Insights from Will Smith’s Welcome to Earth Series 2 with SC safety advisor Dave Lucas

The new Welcome to Earth series launched last week and it’s a pretty big deal. Leaving many wondering how it was possible to pull off these extreme shoots in some of the most extraordinary locations.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure around the world to explore Earth’s greatest wonders and reveal its most hidden secrets. A six-part limited series broadcasted on Disney Plus supported by National Geographic, produced by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, Protozoa Pictures, Nutopia, and Westbrook Studios.

For a production of this scale, it required a talented and highly trained group of experts to lead Will Smith, yep that Will Smith, with limited training into some of the most spectacular locations in the world.

Here at Secret Compass, we were tasked to put together an expert team, to manage the safety in these remote environments. We sent a dozen expedition leaders and safety advisors, including experienced team-member Dave Lucas, who has worked with us since 2013. Dave entered the industry through a love of Rock Climbing, and has a theory that “If you invest time into what you enjoy in life, eventually you will make money doing it”.

We sat down together to gain an insight into the highlights and challenges of the production, and learn about his work supporting TV production on two remote locations in the series, Iceland and Namibia.

Hey Dave! We were proud to see you represent Secret Compass as a safety advisor for this series. Can you explain to readers what exactly was your involvement in the project and where did it take you?

I am professionally employed as a safety advisor. This sounds like a very dry “clipboard” holding job, but it’s much more than risk assessments and high vis jackets. 

In a more relatable way, I am an expedition guide who is using my travelling, rock climbing, exploratory, guiding experience to provide support to a production team, to allow them to do what they are trained to do. We do this by picking through jungles, mountains and deserts to search out stunning locations, and then work out what’s required to shoot on those locations and keep the level of risk within the tolerance of the production company.

It can be a job with many different roles. During the main shoot I often have a team of other safety advisors alongside me, but in general on the recce it would just be me with a ‘skeleton’ production team. In those moments, I will be required to take multiple roles such as being a rigger, medic and COVID supervisor. There is also a huge amount of pre-departure prep and paperwork; digging into the weeds of the risks and compiling risk assessments, safety plans and all the other paperwork that production and broadcasters require. 

That’s the driest part of the role but it can still be very satisfying, as it often allows my inner OCD monster to feast on details.

I’m sure there were many, but what was a striking moment for you during this series?

There were many but there is one situation that stands out in Iceland.

We were aiming to shoot on a beautiful turquoise river that flows through a basalt canyon. At the time of the recce, the water was generally calm and easy to manage with a current grade of around 1+ (6 being hardest). There was a dam upstream and I was told that no water would be released so all was looking good, in fact, the biggest challenge ahead was crew access.

A few days before the main shoot the producer had reported back that due to an unseasonably warm summer, a glacier melt had caused the dam to overflow. The stunning little river had turned into a brown ‘turbid boiling’ torrent. The water moving in weird ways, bouncing off rocks, and creating whirlpools. From a safety perspective: a boat carrying Will Smith and Dwayne Fields could get caught in the current, be flipped and the swift flow could quickly carry them downstream and out of reach.

I agree it doesn’t sound much like a striking moment so far. But this last-minute change meant that I had to enter the ice river and work out if the overflowing river was suitable for Will and Dwayne to paddle, and if not, find new suitable sections of the river. Parts of the river would frighten even confident swimmers. Scouting out that river was great fun! 

This is a good example of how we often have these “puzzles” during shoots and we need to quickly find a solution that fits with the production’s editorial brief and their tolerance of risk. In this case I had to work out the safety provisions required to be able to react appropriately if someone was to fall in that water. 

A few days later and everything was in place for filming and I was sat by the side of the river demonstrating to Will the defensive swimming position I wanted him to take if the boat capsized. 

In my head I had to consider the worst and taking in the water conditions I thought it was inevitable they would fall out of the boat. I explained to Will, “If you end up in the water you will go underwater at times but you will come back up. Remember those defensive swimming positions. Try to hold onto the boat. Always face the way you’re going, downstream and keep your feet up away from rocks”. 

After I had given the safety brief, we started shooting. I relocated downstream about 300m just down from the now first rapids which was now a grade 3. Throw ropes at the ready. 

I gave the good-to-go and they were off. I could just see them hit the first rapid and Dwayne manoeuvred the boat well ensuring they stayed upright. I then scrambled behind a rock so as not to ruin the drone shot and called them through on the radio to the other waiting safety team.

Dwayne was doing a good job in the kayak and it wasn’t much longer than they were at the ‘get out’, pulling the boat out of the freezing glacial water. My resounding moment was hearing that not only did Will and Dwayne not go for a swim, but they both loved it. They enjoyed it so much they did it again, talking about how in moments like this you remember that “life is great”.

It’s taking a section of what appears to be a dangerous river, prepping extensively, and giving the producers a process that allows them to get the shots they need. I love the problem-solving that this job provides. It makes it all the better that we do it in some mind-blowingly beautiful parts of the world.

Abseiling into an 85m deep cave, then scuba diving a bottomless lake sounds like a tremendous challenge. How did this idea come to light? And what was needed to execute it?

I first visited Namibia during the recce. Fellow SC Safety Advisor, Aldo Kane had already done an initial scout. The production and channel had spotted the location and not only did they love the cave, but they also wanted to go one further and dive into the lake inside. With all the challenges the location of this shoot presented us, the process of building the whole safety plan took over four months!

It took several days to rig and test the rope system needed to get a team into the cave. During those initial visits, we passed close to a bee nest that, on a couple of occasions, decided to swarm and attack. Every bit of kit, tank of air, camera equipment, boat and person needed to be lowered and then of course raised back out, without disturbing the bees.

Bees will attack if they are threatened. Strong smelling shampoos, or deodorants and noise make it worse. On the recce someone got swarmed, but it was our task to ensure no one had any encounters with the bees during next visits. We had local guides help us with this task and it’s a good example how important local knowledge is.

At the end of the ropes in the cave we would land on a very narrow sloping loose ledge with a 13m drop just off to one side. A slip here would be a fall into the lake with a shower of rock falling on top of them afterwards. Therefore, we had to install a rope handrail (horizontal walkway) that everyone had to remain clipped in during their time in the cave.

The only way down to the lake was followed by a 40m handrail around a giant stalagmite that needed to be down-climbed. Everyone who needed to access the water had to climb down a fixed ladder to the water’s edge. Here we used pack rafts to move equipment and people onto the lake surface. We had three inflatable platforms that the diving and underwater camera team used to kit up. Then of course starts all the other challenges of diving in a seemingly bottomless lake. The logistics involved in getting a team into a cave is massive!

My job is to think about the camera crew and talent and the safety of 20-30 inside the cave. Director, drone operator, doctor, lead safety, home security all inside with us…what if there is an accident, what do they know about diving/climbing? Already in a hazardous environment, entering another one means thinking about safety and exiting is much more challenging. A standout moment was seeing Albert Lin and Will talking excitedly about their dive after successfully resurfacing from the water.

But before we got to that point, much needed to happen. Riggers arrived three days before the shoot. The rest of the crew then arrived with their kit, dive tanks, food, drinking water, pontoons and all the other equipment one day before shooting began. We did one day of rehearsals then came the main shoot. Our challenge was to make sure that people can get in and out in a day. De-rigging took two days.

Everything came out with us, as we are always very careful with the environmental impact.

What was it like working with a household name like Will Smith – expectations vs reality?

People can react very differently and often out of character when placed out of their comfort zone, or in a stressful situation. Will took everything asked of him in his stride and throughout the process, he trusted the team and remained calm. He is considerate, funny and chatty to those around him. How he comes across on the screen I think is a true representation of what he is to work alongside. This is especially true if you watch the behind the scenes extras “Will’s home videos”.

It’s safe to say your ‘office’ is a little different to what most of us experience daily. What does it take for you to operate in these sorts of environments with responsibility for such a crew on such a big project?

I love my office. The commute to work can be really out there. Keeping people safe and happy in these environments can be tricky. You need to try and make sure that you’re well within your comfort zone. If you are inexperienced then it’s unlikely you’ll be able to keep others safe. Keeping in your comfort zone is about being prepared. Having the right kit, training, fitness and experience for the situation you are in is key. Once past the scouting stage of filming, it’s rare that I am operating as the only safety advisor, so keeping people safe becomes a team affair. 

During the main shoot, the fundamentals of keeping people safe boil down to having a robust communication system that allows for the team to work seamlessly.

It’s very important to trust the people you are working with so everyone involved must have a clear understanding of their roles/responsibilities and the safety plan. Secret Compass has some great people in their books and I’m very lucky to find myself working alongside some exceptionally talented and experienced people on this shoot such as Aldo Kane, Dave Pearce, Charlotte Haldane, Robyn Johnston, Daz Philips, Waldo Etherington, Lachlan Bucknall, Rob Gray, Eddie Kennard and Aidan Chitty.

I can’t answer this question fully if I don’t mention the importance of tea and coffee. Like any office, a means to make a great cup of tea, or quality coffee is essential. This is so important that I add, “posh coffee” onto the advised packing list for all crew, regardless of how remote we were going.

According to Nat Geo, Will had zero training for each environment – was that really the case and what challenges did that present?

Will’s time on a shoot is very limited, therefore, to make sure the production can film as much as possible, every second he is at a location needs to be considered. There was limited time for training. However, training is different from a safety briefing. Taking enough time together to run through safety plans is an important aspect of every shoot and one that needs to be done with everyone.

Before Will and Dwayne pushed off in the boat on the river in Iceland, or before Will and Albert abseiled into the cave in Namibia, a high degree of safety briefing was provided. Of course, it helped a lot that Will has a very high level of aptitude!

What was the biggest challenge in your opinion? And what did you learn from this project?

The hardest part of the job is treading a very fine line between managing risk, whilst making sure the production is still able to get the editorial requirements that the channel wants. When is something too dangerous? 

We always try to facilitate the editorial wish list, working with each production, instead of being a safety team that always says no. Can it be made safer without depleting the editorial gain?

This series is praised for its breath-taking cinematography and thrilling scenes – which you saw with your own eyes. Did you find a moment to sit back and take in what was happening?

On the recce you have breathing space, you can look around open-eyed and see how incredible the scenery around us is. There are fewer people, with fewer time commitments, which means that there is more time to find moments for yourself.

Having those moments where you can sit back and enjoy where you are and how lucky you are to be there are definitely some of the highlights of my job. It’s pretty unique to have a job where you can be one of the first people to abseil into a moulin, have a chance to jump into the crystal clear waters of the Hariseb cave or to paddle down unknown sections of a glacial river in Iceland.

Once on the main shoot, things change. The extra pressure of people and a strict deadline means that what was beautiful now takes on the new appearance of something that can cause harm and I’m mostly just looking forward to getting everyone out from there safely.

Spending hours inside Hariseb cave watching and moving talent, crew and equipment over the loose ground with high consequences and risks in all directions is a demanding task both physically and psychologically. Suddenly all you see is deepwater below, rockfall from above and crumbling edges and cliffs all around.

In short, scouts and recces are often Type 1 fun (fun whilst you are doing it), but the main shoot is often Type 2 fun (fun once it’s over and everybody is back at base safe and sound).

Finally, can you describe these breathtaking scenes to someone considering watching the series?

The locations filmed throughout the Welcome to Earth series are mind-blowing!

A person who has seen a hundred caves will still be struck by the impressive nature of Hariseb cave. To see the column of light entering from the top of the cave illuminating stunning blue water below is spectacular. A person who lives in a desert will still be bowled over by scenery we captured in Namibia, not just the impressive scenes of sand dunes stretching across the horizon, but also by how they were shot and the secrets that the camera was able to reveal.

But to be honest, I’m not surprised how stunning the end result is when you consider where we filmed the episodes, and most of all, the enormous talent of the crew and the amount of effort and dedication that each person invested into the shoot.

The show is great because of everyone’s involvement. Including Will, who makes it special because he is a relatable person and a great presenter. Huge credit to everyone that took part. The result is phenomenal.

Each and every person is a cog within the production machine, though some cogs are a bit bigger than others. I think the show is so impressive because of everyone’s involvement, including of course Will who is such a relatable person and a great host. Huge credit to everyone that took part. The result of this “machine” is phenomenal.

Follow @daveoverseas on Instagram.

You can catch each episode of Welcome to Earth, as it’s released here.