Capturing the Wild: Inside Netflix's 'Our Great National Parks' with Filmmaker James Honeyborne
The award-winning producer talks illusive rock iguanas, leech-infested swamps, and joining forces with President Barack Obama.
The Netflix series Our Great National Parks hits you with stunners right away: cameras swooping in on the impenetrable and jagged limestone fortresses of Madagascar’s Tsingy de Bemaraha, shots lingering on the bubbling technicolor pools of Yellowstone. And in Loango National Park in Gabon, where the Congolese rainforest touches the Atlantic, an especially extraordinary sight. A rotund hippo lumbers up to the sliver of sand where animals like buffalo, African forest elephants, and massive leatherback turtles are commingling. He’s hefty on land, but in water, almost graceful. And after spending all day surrounded by freshwater on shore, he’s ready to switch it up. It’s time to go surfing.
Okay, sure, not exactly. The hippo dives into the salty swells as a means of transportation, splashing in the waves to propel him north toward his grazing spot. Here, the mighty beast looks playful, with enviable hang ten style—all he needs to complete the vibe is a pair of hippo-sized sunglasses. The scene isn’t something the average person would ever see in their lifetime, but here it is, captured on film in a sequence of incredible shots that make you feel like you, too, are thrashing amid the waves.
That’s thanks to a team led by the show’s executive producer and creative director, James Honeyborne. An avid lover of the outdoors, Honeyborne has dedicated his professional life to bringing the beauty, vitality, and function of these wildlife vignettes to the masses. “To me, my job, my career, is all about reflecting the importance of nature,” he tells Thrillist. “[It’s] helping give nature a voice.”
And he’s one of the best in the game. After studying biology, Honeyborne turned his attention to storytelling, overseeing 35 films throughout his tenure as executive producer of the BBC’s Natural History Unit. He’s worked with—among others—the likes of Sir David Attenborough on the series Africa, and won more awards for his series Blue Planet II than one can count. The most-watched show on British television in 2017, it was apparently so popular in China that it disrupted internet streams. Most importantly, it shone an international spotlight on the threat plastic pollution poses on the ocean’s wellbeing. Dubbed “the Blue Planet effect,” Honeyborne’s efforts inspired people around the world to crack down on single-use plastics in their everyday lives, a real testament to the power of wildlife filmmaking.
For Our Great National Parks, he teamed up with another authoritative voice, President Barack Obama, whose dulcet tones narrate the importance of these great protected swaths of land (winning an Emmy for his work). Starting with Yellowstone’s 2 million acres back in 1872, the national parks initiative has since ballooned into a global project. Today, 15% of land and 8% of the world’s oceans are officially protected. As the President explains offscreen, “What began as a common desire to secure wilderness for people to enjoy, has become a worldwide movement to preserve these areas for future generations.”
Today, we’ve come to understand that what happens inside these parks affects us all. They provide watersheds, filter and clean the air we breathe, and serve as hot spots for scientific research. They give endangered animals a habitat to flourish and allow space for species to interact and roam freely. National park protections shield fragile ecosystems all over the planet. Some benefits aren’t so obvious: To date, a quarter of all our medications originate in rainforests, and that’s just barely scratching the surface. “To me, wilderness is something that’s so massively vital to everyone on the planet,” says Honeyborne. “So often, it’s just regarded as empty space, and yet, wilderness supports all life on earth. If we want a healthy planet, we need healthy wild spaces, with an intact list of species all doing their jobs.”
In Our Great National Parks, Honeyborne and his team turn the camera on the very venues where many of us encounter the natural world in all its untamed glory, where we hike, swim, bird-watch, explore, get dirty, and become inspired. “That idea of wilderness shaped the notion of celebrating the world’s great national parks,” explains Honeyborne. “Because, of course, they're icons of wilderness around the world.”
Fittingly, the seed for Honeyborne’s extraordinary career was itself planted in a national park. Visiting his uncle in Nairobi at the age of 18, they embarked on a safari in the Maasai Mara of southwest Kenya. Its 580 sprawling square miles teems with leopards, African bush elephants, giraffes, rhinos, leopards, and cheetahs, and lays claim to the Great Migration of wildebeest, one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. There’s also an exceptional population of lions—which is what initially caught the budding conservationist’s eye.
“We started looking around for animals—they were actually quite hard to find the day we were there,” he says. “Eventually, we found what looked like a lion under a tree, and it turned out to be two lions.”
Just then a Land Rover rattled over to join in the sighting. “They suddenly stuck a camera out of the window and a sound boom out of the top, and they started to film the lions,” says Honeyborne. “I couldn’t believe that people are being paid to go on safari, that this was their job. That’s how the penny dropped for me that there could be a career not just in biology, but in wildlife filmmaking.”
In 2018 Honeyborne established Freeborne Media, and hooked up with Netflix to create a fleet of science and nature films for the streaming service. Bringing on President Obama to create Our Great National Parks, his second project in the series, seemed like a natural fit. Not only had the former world leader protected more acres of public lands and waters in the US than any other president in history, the Obamas had also recently launched their own Netflix-partnered production company, Higher Ground.
“I’d like to think if someone watched the series, they’d come out of it reflecting on the great variety of creatures there are in the world and the amazing job they do,” he says. “These places, they’re never going to thrive in isolation—each one would just become an island.”
The show spans five episodes, featuring 13 national parks in 10 countries across five continents. “We wanted it to feel global,” says Honeyborne. “You could make the series many times over because there’s many, many places to celebrate. I’m pleased with the selection and I think we were able to turn the spotlight on them all in a good way. If you look at the Patagonia episode, for example, it wasn’t just one park, it was many, about how they’re all connected. I think that’s a lovely story to tell.”
But as widespread as the representation was, the choices were also personal. As President Obama details in the introductory episode, Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, Tsavo East in Kenya, and Indonesia’s Gunung Leuser National Park all played significant roles in his upbringing. “When I was growing up, wild spaces and everyday spaces were one in the same,” he says, before describing how his mother would sit and listen to the ocean at Hanauma Bay while she was pregnant with baby Barack. It’s a beautiful reminder that while these lands are visually awe-inspiring, it’s our interactions with them that hold the most power.
There are a few reasons filmmakers enjoy training their cameras on plants and animals, recording for 1,500 days and producing hundreds of thousands of hours of footage. First, you can broadcast those images to people who could never witness them otherwise, maybe even motivating some to go see them for themselves. Along the way, you’ll likely also come face-to-face with the notion that some of these prized spaces are probably best left to the animals.
“There was one place they wanted to go at the top of a mountain where tigers were thought to be—it was 10 days in and 10 days out trekking. And leech-infested,” says Honeyborne, recounting a particularly difficult shoot for his crew. “When I saw photos of the guys coming out, they were literally just streaming in blood. Not all national parks are comfortable to visit, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t love them.”
Playing out on screen, scenarios might appear serendipitous. But achieving the final product is anything but, requiring consultations with scientists, working with park rangers, and laying out potential plot developments. “In our research with the scientists, we learn what the animals are likely to do and how they’ll behave, and we’ll write that up and storyboard it so we know what we’re hoping to get,” explains Honeyborne.
The preparation gets everyone on the same page for the shoot, and by scripting interactions, the team can inject a little drama into the visual proceedings (“It’s still entertainment, isn’t it?” says Honeyborne). But in a wildlife documentary, the main actors can’t actually read the script, so things don’t always go as planned. Nevertheless, says Honeyborne, “It’s amazing how often what you hope to get, you then see on film.”
Take the titan arum, which blooms from 24 to 36 hours once every seven to 10 years. Colloquially called the corpse flower, it emits an odor of rotting flesh to attract the insects it feeds on, before collapsing with a surprising amount of gusto. And while it’s not always easy to catch it on film, the fleeting glimpse is worth it.
“It’s all about looking for a flower bud, the only real sign of them, on the forest floor,” says Honeyborne. “It’s an amazing structure—not really quite one flower, but it does the job of a flower. Once you know how big the bud is, you can estimate how quickly it’s going to open, heat up, and produce this amazing rotting scent. It draws all the bugs.”
When things don’t go as planned, it can also be fortuitous. Shooting in the wilderness means you might document a species that’s never been put on film, examined by biologists, or even discovered. Like the recently identified rock iguana in Tsingy de Bemaraha, found nowhere else on earth (so far), and never before revealed to the masses before being documented by Honeyborne’s team. Or what was believed to be a new species of hammerhead worm, spotted when shooting inside Indonesia’s Gunung Leuser National Park. “It’s always exciting when you can get a new species or new behavior no one’s ever seen before,” says Honeyborne. “The great thing is, one person sees it, and suddenly millions can.”
You’re also able to keep tabs on a rapidly changing natural world firsthand. “At the moment, I’ve got teams filming in Antarctica, where it’s the worst sea ice ever recorded,” says Honeyborne. “Simultaneously, up in the Arctic, I’m told there’s very little sea ice for this time of year. That’s February in the Arctic! Every year is different, and we always have to factor in the chaos that seems to be increasing.”
Nevertheless, Honeyborne’s advice for anyone going out to record in a national park or wilderness area—besides the old adage, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints”—is to drop the camera and experience the power of the outdoors, at least occasionally.
“It’s not good to look [through] the camera all the time,” he says. “Sometimes, you’ve just gotta put it down and take in the moment.”