“You go out with a shot list in mind and on day one, you rip it up,” explains Brian Armstrong. He and Hayes Baxley are both Emmy nominees for their cinematography on the new NatGeo and Disney+ documentary series “Secrets of the Whales.” As the duo reveals, capturing the majestic giants of the ocean requires an immense amount of planning, but nature often requires the filmmakers to respond instinctively to the whales’ actions. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
“At the end of the day, it’s how much are the whales going to let you into their world,” says Armstrong, who also served as showrunner for the four-part series. This was an important concept for the creative team to accept, as the goal of the series was to explore the various community behaviors different whale species exhibit. To that end, the duo believes they were able to respond in the moment to get the best footage possible thanks to a quality team and expert planning. “You put the best people, in the right place at the right time, with the best gear,” notes Armstrong.
Indeed, the gear is quite impressive. “It’s nothing just off the shelf,” reveals Baxley. “Everything has to be built and designed. You’re working in some of the harshest conditions that you would ever imagine taking a camera.” The vast camera set-up included drones, underwater cameras, and a “gyro stabilized system” that hung off the team’s boat to capture action at the water’s surface.
Baxley explains that the team could spend weeks without a whale sighting, then he would have to spring into action with multiple cameras to capture the sudden arrival of a pod. “Sequences came together in a few short hours, or less,” he admits. A single sequence, whether it’s Sperm Whales feeding or Humpback Whales bubble hunting, often incorporates shots from every camera available. Armstrong notes they’re “creating the narrative as we go in a lot of cases, so that we can lean into the best footage.” Ultimately, Armstrong reveals that their goal comes down to one question that the team constantly asked themselves during filming: “how do we make every shot a masterpiece?”
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