Vanessa Berlowitz Interview with Mark Linfield: America is Beautiful


America the Beautiful is the latest docuseries from the award-winning producers of Planet Earth and the Disneynature films, arriving July 4 on Disney+. What better way spend the holiday than to celebrate the natural diversity of the American continent and honor the people who are doing their best to conserve it? EPs Vanessa Berlowitz and Mark Linfield of Wildstar Films were so impressed themselves that they included as many habitats as possible in the show’s six episodes that each.

Michael B. Jordan narrates America the Beautiful, taking audiences on an incredible tour of the various environmental worlds located in its vast landscape and the inspiring creatures that inhabit each one. The score by composer Joseph Trapanese (Shadow And Bone & The Witcher) also makes use of the available diversity, incorporating everything from Native music to blues and collaborating with musicians all over the country in a true representation of the elements that make up America.

Related: Disney Nature Films Sure To Increase Your Love Of The Planet

Screen Rant spoke to Berlowitz and Linfield about their original motivation for joining forces with National Geographic on America the Beautiful, how they discovered some of the most unique animal interactions, and what they hope the docuseries teaches viewers about conservation.

Screen Rant: From Planet Earth to America the Beautiful, how does each new project get inspired and then developed? Each one is such an undertaking, so what makes you set your cap to something of this scale?

Vanessa Berlowitz: We were super excited to be invited to do America the Beautiful by National Geographic, actually, because we’d worked on big global series like Planet Earth or Frozen Planet before. But the opportunity to work on America was really exciting for us, because you’ve got the whole planet in one continent. You’ve got every habitat, from the poles to the jungles, and you’ve got really diverse animals.

We felt there were real challenges for us, because everything in America is bigger. The mountains are bigger, the canyons are bigger…

Mark Linfield: The weather’s bigger.

Vanessa Berlowitz: For a filmmaker, there was a really high bar as well, because you have fantastic A-list Hollywood animals that have been filmed and photographed a lot. So, we had to kind of bring our a game to that and show you aspects of them that you’ve never seen before. Like mountain lions in the Canyon. There’s lots of opportunity here for us as filmmakers, but also lots of challenges. So, we were thrilled to be invited to work on it.

Speaking of having A-list animals and their really unexpected sides, how much research goes into in before? Are you like, “We have to find them doing these things,” or how much is really a surprise in the moment?

Mark Linfield: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Actually, it’s a blend. But on this particular series, there was a massive amount of early research, because we were so terrified of showing Americans things that they’d already seen, and then they would think it was boring.

We had two roles. One is if it’s familiar, it’s got to be doing something different. And we have to have lots of stuff that’s unfamiliar too. For example, if we’ve got bears, they’ve got to be swimming in swamps, holding their cubs in their mouths, with gators all around them. Or if it’s mountain lions, they’ve got to be somewhere amazing, like the Grand Canyon. But we wanted all the little quirky caterpillars changing color, and oak toads stealing ants from plants, and all the little quirky things.

Some of the quirky things we got at the beginning. We found the stories at the beginning by talking to all the amazing scientists and amateur naturalists and everything in North America. Some of them you happen upon during the two or three years it takes to shoot one of these series. Because, as I’m sure you can imagine, these series take a long time to shoot. With wildlife, what you really have to do to increase your luck is to have lots of time. That’s our big thing. Most movies have huge crews for short periods of time, but we have tiny crews for very long periods of time just to make our own luck. Basically, that’s what you need in the wildlife. You just need to be there.

Vanessa Berlowitz: I think one of the unscripted things and unplanned sequences that opens the whole series is the squirrel interaction with the bear. We didn’t know that happened; no one knew it happened. We weren’t expecting to start the whole series with a squirrel story.

But it was so remarkable, because we were using remote cameras to try and capture this story so that all the animals will show us their sort of secret side. And sure enough, out came this thing that could have been scripted by Disney Animation, a story where you see a squirrel taking on a bear that’s 100 times its size. You just see this incredible character coming out of this squirrel that no one would have ever expected, and it’s all real. It’s all captured in camera.

The way we got it was the cameras actually were triggered by the animals, so it’s multiple angles on this tree effectively with all the pine cones stored at the bottom. They were filming themselves, so it’s a treat. We think it’s a really Disney sequence, but it’s all captured for real by the animals.

That’s so fascinating. You not only have all these hidden cameras, but also jet photography to capture all of the natural diversity. How did you know to take a chance on such a process, and is this kind of the first time that we’re seeing it done?

Mark Linfield: Well, that’s really interesting, because we brought the sort of aerial technique to Planet Earth all those years ago. I don’t know if you remember on that, but we filmed animal behavior from the air for the first time. We’ve always been very keen on using aerials to bring the changes, but what we really wanted to do on North America was to find a new way to show the landscape. Because the landscape and the weather are so important in shaping the animals and shaping the wildlife.

We thought, “How are we going to transform the filming of the landscape?” And this technology had been used before in Top Gun, and of course Top Gun: [Maverick] too – if you’ve seen, that’s great. But actually, it’s never been used on natural history before.

The guys we’ve been working with at V/SPEED were just fantastic to work with, and we managed to come up with a really good system of previsualizing shots on the computer. We would work together to design these shots, and then go and fly them. You could redesign the shots beautifully, and you knew what you were going to get, and then they would just go and fly them.

The other piece of incredible luck we had going with those was that, because of the pandemic, lots of national parks were closed and had no people in them. So, we were actually allowed to fly through the national parks, which you’re not normally able to do. Many of the shots that you see in this series, we would never ordinarily be able to get – and we probably will never be able to redo, unless there’s another pandemic. They really are a once in a lifetime opportunities, these shots.

But it’s an amazing view of the landscape, because it gives you such a sense of overview. You can travel so far, and you can see the transition between the different habitats and how the landscape works. But you can still be close to it. Normally, you might see that kind of thing from a satellite, but it’s not very engaging; it’s so far away. Whereas the landscape, we’ve got shots that traveled 100 miles or more in a single shot – in 12 seconds. It’s exciting, and also really revealing. It shows you how the landscape works, and it shows you a lot about the habitats.

It’s so interesting to me that you were working with indigenous tribes to capture footage, because that seems so obvious. America is made up so much of the indigenous people that were first here, and yet it’s something that probably hasn’t happened very often before. Can you talk about that collaboration, Vanessa, and what it means to work with them?

Vanessa Berlowitz: I think right from the early days, we contacted people who lived [there]. Often, the people in many continents that live in truly wild places are the indigenous peoples, and they’re often the guardians of that wildlife and have the access and they really understand their wildlife. We were already talking to them for the research, and also to gain permits to go and film in some of the special places, like where we filmed grizzlies hunting caribou. They were part of that process

And then as we went through the show, we realized that we needed this show where we represented some of the amazing work that those people are doing to protect their wildlife. Like in episode 6, Bernadette of the Gwichʼin, which is my favorite story. This single woman fighting to preserve her own homelands; her special homelands, and really affecting policy at governmental level is really inspiring. So, we featured those stories – and also the recovery and rewilding of bison into the American prairie reserve with the Chippewa-Cree, which is a wonderfully inspiring story. So, that was one element.

And then, actually, also in the soundtrack. The music that’s come out of America is so much born of the place, and the natural sounds of place, and we wanted their incredible contribution to be represented in the soundtrack too. Joe Trapanese, our composer, collaborated with Navajo composers and performers, and we had an incredible, ethnically diverse choir from LA called Tonality, and Southern performers and artists. I really hope you can feel the soundtrack is more than the sum of all those different influences, which is really what America is.

The other thing that’s really clear when watching this is how much conservation is the goal, and you’re being inspired by people who are doing their part to conserve. What would be your advice to viewers who want to help and don’t know where they should begin?

Mark Linfield: I think one of the messages from the final show is that everyone can can play a part. It could be helping to chart the migration routes of whales, or it could be lots of small things, but everyone doing something builds to something really important. Everyone can play a role, can’t they?

Vanessa Berlowitz: Yeah, I think that’s what we were in amazed by. In every region, and every community, there were people doing stuff. Just getting onto the social media, you will find what is happening in your community, and those projects really do make a difference. We could have filled a whole series with the stories that we just put in that final show. There’s so much to join in with.

What is your next three-year investment? Where are you looking to explore next?

Mark Linfield: I’ve been asked whether we would like to make another continent series, and we were saying, “Actually, we’d love to do one in South America.” We’d like to bring all the techniques we’ve been using in North America to South America, but we need to wait for Disney to offer us that. Hopefully they will!

America the Beautiful: NatGeo for Disney+

Never-before-seen stories of heroic animals — endearing, majestic and downright bizarre — play out against a breathtaking backdrop of America’s most iconic landscapes. Aerial cameras take viewers on a thrilling journey from the ice caps to the desert, from sea to shining sea. From grizzlies hunting caribou in the Alaskan mountains to prairie dogs battling a tornado, find out what it takes to be an American hero.

Check back out our other interview with America the Beautiful’s composer Joseph Trapanese.