In a remarkably short amount of time, Netflix has established itself as a significant player in every popular television genre, with perhaps one major exception: natural history documentaries.
But that all changes with the streaming giant's latest big swing, an ambitious eight-part natural history series called Our Planet.
As shown by deals with mega-producers like Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy), Netflix likes to align itself with the top creatives in their respective fields, and that's very much the case with Our Planet, which comes from Alastair Fothergill, the Emmy award-winning producer behind BBC natural history shows Planet Earth and Frozen Planet.
As Fothergill tells TimeOut at Netflix's Los Angeles headquarters in Hollywood, Our Planet breaks a large amount of new ground in the natural history space.
"I would say in every episode there are at least three or four things that have never been filmed before," he says. "For the very first time, we've filmed blue whale mothers and their calves in an extraordinary way. There's an extraordinary sequence at the end of the open ocean episode where there are nearly 200 humpback whales feeding together. It's the first underwater shots of humpback whales feeding. But that's the tip of the iceberg."
Indeed, there's an eye-popping array of natural wonders on display throughout Our Planet, running the gamut from the thrilling hunt of a caribou by a pack of wolves, stunningly filmed from the air for the first time, to the never-before-captured mating dance of the blue manakin, a tiny tropical bird with a hilariously dramatic courting ritual that is bound to go viral.
Arguably the series' most spectacular sequence features an enormous ice shelf breaking off the front of a glacier and collapsing into the Arctic water.
"It was the most exciting thing I've ever seen in my life," says cinematographer Jamie McPherson, who filmed the sequence from a helicopter that was dwarfed by the glacier. "It was just unbelievable. The scale of it, that glacier is 7km across. It's 100m high. It's 600m below the water. It's just off the scale. It's like seeing skyscrapers appear and then disappear."
This illustration of global warming in action speaks to another aspect of the Sir David Attenborough-narrated series that Fothergill says sets it apart from its predecessors: Our Planet has an urgent message for viewers and isn't afraid to articulate it.
"For the first time ever in a mass audience landmark [natural history] series, we're trying to deal with the challenges that our planet faces," says Fothergill. "It's not a finger-wagging series at all, it's about explaining the problems, and also very importantly, the solutions. Because, as Attenborough so eloquently says in the show, what we do in the next 20 years literally is what's going to control our planet for thousands of years."
Fothergill says that's why he made the series for Netflix: the service's global reach is the perfect platform for getting the message out there.
"The series will air to 139 million subscribers in 190 countries and no other broadcaster can provide that," he says. "I made a series called Planet Earth, and it's still the best-selling non-fiction DVD in North America. They say that one in every five households in America have the Planet Earth DVD. And of course, Netflix is the new DVD, and we want this series to be there for a very long time."
"There's one other crucial reason why this series is on Netflix," adds Keith Scholey, Fothergill's producing partner on Our Planet. "A lot of broadcasters are not too happy about taking on a subject like this with the message that we have. From the moment we first met [with Netflix], they were incredibly supportive about it. We said, 'Aren't you worried about upsetting people?', and they said, 'No we want to do it. We want you to tell the story you want to tell.' I don't honestly believe we could've made this series with another broadcaster."
The show, produced in association with environmental advocacy group World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has a companion website, OurPlanet.com, open to everyone, not just Netflix subscribers.
"We feel the website's an important part of the whole Our Planet project because a 60-minute show can only carry so much information, " says Fothergill. "It's an amazing educational resource. Very accessible, and it has a lot of solutions. Because people need answers, they need to know: what can I do tomorrow."
What: Our Planet
When: April 5