conditions on ice added to the drama of the scenes while the backdrop of waterfalls, rivers, volcanoes and lava fields made for a truly epic backdrop for the journey.”

Shooting in a volcano

Shooting on the active volcano of Yasur in Vanuatu, presented the most arduous shooting conditions set within an explosively dramatic landscape.

“Inside the volcano, I’m shooting through thick clouds of colored gas with magma exploding and sun flare down the lens,” McGinty recalls. “The light was dropping and there was this moment where the glow of the magma is lighting Will and the explorer up as much as the blue ambient light of dusk. I hoped then it would all hold up.”

Fortunately, McGinty had the luxury of being able to check rushes that evening in company of a DIT/colorist who travelled with the crew and was able to perform grades on the fly. “It’s like the old days of shooting on a negative it’s just you’ve got this huge digital negative to draw on. The beautiful pink and yellow colors of the gases were still there, combined with the quality of the light and the glow of the magma gave this film such a distinctive photographic palate.”

“Everyone imagines 8K is about sharpness but for me it’s quite the opposite”

8K recording and post

Recording 8K on RED enabled scope for reframing and stabilization but there were overriding technical and aesthetic reasons for the resolution choice.

“Everyone imagines 8K is about sharpness but for me it’s quite the opposite,” McGinty says. “You can actually run with high resolution image which appears much softer to the human eye. We never wanted to see any augmented sharpness. That was our mantra in the grade. The 8K as captured by RED delivers a natural high resolution that comes very close to how humans experience the world.”

A 4K finish was required by National Geographic and the deliverable specs were more rigorous at Disney which acquired the natural history specialist during the show’s three-and-a-half-year production.

“Being able to hit 4K gracefully by having a bit of wiggle room in terms of resolution to stabilize is important, but a bigger deal for me is RAW recording,” McGinty says. “On a series like this when we’re shooting staggering amounts of data the fact, we can shoot compressed RAW was such an elegant way to work.

“There’s not another camera system that can really deliver pristine 8K RAW. RED delivers way more resolution and fantastic 16-bit color and more latitude in a smaller parcel than anyone else. I think it’s something RED got right a long time ago and for this series it was a no brainer.”

Preproduction tests confirmed that 7:1 was the sweet spot for compression. “We tested against all sorts of environments and felt that this was the right balance of data payload and compression,” McGinty explains. “We honestly felt that the human eye couldn’t see any finer detail beyond this, and it was well within everyone’s specifications.

“That was a great position to be in since, with certain camera systems, conversations about tech specs can be quite fraught as broadcasters become more conscious of future-proofing blue-chip assets like this for resale. It was clear to everyone involved here that we couldn’t deliver any higher standard.”

The host scenes alone totalled 120TB across series. Not that this volume was hard to wrangle.

“RED workflow is so integrated into every post house it has become second nature,” notes McGinty. “All I heard back from the production teams was nothing but celebration. They were blown away by what rushes looked like and that was coming from Graham and Darren and Disney and Will. Everyone felt it looked unlike anything seen before and a lot of that is down to the camera system.

“The delicate balance for Welcome to Earth was always to keep as much ‘cinematic’ value to the photography while staying true to the realism and energy of an epic journey. Throughout the series, the 8K VV sensor matched with full-frame zooms meant that even in our ‘roughest’ documentary moments there was always a certain cinematic grandeur to the photography.”

Welcome to Earth is now streaming only on Disney+.

Special thanks to Disney+, National Geographic, Nutopia for sharing the behind-the-scenes experience on Welcome to Earth.
Executive Producers: Darren Aronofsky, Jane Root, Ari Handel, Peter Lovering, Will Smith, Terence Carter, James Lassiter, Miguel Melendez, Matt Renner, Chris L. Kugelman
Co-Executive Producer: Graham Booth
Director of Photography: Brendan McGinty

The RED Arsenal is the most powerful and versatile lineup of cinema cameras in the industry. Whether shooting on a big budget feature, a run-and-gun documentary, or out in the world capturing natures wonder for Welcome To Earth, RED offers the best tools for your project and shooting style.

The MONSTRO 8K VV and GEMINI 5K S35 sensors that were used on the Welcome To Earth project are available in both the modular DSMC2 and all‑in‑one RANGER camera systems.

  • 35.4 Megapixel CMOS Sensor
  • 40.96mm x 21.60 mm (Diag: 46.31 mm)
  • 60 fps at 8K Full Format (8192 x 4320)
  • 75 fps at 8K 2.4:1 (8192 x 3456)
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  • 15.4 Megapixel DUAL SENSITIVITY CMOS Sensor
  • 30.72mm x 18mm (Diag. 35.61 mm)
  • 75 fps at 5K Full Height 1.7:1 (5120 x 3000)
  • 96 fps at 5K 2.4"1 Full Format (5120 x 2700)
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