Nutopia founder Jane Root speaks to TV Real about the factual series One Strange Rock, which she executive produces.
The key to finding the narrative structure for a broad-ranging factual series often comes in an aha moment. In the case of One Strange Rock, the ten-part event series from Nutopia and Protozoa Pictures about planet Earth that premiered on National Geographic on March 26, the breakthrough came during a brainstorming session at Nutopia, the company founded by Jane Root, who serves as executive producer on the series.
National Geographic had already greenlit the series and filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (mother!, Black Swan) had joined the project. “After we started working with Darren, one of the people we were working with said, I’m struggling with how to tell the story; who are the storytellers in this?” explains Root. “She had one of those lightbulb moments and just said, Astronauts! It’s astronauts who have a unique perspective. That was the breakthrough.”
One Strange Rock explores the fragility and wonder of planet Earth, alternating from the microscopic to the cosmic and guided by eight astronauts, including Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to command the International Space Station (ISS); Jeff Hoffman, who was on the initial mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope; Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to go to space; and Peggy Whitson, who set a NASA record for the most cumulative days in space: 665.
Through their perspectives, One Strange Rock tackles themes that are both personal and universal, such as oxygen. “Very early on there was one fact that [jumped out at me],” says Root. “If there was a little bit less oxygen in the atmosphere, there would be no fire. We would not be able to melt metal. We would not be able to cook food, and our brains wouldn’t develop in the way they do with cooked food. So a little bit less oxygen and we would have no fire, but a little bit more oxygen and we’d never put fire out, and then it’s pretty much all over, pretty quickly. You don’t think very much about the oxygen that is all around us. You don’t think about it at all unless you are an astronaut in space, and then you think about it all the time! Where does it come from? How does it circulate? What is it? What gives it to us?”
One Strange Rock was filmed across six continents, 45 countries, as well as from the ISS. “Filming underground in the caves in Mexico took months and months and months of detailed work,” says Root. “To be able to film on the ISS takes a really long time.” And it’s not just gaining access for people; it’s for equipment as well. “That is one of the things that is surprising to people; you don’t just want to go there, you want to go there with a ton of stuff in order to capture [the location in a special way].”
Will Smith is the host of One Strange Rock. “We knew we were going to film in the strangest places in the world,” explains Root. “We knew we were going to work with astronauts. We knew Darren was going to be pulling it all together visually. We kept asking ourselves, Who is going to be our everyman? Who is our person who isn’t a scientist who is going to have an everyday response to all of this incredibleness? It was Will. He was the last piece of the jigsaw.”
Nutopia is known for its mega-docs, having produced America: The Story of Us, which was also made in Britain, Australia and Canada about those countries’ histories, and more recently Civilizations, inspired by the famous Kenneth Clark series.
Root feels the time is right for a series about science and natural history. “It’s a good moment to be talking about how science is one of the most profoundly human things we do,” says Root. “Science is one of the things we as a species have to be really proud of. Space is the hugest investment human beings have ever made into science. Using science to look back at Earth is exciting, but it’s also timely at the moment to celebrate that.” Earth, after all, is our home.