National Geographic is known for sweeping landscape cinematography of visually stunning and often remote locations of the world. Reality television producers Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri are known for following people as they perform intense physical and emotional challenges in global locations. Now, these powerhouses have partnered to deliver “Race to the Center of the Earth,” a new competition program (and the first of its kind for the cabler) that features four teams of three individuals as they navigate tough terrain to trek thousands of miles in hopes of winning $1 million.
Each of the four teams on “Race to the Center of the Earth” starts the competition in a different place: one in South America, one in Russia, one in Canada and one in Southeast Asia. Therefore, each one has a wholly unique climate to endure and course to travel. Some will climb mountains, some will trek through the desert, some will push through untamed jungle and some will kayak.
“They have no idea what they get themselves into, where they’re going. They know absolutely nothing. They only know from waypoint to waypoint how to get there,” van Munster says of what the teams experience within the show.
Being so far apart, the teams could not compare their experiences to each other’s during filming, but comparison — or more specifically, “fairness” was top of mind for van Munster and Doganieri. “Each route was about 3,500 miles long on average and, on average, we finished with 120 waypoints per route,” Doganieri says.
They began the process of developing this show by looking at a map to determine where routes could start, if the end was to be the same for all teams, and they specifically wanted “really challenging terrain,” Doganieri notes, but from there they worked with local facilitators and professional adventure race directors to assist with the route planning and testing.
Safety was also essential for the two-and-a-half week long global production, and that started at the casting stage. It was important to both the network and the producers, Doganieri says, that they didn’t just cast professional athletes. The goal was to show everyday people who happened to be “weekend warriors” accomplishing seemingly impossible feats, to hopefully inspire others to get out in nature as well. “They just have to be healthy and ambitious. They’re people who love travel, they love the planet, they have a passion for being outdoors and spending their weekends climbing or riding or running,” she says.
The teams the show booked for Season 1 included different sets of co-workers (cops and teachers, for example), as well as friends who specifically take part in smaller scale adventures together. Even though most of these people went into casting telling “all kinds of stories” about each other, van Munster laughs, “when push comes to shove, it turns out they don’t know each other as well as they thought.” What was most important in putting these groups in such high-pressure scenarios was watching them support and encourage each other, though. “When you go in a small group in these very, very remote locations, you better hold your horses with your attitude towards each other. They’re kind of forced to behave themselves. You have to otherwise you can’t survive,” he continues.
During the casting process, everyone went through a medical evaluation that included a physical examination as well as a questionnaire, Doganieri says. The latter included questions about what they have already done, such as rock climbing, and whether or not they knew how to ride a bicycle. During production there were safety and medical briefings every time a new leg began, some of which were not just for physical health but also to manage concerns that might have come up within a specific location.
“We did have a security issue during filming,” Doganieri admits. “There were a few moments which you’re going to see in the show that are going to be like, ‘Whoa, they were in the middle of it.’ But that’s what comes with the experience of our production team: we know what to expect, we know what to plan for, we know who the people are to call and how to keep our people safe as they travel best we can. And yes, we pick places that we thought would be 100% safe, of course, but sometimes you just never know. It’s the world, it’s tricky.”
There was also a plan in place should an injury require one team member to stop racing. In that case, Doganieri says, “the team would have to decide if they wanted to go on with two people or basically drop out completely.”
The contestants weren’t the only ones facing complicated conditions and tasks during production on “Race to the Center of the Earth,” though. Each team had a crew with them of “between 20 and 30 people producing to shoot the show in fairly remote areas,” notes van Munster. “I shoot everything in real time. There’s no stopping, no waiting for camera crews, no ‘go back, let’s do this again.’ It’s a bear, really, to do.”
Although “Race to the Center of the Earth” utilizes body camera POV footage of the team members, as well as a couple of drones per region, it also hired dozens of camera people, some of whom had to stay ahead of the teams to capture footage of them coming onto new waypoints. They all had to scale the same terrain as the team members, but with the added weight of their gear.
To ease the strain and ensure they were using the most advanced technology, “Race to the Center of the Earth” featured hand held or other smaller weight cameras (such as Oslos) where and when it could. Additionally, “we had something called Lectrosonic wireless mic transmitters that allowed us to record sound and dialogue without having to change batteries or memory cards too often,” Doganieri says.
“We had the ability to really show the world in all its beauty, from every raindrop, every snowflake, every droplet of water. The coverage was so important, especially for National Geographic. You want to see the world, that’s what it’s all about: exploration and the world and travel,” she continues. “Especially in a time right now with a pandemic where people are not getting to travel, I’m so excited for people to experience to see the world again and all the beauty and how important it is for us to never take for granted what we have in our lives.”
“Race to the Center of the Earth” premieres March 29 at 10 p.m. on National Geographic.