As the director of the National Museum of Natural History rappels down vertical rock in the Grand Canyon, in 100-degree heat, he pauses, dangling by a rope. As he talks about the “ancient landscape frozen in time,” a crack rapidly moves up the face of the canyon, the canyon rumbles, and a large slice of it slides out. On it, we see the landscape from 300 million years ago: desert and dunes. Later, the huge slice of earth hovering in the air floods with water, showing how the southwest used to be an ocean.
These images are, yes, Sharknado-level special effects. But along with well-shot and often beautiful images of the landscape, they effectively explain and illustrate the story that’s being told in Making North America, NOVA’s three part series that concludes tonight. (The previous two episodes are online and on-demand, free.)
Hosted by geologist Kirk Johnson, the three episodes were filmed across the continent during 70 days that spanned more than a year. The story of the continent—and its inhabitants, including animals (last week) and people (tonight)—is told both by Kirk’s explorations and experiences, and by computer graphics.
During the summer Television Critics Association press tour, NOVA executive producer Julia Cort said during a press conference that combining entertaining visuals with knowledge is critical:
“That’s what we do constantly. We’re balancing science and information and entertainment. Our belief is that you’re not actually going to educate, people aren’t going to absorb the information—unless they’re entertained, unless they’re engaged, unless they really want to know the answer to the questions that you’re asking. That’s all about the storytelling and getting people interested and involved in the mystery.”
For sure, this is not the pure nature porn of Planet Earth or Frozen Planet, nor is it a flood of information and facts. But is a fascinating journey across the landscape.