Chattanooga has played an important role in two new television series tentatively premiering on the National Geographic Channel this spring.

“Tank Man” and “Great American Manhunt” are two distinctly different programs the network has developed to premiere this year.

“Tank Man,” a working title, is still being edited into six episodes even as crews shot one of the final episodes in Chattanooga last week.  The program follows the work of a Fort Lauderdale-based company, Living Color, a manufacturer of fabricated coral reef structures and themed underwater exhibit materials. The company, which has created reef rocks for the Tennessee Aquarium, also works with Walt Disney World, Universal Studios-Japan, Sea World, Bass Pro Shop and Rain Forest Cafe.

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Smart Entertainment, the production company hired by National Geographic, was shooting shows in Living Color’s Florida warehouse when they discovered a special project in the works for the Tennessee Aquarium. 

Thom Demas, Tennessee Aquarium’s curator of fishes, contracted with Living Color in the fall of last year to replace contaminated reef rock inside the octopus tank within the popular Boneless Beauties Exhibit.

“They saw them fabricating our rock work and asked about that, and so they thought it would make a good show since there would be some investigative work, tests to back up the findings and a good story to tell,” Demas said.

Although the “investigative” work was reenacted for the shoot, Demas and his team spent several months late last year trying to determine why the two octopuses in the tank were getting sick. Through a series of lab tests on the water and the underwater exhibit materials, it was discovered that unwanted compounds from the artificial reef were decomposing in the water.

“We had to gut the entire exhibit and remove all of the artificial rock work, clean the tanks, everything. It was a few months of needle in the haystack work from when the animals first got sick,” Demas said.

The producer chose the Tennessee Aquarium’s story to be featured as an episode in the series, which focuses on the technical and scientific aspects of building large personal- and professional-sized aquariums where animals can stay healthy and thrive, Demas said.

By the time the television crew arrived in Chattanooga last week, Demas and his team were ready to return the second octopus to the exhibit tank, all of which was caught on tape by the National Geographic crew in real time.

Lisa Wheelous, a local freelance film and television production professional, was hired to assist the producer and cameraman on site. Unlike working with actors, who easily take cues, working with animals can be unpredictable, she said.

“You have to be very patient. This octopus is very smart and gets bored easily. So one of the trainers had to stimulate it with toys or food every 15 minutes or so to get it to come into a certain area,” Wheelous said.

At one point, they gave the animal an underwater camera, which Wheelous said it immediately started playing with in the tank.

While there is no confirmed date for the show’s airing, it is confirmed to air on National Geographic-Wild as early as this spring, according to Thom Benson, communications manager for the Tennessee Aquarium, who posted production photos on the aquarium’s blog.

Speaking of investigations
Wheelous was also hired last year as the location scout for another National Geographic series that based its entire production out of a custom-built set in an Amnicola Highway warehouse for three months last summer.

“Great American Manhunt” is an eight-part series that follows a team of experts as they use forensic science to track down and identify mystery targets across the United States. The team was comprised of a psychologist, a retired police detective and a forensic anthropologist, who were flown in and out of Chattanooga several times to shoot scenes in the “lab” after returning from fieldwork around the United States.

“All of the conferences they have with each other were shot in a studio here that we created from scratch,” Wheelous said.

In the new show, which plays on the popularity of televised crime scene investigations (CSI), clues are provided to the team in the form of MRI body scans, hair samples and surveillance videos, among other forensic evidence gathered in the field, putting the team’s investigation in motion to determine who the people might be, according to Wheelous.

The U.K.-based Wide Eyed Entertainment hired a team of local production freelancers, including Wheelous, for the extended production schedule here while using their own crew for the investigations shot in various locations across the country.

The series is scheduled to air sometime this year on the National Geographic Channel with a premiere as soon as April, according to Wheelous.

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