Hey there! I am a national park obsessed individual. The amount of love I have for these parks is a lot. Just a whole lot of love.
A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Anwar Mamon, the executive producer of the mind-blowing show ‘America’s National Parks’. I was so excited! I’m head over heels for the series by National Geographic which I watch on Disney+. The cinematography is out of this world, from those epic close-up shots of seahorses in Biscayne National Park, Florida to the foxes of Channel Islands National Park, off Southern California. The way the stories are told in each park leaves me feeling more connected with nature. It makes my love keep growing for these parks.
The second season of ‘America’s National Parks’ will take you on an incredible journey. Anwar Mamon and his team deserve all the virtual high-fives for capturing the true essence of these breathtaking landscapes. When I witnessed some of the amazing macro shots that I had never seen before, I was blown away. Every tiny detail and delicate beauty seemed to jump out of the screen, and the visuals were stunning. I didn’t want the episodes to end.
During our chat, I got the chance to pick Anwar’s brain about the nitty-gritty of the series. We explored how they choose the locations, the challenges of capturing wildlife in their natural habitats, and the importance of raising awareness about environmental preservation. Let’s get right to it!
Kendra: Hi Anwar! Thank you so much for speaking with me today! What was the inspiration behind creating a second season of America’s National Parks? Were there any specific goals or themes you wanted to explore further?
Anwar: We knew we were going to make 10 episodes. Which gave us planning time for the parks we wanted to feature. We really wanted to draw audiences in with the first season. It was important to get the mix right and to feature more heavily the icons of the National Park system. Like Grand Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park. In the second season, we were keen to introduce audiences to national parks they might know less about. National parks that may be in their backyard or in their state that they didn’t know existed. To give them a bit of an A list treatment, by giving them the best cinematography, and the best stories to make them come alive.
Kendra: I totally agree. When I first started visiting national parks, I had no idea some were just a few hours away. Which leads to my next question. How do you go about selecting the featured national parks for each episode? What criteria do you consider during the selection process?
Anwar: To choose a National Park for the series is complex. It takes a big team effort, and we have a great production team. It can be up to thirty people that look at each national park because we really wanted to find the soul or character of each park.
To make each park individual, we had to choose the story very carefully. We weren’t just looking at wildlife, we were looking at geology. Sometimes we’d be looking at history. Sometimes anthropology; the human history of these places. Really, the way we work often on television is quite lo-fi when it comes to storytelling. For example, we use post it notes. You put up post it notes for each national park. Sometimes you color coat them differently. You might have green if it’s a wildlife story. A different color for humans, a different color for landscape and so on. Then you start moving them around until you get them to a place where it feels like a good story to tell. This will tell us if a national park has a lot of options or doesn’t have any at all. It helps us select the national parks to focus on as well.
Kendra: The post it notes create a story board?
Kendra: What kind of research and preparation goes into creating a compelling narrative for each episode? How do you strike a balance between displaying the park’s natural beauty and educating viewers about its significance?
Anwar: We must thank the amazing production teams. They are experts in their field. Many of them are zoologists and biologists who are filmmakers themselves. It is always a balance trying to find something that is emotionally engaging but is also educational. The great thing about America’s National Parks is they handle that balance very well because they are emotional places. They have history and they have beauty with incredible flora and fauna. They are also places of science. When it comes to this subject matter, it can be easy to strike that balance.
Often with an animal story, what we try to do is connect the audience emotionally with a character. The audience will focus on the animal’s journey, where they’re at in life or an issue they have to overcome. From that, you can get into some of the factual content. An example of that might be the second run, the Channel Islands episode. There is an endemic of unique foxes only native to these islands.
Kendra: I’ve seen them when I visited Channel Islands! I love them!
Anwar: They are cute, cute little creatures! We chose to follow a male who is heading off on his own. He’s left his mom and he’s off to find his way in the world. We had some incredible drone shots showing him exploring the islands to find a new territory. Emotionally connecting to the underdog story enables you to then go into the next sequence where he is having to climb a tree. You would then learn how the foxes have evolved unique bone structure in their legs to be able to climb trees. It’s ways that we can combine emotional and biological story telling. That is when you get that sweet spot.
Kendra: Yes, I can tell you struck that balance very well. Can you share any memorable challenges or experiences you encountered while filming season 2? Were there any unexpected moments that stood out to you?
Anwar: Any wildlife filmmaker will tell you that challenge is a part of the job. Often, we are working in places with extreme weather and sometimes extreme animals. Animals obviously never read the script. You always have to think on your feet and be reactive while trying to tell a compelling story at the same time. We use technology to tell compelling stories or to give the animals a point of view.
One of those examples was very tricky filming underwater for the Biscayne National Park episode. We wanted to show how the coral fluoresces at night in reaction to rising temperatures. It’s beautiful, but we can’t see it with the naked eye. We needed to take an ultraviolet rig underwater. You’re also working with a moving ocean, the scuba dive gear, and everything else going wrong. Our crews are good at working through adversity. They persevere and try different things to get better results. This is a good example of a challenge. Getting the rig into the water, the kit didn’t work, the shots didn’t look quite right, or a boat might go past that would create a huge amount of water disturbance.
Every part of wildlife filmmaking is a challenge. Even when I see the shows, sometimes I don’t know what went into getting the shot. You can’t imagine the amount of effort, hours and blood sweat and tears that goes into getting some of these shots. It’s worth it.
Kendra: I agree. It’s worth it. I love the shot of the Seahorses in that episode. The quality of the close-ups was mind blowing to me. Those were some amazing shots.
Anwar: Recently, our biggest challenge is weather. Unpredictable weather and seasons. We have a year and a half filming period at the national parks. We have very tight filming sessions blocked because many of our stories are seasonal. We have found that these seasons are unpredictable and they’re not hitting at the right times they have done previously. The America’s National Parks production is full of challenges like weather or freak weather.
Kendra: I can only imagine everything that goes into an episode. How long does it take to film one episode?
Anwar: That is a very tricky question to answer because some episodes take longer than others depending on the stories they have. Every episode starts off with the same amount of filming days, but those filming days can be altered depending on how many of your sequences might have specialized kits. If you are doing the amazing macro shots of the seahorses, that takes more of your budget than if you’re going to film a channel island fox.
The whole filming period was about a year and a half. In wildlife filmmaking, we are always looking for those seasonal moments. In America’s National Parks, where we could, we wanted to tell the story of the park over a year. It’s a year to film, then the editing process can take about 3-4 months. Then we have the final post process. All the images are made to look lovely. When you take them from the camera, they have very little color. We have to bring all the color out and include sound which can take another 3 months. The entire process can take 2 years from concept filming to delivery.
Kendra: Wow! When we are watching an episode, that was all a 2-year process. That’s incredible. My mind is blown even more! What measures do you take to ensure the conservation and preservation of the national parks during filming? How important is it for the series to promote responsible tourism and environmental awareness?
Anwar: When we started America’s National Parks, we were very keen to make sure we were adding a positive voice and a clear message to how important it is to preserve these national parks. We were lucky enough to partner up with the National Park Service. We were also lucky enough to partner up with Joe Biden and the 1st lady who ran a campaign for veterans accessing national parks. The Biden administration gave some funding to the national park systems to help protect them as well. There are several aspects to the way we approach the project.
When filming, we have a sustainability code, and all our shoots follow that. Where we can, we recycle trash. We make sure our crews are small and respectful. We work very closely with local communities, scientists and, of course, the rangers from the National Park Service. This is to ensure that we are doing everything in the most sensitive and sustainable way. We wanted to show a good example of how to work in the national parks.
While working with National Geographic, we agreed to give stories in each episode. The stories would hint at where the parks are today, and what might be in store for the future. A lot of that came naturally from the story telling. This highlight’s not just what’s at stake, but what might be done to help protect the national parks.
We would like people to see that these are incredibly special places. Go outside and visit them. That helps protect them. Also, look after your own backyard. Many of the animals exist in national parks and the National Park System. Each national park is its own island and there are roughly sixty islands across the United States. Those animals don’t see the park boundaries and they could always end up in your backyard. If we all look after our little patch, that would benefit national parks in ways we cannot imagine. It would benefit the animals that travel to and from them.
Kendra: I agree, absolutely! I have one more question for you. Looking ahead, what are your plans for future seasons of America’s National Parks? Are there any particular parks or themes you hope to explore in the upcoming seasons?
Anwar: In turns of upcoming seasons, that’s a National Geographic question. I believe that America’s National Park System is full of incredible stories that is very rich for a wildlife filmmaker. There are so many elements to each national park.
What I discovered, as we are based in the UK, is that the national parks often have globally significant stories. One of my favorite episodes from series two is the Channel Islands. That island system does have relevance to the whole world. It was a place that has a heavy history with human activity and agriculture. Thanks to the local scientists, community, and rangers, it’s bounced back in an incredible way that no one could have predicted. It is now, as you’ll see in the episode, this wonderful oasis of wildlife that wouldn’t have been there decades ago. I think the national parks are very special places and there’s a lot more stories to tell.
My interview with Anwar Mamon left me speechless about the series and its incredible impact. The second season knocked my hiking socks off with the cinematography and stories. Anwar’s commitment to portraying the wonders of our national parks, with such creativity and authenticity, is commendable. As an individual on a mission to see all the national parks in America, the series has made me even more excited to visit every single one. You can watch the series on Disney+.
By highlighting the diverse wildlife, breathtaking landscapes, and rich history, the series has brought a deep appreciation for the natural world. Let’s hope ‘America’s National Parks’ continues to encourage audiences to commit to preserving the parks for future generations to come. So, let’s go outside and visit them