Born in Brooklyn in the 1960s, the decade that saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin make history as the first human beings to walk on the moon, Darren Aronofsky, like many kids of his generation, idolized astronauts. “My favorite book was this pop-up book on Spacelab that I leafed through so many times, I eventually had to tape up the book to hold it together,” the filmmaker recalls.
Call it early training for One Strange Rock, the new 10-part documentary series about Earth that marks the Oscar-nominated director’s first foray into television. Produced by Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures, Jane Root’s Nutopia, and Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, the ambitious docu-series premieres March 26 on the National Geographic Channel. It’s narrated by Smith and explores life on Earth, looking into the origins of life, how all life is interdependent, and what it would take to foster life on another planet. One Strange Rock features commentary from astronauts who have had the experience of observing, from way up in space, the big blue ball that we humans call home. Among them: Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut to command the International Space Station; Mae Jemison, a member of the first class of astronauts to go into training after the 1986 Challenger accident and the first African American woman to go into space; and Peggy Whitson, who recently returned from her third trip to space during which she set a NASA record for the most cumulative days in space–665 total–for any American astronaut.
Aronofsky wanted to make a cinematic doc series that would combine footage shot in space and on Earth. He was able to tap European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli’s to serve as cinematographer and film Whitson during her recent stay on the International Space Station. “He knew how to shoot,” says Aronofsky, who equipped Nespoli with a RED HD camera. “I more gave him the visual language that we were looking for that would differentiate the footage you normally see from the inside space station.”
Like any director, Aronofsky wanted the lighting to be just right: “The first thing I said to him was, ‘Hey, is there any way we can turn off those fluorescents and let the sun and the planet Earth and the moon light Peggy?'”
The filmmaker also gave Nespoli tips on what type of lensing to use and directed him to employ a cinema verité style.
To his amazement, Aronofsky was able to communicate with Nespoli via email to offer immediate feedback on the footage the astronaut was shooting. “I had no idea you could just email an astronaut,” Aronofsky says. “For some reason, I thought it was like Apollo times where it would take a long time to reach them.”
Aronofsky also provided detailed shooting instructions for the Earth-based One Strange Rock crew that spent nearly two years traveling to 145 locations in 45 countries on six continents, using cutting-edge equipment, including Phantom digital high-speed cameras and micro- and macro-photography technology to shoot everything from massive dust storms in Ethiopia to kids hunting for meteorites in Morocco. “We wanted our teams to capture all of these amazing locations in ways that have never been photographed before, so we came up with a visual handbook that laid out what type of equipment we used, what type of lenses, everything,” Aronofsky says. “It was all about trying to create boundaries for these different teams so that when all the material came in, we would have similar types of shots that could connect all these different places on the planet and reinforce the idea that we’re all on one strange rock.”
While it would seem there would be little or no relation between the feature films Aronofsky has directed and nature and science documentary filmmaking, he did use a technique that he has employed in his previous work. “A kind of signature thing I’ve done in my last few films has been following characters through their landscapes. I started that in The Wrestler, and I continue it through Mother! And that was something we knew we were going to do with the people in One Strange Rock. You can see that in the trailer,” Aronofsky says.
And while drones are commonly used in filmmaking these days, Aronofsky wanted to use the aerial device in a creative way. “We came up with a spinning drone shot from above that you’ll see a lot,” he says.
“I don’t think there’s a sequence that doesn’t have something that has some type of wow factor,” he says. Two in particular had him in awe: one that reveals the largest lava lake in the world and another in which a grandfather and his grandson collect seafood from beneath an ice shelf in northern Canada as the tide goes in and out.
Beyond the nonstop visual wows, One Strange Rock is impactful on an emotional level when the astronauts go beyond science talk to share their personal feelings about seeing the Earth from way up among the stars. “One of the things we learned from making this show is that the trip into space is not just an adventure, but a spiritual transformation, or a personal transformation of perspective and psyche,” says Ari Handel, Aronofsky’s producing partner at Protozoa Pictures. “So that adds a different layer, and that’s something we really tried to capture in the series.”
There isn’t an overt message warning about the dangers of climate change in One Strange Rock. The focus of the series is really on showcasing the beauty, wonder, and weirdness of our planet. But as science buffs–Handel is a neuroscientist-turned-filmmaker, and Aronofsky is a trained field biologist whose dad is a high school earth sciences teacher–as well as human beings who care about the environment, both men do hope the audience will become sensitive to the fragility of humans’ only home. “Our main goal was to give people a perspective shift,” Handel says. “To get them to look at some of the systems of this planet through new eyes so they can see what an amazing place it really is and how we all take it for granted.”