There’s a new nature documentary series that promises to show viewers incredible animal behaviour in vibrant clarity. Heard that all before? Well, this one is on steroids.
“Super/Natural,” a six-part series from National Geographic now streaming on Disney+, has tapped “Avatar” creator James Cameron as executive producer, and he’s added special effects on top of leading-edge filmmaking technology.
The effects sometimes morph the animals into something like stars in a Marvel movie, with their bellows distorting the air, lumbering attacks that cause shock waves in sand or pheromones from an insect rendered as bursting noxious clouds. Even trees light up when sugars move through their roots.
“We’re not actually falsifying or turning it into a superhero movie. We’re giving an access portal for our limited senses into a natural world that goes far, far beyond anything that we can sense directly,” Cameron told reporters recently.
The episodes are arranged by theme — eat or be eaten, the mating game and bloodlines are some of the topics — and viewers get a visual treat as cameras capture everything from fireflies in Mexico producing a synchronized light show to bottlenose dolphins teaming up with Brazilian fishermen to catch mullet.
Videographers armed with the latest science data underwent 80 animal shoots in 25 countries to create the series, using such high-tech gear as high-speed cameras and drones. Cameron listed what they tried to capture — infrasound, ultrasound, ultraviolet and infrared, among them.
“What’s our purpose in this? Not just to entertain, but absolutely to teach and to show the wonder, the majesty, the complexity, of nature,” said Cameron. “We’re going to pull out every trick we know as entertainers, as storytellers, to try to get that engagement.”
So unlike a traditional nature documentary where adding effects is a strict non-no, “Super/Natural” allows us to feel what bat sonar might look like, see what a bumblebee sees or how bears communicate with invisible clues.
“The bear can smell pheromones, but we can’t see it. It’s a visual medium; it’s not a smell medium,” he said. “It is real. It’s just that we can’t see it. So we have to use the effects to see as they see or to smell as they smell.”
The series is narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is lively, sly and delicious in his descriptions. “The female of the species is into some pretty freaky stuff,” he says of vampire spiders. Of cicadas popping out after 17 years underground, he drily adds: “America’s biggest speed dating event is about to begin.”
Cameron was full of praise for Cumberbatch: “He doesn’t just narrate it; he acts it,” he said. “He gets you inside what’s happening in a way that I think is very relatable.”
Cameron, an ardent environmentalist and vegan, sees “Super/Natural” as a logical extension of his latest filmmaking, which includes the upcoming fantasy “Avatar: The Way of Water.” In both, he hopes to reawaken a sense of wonder for the natural world.
“The natural history stuff is not just a side gig to making ‘Avatar’ movies. To me, they go together perfectly as something that’s equally exciting to me,” he said. “It always awakens in me this sense of amazement at how complex nature is.”
That amazement is captured in the series with images of glow-in-the-dark flying squirrels soaring the length of a football field, burrowing owls copying the sound of a snake rattle to scare away predators and devil rays leaping 6 feet out of the ocean.
Cameron’s last documentary series on animals was “Secrets of the Whales” narrated by Sigourney Weaver. The director has fond memories from growing up in Canada of exploring the woods, trapping insects and watching birds.
“It blows your mind how amazing nature is, things that we just take for granted, and how nature has developed all these different amazing strategies for these animals and these plants over millions of years.”
He also took a gentle swipe at the attention the latest images from the James Webb Space Telescope have garnered, from Neptune’s rings to galaxy clusters.
“This is the only planet we know of for sure — evidence-based — that has life. And it’s an amazing planet,” he said. “There’s hundreds of millions of species here as opposed to Mars, where we don’t even know if there’s one species.
“I love Mars. I love exploration in space and underwater. But we have to take care of this planet. We have to understand it before we destroy it.”