Apr 13, 2009

Disney's Earth

Earth, the most ambitious nature documentary ever made, is coming out, appropriately, on Earth Day, and I had the great pleasure to have worked on it as story consultant. A project like this is quite rare, first because it had the potential to be an historic film, and second, because the creative team behind it was both extremely talented and open to outside ideas. Because of the role I played on Earth, I’d like to take you inside the creative process to explain how this remarkable film came about.

The nature documentary is a sub-category of the very broad genre known as True Life stories. Like the biopic and the memoir – other kinds of True Life stories – the nature doc hits all the key story structure steps but also bends them in several severe ways. The most obvious special characteristic of a nature doc is that the main character is not human. Surprisingly, the only one of the seven steps that this strongly affects is the self-revelation. Animals, especially as we move down the chain of being, don’t really have self-revelations, although they do learn.

Another restriction in nature docs is that the storyteller must work with what actually happened, and worse, with what he or she actually got on film. (While working on Earth, I was amazed to learn that no filmmaker has ever gotten footage of a black jaguar in its natural habitat.) If you don’t have film of the opponent step, for example, you’ve got a huge hole in your story and no amount of rewriting is going to fix it.

Besides these substantial restrictions common to all nature docs, Earth brought a slew of its own story challenges. The film’s title suggests one of the biggest: this film had to be the epic of all nature epics, covering the entire planet and potentially every plant and animal on the planet. A second challenge was the opposite of the first: how do you create a strong emotional bond between the audience and the animals – the main characters – with so many characters to depict?

Yet another challenge had to do with creating dramatic build: animal behavior is almost always cyclical, driven by the four seasons, with animals all over the earth undergoing physical changes at any and all times. The final major challenge (I won’t get into the hundreds of minor challenges) had to do with the inherently episodic quality of a story covering so much time and space, and so many animals.

So here’s what we did. First we realized that the epic and the personal don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We could show the massive scope of the planet more effectively by making the story more character driven. And that meant focusing on fewer characters more intensely, showing a complete seven steps drama of each main character in condensed form.

The key then was which animals to focus on. To heighten the epic scope and provide an easy-to-follow narrative line, we would track the sun from north pole to south pole. The character line would be built around three families: polar bears in the north, elephants near the equator, and whales in the waters of the south.

Choosing these three animals as the main characters and focusing on one family in each was the crucial decision in the entire story process. These three animals are among the most popular with audiences, and linking them on a path from north to south allowed us to make quick forays to other animals without losing a sense of the spine.

Showing a family instead of an individual animal gave us all the benefits of the family as the basic unit of drama. The struggle of each to survive wasn’t just the drama of predator and prey resulting inevitably in death. Instead, it became the story of a mother’s love, of teaching the babies and watching them grow, of the wonder of life rather than the horror of death. In fact, the biggest revelation I took from the film is that the most powerful and heroic being on this earth is Mom. What mothers do in this film, emblematic of what they do a billion times a day on this earth, will blow your mind.

No discussion of the story work on Earth would be complete without mention of the amazing footage these filmmakers were able to get. What strikes you first is the extraordinary beauty of this planet. And the images you see in this film are far beyond what you have ever seen before.

But you quickly get caught up in the even more unbelievable pictures of the daily drama of life. Perhaps my favorite in a long list is a sequence where elephants and lions must share a watering hole because of a drought. That’s something that neither elephant nor lion likes to do. And I dare you to watch what happens without your jaw dropping open in utter disbelief.

Most of you reading this do not write or film nature documentaries. But you do write stories. Watch Earth first because it is a joy to behold. But then study it for the problems and solutions every writer deals with in the never-ending challenge we call storytelling.