The Earth is weird… Like really, really weird. This is the mandate of Nat Geo’s latest docu-series One Strange Rock, a show that explores the eccentricities of our home planet from the spectacular (acid lakes) to the seemingly mundane (breathing). The series explores how every single aspect of the Earth – even what you ‘re staring at right now– is extraordinary.
To highlight such wonder, the series is told primarily by those who have seen the Earth in its entirety: astronauts. Each of the ten episodes focuses on a single astronaut’s perspective, with the finale focusing on astronaut Peggy Whitson as she returns home from her third and final trip in space. Filmmaker & producer Alice Jones followed Whitson as she returned home from space, exploring how these flights away from the Earth changed Whitson’s entire outlook on life and the planet.
In the following interview with Jones, she discusses what she learned from her time with Whitson, developing One Strange Rock, and the most challenging aspects of the show:
How did you go about choosing the locations for the shoot on One Strange Rock?
ALICE JONES: Luckily our planet is nice and varied so there are a lot of places we can choose from. Obviously we do have to narrow it down. One of the things that held us back was easiness. Some of the places were challenging to get to and very difficult to film in. The strangeness of the planet was always our focus… but honestly everywhere you look on the planet, it’s weird. Even right in front of you, there are strange things going on. We have ten different episodes carved up into different topics so each location had to relate to the science of the episode and help tell the story of the planet.
Are you involved in the development of the topics for each episode or is that assigned to you?
JONES: I started a little bit later. The program had been worked out, but it’s something I’m often involved in. The history of our planet is a big one and we’ve only got ten episodes. It’s a big piece of a work to figure out how to divide that up. We [ended up doing so] in parallel with astronauts telling their stories. We had about five hundred and fifty astronauts to choose from so we were looking for people with a scientific interest or had a unique experience in space that could give an interesting insight into the history of the planet. So for example we had medical advisers who were also astronauts that could tell the biological angle of the origin of life. We also had astronauts who are astrophysicists by trade, who had experience with the sun. Even just personal experiences like problems in the space suit or near death. A lot of the topics and the focuses were motivated in parallel with the astronauts who we got to narrate.
What’s the most interesting or challenging story to tell in the series?
JONES: They all have their challenges. All the stories we tell and places we’ve gone are so fascinating. It’s really trying to pick the one little detail that helps tell the bigger story that’s often quite hard. We’ll go to these amazing places and there’s all these great things going on, but we just have to focus on one tiny, little thing. In one of the episodes, we’re telling the story of the shield that protects our planet from radiation and solar flares and things like that. One of the elements of that story is in the core of the Earth – this big molten iron core that creates motion and is constantly moving.
Now obviously you can’t get into the core of the earth, but what we can do is make a trip to a volcano. There are only four or five volcanoes on the planet where there’s an actual open lava lake. One of them is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which isn’t the easiest place to film in. It’s a vast jungle and there’s a lot of conflict there. It’s also a hostile place to be in – so it was quite a difficult story to tell editorially because you’re trying to visualize something that you can’t see in the core of the earth. But also physically when you get there, you’re on the edge of a lava lake and if you watch it – the lava lake was fairly active when our film crew was there. It made it quite a challenge to film but hopefully exciting to watch.
When you’re planning and structuring an episode, how much is done in pre production versus found in the edit?
JONES: It’s a long process that continues right until the end, but it’s very much planned out in advance. We’ve got ten episodes. We know what we want each episode to be and which part of the story it’s going to tell. We’ve got the astronauts who are going to tell that story and we planned the program and blocked them out into the elements of the story. Then we go and film. Obviously – the world is slightly unpredictable so things always come back slightly different. When you go into the edit, you try to piece it together as much as you planned. It’s never quite the same so you have to tweak it here and there to tell a story clearly. Sometimes you have to shift the focus, but it’s very well planned out. You’ve got to be prepared and flexible at the same time.