'Hostile Planet' EP Guillermo Navarro on the Challenges of Capturing the Perfect Wildlife Shot (Exclusive)

Guillermo Navarro
Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic

The Oscar-winning Mexican director and cinematographer details his involvement in National Geographic's six-part series.

"We live on a fast and continuously shifting planet. Yet against all odds, in the most extreme environments, life still finds a way." -- Hostile Planet

After weeks of rain and cloudy days, it was a gorgeous, high 70 degree day in Marina del Rey, California, where a group of reporters and Academy Award-winning cinematographer and director Guillermo Navarro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Emmy-winning producer and showrunner Tom Hugh-Jones (Planet Earth II) -- executive producers of National Geographic’s new docu-series, Hostile Planet  -- embarked on an adventurous whale watching excursion.

Not knowing if we would actually get to see any whales (we saw a gorgeous gray whale within minutes of leaving the harbor), we set out for a day of scoping out the sea and learning about the animals that inhabit the coast of Southern California.

The afternoon was much slower paced and tranquil compared to Nat Geo’s latest wildlife documentary. Hostile Planet will take viewers on an exciting and suspenseful journey into six of the most intense environments on the planet and demonstrate how animals survive in the harshest conditions from punishing weather, competition for resources, wildfires, and constant predator vs. prey conflicts. Hosted and narrated by survivalist Bear Grylls, the six-part series is unlike any other nature documentary that viewers have witnessed, and the trailer fully demonstrates it.

Courtesy of Nat Geo

Logging approximately 1,800 hours of footage, traveling on all seven continents and having 82 shoots in over 1,300 days of filming, creating Hostile Planet was not an easy feat.

"They don’t obey you out here," Navarro told reporters about trying to get the exact shots needed, and hoping that nature and the animals would work in their favor. "My contribution was to make a point that these stories could be told visually, and the visual language could carry the message, that things do not have to be explained," adding that it’s his job to "tell stories with images."

"Here, the visual language is what takes over and it is a much more immersive experience," he explained. "That takes us also to the basic use of film language, of how the power of an image can build emotion and can build that connectivity."

Navarro is no stranger to documentary work. The Mexico native started his career working on documentaries, and then went on to work on films like Pan’s Labyrinth -- for which he won the Oscar for Best Cinematography -- Hellboy, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and 2, and most recently The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle. For him, returning to work with Nat Geo and documentaries was a "full circle moment."

"I did a lot of documentary work in the beginning of my career, and actually part of my success in the feature world was bringing that experience of dealing with reality to the screen," Navarro told ET while chatting one-on-one. "Now it closes a good circle."

As far as what went into creating the series, Navarro did extensive research with the rest of the crew and producers. However, whenever you’re on the field and hoping to get the specific shots, anything can happen.

"We know [what we want is] happening, and we’re trying to find the animal behavior that opens to that [shot]," he detailed, adding, "Until you have the shot, you have nothing. It’s like us right now, we saw one whale in the beginning. We may see nothing. We know they are there, we just have to wait."

But when the moment happens, you have to be prepared and ready. "There is a lot of luck involved in getting the right shots," Navarro stated. "This kind of work is surrounded by challenges. As you can see now, we are here in the ocean trying to see whales and we're lucky just to get a peek of one. From there, to tell a story, it’s a huge challenge. You have to have all the gear you need, be very good at what you do and then have a lot of luck to get it."

"The lens allows you to connect emotionally more with what's happening. We're not just seeing things from a distance, we are immersed in it," he described. "That is what the big contribution is. The visual story allows you to be there and sense what it’s like today, because a polar bear from 50 years ago is not the same as one now. Because we are telling a different story than what the traditional natural history films were, I thought it was also important to make changes in the how you make it and not only about what’s driving their lives."

National Geographic/Oliver Clague/Jason Isley/Cristian Dimitrious

As the show’s tagline goes, "This is not your mother’s nature series," Hostile Planet takes things to another level and brings truths to the forefront that many people don’t want to face. As the trailer teases, this gets intense and animals will suffer.

"They do suffer. They suffer in the conditions that they are in now and they suffer in their everyday life. It’s the predators and the prey, the food chain. It's very dramatic," detailed Navarro, explaining that "there is a golden rule from a long time ago, that part of the discipline of a natural filmmaker is to not intervene."

"We are there to learn from them and to register what they are doing and learn animal behavior," he stressed. "But you should not stop the role of nature and their fate. It's not about saving the turtle that is at risk in that moment, that’s their life. It’s a hard decision but it’s an important decision to observe."

Meanwhile, for Navarro, he’s just grateful to be able to work on projects that he’s passionate about and tell interesting stories. But he’s worked hard to be in a position where he can pick and choose his projects.

Recently, there’s also been a wave of filmmakers – including Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Emmanuel Lubezki and Navarro's frequent collaborator, Guillermo del Toro -- leading the awards shows and bringing Latino representation to Hollywood.

"I moved [to the U.S.] 24 years ago and the changes are tremendous," Navarro shared. "Before, we barely had a space and now we have made a very strong contribution to filmmaking. Now it’s not only recognized in terms of the awards, we occupy our space and we are doing very good work."

Navarro also explained how this group of filmmakers, among others, "shares a very strong sense that we come from a very strong adversity." "We worked our way through it, and that has created a very strong drive," he added. "And we are very adamant and determined to go out there and tell our story."

For Navarro, it has always been about knowing -- and owning -- your craft for when your moment comes.  

"There are two ways to see things, the up-down version of events and the down-up side of events," he began explaining. "And when you see the world from down-up, like me coming from Mexico, you don’t expect the opportunities, you GO after them."

"It’s not in my plate that opportunities are there for me to eat from," he pointed out. "That is what I mean about the drive of adversity. You have to be moving forward and in search of [what you want]. And for that, you have to be well prepared and know what you are doing because when the opportunity comes you have to seize it. It’s not [always a] situation where you can learn what you want to do. No, you have to [be prepared] for when you have the chance to do what you want to do."

National Geographic/Adrian Seymour/Anthony Pyper/Tanja Bayer

As far as what Navarro hopes that people get out of Hostile Planet, he says "that people will connect tremendously to the stories in a very strong and emotional way when they see what it’s like to be an animal in the wild today."

"[I hope] it creates a tremendous awareness that the planet and many things are at stake, and the animals are the first affected because they are exposed to these environments," he said. "It’s a situation that mankind has a very direct responsibility and impact on them. The animals are doing their part and they are the heroes of the story, and we have to learn how to do our part."

Hostile Planet premieres April 1 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic Channel.