David Hamlin Class of '94
One Wild Life
As series producer of National Geographic Channel’s Great Migrations, David Hamlin MFA ’94 put together an international team of cinematographers, scientists and writers to film wildlife on the move across the planet.
The seven-hour series, National Geographic’s most ambitious project in its 122-year history, captured the stories of two dozen species on seven continents, documenting the fragile existence of these animals as they keep moving to survive.
“Migrations was such an organic fit for National Geographic’s legacy of riveting storytelling and spectacular imagery,” says Hamlin, 50, who lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Julie, and two sons. “And the bottom-line mission is to inspire people to care about the planet.”
The project included the seven-part series, a magazine cover story, coffee-table book, numerous children’s books and a robust website. Its premiere attracted 8.2 million viewers.
Over three years, Hamlin coordinated crews on 83 locations around the world. He kept a phone by his bed - he’d often receive a satellite call from someone on location, be it southern Sudan, the Azores or Costa Rica, where decisions had to be made.
But Hamlin didn’t remain in his editing suite. He led crews to film sperm whales in the Azores, pronghorn antelope in Wyoming and Rockhopper penguins on the Falkland Islands.
Hamlin brought his crew to Guadalupe off the west coast of Mexico at a time when the Northern elephant seal and great white shark were known to migrate. The crew filmed the seals for a month, waiting for the collision between these giants of the sea. A day before the crew was ready to depart, the sharks attacked. “It was pretty gruesome, but we decided to show the raw reality,” Hamlin says. “It was an editorial decision, to show the brutal truth in all its gracefulness.”
For Great Migrations, Hamlin tapped his broad range of expertise: the producer able to attract top international talent, the filmmaker with an eye for the dramatic and the storyteller able to edit down hundreds of hours of film into a spellbinding narrative.
Hamlin learned the art of storytelling when he came in the early 1990s to earn his MFA at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. By then, he had assisted in writing scripts for Sesame Street, where he learned that television could be both educational and entertaining. “USC focused me on storytelling, on finding the narrative,” he says. “I let that concept drive the bus in every production.”
At National Geographic since 1997, Hamlin has been a major player in the society’s development of television documentaries, producing segments for National Geographic Explorer and producing two series - Reptile Wild and Animal Genius.
Hamlin still feels the thrill of documenting the natural world in these far-flung corners of the planet. He led a Great Migrations crew to Christmas Island, an outpost in the Indian Ocean that’s home to 50 million red crabs. There, he captured these dinner plate-sized crustaceans on their pilgrimage to the sea to breed. His crew then captured the return of millions of baby crabs to shore - an event that occurs once every eight to 10 years and has rarely been filmed.
“Filming nature takes patience, skill and wisdom, and a bit of luck,” Hamlin says. “It was early in the process of making the series, but we knew we had to go for it. We took a big risk on Christmas Island, and got a big payoff.”