Kratt Brothers on Filming With an Animal's-Eye View

By Tom Foreman
Inside Base Camp
June 4, 2003
Chris and Martin Kratt have been called New Jersey's biggest export since Bruce Springsteen. The brothers host the Emmy-award-winning PBS series Zaboomafoo and Kratt's Creatures, but as they amble into National Geographic shortly before show time, they look like big kids themselves. Jeans rumpled, T-shirts hanging out, pleasant smiles and brotherly mischief in their eyes; all of this, including the TV studio, is the Kratts' natural environment.

They still call themselves "creature adventurers," which means they like to interact with animals in an unobtrusive way. And although they are now an industry unto themselves with legions of devoted fans, they started right out of college; traveling on the cheap, making films, and trying…without success…to sell them to television companies back home.

Tom Foreman: Costa Rica was your first big target?

Chris Kratt: We went down to film this nesting event of the Olive Ridley sea turtles. Forty thousand sea turtles come up onto the beach to lay their eggs.

Martin Kratt: There's maybe 15,000 each night and it gets so crowded you can't even find a place to put your foot in the sand. And that was one of the subjects of our first video. Then whatever animal we could find we filmed. Since we had no budget, we got around by getting on the local buses, hitchhiking.

Tom Foreman: You came back here with all of this video, you put it together in your basement, and you went around to the television industry and they said…

Christ Kratt: "Maybe it will work for home video but not a TV show. You could never sell it."

Martin Kratt: The thing that kept us going amidst all the rejection from the broadcasters was we were also giving school assemblies and we were just talking to kids about what they liked and what they didn't like. And that was where our encouragement came from because, for the most part, they really liked what we were doing.

Tom Foreman: One of the things that seems to resonate so much with young people is this participatory business, getting your face into the mud and swinging through the trees. Why did you start doing that?

Chris Kratt: Traditional wildlife documentaries viewed animals from afar as scientific objects. We wanted to see the world from the animals' perspective and part of that is just doing the types of things that they do, like you know putting our faces in the mud.

Martin Kratt: When you're actually participating and experiencing what the animals experience you really start to understand them better.

Chris Kratt: Like when we did a dolphin episode in the Grand Bahama Banks. It was amazing because we'd find a pod of spotted dolphins and we'd cut the motor on our boat, jump in with our snorkel gear, and start swimming around as actively as we possibly could. And they'd come over and copy our moves. Those moments are the really special ones.

Tom Foreman: Doing that kind of thing, though, also involves some inherent dangers. Tell me about the most dangerous time you've had out there.

Martin Kratt: Well, we were riding elephants because that's a great way to get close to tigers in India…

Chris Kratt: Because the elephants aren't afraid of the tigers, the tigers aren't afraid of elephants.

Martin Kratt: So the tigers will behave naturally. And we were just on top of this elephant and filming. We each had a camera. We were really into it.

Chris Kratt: There was a railing on the saddle that we were filming from and I just leaned out as far as I possibly could, and then suddenly, crack! The railing broke and I went sliding down the elephant's behind right in front of this mother tiger and two cubs. As I was falling, I grabbed onto this rope that was dangling off the saddle and I had the camera in one hand and was hanging there with the other and looking at this mother tiger.

Martin Kratt: I didn't know any of this was going on because I was really focused on the tiger and she got up now and you know she was looking, and I thought "Wow, this is great footage!" I didn't realize anything was happening until I heard Chris say, "I'm slipping." And then I looked and he was dangling there.

Chris Kratt: And like a true brother, what does he do?

Martin Kratt: I grabbed the camera. I figured he could hold on a little longer (laugh).

Tom Foreman: You guys care a lot about frogs.

Martin Kratt: They're so amazing. There is such diversity with frogs and toads. We want each frog and toad to survive just because they are. But for the people who need to put it in human terms, like: Why is it good for humans to preserve toads? The reason is because half their life cycle is in water, so if there are any impurities in the water, it's going to show by them having three hind legs instead of two.

Tom Foreman: Do you think somewhere off in the future people are going to look back and say this was a golden age in which we came to understand what we needed to do for the earth? Or are we going to say we missed our chance?

Chris Kratt: I hope the former.

Martin Kratt: Definitely. Sometimes when we go to Africa, and read the accounts of a hundred, two hundred years ago, I think we've already missed the chance. We've already lost a lot. And I don't know. We're not sure if we can save animals, but we're sure gonna try.

Chris Kratt: Yeah, if we had some impact on making the former scenario that you mentioned happen, then we'd be really proud.

Inside Base Camp's Tom Foreman on Work, Guests

Presidents and prisoners; scientists and soldiers; the heroic and the hated—all have sat down with National Geographic Channel Senior Anchor Tom Foreman as he has traveled the globe for the past 25 years. Starting out in small town radio in Alabama, he progressed through local television to join ABC Network News when he was 30. For a decade he covered virtually every major news story for World News Tonight, Nightline, 20/20 and Good Morning America.

Now, as host and managing editor of the Emmy Award-winning Inside Base Camp with Tom Foreman, he brings his years of experience—and dozens of riveting guests—to the National Geographic Channel at 12:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and Sundays at 11:00 a.m.

As the show's name implies, Foreman asks the intimate, revealing questions that cut to core of the passions that drive his guests.

Read an interview with Tom Foreman>>

Recent Inside Base Camp interviews:
Climbers Recount Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan
Actor Danny Glover on Africa Activism
For Reporter Laura Blumenfeld, Revenge Is Family Affair in Middle East
Aliens "Absolutely" Exist, SETI Astronomer Seth Shostak Believes
U.S. Unprepared for Bioterrorism, Expert Laurie Garrett Says
"Superhero" Peter Knights Swoops in to Stop Poachers
Q&A: Extreme Environmentalist on "Radical Change"
Rocker Ted Nugent: Hunters Are Conservationists
Photographer-Firefighter on Attacking Wildfires
Climber Heidi Howkins on "Obsession" With Deadly K2
Anthropologist on Living With a Remote Amazon Tribe
Climbers Recount Kidnapping in Kyrgystan

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.