As an action-adventure filmmaker, director Pierre de Lespinois has scaled the heights of the Andes, the Alps and the Himalayas, dived a mile below the ocean’s surface and kayaked alone down a 300-mile stretch of the Amazon River.
So he knows first-hand something about the beautiful and daunting environments that make up the many and varied faces of Earth.
His venturesome spirit, his technical expertise and his vast experience on TV productions, feature films and documentaries are more than enough to make de Lespinois the ideal candidate to direct the rigorous, ambitious documentary series “Faces of Earth,” which began airing in late July and continues in early August on The Science Channel.
The four-part, high-definition documentary series – produced by the American Geological Institute with support from the AAPG Foundation and other sponsors – utilizes cutting-edge computer graphics technology, animation, aerial photography and advanced film production techniques to paint vivid portraits of the powerful natural forces that constantly forge and re-forge the multiple faces of Earth.
The series urges viewers to “look up, look around, look deep below,” and then it carefully explains what’s revealed through the insights of those who can read the natural world best – geoscientists.
It follows those scientists, including some AAPG members, as they employ questing minds, adventurous spirits and high technology to see the Earth as we’ve never seen it before, and to understand how humans are both a force of nature and a product of an ever-changing planet.
Through the magic of film, the groundbreaking series takes viewers into the core of the Earth, beneath vast oceans and straight into the eye of the most catastrophic storms on the planet.
In the process, it shows how the Earth was made, how it works, what’s threatening the planet and what it will look like in the future.
The Adventure Continues
“I was always drawn to filmmaking as a kind of adventure,” de Lespinois said, “but I also love it as a quest for knowledge. To me, being a filmmaker is like being in college your whole life.”
And one of the best experiences of working on “Faces of Earth,” the director said, was tapping the wisdom, insights and discoveries of scores of the world’s finest geoscientists to bring reasonable context to all the dazzling imagery his crews created on screen.
“We interviewed and worked with the top geologists and geoscientists from around the world – so many that we couldn’t possibly include them all in four hours of film – and believe me, our crew really went to school to ensure that every aspect of what we put on screen was scientifically accurate. We were checked and re-checked every step of the way.
That will prove to be an excellent move in years to come, because going to school is exactly the fate that awaits this series. “Faces of Earth,” in addition to providing some riveting TV and filmmaking, will eventually be used in schools for educational purposes.
It’s one more reason why de Lespinois wanted to get it just right.
“Marrying that kind of rock-solid science to the futuristic quality of special effects and CGI on film was a challenge at times,” he said, “but an exhilarating experience.”
A Perfect Match
As founder of Evergreen Films, the full-service production company tapped by Discovery Communications to complete the series, de Lespinois seems uniquely suited to the task. Winner of three Emmy Awards, along with 13 nominations and dozens of international prizes for programs he’s created, de Lespinois boasts a resume that includes science-oriented works, both dramatic and documentary, such as “The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne,” “Inside the Space Station,” “When Dinosaurs Roamed America,” “Weather Extreme: Tornado,” “Alien Planet” and “The Science of Star Wars.”
Noted for his ability to capture and communicate the essence of excitement, de Lespinois directed action photography for Winter Olympic Games in Canada, France and Norway and in the process co-developed a live-action camera mount and tracking system (dubbed “Cablecam”) that allows a camera to “fly” through the air for more than 2,000 feet.
He also pioneered a style of point-of-view filmmaking in athletic competition that has brought him numerous technical awards.
Much of this expertise was brought to bear, he said, in the making of “Faces of Earth.”
“The funny thing is,” de Lespinois said, “a lot of the imaging technology we use in high-definition filmmaking is very similar to technology that geoscientists use in their field work. Even things like the use of miniatures and models, which we use for special effects, are things that scientists often employ in their studies.
“In fact,” he continued, “some of the special-effects software specifically developed for use in the film industry is now being widely used for scientific applications. I think that’s pretty exciting.”
A ‘Theatrical’ Event
Evergreen Films’ laboratory of animation and special-effects wizards is housed at Meteor Studios in Montreal, a joint venture of Discovery Networks and Evergreen, and the talent there was employed extensively to create some of the breathtaking tableaux, visual vistas and powerful natural phenomena seen in “Faces of Earth.”
“We have about 150 artists and the most innovative technical tools of the trade, and since the studio was founded in 2000 we’ve done over 90 productions for clients in the U.S., Canada, England and France,” de Lespinois said.
Recent Hollywood productions involving Meteor artists and technicians include the films “Scooby Doo 2,” “Catwoman,” “The Exorcist” and “Fantastic Four.”
“What we’re doing there is light-years ahead of what was done on screen in the 1970s and ’80s,” he said. “Today, with the increased load of visual effects being used in documentaries like ‘Faces of Earth,’ you have to design your show just like you do a theatrical film. We’re not just going out and shooting what happens. We’re designing everything to tell a story from the beginning.”
The story of Earth through the eons is indeed a vast subject, the director
“To me, the most interesting thing I learned from this project was how the Earth is fluid and is constantly shifting and changing,” de Lespinois said. “To understand that age-old process is important for every person living on the planet. It helps us put the problems we face today into perspective. We need to understand how the Earth works and how we influence it and how it influences us. Those things should be basic to every human being’s education.”
On that education front, de Lespinois points out that the four hours that will be aired on The Science Channel represent only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
“We shot more than 160 hours of footage,” he said, “so clearly there is a treasure trove of additional material and vital information that can be used for educational add-ons and valuable auxiliary purposes.”
AGI has a detailed plan in place to use the series’ footage and animations to provide educational ancillary materials for the classroom. The blueprint calls for DVD and Web-based materials, as well as printed instructional materials, that will be useful for students “from grade school to graduate-level studies,” said Colin Mably, AGI’s senior adviser for communications technology.
“Of the 160 hours of footage shot, about 20 hours are useful for our purposes,” Mably said. “That’s a very rich archive of materials that we plan to use in a number of ways.”
The educational add-ons will be rolled out over the next months, he said, with the first being a boxed-set DVD of the four “Faces of Earth” episodes, complete with soundtracks, original narration, Spanish narration and narration linked to instructional materials.
Additional DVD offerings tied directly to classroom curricula – featuring topics such as “High School Environmental Science,” “Earth Science in the Community” and “Investigating Earth Systems” – will be made available to educators.
Also, Web-based downloads are planned to appeal to teachers wanting to customize lesson plans, to home-schoolers, to students preparing presentations and to outreach educators in museums, parks and community centers.
Interview footage from 38 geoscientists will be formatted on the Web in a glossary of questions and answers on specific geoscientific topics. The Web site also will feature downloadable CGI and animation segments from the “Faces of Earth” archive.
Finally, a career awareness component is planned for the Web site targeted to middle-school students and featuring such topics as “Jobs that geoscientists do” and “How to become a geoscientist.” Another will be aimed at high school students to help inform them, their parents and school counselors on career opportunities in the geosciences.
The AAPG Foundation, one of seven sponsors of the series, contributed $100,000 to the project, specifically toward “taking the next step” in providing a public outreach mechanism for the series.
AAPG Foundation Trustee Chairman Jack C. Threet said the Foundation bequest “represents about a third of the cost of developing, producing and distributing the ancillary materials, and was a major factor in bringing in the other two-thirds of the necessary funding.”
Other sponsors of “Faces of Earth” along with the AAPG Foundation are the AGI Foundation; Discovery Communications; ExxonMobil; the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin; Rive Gauche International Television; and the U.S. Geological Survey.