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Welcome To Earth’s producer on glowing squirrels — and Will Smith’s real superpower

Most humans spend their entire lives on Earth. But the planet we live on still holds plenty of secrets. National Geographic’s new series Welcome To Earth reveals some of those secrets with a little help from Will Smith, humanity’s most famous rapping, alien-punching Fresh Prince. He teams up with various researchers and explorers to investigate the hidden corners of the world and the amazing sights, sounds, and other sensations that allow us to perceive them.

The six-part series on Disney+ streaming service premieres December 8 and encompasses adventures in 34 countries, on all seven continents, spanning nearly 2 million miles of travel around the planet in order to take a (sometimes literal) deep dive into the Earth’s hidden wonders. Bleeding-edge technology is used to record what the team discovers. The series’ producers include Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and former Discovery Networks President and BBC2 Controller Jane Root, whose Nutopia production company has delivered a long list of popular, critically acclaimed documentary series in recent years, including How We Got To Now and The World According to Jeff Goldblum.

Digital Trends spoke to Root about the process of persuading the Independence Day and  star to hike across glaciers, explore the ocean in a plastic bubble, and hang out on the rim of a volcano, as well as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the international production and the groundbreaking technology used in the series.

Will Smith and marine biologist Diva Amon in a scene from Welcome To Earth.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Digital Trends: Jane, how did Will Smith end up hiking glaciers and exploring underwater caverns on the series?

Jane Root: Well, we made a series [with Will Smith] before this called One Strange Rock. The show was greenlit by National Geographic, and they introduced us to Darren Aronofsky. We needed a narrator for the series, and Will Smith was suggested. So he did some narration and a little bit of filming — just short bits to camera, tops and tails. He really liked the series and said, “I’ll do it again. But next time, I want to go.” So it was all him. He was like, “I’m going. You’re not stopping me. I’m not sitting there talking about what it’s like to go to these incredible places and not going there myself. So take me.” And we were like, “OK!”

Was he aware of what he was getting into?

Well, I did ask, “Do you really understand how much travel it involves, how many days? Some of it can be really uncomfortable and even dangerous.” And he was like, “Yup, I get it. I still want to do it.” So we embarked on it. The first place we took him was the Serengeti to see the wildebeest migration, which he’d been obsessed with since he was a child. He really loved it. We spent quite a short trip there, but we managed to see the wildebeest crossing the river, and it was amazing. Our showrunner, Graham Booth, who’s a big natural history filmmaker, had never actually filmed that happening — and he’d been to the Serengeti many times. Afterward, Will was like, “That was fantastic, but I want to do more.” So we doubled down on going even further, even more dangerous, more exciting, taking him to places that were further and harder to reach. And then the pandemic happened.

Explorer Albert Lin and Will Smith in the desert in a scene from Welcome To Earth.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

How did that affect the series’ production?

We decided that what we had to do was to keep filming, but we started to go to much more isolated places. The segments in Iceland and Namibia were both filmed right in the middle of the pandemic.

You can’t get more socially distanced than hiking a glacier in Iceland, I guess.

Absolutely. So the situation kind of turned into kind of a plus, because it encouraged us to go places where there was nobody else around, with no tourists or any people living there. We were in the middle of nowhere and could control a lot for a lot of those elements. And in Iceland, this amazing thing happened. We had about 120 people with us on that trip and we needed to conduct COVID tests every two days for the entire crew. There wasn’t enough capacity for the Icelandic government to do that, so we built our own laboratory in the basement of a hotel. We imported all of the chemicals for the tests, and found that two of our research team had been chemists as undergrads and grad students, and they were like, “Actually, we can do this. It’s not that hard. Just set up a testing location.”

The Mily Way reflected in the flood waters of the salar in a scene from Welcome to Earth.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It feels appropriate that a project like this would happen to have multiple chemists on the production team …

Right? It was like, “Anyone here got a master’s degree in chemistry?” And multiple people put their hands up. So at that pointm we thought, “OK! This is going to work!”

We had to import all of the chemicals for the tests because the government didn’t have enough, and then we set up a functioning COVID testing site. We then donated that site to the Icelandic government when we left. I think it’s still being used.

Welcome to Earth (2021)

Welcome to Earth
1 Season
Documentary, Reality
Will Smith
Watch on Disney+
Welcome to Earth | Official Trailer | Disney+

Will Smith is wonderful in the show, but what about the team of explorers who accompany him on all these adventures? What was the process like for putting together the team for each segment with Will?

The National Geographic Explorers are an incredible bunch of people. They’re people National Geographic sponsors to continue their research. We looked at hundreds of people across the world, and every explorer is a great scientist, but we were also looking for people who were brilliant communicators. Look at Diva Amon, who’s a Caribbean native, a woman of color, and has an amazing enthusiasm about what she’s doing. There are hardly any women who are deep-sea oceanographers, and she’s one of the only women of color doing that stuff. Will was really scared on the trip he took with her, but her passion for it shines through the screen and makes everyone more comfortable around her. We found people like that, who were just in love with what they do and yearning to communicate it to the rest of the world.

Will’s reactions to everything around him add a really unique element to the show. He looks genuinely scared sometimes, and uncomfortable with certain elements, even though he pushes through it. You don’t see that often with celebrity hosts. Did that jump out to you while making the show?

I sometimes describe Will’s willingness to be frightened as his supe power. A lot of people who do what he does for a living — he was one of the Men in Black, after all — they aren’t comfortable admitting they’re frightened. There’s one point in an episode when he’s mucking around and says, “I’ve got my ‘I’m not scared’ superhero face on,” and makes a face. But then he says, “That’s not really me.” He’s prepared to admit he’s frightened, and he’s prepared to admit things are outside his comfort zone. That’s so important.

In one of the episodes, he says, “My grandmother always told me that the best things in life are on the other side of fear,” and then, “I sure hope that Gigi was right!” That became like a mantra for him: That his grandma would have been like, “Just go for it!” His willingness to be open to experience is one of the wonderful things for me to behold in the whole experience.

Explorer Dwayne Fields and Will Smith kayak in a scene from Welcome to Earth.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

You’ve worked on so many great science and documentary series over the years. How do you make certain they each offer something unique and don’t all blend together? 

Endless meetings! [Laughs] There are so many conversations, and so much talking, before the cameras even start rolling, and then all the way through. There’s a lot of talking about what makes this show unique. What’s the new tech we can use, for example? That’s a big thing. We use military-grade, night-vision goggles and cameras [in Welcome to Earth] and night-vision drones. A drone is hard enough to handle, but a night-vision drone is actually filming in the dark and you can’t see it while you’re piloting it. That’s another level.

Graham was the person who found a lot of that stuff to use, and a lot of it comes from the military. It doesn’t get used in movies or TV often, if at all. So you’re at the outer limits of what’s possible, most of the time, and you’re filming things that have never been filmed before. That’s really exciting and makes it special.

Like you mentioned, the series features plenty of firsts, from the tech you use to what you filmed. What were some of the highlights for you?

Well, there’s the slime sequence, which might sound like it’s not very interesting, but if you ask the team which things they’re amazed they managed to film, the slime was one of them. There’s also the movement of the anemone running across the reef, almost like horses. That was so unique to see. Oh, and there’s also the fluorescent squirrels, which were pretty fun.

The Iguacu Falls seen with infrared light in a scene from Welcome To Earth
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Yes! Who would’ve thought that some squirrels glow? It makes me want to buy an infrared light to use in my own backyard.

Right? Apparently all over the world now, there are scientists aiming these special infrared lights at things — all because until recently, nobody knew that squirrels did that. Nobody thought to start shining infrared lights on squirrels. And we’re out there finding out what you can see with different lights. That’s the thing: You can find something miraculous right in front of your nose if you look at it the right way. Of course, then you have to figure out how to film it in a way that communicates how miraculous it is, too.

The first season of the series has six episodes, but are there plans to do more? There’s plenty of Earth to explore, after all …

Absolutely. Will is already like, “Where are we going next?” So I don’t think there’s any stopping him, and yes, there are places in the world still to ponder.

The National Geographic series Welcome To Earth premieres December 8 on Disney+ streaming service.

Movie images and data from:
Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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