Ocean Giants (BBC), The Great Barrier Reef (BBC), Frozen Planet (BBC) and now Africa (BBC); just some of the many wildlife documentaries, which have peppered British television schedules over the last few years. Seemingly a staple part of the diet of hungry television consumers, these programmes make nature accessible to all, from the wildest waves to the most desolate deserts. But what impact do they have on the worlds they portray and how does the natural world affect their production?
Conservation; a word clearly associated with the environment and a major factor in a considerable amount of wildlife programming, indicating a somewhat positive impact they can have upon nature. So why are some filmmakers so reluctant to discuss it? According to some, its inclusion could be interpreted as “boring, worrying and depressing to the public” (Boswell, 1982:222) and could impact the viewing figures needed to ensure their survival in the ever-increasing multi-channel environment. However, with popular blue chip series like Africa and Frozen Planet highlighting conservation issues in dedicated episodes and maintaining large audiences, arguably this is not always the case and it is a vital part of nature, which should be included.
I spoke to wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer who agreed and says that;
“Wildlife films are exploiting a resource to benefit the producer/network financially. They have an obligation, in my opinion, to give something back, and to preserve the resource they are exploiting for future generations to enjoy. [It is] very important, otherwise viewers may not learn the importance of conservation and their responsibilities in that area.”
One such documentary, which clearly focuses upon a severe conservational issue, is the 2009 film The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos). Through secret filming, viewers are shown the shocking and brutal nature of the Japanese dolphin hunting culture as local fisherman herd bottlenose dolphins into a cove in Taiji. Some are selected by dolphin trainers from across the globe whilst the remaining ones are mercilessly slaughtered and have their meat sold. According to filmmaker Kevin Railsback, “Once these issues are brought out into the open through the colourful, graphic images that film footage can provide, more people are alerted to these problems giving them the opportunity to get involved in a positive, constructive way.” (2011)
The compelling images of the crimson, bloodstained waters in The Cove seemingly made people more aware of the severity of the issue and prompted them to take action. An online petition has gathered over 400,000 signatures whilst the website of the film itself encourages viewers to write to authoritative people and also claims that “Under intense pressure, Taiji called for a temporary ban onkilling bottlenose dolphins in 2009” (Takepart, 2009). Along with many wildlife organisations still petitioning against the dolphin hunt, this reinforces the idea that some wildlife programmes do have a positive impact on nature by promoting ways to make a difference and making people more aware of the issues.
On the other hand, however, sometimes filming with wildlife can inadvertently cause problems whilst trying to convey ideas of conservation. I spoke to Doug Allan, a cameraman whose credits include Frozen Planet, who highlighted the idea that documentaries can often lead to an increase in the number of avid viewers visiting the places depicted,
“What often happens with these wildlife documentaries is that people see them and want to go and see these things for themselves for the first time and you can end up with too many visitors and it can end up being spoiled. So many places in the world which now get huge numbers of tourists, you wonder if no one knew about them then people wouldn’t visit them and therefore they might be better protected.”
Frozen Planet, for example, is one of the BBC’s most recent ‘blue chip’ wildlife series, which explores the opposite ends of the Earth: the Arctic and Antarctic . With a distinct undertone of the ever-increasing global issue of climate change throughout as well as a dedicated episode, the programme uses stunning cinematography and music to provoke emotion and inspire viewers to take action and to conserve. Yet recent reports have shown that there has been a 300 percent increase in the number of people wanting to visit Antarctica. Travel agencies were inundated with phone calls as “Britons seek to swap their living rooms for the trip of a lifetime to the White Continent” (The Telegraph, 2011). So perhaps the good intentions of the programme makers have been overshadowed by human nature as we strive to explore and fulfil our curiosity?
According to Preston-Whyte et al,
“The very fragility of arid environments and their ‘extreme’ nature is one of the factors that attracts tourists to visit them….tourists may want to observe the unique plants and animals that have evolved to cope with such extreme conditions” (2006:132)
In terms of Frozen Planet, using a polar bear fighting for survival and various other animals enduring the severe conditions of the Poles has arguably attracted people to see it for themselves. It could even be said that instead that documentaries like this could be leading to animals not used to human contact being disturbed, thus impacting on their breeding cycles and illustrating the idea that wildlife programming can have negative secondary impacts upon their subjects.
An additional issue link with wildlife filmmaking is the staging of natural events as this can have positive and negative effects and also demonstrates the power of nature on production. Documentary makers increasingly focus upon the stories of individual animals to ensure that viewers can ‘connect’ and continue watching to see what happens. That way, not only will they maintain their viewing figures, they will also be able to convey their conservational messages. One example of this is the 1998 documentary film Whales: An Unforgettable Journey (dir. David Clark), which follows the lives of a pod of humpback whales as they make their perilous journey to Alaska and encounter a number of dangerous threats on their way. However, sometimes it is not possible for the filmmaker to get all the footage they need to complete the story due to the unpredictability of various elements from the weather to the animals themselves which can mean that certain events need to be staged. Doug Allan supports this concept, as being a cameraman himself, he is fully aware of the restrictions that nature can impose,
“You have to go away and get what you can and sometimes that means you come back with nothing because the animals didn’t turn up or they didn’t do what they wanted to.”
This often means that filmmakers resort to “making something “natural” happen artificially for the benefit of the camera” (Palmer, 2011:103). Whilst this may mean the filmmakers can complete their stories, it does raise the question of whether or not it is ethical. Some people believe that it is unacceptable to manipulate the outcome of a natural event as it is unfair on the animals involved and Doug is no exception:
“I think it’s wrong, personally, especially when you’re talking about predator-prey relationships. It’s wrong when people start to play around with the outcome of that or start to play with an animal’s genuine fears against another animal’s hunting instincts certainly for the sake of the camera.”
An article by Auferheide, Jaszi and Chandra provides a succinct example of when staging is used in this way. A filmmaker was trying to capture footage of an animal hunting a rabbit and was unaware that the hunter was breaking the rabbit’s legs so that they could obtain the footage they needed. When they found out, they still allowed them to continue to do so (2009). Arguably, this is an unethical side to the staging of events as it means that one animal was severely disadvantaged, demonstrating another negative impact nature documentaries can have.
Likewise, it is also considered unfair on the viewers watching the programmes as very often it is not made clear that the events have been set up and they are encouraged to think it is natural. A recent example of this is from Frozen Planet, as the BBC was accused of not making it obvious that a mother polar bear and her cubs were filmed in a zoo by not drawing attention to that fact or making it clear on their website. Palmer states, “Frozen Planet is a documentary, not a movie. Viewers expect what they see to be genuine, authentic and truthful” (2011). Many agree with this statement and with the new BBC series Africa highlighting staged points in the voiceover and in behind-the-scenes clips, the BBC appear to have taken this perspective on board.
However, at the same time, staging events can be viewed as positive as it can often mean that animals are not disturbed and intruded upon in the wild. Doug Allan supports this as he says that,
“You can’t film small polar bear cubs…if you tried to do it in the wild you would almost certainly disturb the female. The female would leave the den and the cubs would die. So if you know that that’s likely to happen then a responsible filmmaker would say…is there a controlled environment where we can show this?”
This implies that if highlighted by the filmmakers then staging can be useful as it means that the wild animals are not disrupted and the viewers know when and where it has happened. The filmmakers are able to get the shots they need to tell their stories and conservational messages, preferably benefitting nature in the long term and without having a negative impact beforehand.
To conclude, it can be said that wildlife filmmaking and nature are not mutually exclusive when it comes to the impact they have on each other. Whilst many wildlife documentaries are providing viewers with access to places, animals and global threats they would be necessarily otherwise be aware of, they are constantly challenged with the unpredictability of nature as they do so. Nature is also repeatedly challenged by wildlife filmmakers from a lack of privacy to the after effects of their films and so it seems that with a little more clarity and sensitivity, both can continue to benefit from each other as they battle for survival in their own increasingly fragile worlds.
- Boswall, J..(1982). Wildlife Television: Towards 2001. Wildlife. 24 (6), 222-225.
- Palmer,C (2011). Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. p103
- Preston-Whyte, R., Brooks, S. and Ellery, W. (2006). Deserts and Savannah Regions. In: Gossling, S. and Michael Hall, C. Tourism and Global Environmental Change: Ecological, Social, Economic and Political interrelationships. Oxon: Routledge. p128-142.
- The Cove (2009) Directed by Louie Psihoyos [DVD] United Kingdom: Diamond Docs
- Whales: An Unforgettable Journey (2002) Directed by David Clark. [DVD] United Kingdom: Sling Shot Entertainment
- ‘Winter’ (2011) Frozen Planet. BBC One, 23 November 2011. Television.
- Africa. BBC One (2013). Television
- Aufderheide, P.,Jaszi, P. and Chandra, M. (2009). Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work. Available: http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/making-your-media-matter/documents/best-practices/honest-truths-documentary-filmmakers-ethical-chall. Last accessed 16th Feb 2012.
- Palmer, C. (2011) Did David Attenborough Behave Unethically. Available: http://soc-palmer.blogs.american.edu/2011/12/24/did-david-attenborough-behave-unethically/. Last accessed 16th Feb 2012.
- Railsback, K. (2011). How Nature and Wildlife Filmmakers Can Save the Planet. Arts and Entertainment: Filmmaking and Film Editing. Available: http://ezinearticles/com/?How-Nature-and-Wildlife-Filmmakers-Can-Save-the-Planet&id=6400128. Last accessed 16th Feb 2012
- Starmer-Smith, C. (2011). Frozen Planet: The Lure of the Antarctic The Telegraph. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/8946398/Frozen-planet-The-lure-of-the-Antarctic.html. Last accessed 16th Feb 2012.
- (2009). The Cove: Help Save Japan’s Dolphins. Available: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/724/210/624/. Last accessed 16th Feb 2012
- (2009). What Can You Do?. Available: http://www.takepart.com/cove. Last accessed 16th Feb 2012
- Chris Palmer- Available Upon Request
- Doug Allan- Available Upon Request