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What in the World...? 'Discovery Atlas' Serves up a Global Culture

By Tamara Krinsky

atlas (noun): a bound collection of maps, sometimes with supplementary illustrations or graphic analyses; a volume of tables, charts or plates that systematically illustrates a particular subject.

If one could take all of the features of an atlas and adapt them for the digital age, you'd end up with the new Discovery Channel series Discovery Atlas. The brainchild of Discovery Communications, Inc. founder and chairman John S. Hendricks, Atlas aims to create portraits of the great nations of the world, highlighting their people, places, culture and history in a variety of formats.

The cornerstone of the project is a series of broadcast specials on specific countries. Shot in HD, each program follows up to eight characters embodying a geographic and demographic cross-section. Says Maureen Lemire, executive producer for Discovery Channel, "Our challenge was figuring out how to tell the story of a country in two hours. We quickly realized that for television, the most engaging way would be through characters--the idea of understanding the country one person at a time. You connect with these characters' stories and become enlightened about a country by meeting someone that you would never normally meet as a tourist."

The first episode, Discovery Atlas: China Revealed, is filled with gorgeous photography and distinct individuals, giving the viewer a simultaneously epic, yet intimate, experience. Says director/producer Cassian Harrison of UK-based Lion Television, "It was very exciting for me, and actually slightly daunting. You've got a country of 1.3 billion people and you have to make a 100-minute television program that captures that nation." Through research in the UK, aid from Chinese broadcaster Phoenix, and several months spent criss-crossing the country prior to production, Harrison was able to craft a palette of stories that captures both the nation's history and its current realities. His subjects include a bowman who lived through the cultural revolution, a 12-year-old gymnast and a migrant worker, among others.

While the language barrier, new technologies and local government politics all presented challenges during production, Harrison says that the most difficult part of shooting was the cultural attitude of the Chinese. "For the Chinese, the ordinary person isn't that important. It's a country where the people look to the heroes or the person at the top of the pile. There was a whole process of educating them into the value of why ordinary people are interesting to me and why their stories are valuable. When I first met them, they didn't really understand why it was that I wanted to go and see a migrant worker--it's not the kind of story that gets told in China."

In addition to the television broadcast, Discovery Atlas takes advantage of the company's other platforms to enrich the coverage of each country. China Revealed will screen theatrically for press and consumers in limited release in eight US cities. Short segments, games and podcasts available on the program's website address specific topics, allowing viewers to dive more deeply into subjects touched upon in the broadcast pieces. Discovery's educational unit is developing a curriculum that teachers can access, and certain Atlas segments will be available directly to classrooms via streaming over broadband through DVDs and HD DVDs of Atlas programs will be available for purchase in Discovery Channel stores and via its online store.

Says Steve Burns, Discovery's executive vice president of production and its chief science editor, "It's not only gorgeous, epic, wonderful programming that Maureen and the outside producers have produced, but it's that promise of living up to what John Hendricks wanted, which was to be the network of record for these countries in our age with this new technology HD."

Discovery Atlas: China Revealed premieres on Sunday, October 1, followed by programs throughout the month on Italy (Mike Lynch, dir./prod.; October 8), Brazil (Graham Booth, dir./prod.; October 15) and Australia (Chris Thorburn, dir./prod.; October 22).


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.