Martha Holmes always knew she wanted to work with wildlife. Having grown up on the shores of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf, the Libyan-born zoologist and marine biologist says she saw the sea as her playground. “I was always outdoors, and a lot of my formative years were spent with a mask and snorkel,” she tells InStyle. After earning her PhD in marine biology, Holmes switched gears to try her hand at storytelling first as a presenter and most often as a producer.
Since then, she's worked on a handful of award-winning BBC Natural History Unit programs such as Blue Planet and won commissions for programs like Davina McCall: Life at the Extreme, Predators with Joel Lambert, and The Story of Cats. Her work has brought her to some of the most dangerous corners of the world where she's faced harrowing experiences like a life-threatening situation in the Poles and going nose-to-nose with cheetahs in remote, wildcat-filled portions of East Africa.
The fearless executive isn't quick to call herself a badass, which she defines as someone with determination and resilience ("There's strength already embedded in the word badass. You have to have strength and resolve."), but the work she's accomplished in these programs speaks for itself. These days, Holmes has settled into her producing role, eager to continue telling the stories of the wildest of wild animals, which is how she found herself as the sole female executive producer on National Geographic’s new Hostile Planet miniseries.
Each visually stunning episode follows animals that survive and thrive in the world’s most treacherous environments from jungles to deserts. Holmes won the commission for the series and put together the team, which includes Academy Award-winning Pan’s Labyrinth cinematographer Guillermo Navarro as another producer. Holmes’s aim for the show, which airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET, is to highlight nature’s resilience that deserves, and needs, respect. “I think we just need to be aware of what we do to this planet and, therefore, to the animals," she says. “Professionally, I’m most proud of Hostile Planet right now. It's a standout series.”
Wild, wild, animals: “Animals are brilliantly adapted to where they're living, but when the habitats change, their adaptations don't necessarily work,” Holmes explains when talking about the ideas that sparked Hostile Planet. “I'm not putting any blame on humans for this. I'm just saying, their habitats are changing, and the animals can't keep up with the pace of change. But with Hostile Planet, we are celebrating animals' extreme drive to survive.”
What sets the series apart? Holmes says she made sure the team paid special attention to immersing the audience into each storyline. “I think that the team filmed Hostile Planet and put it together in production in an immersive way,” she says. “If I was going to choose one particular moment that stood out to me in everything, I’d say there's an amazing sequence of wolves against musk oxen in the Arctic. And there's a fantastic sequence of a leopard seal after a penguin in Antarctica.”
Studying to storytelling: Holmes started out studying zoology at university and moved on to earn her PhD in marine biology because the sea was so much a part of her life growing up. But she eventually realized that academia wasn’t for her. “I wasn't really an academic. It didn't really suit me,” she says. “I thought the only thing I could do to still work with animals and be outside was television. And so that's what I went for." Holmes started out in the industry as a presenter, but again wasn’t sold on the idea until she found herself producing. “And then the storytelling bit really grew,” she says.
Cost of creation: “[Filming] natural history is expensive because you've got to wait for that animal behavior. You can't tell the animals what to do. On big-budget shows that need to straddle the globe, you also spend a lot of money on flights. You go to a certain place for a certain bit of behavior for, say, three weeks. And you target that behavior in that animal,” Holmes says, naming a few of her struggles along the way. To tackle this particular issue, Holmes created a new way of capturing wildlife footage with an ambitious project called Camp Zambia in 2015.
“[Camp Zambia] was really my first taste at changing up the model and saying actually you can make things [without a big budget], just look at it from a completely different angle," she says. "We could do lower budget productions by going to one location with three crews, so three cameramen, for three months. And just embed them completely with a producer. They would go and film anything that moved.” Holmes’s sister had lived in Zambia for years, so the executive knew the area well before jumping in. The project turned out to be a cost-effective hit, with an added bonus. “It was an innovative way of making wildlife shows,” she agrees. “And we could give up-and-coming cameramen a real stab at getting broadcast material. They'd get feedback in the field and have three months to really perfect their craft. So, it was great for us because they'd come much cheaper than the really experienced people. And we got to give them their first chance at broadcast work.”
Cutting it close: Aside from bringing up her two sons, Holmes says the most badass thing she’s ever done is accept her fate. Earlier on in her career, while shooting polar bears in the Arctic with one cameraman and an Inuit guide, Holmes found herself stranded with her three-person crew on a large, melting piece of ice that had drifted out to sea. “We couldn't get rescued because there was a storm where the rescue plane was and there weren't any helicopters out there,” she remembers. “So we were drifting out to sea. And obviously as you get further out to sea, the waves get bigger and the piece of ice we were on was getting eaten away. For 20 hours, there was no hope of rescue." Holmes says this was a turning point for her. "I believe that if you make the most of your every day, that's all you can wish for. So, I was expecting to die. And I wasn’t afraid.” Holmes says this was before she was married or had children, which may have changed her outlook. “I think the moment you have those really complex, deep relationship of your own, [things change]. Had I had young children at the time, I think I would have been very torn up about it.”
Living legacy: Collaboration is key to Holmes’s work, she insists. “You don't get individuals who make brilliant series because it takes a lot of people. And the happiest and the most productive teams are when collaboration is at its height,” she says. “I would like to be remembered as somebody who creates, promotes, and supports happy teams.”
Best advice: “I don't feel that there's a gender barrier,” Holmes says when asked what advice she’d give young men and women interested in wildlife storytelling. “I think you have to be tenacious and curious all the time. You have to strive for the best in yourself and in others. And never give up.”
Watch Hostile Planet: Jungles on National Geographic at 9 p.m. ET tonight.