Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky knows more than a few things about creating big, bold, eye-catching images on-screen designed to heighten the emotional experience for a viewer. But he also knows that today’s audience often consumes their media on small screens, like their smartphones. So when he set out to executive produce his first project for television — the natural history docuseries “One Strange Rock” — he and his producing partners from Nutopia and Protozoa Pictures knew “incredible images” could only be one part of the equation.
“Ideally, the bigger you can see it and the better sound, that’s great, but what we’ve tried to do with the show is create an emotional experience, and the emotional experience should come through [no matter where you’re watching]. It’s a story, and the story translates,” Protozoa’s president Ari Handel tells Variety. “What this show does is break down an incredibly complex system.”
In order to tell the story of how and why life is even able to exist on Earth, “One Strange Rock” cuts between interviews with the astronauts, Smith’s narration, shots from space and close-ups on landscapes to demonstrate some abstract scientific notions. They filmed in 45 countries, on six continents, and even from the international space station. Capturing the experience of seeing the planet from space was key, but it was that science that the team started with when approaching the show.
“We looked at the different systems that make this spaceship work. Oxygen was pretty much the big one because pretty much every creature on the planet needs oxygen,” Aronofsky says.
From there, the producers wanted to bring in people who would have not only expertise in the area of science they were exploring but also a unique perspective. That’s why they brought aboard eight astronauts — some of whom had spent almost two years in space and others who only spent days on missions.
“From the beginning this show was from the point of view of the astronauts, and we were excited about that because we wanted that perspective. When we looked back, to a T, every single one of them had a very similar spiritual experience where they were able to perceive the planet as a single spaceship going through space,” Aronofsky says. “What’s fascinating and interesting is the ones who went on long voyages and the ones who went on short voyages, they all have that same transitional overview [and] they all were moved by it.”
But because the astronauts come from a place of science first — and because the episodes’ themes, which include the importance of oxygen and the power of the sun, were already complex — the producers wanted to include an “everyman” perspective as well. That’s why they booked Will Smith as the host.
“We wanted someone who could connect to all of us, which is what movie stars do. They are a great bridge for that,” Aronofsky says. “I think he is just one of the most charming, accessible, intelligent movie stars out there.”
By including Smith to speak directly to the audience, producers hope to attract an audience with a wide range of knowledge about science. Handel is a trained scientist himself but admits that he still had a lot to learn while working on this show.
A key fact that has stuck with him since shooting, he says, is that “Without plants and lichen trapping water in the tectonic plates that then go underneath and making that system work better, they think instead of seven continents we’d have one,” says Handel. “There’d barely be any land on the planet — life allowed the land to be on the planet in the first place.”
Aronofsky was excited to learn about everything from “the diatoms that create oxygen that I never knew existed to these huge nutrients flying from the Sahara across the Atlantic to fertilize the Amazon,” he says. But the most exciting lesson he feels “One Strange Rock” will impart is the fact that “we all share a single home, and we’re all responsible for taking care of that home.”
“That keeps coming back — that’s what these astronauts kept witnessing,” he says. “It’s all a very, very similar experience they’re having once you get off the planet and have that gift to be able to look back and see how small it all is and how delicate it all is — and once you start to use science to figure out how it all works. The miracle of all of those systems coming together to create something as complex as reality TV — it’s wild.”
“One Strange Rock” premieres Mar. 26 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic.