by Lauren Lee and Laila Mayfield
It’s not easy being big.
That’s the conclusion executive producer Tom Hugh-Jones (“Planet Earth II,” “Night on Earth”) and producer Bill Markham (“Wildest Latin America,” “Animal”) came to when developing Apple TV+’s latest nature documentary, “Big Beasts.”
The 10-episode series, narrated by Marvel star Tom Hiddleston, features classic exotic species (lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!) facing a host of unique challenges in an interconnected, ecosystem-based storyline.
High School Insider spoke with Hugh-Jones and Markham about their new show.
“At first we thought [“Big Beasts”] wouldn’t be as interesting, because there’s greater material for underdogs than with big animals who seem to have it all, but as we did more research, we realized that being big can mean you’ve got bigger problems. You need more food, get in bigger fights, and travel bigger distances,” Hugh-Jones said.
Inspired by Apple TV+’s 2020 series “Tiny World,” which both creators had previously worked on, Hugh-Jones and Markham aimed to present the unseen challenges of some of the largest animals on earth.
“In a lot of nature shows, you see elephants and whales, but quite often, you don’t have a sense of how big these animals are on the screen. So we really tried to develop a filming language which shot animals from certain angles and tried to give a sense of their huge scale,” Hugh-Jones said.
The following Q&A with Hugh-Jones and Markham has been adjusted for clarity.
How would you define a “Big Beast?”
Bill Markham: We had a lot of choices, but we really wanted to show the amazing diversity of the planet, not only in animals, but also in landscape. And those different landscapes pose different challenges for the animals that live there. We also wanted diversity throughout the animal kingdom, so we went for the biggest birds, the biggest mammals, the biggest cephalopods.
The biggest monkey, for example, is the size of a beer barrel. You could play a good game of ”the size of” bingo when you’re watching Big Beasts. There’s a mandril the size of twelve grand pianos. It was about trying to find different places, different things.
We didn’t always want it to be about the big male who ends up in a fight. We wanted relatable characters. We had a mother bringing up her baby whale. Or an old dad who’s on his way out that people like [dads] can relate to. Interestingly, when Tom Hiddleston started doing the narration [for the show], the first line he read was, “It’s hard work being a dad,” which is the first line of the ostrich episode. And he and his partner had just had a baby, so he went, “You got me.”
Tom Hugh-Jones: Generally, we try to look at animals that are amongst the biggest of their kind, like your whales and your elephants, but we also found interesting stories like the Atlas Moth, that is smaller than most animals, but being big presents an interesting challenge for them.
Markham: Or the orangutan, the biggest tree-dwelling animal. It’s not the biggest ape, but it is the biggest one that lives all of its life up in the trees. That poses a particular challenge that the gorilla living on the ground doesn’t typically face.
Documentary filmmaking is a unique industry, how did you get involved?
Markham: We’ve both got interesting origin stories. I grew up in Romania, which is a country full of animals.
I remember an early occasion in my life, walking up to my dad with a snake in my arms when I was about five years old. And he was like, “what’s that, put it down!” And I was like, “No it’s ok, it’s not venomous, it’s good! I read it in my book!”
And he said, “Well, put it down anyway!” [laughs]. That kind of experience really stuck with me as I grew up, and eventually I went on to pursue a zoology degree. I ended up making a radio program about an expedition I went on, and when doing that I realized how fun it was traveling the world and telling stories about it.
Hugh-Jones: Similar to Bill, I spent my day exploring the world. My parents were anthropologists, and they worked in the Amazon jungle, where they took me and my sister off to live for a bit when we were young. I think that experience of being in the jungle, living amongst the parrots and the monkeys really stuck with me.
The other part for me is that I was always interested in art. So like Bill, I went to do zoology, but I was always slightly more interested in painting and music. Then I realized, almost by accident, that making wildlife films was the perfect marriage. It really struck a chord with me.
With four and a half years worth of film to sort through, how did you decide which pieces and animal stories were going to be selected?
Hugh-Jones: Good question. It’s always a challenge — when you’re filming with animals you can’t direct them or predict what will happen next, so we have an incredible filming ratio. For every minute you see on screen, there’s 400 minutes in the rushes. And it’s our job to find those shots that are visually interesting or those behaviors that feel very human and relatable. I think what makes this series different is a lot of natural history shows tend to just have one sequence after another, but we were really into developing characters and narratives through each program, interweaving our character’s journeys. Quite often that became the [catalyst] that helped us select shots.
Why did you select Tom Hiddleston to narrate “Big Beasts?” How did that collaboration come to be?
Markham: Interestingly, Tom had worked with Apple before in a nature series and they really liked him. Tom and I had five days with him recording voice overs, and he really could not [have been nicer]. Like I said, he bought into [“Big Beasts”] the moment he read about the ostrich dad. He wanted quite often to stand back and enjoy the footage, and we were like, “Come on Tom, you’ve got to actually read stuff now.”
He was fantastic — he brought a real empathy to it. He’s a brilliant actor, and we ask a lot in terms of range, from ferocious moments to tender, motherly moments, like the giant octopus bringing her babies into life. He was very sensitive to the subject and enjoyed the process, he was a pleasure to work with.
Hugh-Jones: He’s also very passionate about the natural world. I don’t know how this is in America, but in England, everyone is so used to hearing David Attenborough …and you know, [Tom’s] got a similar kind of voice, younger perhaps, but a similar, very “British” voice. There’s something quite satisfying and comforting about hearing that tone of voice in a natural history show.
Markham: I think a lot of [people] like to relax when they’re watching these programs and I think he’s got a very soothing voice, which worked well.
As teenagers, we felt an odd sort of kinship with the gangly adolescent albatross in episode 2, “The Elephant Seal.” Are there any animals in the show that you personally related to?
Hugh-Jones: I know which one Bill’s gonna go for.
Markham: The gorilla.
Markham: Funny enough, Tom and I both filmed the [same] silverback gorilla in the Central African Republic of the Congo [before], and he’s gotten used to people filming him over the last 20 years.
When I went there for the first time, he would still run away or charge. I would crouch down, terrified as he’d rip up vegetation around me, kind of like King Kong. He’s now totally relaxed and you can see in the footage he just dozes off while his kids are playing around him.
He gets a little annoyed, not by the camera crew but by the kids. I’ve got a kid [myself], and I can relate to the old dad who would quite like a rest. I particularly relate to that character and love that film.
Hugh-Jones: I think while we were writing [the gorilla storyline] we had ourselves in mind, slightly aging males past their prime but still trying to hang on to authority in the family. The other thing that I found amazing that I hadn’t really thought about was the bit about how orangutan mothers spend almost as much time raising their young as humans, longer than any other human on the planet, because they’re so big and they have to be so intelligent to survive in the wild.
They have the greatest success of raising their young [to maturity] of any animal, which is incredible and makes them feel so human and easy to relate to. And they’re doing this on the top of these really tall jungle trees. You wouldn’t have thought that was a very safe place to raise your heavy kids. It’s the amount of love and attention they put into their family that ensures they have successful childhoods, which I thought was really interesting.
Markham: My number two is the elephant seal who has to haul himself out onto the beach and expose his not-quite beach ready body.
Hugh-Jones: The other one is the ostrich, when the father is left in charge of the eggs and he ends up losing them all to the hyena. I think we’ve all had a parenting moment like that, when we all go, “Whoops! Don’t tell the wife!”
What is a creative decision you’ve made in the show that you’re most proud of? This question goes to both of you.
Markham: The first thing that comes to mind is the music. Ruth Barrett was the composer, and she had not done natural history before, but she had [composed] some very successful programs like “The Bodyguard” and “The Durrells.” We brought her in and realized quickly that she’s a very nice person, which goes a long way, but [more importantly,] incredibly skilled. It’s quite a fulsome and rich soundtrack, and at first I was worried it would be a bit distracting to the pictures.
But as we grew into it, I realized that this is a warm, family show, you want that escapist, exotic experience, and her music really brought a lot of that to it. A lot of exoticism, a lot of character, escape to these far-flung places in the world, so I think she was a great choice and I really enjoyed working with her.
Hugh-Jones: For me, it’s definitely storytelling. Everyone says they like wildlife shows, my kids say they like them, but when I try to sit down and watch [wildlife shows] with them, I think they “switch up” because it’s just one story after another, and there’s no reason to stay until the end.
If one element isn’t quite as interesting, then you’ve lost them. That’s why we tried really hard to interweave the narratives of the characters and give them all some type of universal struggle in the ecosystem they’re trying to overcome.
It’s really hard to do that, because you’ve gotta be true to your characters, you’ve gotta be true to your science, and you’ve got to interweave these quite different animals to find the similarities between what they’re all trying to do. It’s really hard. I guess that’s what they do in dramas, but in dramas you can choose the script.
Here, we have to slowly find the story. So in some shows it took a really long time to get that right. But what hopefully the audience feels is that once you start watching, you want to find out what happens to the animals at the end. It is more fulfilling to watch to the end.
How did you choose which animals to focus the episode on?
Markham: Probably the one with the more interesting story and elements to it. [The one] you could come back to more times and become more attached to. All of those things came into it. I mean, some of the episodes are more double-handed, like the first episode with the great whale and the great Pacific octopus — actually the character that a lot of people latched onto is the Pacific octopus. It has an incredible, strong story.
Another example is the great whale, who has more of a trajectory in its story; it’s going from Mexico and the waters where it gives birth to Alaska, the feeding grounds. That’s an incredible journey and a natural thing to center on. The octopus is a bit more static, but its story was a really nice contrast.
Hugh-Jones: It’s a good question because when we started, we were planning to name the episodes like “The Land of the Giants” as “The Ostrich” and “The Big Big Blue” as “The Great Whale,” so they were always going to be the main characters but it was going to be focused more about the place. But I think that belief in trying to tell a story allowed us to realize that the best way to tell a story is through a character, and it’s really good to know your main character.
Then your “B” characters can somehow help to tell the audience more about your main characters, so that was part of the journey of the storytelling. It was Apple TV+ who really pushed us to go further and further. After, we then said, ‘look, we’ve done this so much. Why don’t we pull this off to the main characters rather than the place. I think they’re right. If you say, would you rather watch a film about? A character or a place?’ You’d rather watch one about a character, so that was how it ended up like that.
Markham: Interestingly, we don’t have an episode on the elephant, the biggest land mammal. However, they have since appeared in about four episodes. So look at the series’ balance inside — consider if we are finding something about the characters? We haven’t spent much time with the hippo, for example. There’s a lot of factors.
With more than 25 years of experience in documentary filmmaking, what makes this project different from the other projects you have worked on?
Hugh-Jones: I think through my career, when I first started making wildlife shows, there was still so much that people haven’t seen in the natural world. As a result, a lot of what we were trying to film were the things people have never seen before, or behaviors that were captured for the first time. That’s becoming harder and harder. Now it’s much more about having a really interesting point of view and angle on your story. And I think “Big Beasts” is a really good example of that.
Often we are shooting with quite familiar characters — tigers, gorillas … animals that people think they know. But the way we told the stories in the length of the show, in the tones of the films that are quite familiar and joking in the way the scripts were written, felt effortless family fun– that was really intricately put together. And so, it’s become much more of a challenge to keep people watching these shows because people have seen so many amazing things before. You have to dig deeper and deeper to tell evermore exciting stories.
Markham: I think it’s a new look on some of the animals. These animals live in some of the last wild places on Earth, and they’re really important. You protect them, then you protect the landscape. Elephants travel about 8,000 miles a year; you have to protect a big area where they live, and if you can do that, you can protect all of the smaller animals that live there. These animals are not just figureheads, they’re also engineers who change the landscape they live in. If it weren’t for the elephants, you wouldn’t have the clearings and the plants and the food the other animals live off of. I think learning how important they are, and realizing that…when you love these animals and want to protect them, and that’s what we hope people would want to do.
Hugh-Jones: Yeah, I agree. When you think we live in this world full of giants, it sounds like a fantasy, but it’s not. It’s real. There are still places on this planet where extraordinary animals live. But not many of them are left. To stop them from becoming a fantasy, or legend, or myth, people need to protect these big animals because big animals need more space and food, so they can only thrive if the world is healthy. If you protect those big beasts, you’ll protect everything.
Markham: Well, the great news is, you don’t have to go far to see gray whales, which are the stars of episode 1. If you go to Monterey and jump on one of those whale watching boats, you’ll see tons of humpback whales, and probably some killer whales. If you go at the right time, you’ll see the gray whales, possibly chased by some killer whales.
Hugh-Jones: Monterey is a really great example. A few decades ago, there was very little life left there, due to overfishing, but now that the area is being protected, all the whales are coming back. It really shows that if you look after the place, these impressive giant animals will return, and live on your doorstep.
Markham: It’s a great story. There was a series called “Big Blue Live,” which I should have mentioned earlier, which I am also really proud of, which touched on that story.
All 10 episodes of “Big Beasts” are available now to stream anytime on Apple TV+.