Humboldt: Epic Explorer – A €600,000 Drama Doc from ZDFE, Spiegel TV, Arte and Smithsonian Networks. A Case Study

Humboldt: Epic Explorer is a historical dramatized documentary about the scientist Alexander von Humboldt and his pioneering work in South America.

The project was sparked by Andrea Wulf’s best-selling biography, and developed by veteran producer Tilman Remme.

It was successfully pitched to European and American commissioning editors at the Science Producers’ Congress 2018 in Stockholm.

by Amanda Groom.

Trailer:

https://zdf-enterprises.de/en/catalogue/international/zdfeunscripted/history-biographies/humboldt-epic-explorer

Originator

  • Tilman Remme, Creative Director GTVDocs

Concept

  • “My fascination with Humboldt goes back to my childhood when I devoured a young reader’s book on Humboldt’s travels along the Orinoco River. It was one of the stories that inspired me to study history and become a filmmaker specializing in historical documentaries.
  • “I never thought I would get the chance to make a film on Humboldt, until one day, during a party, a friend told me about a German writer in London who had written a world best seller on Humboldt. He put me in touch with Andrea Wulf, and I managed to convince her to make a documentary with me, based on her book, The Invention of Nature: How Alexander Von Humboldt Revolutionized Our World.”  Tilman Remme

Pitch at Science Congress

  • Remme pitched the story at the 2018 Science Congress (WCSFP) in Stockholm, together with producer Kay Siering from Spiegel TV.
  • ZDF, then Arte and Smithsonian Networks came on board.

Development: Fast Track

  • For a co-pro of this scale, it was a very brief process from concept to commissioning by Ruth Omphalius and Nikolas Huelbusch at ZDFE.
  • Key factors driving the timeline were Tilman Remme’s childhood passion for the story combined with an anniversary — the 250th birthday of Humbolt’s expeditions, and a Smithsonian exhibition.
  • The partner’s collective creative session at the Science Congress included Arte and Smithsonian. It expedited the process.

Tilman Remme and cinematographer Reiner Bauer

Why did ZDF’s “Terra X” strand commit?

  • “Besides the upcoming 250th anniversary, the most important point for our decision to make this film happen had been the possibility to work with Andrea Wulf. Her book “The Invention of Nature: How Alexander Von Humboldt Revolutionized Our World.” had been widely discussed in Germany at the time. Her fresh look at Humboldt and his work seemed to open a new window to Humboldt’s thinking especially for younger viewers. His understanding of the “Web of Nature” meets perfectly with the ideas young people are fighting for when they demonstrate worldwide on “Fridays for Future”. In nature everything is connected to everything else. Humboldt was the first to phrase this. In other words, his message — “If we cut a hole into the web of nature, we might well destroy the whole function of the net” — is as current as it can be.
  • “And this is what we try to do with our “Terra X” programs. We try to connect the present and the past and see what we can learn from the great thinkers of former times. In this respect, Humboldt had been the right visionary telling us something that is still valid today, Andrea was the one who opened the window to his ideas and Tilman was the perfect person to translate all of this in wonderful pictures. What else can I ask for as a commissioning editor for Terra X?” Ruth Omphalius, commissioning editor ZDF

Dealmaking

“Kay Siering, from Spiegel TV was crucial for making the deal work. In my view, Kay is one of the best specialist factual producers not just in Germany but on the international scene.” Tilman Remme

Script

  • It took over a year to develop the script prior to the shoot in South America.

Languages / Versions

  • Remme interviewed the author Andrea Wulf in English and German to make versions in both languages.

Key Research Resource

  • The Invention of Nature: How Alexander Von Humboldt Revolutionized Our World. Andrea Wolff (2015)

Production Budget (estimate)

  • €600,000

Format

  • 50’ (ZDF)
  • 46’ (U.S.)
  • 4K / UHD

Field Production

  • Total: 21 days
  • Germany: 3 days
  • Washington DC: 3 days
  • Drama shoots in Colombia: 15 days.

Dramatized Scenes

  • The producers planned and shot about 26 scenes.
  • The 46-minute US version contains 15’ 30 seconds of dramatized scenes, including repeated drama shots like flashbacks and pre titles.

The challenge of drama shoots in remote locations

  • “Filming in South America with a limited budget and little scope for recces is of course a huge challenge – and full of adventure. We filmed our documentary scenes with Andrea Wulf at extreme altitudes in the Andes mountains, and during the rainy season on the Orinoco River.
  • “We had an extremely experienced production manager on board, Kerstin Peterssen, who organized the shoot with the help of local production companies in Colombia and Ecuador, plus a specialist travel company for the Orinoco trip. It was conducted with four-wheel drives and then on fast moving river boats. The drama shoot began with two days on – and sometimes also in – a jungle river near the Columbian coast.
  • “On Day 2, our main actor Timmi Trinks discovered a family of crocodiles a few hundred yards downriver from our main set. Fortunately, we never ran into the poisonous snakes and spiders that inhabit the local rain forests.
  • “We also shot near Bogota – traffic being the main issue. To beat it, our buses left at 4am and returned after the evening rush hour. We filmed in disused mines, near swamps and in historic buildings.
  • “Our snow-covered mountain scenes were filmed back in Europe, in the Austrian Alps, because the snow line of the Andes begins at around 6000 metres – when there’s just not enough oxygen for a drama film team.
  • “In Europe, we descended deep into a disused silver mine for documentary scenes with Andrea Wulf.“ Tilman Remme

Music Composition

  • New York-based Joshua Heinemann

Key Takeaways

  • “The key challenges were more about the money than the physical challenges, this was taking us into new territories as a German bio-pic. Most challenging was the bringing together of all the different people to make this work.
  • “Humboldt proves that the right idea combined with the best team and pitched with a relevant anniversary can be agreed quickly – even when the idea is big and bold.
  • “The scientific findings revealed in this production are as relevant today as they were 200+ years ago, particularly related to climate change, evolution, and continental drift.
  • “The most unusual thing about Humbolt: Epic Explorer is that the team including producers, director and commissioning editors at ZDFE are all wonderfully complimentary about each other, revealing a special team bond. The collaboration proves that when co -productions are done well, the experience and the result can be a very satisfying!” Tilman Remme

Award

  • Discovery Prize of the Goethe Institute’s International Science Film Festival.

Andrea Wulf with crew on location

Key Players

More about the partners


Amanda Groom

Amanda Groom is the Founder of The Bridge.

A renowned international expert in creating global IP and amplifying east-west creative opportunities, Amanda has successfully built and delivered innovative pan Asian / UK / US factual TV co-production models with National Geographic Channels, Scripps Networks Interactive, Discovery, PBS (NOVA), Food Network EMEA, Cooking Channel US, and UKTV, MBC.

The Bridge has a hub in London with partners in China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.



Footage.net

Footage.net is the generous sponsor of our Case Studies of historical and archive-based programs. Read more here.