Wendy Darke Talks Predators

True to Nature, founded by former BBC Natural History Unit chief Wendy Darke, has been elevating wildlife filmmaking since its formation, tapping into the needs of a wealth of new commissioners in this segment. With Predators, for Sky Nature and Netflix, the team at True to Nature looked to bring a new perspective to the stories of five apex predators—polar bears in Canada, wild dogs in Zimbabwe, pumas in Chile, lions in Botswana and cheetahs in Tanzania—with innovative filming and storytelling techniques, and narration via acclaimed British actor Tom Hardy. Darke tells TV Real Weekly about the new series, which premieres December 11.

***Image***TV REAL: How did Predators come about?
DARKE: The market was changing with Sky and Netflix [investing in high-end factual]. What big, iconic animal topics unite a big global audience? Apex predators are at the top of the food chain, literally, in nature. Sky and Netflix are at the apex of the industry in terms of premium nature productions. I’ve made hundreds of predator shows, and there are a thousand out there. When you’re developing for companies like Sky and Netflix, it’s all about innovation and premium. Their audiences gravitate to character-led narratives. If someone just watched a big World Cup match or Game of Thrones or Stranger Things, a series like Predators has to hold its own in terms of its quality, emotional engagement and sophistication of the storytelling. That sense of immersive, real-life action, real animals in real places, doing the most extraordinary things, tonally feels like it’s the kind of series that would sit in a Netflix or Sky premium branded shop window.

TV REAL: Drill down a little bit on some of the things that you had to do to make this premium, action-driven, character-driven storytelling.
DARKE: The first element is technical innovation in camera techniques. Seeing some of the most iconic predators—lions, cheetahs, polar bears, wild dogs and pumas—in a new and immersive way drives the creative innovation around how we capture these animals cinematically. New techniques are the signature look of this series, including the use of drones. The first-person view (FPV) drones that we used track rapidly across the landscape and immerse you in that world and show you the animals in action. Another innovative technique was to strategically use visual effects (VFX). For example, in the wild dogs episode, there’s the forest area where the wild dog pups are born in a little secluded area, the floodplain where the marauding hyenas and lions dominate, with the Zambezi River crashing through. We wanted to immerse our audience in that wild arena and set the scene. Using VFX, we were able to have images of the wild dogs in their den, then show the proximity to the lions in relation to the plain. These VFX [sequences] helped to convey both proximity and scale to the audience, to make sense of that world, rather than always being down at eye level. So, 80 percent is in the moment as it’s happening—real animals in real places doing the most extraordinary things. Then we wanted to fast-track the audience through seasonality. For example, if you’re up in the Arctic and you’re just coming out of the winter, you want to fast-track the ice melting to be able to pick up the story of the little polar bears coming out of their den.

These visual techniques, we call them timestamps, were used as creative interventions. They act as a segue. A lot of our audience is into gaming. They’re very sophisticated. They’re watching the best of sports, the best of drama. This stylistic visualization at the premium end moves things on from the much more traditional natural history. Working for Sky and Netflix, you’re in good company to have that creative edge, to add a bit of drama, a little bit of dynamic energy. One of the most significant things about our innovative approach was choosing Tom Hardy [as narrator]. We captured the stories of real animals, like Rupestre, a legendary puma that scientists, trackers and conservationists have known for years. Almost 80 percent of the scripts are from the first-person narrative—the two male inseparable cheetahs, the lioness who has just lost her third litter of cubs. You need a voice artist with the talent to become the character. Tom Hardy is one of the world’s best character narrative actors. It was fascinating working with him and seeing his attention to detail. He needed to become the polar bear. In that delivery, that’s where the magic happens because you’ve got somebody of his caliber empathizing with the challenges [the animals] face. They say 80 percent is tone, 20 percent is the word. If you want [the audience] to feel immersed and connected and rooting for the characters, I would advocate there is no one better than Tom Hardy to bring that. Coupled with Nainita Desai, a world-acclaimed composer. Traditionally, natural-history filmmaking uses classic orchestral soundtracks. We consciously wanted something different. Nainita is a specialist in electronic and synth. She brought her incredible talent and expertise into our arena, composing soundscapes and music tracks that empathized with what Tom was saying, what the script was saying and what the images were capturing. The aspiration is to have a seamless journey of immersion in our key apex predators’ worlds. The strapline is that they are all coping with a fast-changing world. That’s climate change. It’s eviction; it’s the loss of habitat; it’s hunger or starvation. Our apex cast of characters is a metaphor for our human world. We are proactively looking to engage an audience who might not have watched many wildlife nature films before. Wildlife filmmaking has always occupied a premium space, but I would say it was more niche. It has become center stage with mass audience appeal. As responsible filmmakers, not only do we need to deliver the premium apex predators in all their magnificence and discover something new about them, but we need to be true to their story and their challenges. We’re making premium nature shows with a real sense of purpose. As storytellers, I don’t think we would be doing our job well if we weren’t in tune with where our audience is. We have to balance entertaining content that people won’t switch off while not shying away from some of the tough stuff and do it in a mindful and sensitive way, so it ultimately works on many levels for the biggest, broadest audience.

TV REAL: Given that natural history now sits in spaces beyond the traditional public broadcasters, how are you developing a broad enough slate at True to Nature to meet the needs of a much wider commissioning base?
DARKE: I focus on the development of new ideas across five subgenres, one of which is premium nature. When I was the head of [the BBC Natural History Unit] from 2012 to 2016, we secured Planet Earth II; Blue Planet II; Dynasties; Seven Worlds, One Planet, all steeped in the more traditional style. As a filmmaker, I was excited to think about how I bring that knowledge and expertise to what a Netflix and Sky version might look like. It has the hallmark qualities of factual integrity and a premium look, adapted to make it feel refreshingly new and different. The second area that has been successful for True to Nature is premium adventure travel like Shark with Steve Backshall for Sky Nature. Another key area is character-led narratives. And we do a lot of children’s shows. We’re a multi-subgenre production company. It’s all premium. The aspiration is to create world-class content for all ages from 3 to 103 in all countries worldwide to reach people and find a way to connect them to the natural world and be a voice for nature. That drives the aspiration to make every show the best it can be at its price points, from the dizzying heights of Predators to some of the faster turnaround children’s shows. They all have the signature qualities of factual integrity and an emotional balance between caring for animals and a factual take-home. To date, we’re delivered around 26 commissions and 240 programs since we launched. Innovation is at the heart, and we’re maximizing sustainable ways of working, reducing our carbon footprint with all of our productions achieving Albert accreditation. That’s an integral part of how we are innovating both on-screen and off. It’s an important part of being a great company that broadcasters want to work with because we care passionately about sustainability, diverse representation and premium-quality shows for a global audience.