How 'Yellowstone Live,' the Riskiest TV Nature Documentary, Comes Together

yellowstone live
Cinematographer Sue Gibson scouting Yellowstone National Park. | National Geographic/Freya Short
Cinematographer Sue Gibson scouting Yellowstone National Park. | National Geographic/Freya Short

Unlike most live TV -- award shows, sports, musical performances, the, uh, news -- nature doesn't come with a script. It's not like you can direct a bear to walk out into a clearing on cue, or tell a prairie dog not to squirm when an animal handler is trying to explain how to release them back into the wild. Nature documentarians struggle with this reality regularly; key shots and sequences on series like Our Planet or Blue Planet could take months to capture, or not come together at all. So it's especially brazen that the filmmakers behind Yellowstone Live, airing on Nat Geo through Wednesday, June 26, defy convention by making a four-day live television program that relies totally on the whims of the wild.  

"To be honest, on Friday, we don't know what's [going to be] in the show," said James Smith, an executive producer for Yellowstone Live who has been working in wildlife filmmaking for more than 20 years.

yellowstone life
A rare glimpse into grizzly courtship. | National Geographic

Walking through the production basecamp of tents and trailers planted in a field next to a glamping site outside of West Yellowstone on the Friday afternoon before Sunday's initial air time, the crew seemed surprisingly calm for having so little in place. But this is par for the course for many of them. Several staffers come from breaking news backgrounds; others have worked the Super Bowl Halftime show. Plenty of the editors, cutting footage in a cramped trailer driven straight to Montana from New York City after the Tonys, have spent years working on David Attenborough productions. Which is to say, these are exactly the people you want to be making a live nature series if you're going to do it at all.

"One of the most important things we do, and the reason we work with the very best people, is they know how to best deal with contingencies," said Al Berman, another executive producer on the show who has spent half his long career in the news business. "A lot of people can do live television, but only the really, really good ones know [to plan for] 'if, then,' and go down that list.

"Now, if the supervolcano erupts" -- the dormant volcano in Yellowstone, which is 10,000 years overdue to blow and could cause a global climate catastrophe when it finally does -- "that's a different story," Berman added. "But it was nice knowing you."

yellowstone live
The 100-year-old barn renovated into a studio set. | National Geographic

When the Yellowstone Live crew started talking about what they'd do for 2019 -- mere days after last year's event (the first ever) ended in August -- the producers gravitated toward the season when the national park's wildlife would be highly active, abundant, and explicitly, grotesquely cute in an area already dense with flora and fauna. They settled on shooting the spring thaw, the transition between the end of spring and the beginning of summer, a time ripe for growth, awakenings, and tons of adorable baby animals. "It heats up and settles down and gets hotter and hotter [as the summer progresses], and then the animals go into the mountains," said Martha Plimsoll, yet another executive producer (with a PhD in marine biology) who has worked on several series with the BBC Natural History Unit, including Blue Planet and Life. "So we're in the perfect sweet spot where the animals have been born and are emerging but still in the lowlands, so we can film them quite easily, even though the weather is temperamental."

Weather plays a huge factor in the success of the shoot and is admittedly the biggest challenge for the crew -- more than tracking animals and capturing them while active and unwittingly making compelling television. The day before the summer solstice, it snowed eight inches in Yellowstone. ("I'm the only person here who is thrilled that it snowed last night because the backdrop is fantastic," said Berman.) Last year, lightning was the biggest threat. If it was spotted in the area, the team would evacuate their makeshift desks and pile into a 100-year-old barn on site, renovated into a studio set, which was the designated safe zone. The equipment, too, can get instantly finicky if the temperature is too hot or cold, or simply if an antenna turns to a dead zone the producers and camera people couldn't possibly troubleshoot ahead of time. For these reasons, the production is "fully redundant," according to Berman, down to the hosts' -- lifelong naturalist Chris Packham and veteran TV journalist Josh Elliott -- wearing two microphones each. A massive TV satellite bigger than a pickup truck is parked in the fore of basecamp to broadcast the most stable image possible.

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Baby bison!!!!!!!! | Michael Nichols/National Geographic

As for the show itself, the producers are trying a different technique this year to ensure the best, most compelling sequences possible. They sent crews out weeks ahead -- tracking down a wolfpack with young, playful pups and a small female grizzly bear they've nicknamed "Mini Mom" and her cubs -- to shoot what's been happening around the park. That way, if any of the four camera locations or the roving helicopters they've set up to scour the 22 million acres of the park don't turn up anything in the hour the show is live, they've got insurance with recent scenes from around the park. With only four hours of TV time, they'll end up with around 120 hours of unaired footage left on the cutting room floor.

And even though these crews are shooting all through the week, turning around footage they might have captured in early morning or overnight with their new long-range, military-grade thermal camera, by Friday its clear that their prep time has already paid off in droves, resulting in shots of elk calves, marmot pups, badger cubs, fox kits, bison calves, etc., etc., etc. 

"I know this sounds like sacrilege, but do we have too many babies?" Smith quipped in a production meeting. 

The answer is probably not. In the first episode, a battle raged during a 90-second commercial break when the show prompted viewers, Do you want to see baby marmots or baby pronghorn next?, turning a tented room of mild-mannered journalists into chanting buffoons for their baby animal of choice. (The baby marmot rightfully won; the marmot herd cheered.) "Your eyes are going to get cavities watching that stuff," Josh Elliott warned us on Friday. Even Chris Packham, the show's failsafe should everything go to shit -- he could do "10 compelling minutes on a blade of grass," according to Elliott -- and a notorious biological straight shooter couldn't deny the effect of seeing 2-week-old beavers Emmy-winning cinematographer Jeff Hogan found after carefully threading noninvasive infrared cameras into a lodge: "I don't like the word, but they're undeniably cute."

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Leanne Butkovic (@leanbutk) is an entertainment editor at Thrillist.