The History Channel takes on an equally ambitious task: squeezing the story of the human race into 12 hours of television. Mankind the Story of All of Us airs six consecutive Tuesdays, beginning this week at 9 ET/PT.
"To boil this down, we needed a filter, and the filter we applied is, 'What were the key tipping points in history that impact who we are today?' " says Julian Hobbs, an executive producer for History, who estimates there are about 80 of these "essential turning points we share in common" in Mankind. Among them: harnessing fire, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, explorations and the discoveries of certain minerals.
And sharing is the key, he says, because Mankind is not a localized history; it's a global one. "This gave us a very clear filter. It had to be of central importance to all of humanity."
Mankind, produced by Nutopia, which also made the Emmy-winning America the Story of Us for History in 2010, starts with a quick nod to the Big Bang and, within minutes, arrives on the plains of east Africa about 150,000 years ago, where Homo sapiens first lived.
Ian Morris, who teaches world history at Stanford University and served as the series' historical consultant, says two points were particularly pivotal. "One is the origin of farming, which was about 10,000 years ago, and the other is the Industrial Revolution, just a couple of hundred years ago."
"Both of these changed just about everything about the way humans live," Morris says. "Both changed the amount of energy we were able to capture from the world around us, and as the amount of energy you have goes up, the number of people goes up, the size of the cities goes up, and the complexities of the organizations goes up." Everything, he says, changes in these two big moments.
"What we liked is that there's a way to cross disciplines," says History programming executive Dirk Hoogstra. "We're using various sciences to help tell the bigger story. History becomes very exciting when you can make those unexpected connections and see their impact."
And because this is a global story, it was a global production, filming in such locales as South Africa, Morocco, China and the United Kingdom. Actors played some of the leading roles in the historical re-enactments, but many of the supporting roles were played by locals, adding yet another layer of authenticity.
The series' narrator, Oscar nominee Josh Brolin, who has played San Francisco supervisor Dan White in Milk and George W. Bush in W., says he's drawn to the big historical figures who populate the series, including Genghis Khan and Napoleon. "What are the similarities between the two? How they dealt with themselves, how they dealt with their own ego, what transpired in the hundreds of years after that. I start to attach myself to some of these people," he says.
Human drama comes to life through those re-creations, and computer-generated imagery plays an equally important role in Mankind. "The CGI is not just to give you a background that looked as it did then, because we actually found locations around the planet that would do that," says Hobbs. "What we put our money and expertise behind was bringing to life, through CGI, the jaw-dropping ancient monuments, be it the building of the great pyramids, the construction of the aqueducts of Rome, the building of the Great Wall of China."
Keeping with the series' global theme, Mankind will have a worldwide (although not simulcast) premiere in most countries this week, a first in the network's history. The company is located in 150 countries and has 250 million viewers worldwide, and Mankind is being given what Hoogstra calls a "custom fit," with some countries, including Germany and Israel, re-dubbing it with their own celebrity narrators.
It's an ambitious endeavor, "but on any given night," Hoogstra says, "we're competing with sports, movies and dramas, and we have to be able to stay competitive. We are a business, and we have to get ratings and meet ad sales goals."
And History is taking pointers from Hollywood's playbook. "Hollywood takes history all the time and turns it into big blockbuster movies," Hobbs says. "I think it's fair for us to take some of what Hollywood does well, in terms of scale and scope and emotion and the action-adventure kind of genres, and apply it to real history."
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)