National Geographic’s Super/Natural is a captivating insight into nature like you’ve never seen before. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of animal alliances, where friends are a force with which to be reckoned. Life has developed an array of unseen abilities to communicate and cooperate – glowing squirrels, snake-imitating owls and even enormous trees are among those that collaborate to find food, escape their enemies and produce the next generation.
Executive-produced by James Cameron and narrated by Academy Award®-nominated and BAFTA Award-winning actor Benedict Cumberbatch (“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Power of the Dog”), Super/Natural utilizes the latest scientific innovations and leading-edge filmmaking technology to reveal the secret powers and super-senses of the world’s most extraordinary animals, inviting viewers to see and hear beyond normal human perception to experience the natural world as a specific species does — from seeing flowers in bee-vision to eavesdropping on a conversation between elephant seals to soaring the length of a football field with glow-in-the-dark squirrels.
To learn more about Super/Natural, including the impact of climate change, the unique lives of species and the forest, The Koalition spoke to Executive Producer Tom Hugh-Jones.
With six episodes, each episode features several stories that are more enthralling than the next. One of the series’ crowning achievements is the technology used to capture these fascinating creatures. “Being able to show people things about animals you can’t see with the naked eye [meant] we had to use a lot of technology. We use a lot of new cameras: ultra-low light cameras, ultra-high-speed cameras, thermal cameras, ultraviolet cameras. [Then there’s the] first person drones; all these kinds of things to try [to] take you into this extra sensory world of animals. We use contact microphones to pick up how the animals use sounds as warning calls, in mating rituals and more. [This is] to allow people to experience the natural world in a way they can’t if they just step outside and look at it.”
“We wanted to find stories that would blow people’s minds, things they hadn’t seen before or things we could reveal in a new light. The research element is very intensive we we’re basically researching all the way through the production period. Even when we [thought] we’ve decided on things we’re going to film, we always we could find something better. We kept pushing and kept pushing. We spoke to a lot of scientists [and] naturalists to find those new angles on animals’ people have seen before.
The need to reproduce is a natural instinct. The ability to create the next generation ensures a species continues. The second episode of Super/Natural, ‘The Mating Game’ reveals the hidden secrets animals and plants have used to survive, seduce and even kill a mate, from super sensitive elephant seals that use love and sound to find their herd to forever rivals. If you think love is blind, you aren’t looking in the right place.
Did you know in order for a Vampire Spider to find his mate they must drink the blood of a human? Or Anole Lizards have adapted to breathe underwater by forcing its body to push air bubbles into its head? While the lizard is submerged in the water, tiny bubbles trapped between the reptile’s scales join up and drift towards the lizard’s head. This collection of bubbles acts as a “secret scuba system” for the lizard, allowing the creature to breathe underwater and stay submerged for more than 18 minutes. Then there’s the beauty of the Synchronous Fireflies, the neon Glow-In-The-Dark squirrels or trees that communicate with each other and share minerals.
“We went to film the Synchronous Fireflies that hadn’t been shown on TV before, we found the Scuba Lizard [which] was a very fresh kind of discovery we jumped on. We were spending every day with these animals recording things even the scientists who’ve been studying them for years haven’t seen. They’ll go, ‘you know, they never do this’ and then we’ll say, ‘well, we actually caught it on camera doing that.'”
Super/Natural was filmed over two and a half years during the pandemic, which further complicated matters, each shoot on average was three weeks long, depending on the episode. Before and during the duration, scientists and veteran filmmakers were involved, offering their insight and experience. “We just kept looking at the stories and wanting to check that we found the really the most visually exciting ones, the most scientifically revelatory ones and a good mix as well.”
“We filmed over about two and a half years and it’s worth mentioning most of that was during the pandemic, so it made it triply complicated. Each shoot on average is probably about three weeks long, some longer, some shorter. We just spent such a long time talking to scientists and talking to old filmmakers, seeing if there’s anything new out there and we just keep looking at the stories and wanting to check that we found the really the most visually exciting ones, the most scientifically revelatory ones and a good mix as well. You don’t want to have one show that’s only got stories about bears in it or for example interestingly a lot of the really fascinating behaviors we found are within birds and there seem to be quite a few birds in this series which I think some people think birds aren’t that interesting but when you look into their lives, they’re absolutely fascinating. They do a lot of similar things to humans but in the most extraordinary ways.”
Shooting Super/Natural during the pandemic was interesting. “It sometimes makes things easier. In places where sometimes the animals would avoid people, they were more relaxed because there were fewer people around. In a lot of the National Parks, we normally have a lot of tourists driving around, but because there were fewer people, it made filming easier and sometimes made the animals less on guard, but there were other times where there were places where the animals were used to people being around and then suddenly no one had been there for a year. The scientists had spent a long time habituating a group of animals so he could get closer to them to film them and, of course, they couldn’t be there for a year, so a lot of that hard work was undone, so you turn up to this place and it was almost like you were getting them used to people again.”
The animal kingdom is always on the move. Whether searching for food or striking out into faraway lands, looking for new beginnings or taking the first steps into adulthood, our heroes must survive impossible journeys, however dangerous or daunting. In Super/Natural’s sixth episode “Impossible Journeys,” viewers will discover how animals rely on an incredible array of super-senses to overcome unimaginable odds, including the odds of city life.
Stepping away from the jungle and the sand dunes, Super/Natural introduces viewers to the peregrine falcon, whose natural habitat is high cliffs where they can perch high above and swoop in on prey from above. The skyscrapers in cities such as Chicago provide a similar structural advantage and are a fitting peregrine falcon habitat.
“It’s really important these days to feature sequences that don’t just pretend there’s this pristine wilderness and that animals don’t have to adapt and evolve around us. It’s really fun for me to tell stories about animals adapting to the city and how some animals like the Peregrines actually are doing really well. It’s not always bad news. There’s also a story about a jumping spider that feeds on the mosquitoes that feeds on human blood. Often, nowadays, people don’t want to see the natural world as something distant [and] separate from us. We’re realizing we’re part of it, and we need to integrate with it in order to protect it. It’s really great to be able to show stories, especially success stories, of where humans and animals are coexisting in relative harmony.”
Unfortunately, with the threat of climate change many species are being impacted in unexpected ways. “Seasonality is being turned on its head. So, when animals are expecting it to rain, it’s drought and vice versa. It’s making life really tough. Interestingly, with the turtles, the sex of their eggs is determined by the temperature at which they incubate at. So, there’s a big worry that a lot of reptiles that lay eggs, the populations tend to skew much more female when they incubate in higher temperatures and with some species, they’re really worried in a few years’ time there’s only going to be female members of the species and it’s going to be really hard for them to find a mate. Climate change is affecting animals in all sorts of ways and other ways that you wouldn’t really think about.”
To learn more about the series and the filming process, check out our full interview in the video above.
Super/Natural is executive produced by Emmy Award-winners James Cameron and Maria Wilhelm for Earthship and for Plimsoll, multiple Emmy and BAFTA Award-winning executive producers Martha Holmes (“Earth Live,” “Blue Planet”) and Tom Hugh-Jones (“Hostile Planet,” “Planet Earth II”). The showrunners are Matt Brandon (“Dogs – the Untold Story,” “Cities: Nature’s New Wild”) and Bill Markham (“Animal,” “Night on Earth”).