Race to the Center of the Earth finale: How NatGeo’s epic series was made

Race to the Center of the Earth producers Elise Doganieri (left) and Bertram van Munster. (National Geographic/Stewart Volland)
Race to the Center of the Earth producers Elise Doganieri (left) and Bertram van Munster. (National Geographic/Stewart Volland) /
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Race to the Center of the Earth is a reality TV hit, but that’s no surprise considering who’s behind the show—it’s the brainchild of executive producers Elisa Doganieri and Bertram van Munster, who make a little Emmy Award-winning series called The Amazing Race.

Before Monday’s finale, the duo spoke with Hidden Remote about what it’s been like making the first-ever reality competition series to air on NatGeo, how this show is completely different from The Amazing Race, and the value of a globe-trotting series during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch the Race to the Center of the Earth finale this Monday, May 10 at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on NatGeo. The complete series will also be available to binge-watch on Disney+ starting Friday, May 14.

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Hidden Remote: At first glance, this series looks similar to The Amazing Race, but it’s not like that at all. What interested you in doing another reality-competition show and what makes this one unique?

Elise Doganieri: The shows are so, so different. The only thing that’s similar is we have people racing around the world. The concept and the format is very different. Race to the Center of the Earth is an adventure race. We have four teams of three people, and we drop them off in four different locations around the globe, and they race simultaneously to one location for the finale.

They are literally out there on their own with their own individual camera crew in very remote places—traversing through frozen tundra, rainforests in Southeast Asia, whitewater rafting, kayaking, any rugged terrain, exceptional environment. This is something at the core of what National Geographic always does: exploring the globe with a sense of adventure. We went to the farthest reaches of the Earth to give them this epic landscape and also an epic adventure.

Bertram van Munster: we’re very, very isolated. We’re in very remote areas, sometimes thousands of miles away from civilization. And so you’re really, really on your own. The other thing is, in terms of casting, we have four teams of three people. You always have to behave yourself if you have a very small group in a very remote area. You can’t argue too much if you want to make it to the finish line.

HR: Logistically, what kind of production does that entail? It’s a massive amount to cover but then you’re out in remote locations where it would seem to be much harder to film a TV show.

BVM: We know exactly where everybody is at all times. we scouted the routes three times with the race directors, with my camera team, with my director of photography, with my producers… These routes [were] scouted and tested to make sure that it’s not too dangerous, it’s doable, and not too hazardous.

ED: We did track the teams. We couldn’t all be in all locations at the same time. I was in Los Angeles in our home base, and it was basically a 24-hour adventure, because when one team was waking up in Southeast Asia, another team was going to bed, so for us at home base, they were racing around the clock.

To track them, they ran from GPS point to GPS point, which we were able to follow online. each team had roughly 120 waypoints per route and covered about 3,500 miles per their individual leg, and we were able to follow them virtually. Using an app to see exactly where they were going was actually quite incredible, to follow them in real time.

HR: How much raw footage did you get from Race to the Center of the Earth? It clearly can’t have all fit into what we see on NatGeo.

BVM: It’s all shot in real time, and we’re with them 24 hours a day.

ED: There were about eight to 10 cameras per region. We used these Black Magic Ursa 2 cameras, which are absolutely incredible. We [also] had 50-plus mini cameras, GoPro’s and Osmos. We also had about 10 drones flying around, and we had 360 degree-cameras. The coverage we have is absolutely outstanding. It fits so well with National Geographic’s view of the world and sense of adventure, travel and exploration. We knew that we needed to capture the locations in the most epic and stunning way using the highest-quality cameras.

HR: Did your experience with The Amazing Race come into play here? You’ve won Emmys for that, so that’s the pinnacle of this genre, presumably you’ve mastered how to make a show like this now.

ED: We do have a lot of experience. It all started with Bertram, who actually worked for National Geographic in the 1970s, making films for them. Through all of the contacts that Bertram has around the globe and all the contacts we’ve made during The Amazing Race—cameramen, producers, local facilitation companies that helped us get in and out of these countries. It is a well-oiled machine, but it doesn’t make the work less difficult, because you still have to go through all the planning process.

All the carnets for camera equipment, getting in and out of the different countries, everything still takes time planning. We have a visa department getting visas for our contestants and our crews, organizing travel for the scouts and getting to the start locations, safety and security is number one for us. We had a security team traveling with us. It’s run like a military operation, that’s the only way I can put it. Everything is planned down to the minute every day with the greatest of care.

BVM: But creatively, it’s always an experiment to do a new show. Everything is handmade, as I call it. There’s always the unexpected. But you can only take something on if you have a lot of experience. Otherwise, you’re just totally in the dark. So the experience that we have is valuable. No question about it.

ED: The thing that we always bring to every place we visit is that we are always the guest of the country or the city that we’re visiting, and we always leave that place just as we found it or even better.

HR: What Race to the Center of the Earth moments were most memorable or surprising for you as producers?

ED: Every day for us was exciting as we checked in with our producers and race directors. There isn’t just one moment. Honestly, that first episode when they climbed that 300-foot sheer rock face in North America is an epic moment, but there are certainly moments towards the middle where people get really exhausted and they’re struggling to find the strength to continue and the drama of being a team—I’m the leader, you’re the leader. People have little injuries here and there. Every episode has a moment in it where you’re like, “Did they just really do that?”

BVM: There are moments in Canada [that are] very funny. There are moments in South America like, “Whoa, how are they going to do that?”

ED: The glacier moments in both North America and South America, where teams literally sleep on a glacier and they’re at high altitude, [are] pretty spectacular and stunning. They are all pushed to their limits. These are not professional racers. These are what I like to call weekend warriors. Some are climbers. Some are teachers. We have police officers. Some are just really good friends. They’re all people who have a sense of adventure. They love travel, they love the outdoors. They’re perfectly suited to do an adventure like this.

But they all had their moments where they struggled. In Southeast Asia, you’ll see a team struggle with swimming. You’ll see another team struggle with climbing. In every team, one or two [people] will have their moments where they’re just not sure if they can continue on.

BVM: We make them reach higher than they can…They’re fearless amateurs, that’s really what they are. This race is very, very intimidating—to stand in the middle of nowhere and you’re stuck, and you don’t know what to do and you’re relying on your team of three to make the right decisions.

HR: What’s one thing from Race to the Center of the Earth that you want the audience to think about?

ED: You’re going to see these people go through extreme environments, through mental and physical struggles. But I think what I would love the viewer to think about is the production team behind the show. The people that are hanging on the cliff filming as somebody is jumaring up a sheer rock race or rappelling down a mountainside or climbing. The camera person and sound person that is kayaking on the water, trying to hold a camera and not fall into frigid water, and you’re balancing a 40 pound-camera on your shoulder. That they were keeping up with our contestants through all types of challenges tells you how strong, talented and special they are.

BVM: The whole production team has to go over that mountain, over that hill, et cetera. But in terms of viewing, tt’s a fantastic family viewing show where you can sit on your couch and see extraordinary things that have never been seen before. Experiencing human emotion, focus, dignity, arguing. You see the whole range of human behavior, and it is just extraordinary. It’s something that’s never been done before on a big scale.

ED: The show really represents global exploration and a sense of adventure to get out there, get off your couch and travel. I don’t think it could come at a better time when we’re all needing a little escape. So if you’re sitting at home right now, turn on Race to the Center of the Earth and you’re going to feel like you’ve experienced something different and that you’re seeing the world in a whole new way and from a different perspective.

It’ll give you a boost that we all need right now—to virtually travel if we’re not able to get out yet, waiting for that moment when we’re all feeling safe again, reminding us of the beauty of our world and taking care of our planet is so important. It’s something National Geographic wants us to all see. Look at the beauty of all these stunning locations. Look at these glaciers, look at these rainforests. We will take you there on Race to the Center of the Earth.

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Race to the Center of the Earth airs Mondays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic. It premieres on Disney+ on Friday, May 14.