Fred Kaufman has a killer instinct — in the nicest possible way.
“I always root for the predator,” says the 28-year executive producer of PBS’ riveting “Nature” series, whom we first profiled in our October 2012 issue. Recently, Kaufman has been observing hawks not far from his home in Irvington no doubt making what Oscar Hammerstein would describe as “lazy circles in the sky.”
“The hawks feed on rodents, which means there’s a supply,” Kaufman says. “When you see a hawk, it’s a good day. It’s a sign the ecosystem is healthy.”
It’s an awakening ecosystem that viewers will encounter on the “Nature: American Spring LIVE,” which the Emmy- and Peabody-award- winning series will air April 29 through May 1. In this three-part finale to the series’ 37th season, anchor Juju Chang, biologist Thor Hanson and entomologist Phil Torres will explore the cycles of birth and rebirth, the patterns of migration and the connections between plants and animals in pretaped and live events that will take viewers from urban areas to the wilderness, from jagged mountains to lush coastlines.
Normally, it takes the “Nature” filmmakers two to three years to create a program. Now the team will be doing the equivalent of a documentary in three live hours. If Kaufman sounds a bit nervous, it’s understandable: Anything can happen on live TV. But, he notes, “Spring is arguably the most beautiful season.” And “American Spring” is but another indication of how the series has evolved over the years with greater technical innovations. Having done this job for so long, Kaufman says, he has reached the point at which he understands how animals behave. It then becomes about “new ways of accessing information” — going where the animal can and you can’t.
This has involved cameras dressed up as animals, cameras on animals and cameras in remote locations such as the jungles of Ecuador. In the fascinating “Spy in the Wild” miniseries (2017), real critters could interact with animatronic spy cameras — or not.
“I think the animals could tell fairly quickly that these were not a threat and just ignored them,” Kaufman says, giving us literally a hippopotamus’- or an orangutan’s-eye view. A sequel next year will take the spying one step further, Kaufman promises.
As for the animals with cameras, he says the filmmakers do everything they can to ensure that the animals they’re following aren’t harmed by the devices and can slip out of them if they wish. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that the crews remain observers of what can be poignant and painful scenes — for the animals’ safety and that of their own. It’s not all elegance and majesty as in the recent two-part “Equus: Story of the Horse.” We remember the “Great Zebra Exodus,” in which a stallion, sensing that one foal was not his own, picked it up by the throat and thrashed it to death as its mother struggled in vain to protect it.
Nature — as with human nature — can be cruel. And it can be compassionate, as in an episode in which a flamingo remained faithfully beside its partner, fatally mired in mud.
“I completely understand that there are scenes that are hard to take,” Kaufman says. But there is a way to present them, he says. A kill that lasts five to 10 seconds on film may actually take 15 minutes. “There are things we don’t show.” But, he adds, he is more worried about self-censorship than what the series depicts.
Sometimes what the series depicts is the damaging effect of the ultimate predator, man, encroaching on animal resources, contributing to climate change.
“Things are happening that are not supposed to, and the animals don’t get the message,” Kaufman says, as in “Silence of the Bees” (2011), about the destruction of the honeybee population that is vital to our food chain.
Yet nature remains remarkably resilient, he adds, as in the cases of the raptors — the peregrine falcons and eagles, among them — that made a comeback after the elimination of certain pesticides and a home amid New York’s soaring cityscape.
“Nature” will remain as adaptable as nature, he says.
“We challenge people to think differently about how to tell a story.”
For more, visit pbs.org/wnet/nature.